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John Newsinger

Revolution in Bolivia

(Winter 1983)

From International Socialism 2 : 18, Winter 1983, pp. 60–86.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

JOHN NEWSINGER’S ARTICLE comes at a very appropriate moment; although it is thirty years since the Bolivian revolution, the actors in the historical present are essentially the same as they were then – the petty-bourgeois nationalists of the MNR, the military, and the workers’ movement led by the COB. Once again it has been the power of the working class that has brought the leader of a reformist coalition – Hernan Siles – to the presidency (he took over Paz Estenssoro’s mantle when the latter entered an alliance with the military five years ago). Once again there looms a terrible inevitability about the betrayals and confrontations to come, unless, that is, the experience of 1952 becomes not just a historical lesson but a guide to the immediate future.

In 1980, elections to a Constituent Assembly gave clear victory to a coalition (the UDP) led by Siles, and including the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and the Bolivian Communist Party. In July, a military coup led by Garcia Meza seized power. Throughout Bolivia the working class rose in protest: hundreds died on the street barricades before the new military government imposed its control on the state. What was at stake was a profitable drugs trade with the US controlled by the military. The internal struggles within the military have more often than not been about control over that trade; the ruling class as a whole has always maintained unity, on the other hand, in the face of a combative working class movement.

Despite brutal and systematic repression, that movement has refused to lie down. Its bitter struggle has been the fruit of the conditions of life of the Bolivian workers. Today, half the population is less than 15 years old, 16 out of every 100 children die before their first birthday; average life expectancy is 52, and the average calorie intake 17% below the FAO’s minimum. 63% of the population is illiterate, and 70%o have no access to safe water.

Carcia Meza was replaced a year later by Torrellio, and in July 1982 he was displaced in his turn by General Guido Vildoso. Vildoso’s first acts were to give an official audience to the Gestapo torturer Klaus Altmann (by now a big noise in the drugs trade) and to appoint his two sisters-in-law to lucrative customs posts. Yet three months later Vildoso had agreed to return power to Siles in October. Why?

Two factors had combined. First, the deepening world crisis hit the vulnerable Bolivian economy particularly hard; the price of tin and oil (its chief exports) fell drastically between 1981 and mid-1982. On the verge of bankruptcy, the government turned to the IMF, which agreed to provide loans subject to the usual conditions – wage freeze, price rises, austerity, closer ties to the world economy. This was too much for a working class movement which had already experienced price rises of between 150% and 500% in the first six months of 1982. The miners of Huanuni, the workers of the state telecommunications company Entel, and the industrial workers of Cochabamba launched an indefinite strike. The demands were subsidies, wage rises, and new, democratic elections. In the event, however, the COB accepted the return of the Constituent Assembly elected in 1980, albeit reluctantly.

Siles, then, has been brought back to power to administer the austerity that the crisis demands. The military gave up power precisely because they were persuaded that Siles could make the working class movement accept the IMF’s policies; he had, after all, achieved it once before. And if Siles is allowed to demobilise the working class, history will tragically repeat itself. But there is an alternative to be found in the concrete history of a Bolivian working class which, all too briefly, exercised its own class power. It is that history that John Newsinger’s article rescues from the self-appointed leaders of the working class who, like Hernan Siles, will try to use it to lead the working class movement away from the struggle for workers’ power.

* * *

NOWHERE IN LATIN AMERICA has the class struggle developed to a greater extent or reached greater heights than in Bolivia. At a time when enthusiasm for the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and solidarity with the guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala dominates the consciousness of much of the left, this point needs emphasising. In Bolivia, the working class provided the force that in 1952 overthrew the government, destroyed the army and swept away the ruling class. The working class carried to power a populist petty bourgeois revolutionary government that once installed was confronted with a situation of dual power and was reluctantly compelled to carry through extensive structural reforms. That the trotskyists within the working class movement were never able to transform this dual power into workers’ power was the great tragedy of the Bolivian Revolution. But, it has to be insisted that nowhere else in Latin America has a workers’ movement achieved so much carried the struggle for socialism so far forward and won by unremitting efforts so much valuable historical experience. Much of this experience has been neglected and forgotten, overshadowed Castro’s victory in Cuba and by the subsequent ‘Guevarization’ much of Latin American Trotskyism, but it is experience we cannot afford to neglect. [1]

