Encyclopedia of Trotskyism OnLine: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 3, Bolivian Revolution, 1953: IEC of the Fourth International Draft Resolution
The Bolivian Revolution and the Activity of the POR
Our article here consists of extracts from Contribución a la historia Politica de Bolivia: historia del POR , Volume Two, La Paz, 1978, pp226-45, kindly translated for us by John Sullivan. Its author, Guillermo Lora, was born in 1922, trained as lawyer, and was recruited to the POR in Cochabamba in 1942. Early on he showed his ability by defeating the Minister of Labour in open debate at the Third Congress of the Miners in Llaqua-Catavi in 1946, from which he was carried by the miners in triumph (Juan Valverde, ‘Bolivia’, Fourth International , Volume 8, no 4, March 1947, p80). He was elected to parliament in 1947, and quickly established himself as the main spokesman and ideologist of Bolivian Trotskyism, a position he has maintained unchallenged ever since, suffering several terms of prison and exile for his opinions.
We are especially pleased to place this account before English readers, since Lora is a prolific writer and disappointingly little of his immense labours has ever appeared in the English language, partly due to the geographical isolation of Bolivia, and partly to the vagaries of splits and alignments in the international Trotskyist movement. He is, in fact, Bolivia’s most prominent labour historian, and due both to the poverty of the country and the lack of first hand acquaintance with the works of Leon Trotsky, when Bolivians think of Trotskyism it is to Lora’s works that they refer. These include his massive six volume Historia de Movimiento Obrero , only a part of which appears in A History of the Bolivian Labour Movement , Cambridge University Press, 1977 (the part dealing with the crisis of 1952 is on pp227-301); Movimiento Obrera Contemporanea : historia del POR; Historia de las cuatre Internacionales; Historia y Materialismo Historico; and a full length book on the events of 1952, La revolución Boliviana . Among his documentary collections the most relevant to our purposes are En defenea de la Tesis de Pulcayo , and the Tesis de Pulcay , de Colquiri, de Catavi y Tesis Politica de la COBo (1970). Of his many useful pamphlets we might mention El Marxismo en Bolivia and ?Por que la clase obrera no tomo el poder en 1952?
There is thus an embarrassment of riches from which to choose an account that represents most conveniently Lora’s view of the events of 1952, and our choice has been influenced by our need to avoid repeating the quotations that Liborio Justo has used in his version of events that follows this piece. We hope that we have more or less succeeded, and we would value anyone writing to us who is able to make a more judicious selection, or feels that we have misrepresented Lora’s insights in any way. The text that we give can be checked against the description of the 1952 crisis in the introduction written by F and C Chesnais to Lora’s Bolivie: de la naissance du POR a l’Assemblée populaire (EDI, Paris, 1972), pp lx-lxxv, which largely compiled from material provided by Lora and can be consulted in manuscript form in an English translation prepared for the Socialist Platform Archive by Ted Crawford. Additional motter translated from Lora’s Contribución a la historia Politica de Bolivia (pp294-6) by Mike Jones in his Notes on the History of the POR is also available for use by interested students in the same archive.
Since the POR split in 1979 from the OCRFI dominated by Pierre Lambert, Lora has had few co-thinkers in Europe. It is thus unlikely that we shall see a collection of Lora’s most important political and theoretical works in the English language along the lines of the EDI production of 1972. This leaves a real gap in our knowledge of the central rôle played by Trotskyism in the history of Bolivia as well as In the ideological forms that the movement has taken on in Latin America.
From Coup to Revolution
Contrary to the expectations of the nationalist strategists, the coup met strong resistance from the army, and almost failed. As the POR had foreseen, the unexpected prolongation of the struggle allowed the workers to take to the streets and decide the outcome. The coup was transformed into a revolution, due to the class presence of the proletariat, whose combativity gave victory to the rebels and who at that time more than ever identified with the MNR. The April events accentuated that tendency, and a superficial observer would have been unable to discern any division between the nationalists and the working class; however, some workers ’demands, such as having their own ministers, and organising and arming at a national level, showed that there were elements of mistrust between the workers and the petit-bourgeois leaders.
