Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


Revolution in Bolivia

Dear Editor

I have only recently received Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 3, that was devoted to Bolivia, together with other missing back issues, and therefore apologise for a late comment on this subject. However, since the main event under discussion, the Bolivian Revolution, happened over 40 years ago, I do not think that the delay should cause any great problem.

It seems to me that your coverage is a bit slanted against Lora. Lora’s view is represented by himself and a friendly commentary by Pierre Broué. All the other commentaries are critical. They were written by people who are not from Bolivia, or who were not present when the events were taking place. I am afraid this can lead to a misconception of the reality under which Lora functioned.

I write, as one of your introductions note, as someone who has, in a similar fashion, harshly judged Lora from a great distance and with very limited information at my disposal. Gerry Healy at the time chose to broadcast my ill thought-through meanderings on the front page of the Workers Press, whilst Pierre Lambert proceeded to cover Paris with leaflets denouncing Healy and myself, and defending Lora. The International Committee of the Fourth International split in two. I carry no great guilt for my ‘historic’ role in splitting the ICFI, as the two great men were determined to part company anyway. However, I still feel badly about the intemperate tone of my attack on Lora.

At the time Lora wrote a bitter and quite justified attack on me, in which he suggested that I did not know what I was talking about. He was not altogether wrong. I believe some at least of the criticisms of him that you publish share this weakness.

The problem, as I see it, is to try to understand the reality of the situation that the POR faced in 1952. This requires greater knowledge about what the POR actually was in that period, before we can judge what it could and should have done. It is interesting to see how little information about the party is available, either in Lora’s own writings or those of his critics.

The POR was never a mass party. In 1952 my guess would be that its membership was only a few hundred. It had almost no apparatus, hardly any press, no history of running for election on its own, and was not known to the people of Bolivia outside radical circles and sections of the labour movement. There can be no comparison of the position of the POR in 1952 with that of the Bolsheviks in 1917. The latter had a daily paper, had run in a series of elections in which it had out-polled the Mensheviks, was known throughout the country, and had tens of thousands of members.

The great strength of the POR was its ability to work consistently within the tin miners’ union, and to influence that union to adopt Trotskyist positions: for example The Theses of Pulacayo. This permitted a very small party to have a very large influence within the Bolivian labour movement. But in an important sense this influence was illusory, because it had not been — and perhaps could not be — translated into party influence and party growth. This had not happened prior to 1952, and one would have to believe in miracles to expect it to happen overnight after 9 April.

Lora was and is a highly gifted political operator within the labour movement of his country. His greatest impact has always been through others. When he has had to stand upon his own two feet, he has found that there are not a lot of other two feet around him. His best work reminds me of what the Socialist Workers Party did in Minneapolis in the 1930s. At one moment in time, the SWP, through the Teamsters, ran that town, and yet they never won a seat on the council. The workers who followed them, and who fought off goons with baseball bats all voted for Roosevelt — just like Lora’s miners who supported the MNR.

Once this reality is grasped, then we must look at the POR’s activity in 1952–54 a little differently. We must dismiss as laughable the notion that the POR could possibly have come to power. This was not Trotskyism’s lost opportunity, as it was not, and could not become, our revolution. The MNR, as Lora correctly asserts — and no one disputes this — had the support of virtually all workers, peasants, intellectuals and the middle classes. The real task that the POR faced was not to wrest the masses from the MNR, an impossible feat at the time, but to simply emerge itself as a party, albeit a very small one.

If I understand Lora right, whilst he did correctly assess the reality around him, he made grave mistakes because he sought to manipulate this new reality in more or less the same way as he had manipulated the labour movement. He wanted to remain a major player, and yet he had very few chips indeed to play with. As a result he made too many political concessions to the MNR, and was manipulated by Lechín. His strength amongst the tin miners, and the ideas, intelligence and courage of his comrades, got him a place at the table of power at the time of the revolution. But the truth was he was a bluff player. Matters of revolution are not settled at tables, but in the streets. It was in the streets that Lora was really weak. In this context it should be noted that he had little strength in La Paz. Important as the tin miners were, they were isolated in the mountains, far from La Paz. The fate of the revolution was determined in La Paz.

There is another sobering thought to raise with our armchair revolutionaries (and that was the apt phrase I remember with which Lora characterised me in that 1970s polemic) as it suggests an alternative scenario for 1952. Suppose I am wrong, and this band of a couple of hundred Trotskyists seized power in the middle of the Andes mountains in 1952. Could they have held power under conditions of the Cold War, of a Soviet Union led by Stalin, in a country whose backwardness makes the Russia of 1917 seem like the USA today? Come now! Impossible! And to seize power without a chance of holding on to it is pure adventurism.

Comradely regards

Tim Wohlforth

The Editors reply:

Although it is possible that, as Tim says, the coverage of the Bolivian Revolution may have been ‘slanted’, this was certainly not the fault of the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History, which went to great lengths to get Lora’s point of view, and studied all his available work on the subject, seeking concrete details. But as Tim also points out: ‘It is interesting to see how little information about the party is available, either in Lora’s own writings or those of his critics.’

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011