The Tin Republic

Since the turn of the century, the Bolivian economy has been dependent on tin. If Guatemala, because of its mono-product export economy, could meaningfully be described as a banana republic, then Bolivia was without doubt the tin republic. While the overwhelming majority of the population remained peasants, tied to the land and living in incredible poverty, tin maintained the viability of the state and was the country’s bridge to the modern world. Without the tin mines, Bolivia’s existence as an independent state would have been very much in doubt (it is worth remembering that since its establishment in 1825 Bolivia has lost half of its national territory to its more powerful neighbours).

At the beginning of the 1890s annual tin production was l,00l tons, by 1899 it had risen to 3,500 tons, and by 1905 to over 15,000 tons. Between 1900 and 1920 Bolivian exports rose by 431%, on which tin consistently accounted for between 50% and 65%. In the 1920s, the percentage of exports accounted for by tin was to rise to a steady 75%. As tin mining expanded, so communications were developed, towns grew and small-scale light industry developed. The capital, La Paz, grew from a population of 70,000 in 1900 to 115,000 by 1920, and other cities experienced similar increases. Paved streets, sewers and piped drinking water all made their appearance for the first time. The well-to-do were able to model themselves on the upper classes of Europe and the American East. The rural caudillo was supplanted as the dominant figure in Bolivian society by the banker and the politician, the businessman and the lawyer. The mineowners, collectively known as ‘the rosea’, were the new rulers of Bolivia.

As the tin industry expanded, production became increasingly concentrated in the hands of three men: Mauricio Hochschild, Felix Aramayo, and Simon Patino. By the late 1920s, Patino alone controlled around 50% of Bolivia’s tin production, while together, the three men controlled a minimum of 75%. All three shifted their base of operations out of Bolivia in the course of the 1920s, registering their mining companies abroad and repatriating their profits for investment abroad, effectively integrating themselves into the business and financial worlds of America and Europe. After a while Bolivian tin became only one among a number of interests and their various companies could no longer be seriously considered as in any way ‘Bolivian’. Patino, in particular, became one of the richest men in the world, controlling a vast business empire in which his Bolivian interests played only a minor role; although in Bolivia, he remained the country’s largest capitalist, both its largest mineowner and its largest banker. All of this was accomplished on the backs of Bolivian mineworkers, men and women, working and living in inhuman conditions for the benefit of the super rich.

The years from 1900 to 1920 saw the tin industry provide the basis for a period of unprecedented political stability in Bolivia. This was a time of optimism of the urban upper and middle class. It appeared that tin was going to provide the means for reshaping the whole of Bolivian society, financing economic development on an ever increasing scale and carrying the country into the twentieth century. These hopes were misplaced. The withdrawal of the tin magnates from Bolivia represented an effective emasculation of the native capitalist class. Patino, Aramayo and Hochschild had no intention of using their considerable wealth to initiate any process of industrialization or to create a fully-fledged bourgeois democratic society in Bolivia; the returns on investment were greater abroad. For them, Bolivia became a source of revenue to help finance their international activities. In this they were merely obeying the logic of capitalist enterprise, investing where the returns were greatest. To expect them to do otherwise was to expect them not to behave like capitalists and this was Utopian.

At the same time as the profits of the tin industry were leaving the country, the need to raise money forced the Bolivian government into the hands of American bankers. In 1921, the notorious ‘Nicolaus loan’ had as one of its conditions the establishment of the Permanent fiscal Commission, controlled by representatives of the American banks, to supervise state finances and taxation. Whereas earlier in the century, the country had no foreign debt, by 1927 it had financial obligations amounting to $40 million, and had been virtually taken over by American banks. The paradox is that far from tin providing the means to develop the country and to consolidate its national independence, it was turned by the world market into the means hereby Bolivia was delivered up into the hands of international companies (albeit controlled by Bolivian expatriates) and American banks. The Bolivian people remained beggars sitting on a mountain of gold.