One of the most striking facts about the revolution was the destruction of the army by the weakly armed workers. The armed forces, as the expression of the senile and moth-eaten Rosca regime, began to splinter because of popular pressure. The masses merely completed the process. While in 1946 the counter-revolution had been successful because the army, one of the supports of the Villarroel regime, had been split, in 1952 its collapse produced the popular victory. The lesson of those events is clear. If the proletariat is to triumph it must crush, split, or destroy the army. The POR had, slowly, been perfecting its military politics. At first, that meant teaching the workers to arm themselves; later, we realised that this was not enough and that we needed a systematic political campaign to win over the soldiers and the young officers.
The destruction of the army brought about the formation of armed workers ’and peasants ’militias, as proposed by the Theses of Pulacayo, and produced enormous political difficulties. Initially, the nationalist government had no armed forces; organised violence was monopoIised, not by the state, but by the workers ’organisations and their militias. For a time, not only the government’s political line, but its very survival depended on the will of the workers. As the militias were the government’s only defence there was the danger that they might impose their own political line on it. Paz Estenssoro, the leading nationalist, as a virtual prisoner of the workers ’organisations, adapted to the situation by adopting radical postures and language. A mere puff would have been sufficient to overthrow him, but there was nobody capable of delivering that historic puff. Bolivia’s Kerensky was able to escape from his difficulties. It was only to be expected that the explosive spontaneity of the masses was not enough by itself to defeat the strategy of the ruling class.
Two facts were to cost the workers dearly: firstly, the tremendous delay in overcoming the political confusion of the masses (accentuated by the April victory) in believing that the MNR would carry out the Pulacayo programme; and secondly, the weakness of the workers ’party [POR] which reorganised itself in reaction to the mass upsurge, but which was weighed down by the internal crisis which prevented it from intervening boldly with a clear political line within the mass organisations. Events confirmed the validity of the traditional Trotskyist programme, in spite of its constant distortion by the zigzags of the revisionist tendencies.
Next to Paz stood Lechín, who immediately after 9 April adapted to mass radicalisation by adopting Trotskyist postures. He surrounded himself with POR activiste and recited speeches written by them. His confused and contradictory position both reflected and accentuated the mass confusion. His central idea, shared by the masses, was that Paz and his team, the centre faction of the MNR, if they were pressured from the left, by the workers ’organisations, would carry out the revolutionary programme. For the workers, the problem of power was already solved, so that all that was necessary to bring about Socialism was to defend the regime which had been produced by the April victory, whilst pushing it further and further to the left.
The overwhelming majority of the working class was convinced that Lechín and the workers ’ministers represented its interests in the government. Consequently, there was very little distrust of the MNR regime. Lechín was the greatest obstacle to overcoming that confusion. In reality, this workers ’leader, who enjoyed pulling strings and exercising power from behind the scenes, was the ideal representative of the MNR within the unions. Far from embodying the class consciousness of the workers, the confusion of the MNR Left made it one of the pillars of the Paz government.
There was a growing North American pressure to reorganise the army. That was the price the revolution had to pay for the MNR being tolerated by imperialism. Thus, the political and social stability of the Country had to be secured. There was no doubt that the MNR, particularly its right wing and centre factions, relied on the army (trained and armed by imperialism) to free it from the control of the militias and the workers ’organisations. The reconstruction of the army constituted the first and decisive alliance between North American imperialism and bourgeois nationalism against the revolutionary masses and the proletariat. Lechín showed that he represented the MNR’s policy, not that of the proletariat, when he argued for the reorganisation of the army on the grounds that it would include the children of workers and peasants. Events were to demonstrate that the COB leader helped to form the future killers of workers and peasants. Later, it was officers and leaders of the ‘MNR military cell ’who were to develop the right wing nationalist policy. The MNR Right, personified in the rule of the generals, evolved into military Fascism. […]
Nationalism and Trotskyism
In the aftermath of the revolution, the masses, including the proletariat, who supported the MNR displayed enormous confidence that their objectives were shared by the radical government. Far from rejecting left wing organisations, they were extremely sympathetic to their ideas and activities. Trade union spokesmen had considerable freedom of movement. Because of the enormous confidence of the masses, which sprang from the victory gained over the Rosca’s army, combined with the prevailing confusion, the POR was able to develop considerable activity, particularly in the workers ’organisations. Frequently POR proposais were accepted because they were supported by the MNR rank and file. The workers, influenced by Lechín’s equivocation, swung back and forth between the MNR and the POR. Middle ranking trade union leaders thought it quite normal to propose Trotskyist slogans, whilst remaining members of the MNR.
To some extent the POR, although it fought against the confusion of the masses, derived a temporary advantage from it. It would be wrong to think that the Trotskyists failed to criticise the MNR government, in order not to antagonise the masses. On the contrary: the POR virulently criticised the nationalists, pointed out their limitations, and denounced their concessions to imperialism. At times, that criticism was supported by the MNR rank and file.
This support produced the false belief, held particularly by comrades abroad, that the POR increasingly controlled the masses, particularly the organised proletariat. The failure of the party to grow, despite favourable conditions, showed that this was not so. Those (including Lechín) who supported and voted for POR positions remained members of the MNR. The confusion of the masses formed an insurmountable barrier to the growth of the POR, which would have been necessary for it to lead them. The illusion that the party was on the brink of seizing power often disorientated its leaders.
If the POR really had led the masses, the majority of the proletariat would have followed its anti-MNR line. Support for the POR wavered when it criticised the MNR. At other times Trotskyism benefited from the MNR’s internal differences. Our thesis is confirmed by the fact that the government did not break with those MNR activists who voted for POR positions, but manoeuvred so that they would ignore the policies for which they had voted. In the last resort the governing party was able to control its own members.
The POR maintained that on 9 April the MNR wore borrowed clothes: that is to say, it presented ideas and slogans which were not its own, but were Trotskyist. Certainly, the radicalised masses were adopting the demands of the Theses of Pulacayo . The MNR adapted to that by adopting some of the document’s demands, thereby adding to the prevailing confusion. Nationalism wore a ‘revolutionary ’mask, and Paz Estenssoro went so far as to declare himself a Marxist. The manoeuvre was temporarily successful in allowing the MNR to recruit the masses into a vaguely defined organisation, but it was to constitute the Achilles ’heel of nationalism in bringing into it elements which would allow the exploited to rebel against the limits and traditions of nationalism. […]
At the time, Trotskyism pointed out that nationalism filled the demands borrowed from the Theses of Pulacayo and from the propaganda of the POR with a conservative content. Anti-imperialism, for example, meant something very different for nationalists and Stalinists than for Trotskyists. For the MNR and PCB it was the strategic slogan which crowned the revolutionary process. For Trotskyism it was only one of the tasks of the proletarian revolution. The MNR’s ‘anti-imperialism ’was distinctive only in asking for better prices for our minerals. The struggle for national liberation which, if it was to mean anything, would involve the expulsion of the great companies (the MNR had merely demanded the expulsion of foreign missions) was reduced to the question of prices: an ‘anti-imperialism ’worthy of merchants.
The Participation of the POR
We have shown that one of the POR’s slogans which caught the workers ’imagination was for the occupation of the mines, combined with the expropriation without compensation of the firms linked to finance capital, which would be placed in the workers ’hands. Why did the workers not carry out that slogan when they were at their most organised and radical? If the mines had been occupied, which was a real possibility, clearly, the progress of the revolution would have been radically altered.
The main reason that mass spontaneity did not produce that result was the masses ’belief that the MNR government would nationalise the mines (nationalisation and occupation meant the same thing for the workers). However, neither was the slogan raised by the revolutionary vanguard, which did not present its own distinctive line. We cannot say that if the slogan had been raised the workers, who supported the MNR rather than the POR, would have carried it out. But it might have served as a reference point in future struggles. Sooner or later, the occupation of the mines would have posed the question of power, and would have led to the workers rapidly overcoming nationalism. At the same time, the POR would quickly have been able to reassert control. However, such questions are hypothetical, as events developed differently.