While the overwhelming majority of the Bolivian population remained peasants, tin mining and the limited amount of associated economic development, did create a small working class. At the core of this class were the tin miners, concentrated together in isolated mining towns and consequently developing a tremendous degree of solidarity. Their militancy was assured by the determined and ruthless opposition of the mining companies to anything that might interfere with the realization of their profits, particularly trade unions. Both their degree of concentration and their potential stranglehold over the country’s main source of foreign earnings gave the tin miners a social weight out of all proportion to their numbers and was to have considerable consequences for the future.

The hold of ‘the rosea’ over Bolivia seemed secure and absolute despite the political instability of the 1920s. The politicians were fighting amongst themselves for the spoils of office and in no way questioned the rights and prerogatives of the tin companies. They exercised a virtually unchallenged ideological hegemony over Bolivian society whereby the interests of the tin companies were perceived, by means of a complex process of mediation, as the interests of the country. What was good for Patino was good for all Bolivians and vice versa. The material basis for this illusion was shattered in 1929 by the onset of the great depression. Almost; overnight the position of the mineowners in Bolivian society was dramatically weakened as world demand for tin fell and prices plummeted. Whereas in 1929 Bolivia exported 47,087 tons of tin, by 1933 the figure had fallen to only 14,957 tons. This catastrophic fall in demand was compounded by an equally catastrophic fall in price from 917 dollars a ton in 1927 to only 385 dollars a ton in 1932. The economic collapse shook the whole of Bolivian society, but inevitably the full working out of its political effects extended over a number of years.

The government of Daniel Salamanca that came to power in February 1931 attempted to ride out the crisis by two familiar methods: savage attacks on the trade unions, and war. In April 1931 he used troops to break a postal workers’ strike and encouraged by this success proceeded to cut the wages of public employees. Attacks on the unions were accompanied by increasing conflict with Paraguay over the disputed Chaco region. Although subsequently Bolivian nationalist opinion was to condemn this war as having been fought on behalf of the Standard Oil Company to acquire control of oil-bearing land, Herbert Klein has convincingly shown this to be a myth. Standard Oil, if anything, opposed the war, and moreover, had virtually no influence over the Salamanca government. More than that, the Chaco region, which the war was waged over, was not oil bearing anyway; it was only Paraguayan victories that enabled them to menace Bolivia’s oil reserves towards the end of the war. The war was started by Salamanca as a deliberate and cynical attempt to strengthen his government by rallying patriotic feelings behind it, and to create the conditions that would enable him to finally crush the trade unions. [2] He was not the first bourgeois politician to do this, and he will not be the last. In November 1933, while heavy fighting was still raging in the Chaco, Salamanca outlawed the trade unions and allowed only nineteenth century mutual aid societies to exist. ‘Salamanca’, as Steven Volk points out, ‘aimed not to contain the movement, but to destroy it’. [3]

Military victory eluded him, however, and a succession of bloody defeats brought him down. In November 1934 the Army removed him from power and the following May Bolivia concluded a humiliating armistice. The Chaco War cost Bolivia some 80,000 dead, overwhelmingly peasants, and the loss of 215,000 square kilometres of territory. The scale of the defeat and the enormous loss of life precipitated a crisis of national identity that had been in the making since 1929. The political effects of the Great Depression were suddenly realised and the ideological hegemony of the mine-owners was shattered.

Military socialism and the MNR

The fall of Salamanca led to a resurgence of the trade unions. They quickly gave expression to the widespread discontent that gripped the country. In May 1936 a general strike threatened to plunge the country into civil war, but instead precipitated a takeover of the government by a radical faction of the Army led by Colonel David Toro. These men were veterans of the Chaco War and were determined to reconstruct the country after its humiliating defeat. As part of this reconstruction process they intended to integrate the trade unions into the state. Toro himself modelled his programme of ‘military socialism’ on that of European fascism and aspired to establish an authoritarian corporatist state. This would not only make the country stronger by giving the government greater control over its resources, but would also benefit the people whose degraded social condition was itself regarded as a weakness of the state.