Why did the POR not advance that call, which it had advocated for so long? The internal crisis it had suffered during the six year dictatorship had tremendously weakened it. The course of political developments had led the masses to support the MNR, rather than the POR, so that the POR was not physically present in April 1952. That is not to say that individuals or groups were not in the streets or on the barricades with the workers, but that a Trotskyist political line, clearly distinct from that of the MNR was absent. […]
The POR failed in its duty to give a clear political response to the new situation. The members, however prominent, had no guidance apart from the POR’s traditional line. […]
The Victory of the MNR
The MNR took advantage of the victory of the masses, consolidating its leadership over them. The proletariat had won an impressive victory, but power immediately passed to a petit-bourgeois nationalist party. That presented Trotskyism with the problem of how to relate both to the masses captured by the MNR and to that party itself in its radical phase. The revolutionary victory of the exploited gave power to a petit-bourgeois party. The nationalist tendencies which persisted within the POR, and whose adherents occupied some leading positions and advocated support for the MNR, argued that its assumption of power represented nothing less than the workers and peasants becoming the governing class. Therefore, the MNR’s triumph was also a victory for the POR, which had always fought for a revolution such as the one which had just occurred.
For such nationalists there was no need for the POR to call for a workers ’and peasants ’government (the dictatorship of the proletariat) as that was what the MNR government was. As Trotskyism was a minority force which had been unable to take power, it ought to limit itself to supporting bourgeois nationalism, which was in any case able to carry out the POR’s programme. Therefore, any attempt at differentiation from nationalism, and even more so opposition to it, or any attempt to win the masses from it, were counter-revolutionary and pro-imperialist.
That attitude was expressed through the feverish activity of the nationalists within the POR, although it did not take a clearly expressed or written political line. Some nationalists simply joined the MNR. Others, the majority, who had pretensions as theoreticians, remained in the POR until the time it suffered one of its greatest crises. What a pity we did not throw out the nationalists before April 1952!
The conditions for the POR taking power at the head of the masses were absent. However, both its physical absence and the absence of its political line delayed the differentiation between the workers and the MNR, which was necessary if they were to overcome nationalism. […] The absence of the POR during 9 April meant that the time between Bolivia’s February and October revolutions was to be very long. […]
The Return of Escóbar
Now, we can understand the enormous importance of the absence from the country of Escóbar [Lora—ed], the leader who embodied the party’s traditional programme, and who was best able to translate it into mass agitation. In that crucial period, he enjoyed the most authority within and outside the Trotskyist organisation, and was one of those responsible for the POR’s victories and defeats up until then.
The worst thing that could have happened to Bolivian Trotskyism was that its most outstanding leader, the only one who could have resisted the nationalists, was silenced by being stuck in Paris through the sabotage of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. Obviously, Pablo and his team did not understand the results of their conduct, aimed at a person whom they considered as a political opponent. The POR, and consequently the revolution, were seriously harmed by the misconduct of the Pabloites, who then led the Fourth International. […]
It was not possible to get to the scene of the events. Escóbar reached Bolivia after crossing the Atlantic by sea (there was not money to buy a plane ticket) when the COB had already been established. […]
When Escóbar’s plane landed in Cochabamba he was surprised to learn that during the April struggles the Regional Committee had produced a leaflet showing a man representing the national revolution whose right arm bore the initials MNR, and his left those of the POR. The revisionists, who for some time had been absorbing nationalist ideas, considered that the differences between this petit-bourgeois party and Trotskyism were only of emphasis, as both pursued the same objective of the national revolution. Accordingly, the POR ought to limit its actions to support for the MNR government. Its ‘revolutionary ’task was to push the government in the direction of Socialism by gentle criticism.
The activists and theorists of the Cochabamba Regional Committee had come to the same conclusion as the Stalinists of the PCB [Communist Party of Bolivia—ed], who advanced the ‘theory ’that those who did not support the revolutionary and anti-imperialist government of the MNR, even as that government attacked the left wing parties, were reactionaries and Yankee agents. In the stage of national revolution, the proletariat should not advance its own demands or develop independent class politics, but should dissolve itself into the national front by entering the MNR.
Many years ago the Mensheviks initiated the politics, so calamitous for the revolutionary movement, of capitulation to the national bourgeoisie. This ‘theory ’came to Bolivian Trotskyism via the nationalist ‘left ’inspired by the renegade Argentine adventurer, Abelardo Rámos, who cynically proposed that the Trotskyists should merely copy what the Stalinists said and did. Rámos and his friends generalised from the ‘critical support ’which they gave to the early Perón government, extending that first to the Villarroel government, and then to the MNR regime. Both the ‘theory ’and the adventurer well suited the MNR in its fight against its major enemy: the Trotskyist POR. 