Toro promptly established a Ministry of Labour and introduced a legal code that strictly regulated union affairs. In August 1936, a degree made work obligatory and ordered that everyone including the wealthy had to possess a valid work certificate or face conscription into a labour brigade. The following month membership of a trade union was made compulsory – for both workers and bosses! These measures, as the Bolivian Trotskyist leader Guillermo Lora points out, amounted to ‘the most resolute attempt to establish fascism that the country has ever seen. [4]

Toro’s efforts had the enthusiastic support of the petty bourgeoisie, and he sought to organise this support by establishing his own party, the Partido Socialista del Estado. In March 1937, he went on to nationalise the scapegoat of the Chaco War, Standard Oil.

Opposition to his authoritarianism was growing however, and he was losing working class support because of his efforts at regulating the trade unions. In July 1937 he was overthrown in a palace revolution and replaced by Colonel German Busch. To consolidate support, Busch relaxed Toro’s controls over the trade unions at the same time as introducing a comprehensive reformist labour code to, protect the rights of the working class. The most dramatic step taken by Busch involved him in a full-scale confrontation with the mineowners. In June 1939, he ordered that the foreign currency earnings of the mining companies were to be handed over to the Banco Central. This measure was extremely popular and might well have heralded more drastic measures and an attempt at fostering industrial development by a policy of import substitution. This was not to be: on 23 August 1939 Busch was shot. Officially, he committed suicide, but the widespread belief was that he had been assassinated. He was widely regarded as a martyr, as a friend of the people, murdered by the mine-owners and American imperialism.’ Certainly, one of the first acts of his successor, General Carlos Quantanilla, was to abandon the confrontation with the mining companies.

With the death of Busch, the mineowners seemed to be firmly back in control, buoyed up, moreover, by the outbreak of war in Europe that led to a rise in demand for tin. But while the Army radicals had been temporarily defeated, the petty bourgeoisie remained unreconciled, searching for a way out of the crisis that beset Bolivian society. They found inspiration in the ideas of Haya de la Torre, who before the advent of Castro, was the most influential advocate and theorist of national liberation in Latin America; and an organisational model in his Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA). Haya argued for ‘an alliance within a single party of all the oppressed and exploited classes in Latin America: the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry in addition to the proletariat’. The historical model upon which he based this new strategy, he tells us, was the ‘Chinese Kuomintang under General Chiang Kai shek’. [5] With this populist alliance, he argued, the traditional ruling classes could be broken, American imperialism curbed and national development encouraged along a path that was neither Capitalist nor Communist. He pointed to the Mexican Revolution as an example and urged the rest of Latin America to emulate the Mexicans. The result in Bolivia was the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), which first came together as a loose alliance in 1940, and by 1942 had emerged as a semi-clandestine petty bourgeois party.

The boom in Bolivian tin exports, especially after the Japanese conquest of Malaya, inevitably led to the miners attempting to restore their pay and conditions, both of which had seriously deteriorated in the course of the 1930s. The Penaranda government had agreed with the Americans to hold down tin prices as a contribution to the war against the Axis Powers, and determined to resist any demands that might compromise this policy. According to one estimate Bolivia subsidised the American war effort in this way to the tune of between $600-$900 million. [6] In December 1942, miners at Patino’s Catavi mines went on strike and the government sent in troops to crush them. On 21 December troops fired on an unarmed demonstration of 8,000 men, women and children and then for the next two days unleashed a reign of terror that left an estimated 400 dead.

The massacre discredited the government and divided the army. The MNR launched a campaign of support for the miners and bitterly attacked the government and the mine-owners. At the same time as rallying popular support, however, the MNR also entered into secret negotiations with a radical secret society of army officers, the RADEPA, who were pro-Axis in sympathy and supported the earlier experiment in ‘military socialism’. On 20 December 1943, the RADEPA staged a military coup and installed one of their number, Major Gualberto Villarroel in office. The MNR was invited to join the new government.

At the time of the Catavi massacre, the dominant political force within the working class was the Partido de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (PIR), a Stalinist controlled party, completely faithful to Moscow but that attempted to generate a broader appeal than an open Communist party would have. They found themselves seriously compromised by developments. They supported Bolivian sacrifices, including working class sacrifices, to help the war effort against the Axis and thereby assist the victory of the Socialist fatherland. Consequently they felt obliged to give the Penaranda government general support despite the Catavi massacre which they criticised as an excess. This did not save them from arrest in the repression that followed after the massacre. It did, however, open the way for the MNR to break into the working class and begin winning support from the PIR. The coming to power of Villarroel made things even more difficult for the PIR, because here was a popular regime that seemed sympathetic to working class interests and that advocated strong opposition to American imperialism, and yet loyalty to Russia compelled them to oppose it, and even ally with the ruling class. They denounced Villarroel’s regime as being a Nazi-puppet regime. One PIR leader actually called for US troops to occupy the country.

Was there any truth in the claim that Villarroel’s regime was Nazi? Certainly, there were, in both the MNR and the RADEPA, virulent anti-semitism, but these were minorities and had little influence. As for the government’s sympathy with the Axis powers, this was merely a reflex of its hostility to American imperialism: they sympathised with their enemy’s enemy. The defining feature of Villarroel’s regime was not any supposed fascism, but its petty bourgeois nationalism, and whereas in the 1950s this would have earned it the label ‘Communist’, in the 1940s it earned it the label ‘Nazi’.

Villarroel was from the very beginning under bitter attack from both inside and outside the country. The USA refused to recognise him until he dismissed his MNR ministers (which he did) while internally there were continual conspiracies, street clashes and provocations. Every effort was made to destabilise the government and precipitate its downfall. The British Secret Service was involved in this along with the Americans. To counter this assault, Villarroel looked to the working class and the peasantry for support.

Under his auspices there was a great strengthening of trade union organisation, particularly in the mines. At a congress in Huanuni in June 1944, a national miners’ federation, the Federacion Sindical de Trabaj adores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) was founded by a number of local unions sympathetic to the MNR. Indeed, all the expenses of the congress were paid by the MNR. The more militant local unions, most notably from the Llallagua-Uncia mining complex, were deliberately excluded. In these more militant pits, once PIR strongholds, the PIR were losing ground to the Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) that was not compromised by an alliance with ‘the rosea’. For the PIR, this was a serious blow, heralding the later collapse of its influence within the working class; with the formation of the FSTMB, now the largest union federation in the country, the centre of gravity of the labour movement shifted away from them. The PIR still controlled the important Confederacion Sindical de Trabajadores de Bolivia (CSTB), a federation of manufacturing, transport and white collar unions, particularly strong in La Paz, but even here it was finding its influence increasingly restricted to white collar workers.

Encouraging trade union organisation and controlling it were two different things, as the government soon found out. Guillermo Lora makes the point admirably:

Because of its need for support, the Villarroel-MNR government had made a great contribution to organising the masses, though not with the intention of liberating them but rather to use them for its own ends. The unexpected consequence was that the government found its own position undermined for as soon as the workers were mobilised, they began to seek ideological and organisational autonomy and sought to follow an independent class line which threatened to transcend the limitations of the government’s policies. This phenomenon became particularly marked towards the end the Villarroel regime, when a confrontation between organised workers and the government seemed imminent. [7]

The FSTMB moved quickly to the left, and under the pressure of he rank and file, the leadership installed by the MNR freed itself from their tutelage. Juan Lechin Oquendo, the Secretary General of the Union, contrived to balance MNR influence against the growing influence of the Trotskyist POR, and thereby gave himself room for manoeuvre. Certainly, as Lora freely admits, the POR had great illusions in him, and while they thought they were making use of him, he, in fact, was making very effective use of them. By endorsing their politics, Lechin successfully enlisted their help in mobilising the rank and file of the union behind his leadership, thereby helping to insulate his bureaucratic control of the union from rank and file attack. Later when he no longer needed them, he was able to use the union bureaucracy to break their influence in the union. For the time being, however, Lechin adopted an increasingly antagonistic stance towards the government which found itself unable to satisfy working class demands. A confrontation was inevitable.

In December 1944, the MNR rejoined the government and the MNR leader, Victor Paz Estenssoro became Minister of Finance. Rather than trying to conciliate the working class, Paz adopted an orthodox conservative economic policy, sacrificing all hopes of social reform to the need to maintain a stable currency. He was determined to prove the MNR’s respectability to the United States. As working class support for the regime waned, it resorted more and more to repression against its opponents: beatings and torture, assassinations and secret executions became the order of the day. This reign of terror was a sign of weakness rather than strength.