As soon as Escóbar had resumed party work, he imposed the line which he had proposed in France, although the organisation had been severely weakened by the presence and activity of the revisionists. The nationalists appeared to have abandoned their positions, to have accepted the Central Committee’s line, and to have accepted the return to a traditional Trotskyist position.
But the party’s feverish daily activity left no time for an internal discussion about the revisionists ’pro-MNR attitudes. Thus, the opportunity was lost to expel those who had publicly rejected the Trotskyist programme. The POR retained the disease which soon threatened to destroy it. Escóbar bore the main responsibility for not crushing the revisionists, who had so seriously damaged the party, precisely because he was the main spokesman for the authentically Trotskyist current.
Escóbar, believing that the errors had been due to minor differences, was confident that pro-MNR members would rectify their positions under the influence of events and the POR’s successes. He did not realise that the faction which controlled some medium level leaders and exercised considerable pressure on some national ones, was nothing less than a transmission belt for bourgeois interests, and a fifth column in the Trotskyist ranks. The POR was to experience many grave problems as a consequence of this comrade’s character — his contempt for Trotskyism’s enemies and his reluctance to discuss with them or treat them seriously.
The Verdict of the Fourth International
Bolivia began to preoccupy the International Secretariat and the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International. At the Eleventh Plenum of the IEC, held in June 1952, a report on the April revolution presented the POR as the main protagonist, in an effort to allay the justified concerns of members throughout the world over events which were to be the touchstone of the Trotskyist attitude to nationalism. No criticism was made of the errors which had been committed, nor was any mention made of the dangers ahead. Instead, promises of future victories abounded.
The most important document the leadership of the Fourth International produced during this crucial period was undoubtedly the resolution adopted by the IEC at its twelfth plenum (November 1952):
‘The way the POR (Revolutionary Workers Party) has acted up to now is generally correct and corresponds to objective realities as well as to the real forces of the party.
Ideologically prepared in advance for the events of 9 April, the POR was not surprised by them and above all did not fail to interpret them correctly and to adjust its own policy adequately.
‘The POR participated thoroughly in the April insurrection, and avoided isolation from the broad masses polarised in action by the MNR. Its policy was then aimed to continue not being isolated from the masses over whom the MNR still has a strong influence, especially not to isolate itself from the ranks of the left wing of the MNR while giving an impulse to revolutionary action and the independent organisation of the masses.
‘This two-fold preoccupation is concretised in the critical support granted [to] the MNR government, accompanied by direct revolutionary activity among the masses, for the purpose of exercising and reinforcing their pressure and developing their independent organisations in the trade unions and the militias.’
One can hardly imagine a more diplomatic document, intended to show that the POR devotedly followed the instructions of the Fourth International, when in reality the International was presented with an accomplished fact and was obliged to give its approval. The problem, which was to have enormous consequences for the Bolivian and world revolution, was precisely the disastrous behaviour of the POR on 9 April. Although the resolution said not a word about the internal struggles in the party, the IEC seemed to be backing the nationalist deviations.
If a revolutionary party is absent when the revolution occurs it must necessarily be taken unaware by events, contrary to the cheerful claims of the Pabloites of the IEC. Previously, it is true, there had been a correct theoretical interpretation of the development of the revolutionary process, but it is also true that the actions of the nationalist faction obscured and contradicted that interpretation.
We know that it is false to say that ‘the POR participated in the April insurrection’. After April the problem was to develop policies which would quickly break the masses from the control of the MNR. The resolution said nothing about that, merely giving advice on how to strengthen the dual power demanded by the COB. 