At the FSTMB’s Third Congress in March 1946, the union voted to withdraw its support from Villarroel and adopted a programme drawn up by the POR. The miners made ready to launch an offensive against the regime, but they were forestalled. On 21 July 1946 the conservative opposition together with the PIR staged a popular uprising in La Paz. The army stood by while the people took control the city. Villarroel was seized and lynched by an angry crowd, and his body was left hanging from a lamp post outside the residential Palace. Instead of Villarroel falling to a working class offensive, he fell to an unholy alliance between the Bolivian ruling ass and the Stalinists. Working class activists took to the streets alongside the supporters of the conservatives, and together they carried ‘the rosea’ to power. The PIR was rewarded with a place in the new government.

Not only did the 21 July uprising not advance working class interests, events were soon to show that it was positively detrimental. First of all, it completely derailed the FSTMB’s plans and ford them onto the defensive. At the same time, it opened the way ruling class control of the country that was to last six years, the ‘Sexenio’. In the course of these years of struggle the PIR somewhat predictably found itself on the wrong side and its influence was completely disappear.

The POR and the miners

The Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario was founded by a number of leftwing Bolivian exiles at Cordoba in Argentina as early as December 1934, but only began to acquire any real influence within the working class in the 1940s. It held that Trotsky’s theory Permanent Revolution applied in Bolivia and that the Bolivian working class, small as it was, had to establish itself as the leadership of all the oppressed classes and by revolutionary means create a workers’ state. The bankruptcy of the Stalinist PIR helped clear the way for the POR and it found that under the Villarroel-MNR regime its politics acquired a growing audience. After having raised working class expectations, Villarroel’s failure to satisfy them led many workers to give a hearing to Trotskyist arguments that such regimes could never satisfy their needs and that the working class would have to take power itself. These arguments had most impact among the miners and the POR successfully established itself in a number of pits.

The increasing militancy of the miners, which was given politico direction by the POR, forced the leadership of the FSTMB to break with the Villarroel government and to prepare for a confrontation with it. At the March 1946 Congress, which, as we have seen, virtually sealed Villarroel’s fate, the POR successfully persuaded the delegates to repudiate the government and adopt an aggressive wages and conditions policy that made a clash inevitable. Lechin the FSTMB leader, rowed with the tide. It is important to be clear on the reasons for this. As Lora points out, Lechin was no Marxist but if it suited his purposes he was fully prepared to identify himself with the revolutionary left. Lora actually travelled with him to the March Congress and the POR was given every encouragement to attack both the government and the MNR (of which Lechin was ostensibly a member). This was not just opportunism on Lechin’s part, although he was certainly an opportunist! Ideally, he wanted government that was under trade union control; this would deliver substantial reforms for the working class and at the same time aggrandise his own position. To achieve this he was quite prepared to give the POR their head and even to confront the government including its MNR ministers.

The 21 July uprising changed the whole situation. Thanks to the PTR a conservative government was installed in power and the FSTMB was put on the defensive. An Extraordinary Congress was held at Pulcayo in November 1946 and adopted the famous Thesis of Pulcayo – ‘a high point in Bolivian working class history ... one of the most revolutionary documents ever endorsed by a Latin American working class organization’. [8] The Thesis was drawn up by Lora himself and proposed to the Congress by Trotskyist delegates from the Siglo XX-Cataui mining complex. It rehearsed the theory of Permanent Revolution, proclaiming that the working class was the revolutionary class and arguing that it must prepare itself to carry out the socialist revolution. It declared its uncompromising opposition to Imperialism and its wholehearted support for working class internationalism. It condemned class collaboration and advocated revolutionary intransigence. As well as this general declaration of revolutionary principles, the Thesis went on to reiterate the militant trade union demands agreed at the March Congress, called for the formation of a ‘Proletarian Bloc’ in Parliament, urged the miners to occupy the mines and to take steps to arm themselves. [9]