Giving ‘critical support ’to nationalist governments is typical of Stalinist politics, as it fits perfectly with their theory that the national bourgeoisie must lead the bourgeois democratic revolution. Pabloism, in the period when it glorified all bourgeois nationalist movements in the semi-colonial countries, by applying ‘critical support ’for them, adapted to Stalinism. Posadism, a caricature of Pabloism, carried that policy to its most absurd extreme. In 1970 it supported Torres against the Popular Assembly, while the PCB considers that it had committed its worst political error in not giving the military government more support. […] The POR’s rejection of ‘critical support ’(although that policy had neither been discussed nor repudiated by Pabloism) was shown by its rejection of the principal measures taken by the MNR. […]
The large mines, obviously dependent on finance capital, were not nationalised immediately, as the masses and other social layers had hoped and asked for. It was decreed on 31 October 1952, after a series of evasions (studies, commissions, etc) that were intended to demobilise the workers, particularly the miners, as a way of saving capitalist and imperialist interests which were being crushed by the force of an armed mass movement, in a country without an army, and where the police force scarcely functioned. […]
Nationalisation marked the beginning of a temporary retreat of the workers ’movement, which, exhausted by a long and nerve wracking struggle, left matters in the government’s hands, relaxed its vigilance and allowed its organisations to become bureaucratised. The result of that was the isolation of Trotskyism from the proletarian and petit-bourgeois masses, and a dangerous isolation of its best trade union activists.
1. On 9 April 1952 General Antonio Seleme, the chief of police in Hugo Balliviàn’s government, and General Torres Ortiz, the army chief of staff, staged a coup along with the MNR. Ortiz almost immediately returned to the government’s side, and Seleme bolted soon after, leaving the MNR irregulars to fight atone. At this point, armed miners joined the fray and tipped the balance in favour of the MNR.
2. The Theses of Pulacayo , drafted by Guillermo Lora on behalf of the miners of Siglo XX-Catavi, were endorsed by an FSTMB congress held at the Pulacayo mine in November 1946. The Theses start by characterising the class nature and backward development of Bolivia, call for a revolution, initially with bourgeois democratic demands, repudiate class collaboration and any reliance upon state intervention to solve social problems, call for a struggle against imperialism and Fascism (an agent of the ‘feudal bourgeoisie’), and denounce electoral illusions. They then propose transitional demands, which are a sliding scale of wages and working hours, a 40 hour week, the nationalisation of the mines under workers ’control and with no compensation to the owners, real collective contracts, the independence of the trade unions from the government, the arming of the workers, and the establishment of a proper strike fund. After this series of transitional demands, they affirm the necessity of direct action so that in a crisis parliamentary struggle takes on a secondary importance. They call for a workers ’United Front and a united trade union movement. Finally, they call for a refusal to make blocs with any sector of the bourgeoisie. The tasks of the bourgeois revolution had not been completed, but the bourgeoisie could not complete them. This task fell to the working class, although it was a small proportion of the population.
3. G Lora, Contribución …, p228. The left wing of the MNR, the Vanguardia Obrera Movimientista, was led by the union leaders Juan Lechín Oquendo and Ñuflo Chávez Ortiz, whilst the right wing,AcciOn de Defensa del MNR, was led by Wálter Guevara Arze and Hernán Siles Zuazo.
As well as being Minister for Mines and Petroleum, Lechín was the Executive Secretary of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, Bolivian Workers Centre). The COB was formed in April 1952, and encompassed unions representing workers in such sectors as mining, railways, electricity, oil, printing and construction, as well as those representing millers, chauffeurs, commercial employees and factory workers. All these unions were under the control of the MNR. Several regional groups of the Stalinist CSTB joined the COB. The COB was given four ministerial posts in the MNR government, namely those of Mines and Petroleum, Peasant Affairs, Labour, and Transportation. Robert Alexander says that:
The revolutionary government was officially based from its early days jointly on the MNR and the COB. All major decisions of the government, such as the nationalisation of the mines, the agrarian reform decree, and the reorganisation of education, were considered by the COB before being promulgated by the government.’ (RJ Alexander, The Bolivian National Revolution , New Brunswick NJ, 1958, pp124-5)
4. Lora, op cit, p229.
5. Op cit, p231.
6. Op cit, p232.
7. Op cit, p234.
8. Op cit, p235.
9. Op cit, p236.
10. Op cit, p239.
11. Op cit, p240.
12. Op cit, p244.
13. Op cit, p245.
Updated by ETOL: 12 February 2009