Without doubt the Thesis of Pulcayo was a remarkable document, but how important was it really? It has been widely held up as a triumph for a particular type of Trotskyist policies: the politics of the programme, whereby all that a revolutionary organisation needs is to put forward the correct programme and everything else will follow. The working class is seen as a computer, insert the programme and it will carry out the required operations. This conception of revolutionary policies is nonsense. Lora himself admits, rather shamefacedly, that it was approved by the Congress behind Lechin’s back and ‘largely because it was a surprise’. [10] In the circumstances, this was its central flaw, because it was on Lechin that the POR was relying to implement it. The Thesis posed no challenge to the union leadership, but rather demonstrated a belief that it could be pushed in a revolutionary direction and that this was the correct perspective for revolutionaries. From this point of view it had more of the character of a propagandist coup than of a serious political victory. The real question was not how successful the POR were at passing resolutions at miners’ congresses, but how successful they were at building a revolutionary party, a revolutionary leadership rooted within the working class.

At the end of January 1947 the government made clear its intentions towards the miners when troops fired on a demonstration in Potosi and PIR thugs spent the following day hunting down and shooting union activists. At the Fourth Congress of the FSTMB in June 1947 the delegates recognised that the tide had clearly turned against the union and that it was threatened with destruction. They opted a new policy document, Tactical Advice: How to Retreat Without Being Destroyed’. This urged preparation for struggle but also that every effort should be made to avoid provocation. The following month at the Catavi-Siglo XX complex, the Patino management, with government (including PIR) consent, sacked all its employees and then leisurely proceeded to select those it wanted to reinstate. This became known as the ‘white massacre’; to distinguish it from more bloody affairs.

More drastic action came in May 1949 when in response to a miners’ strike the government arrested a number of working class leaders, including both Lechin and Lora. At Catavi-Siglo XX the miners occupied the mines and took the management hostage (including a number of Americans). The government refused to release its own prisoners and sent in the army. After a heroic resistance the miners were overwhelmed; some 300 of them were killed. Three of the hostages, two of them Americans, were also killed, almost certainly by the troops.

While the government continued its offensive against the working class (even the PIR felt obliged to pull its ministers out), it faced a continual challenge from the MNR. After the fall of Villarroel, the MNR had gone underground and reorganised itself as a clandestine paramilitary organisation committed to the violent seizure of power. Initially, the MNR leaders looked to the army for support, but when this was no longer forthcoming they turned to the working class, and it established links with a number of trade unions, including the FSTMB. The undoubted courage and self-sacrifice of MNR activists won them considerable support among the workers. In August, soon after the Catavi massacre of May 1949, the MNR launched an uprising throughout the country. The rebels were crushed almost immediately in La Paz, but elsewhere they seized control of Cochabamba, Sucre, Potosi, and established a revolutionary government in Santa Cruz. Once again the miners of Catavi rose in revolt. For two months civil war raged, but by the end of September the army had successfully crushed the uprising. The following May another attempt was made in La Paz. The trade unions called a general strike and then together with the MNR tried to seize control of the city. POR members were actively involved in the fighting. The army was once again too strong and the rebels were driven back into the working class district of Villa Victoria, which was them bombed and shelled into submission with heavy loss of life.

The scale of resistance to the government made its overthrow only a matter of time. It had lost any vestiges of popular support and was completely dependent on the army. The POR confidently expected its downfall to herald the proletarian revolution in Bolivia as the theory of Permanent Revolution worked itself out in practice. Writing at the time of the 1952 Revolution, Guillermo Lora argued that:

The Chaco War brought to an end a historic stage: the stage of the undisputed reign of the feudal bourgeoisie, of liberal reforms, of the building of railroads, of a trade boom, of the lightning-like rise of mining developments, and also of the stage of unorganised working class revolts which were drowned in blood. A new stage was ushered in: the stage of the definitive decline and decomposition of the ruling class.

He went on to characterise Bolivia as a country ‘where the numerical weight of the petty bourgeoisie’ is such that it can be described as ‘petty bourgeois in its social composition’. Following the theory of Permanent Revolution he argued that this ‘petty bourgeoisie is incapable of developing an independent policy’:

Even if, under the pressure of the masses, it succeeds in elaborating a program of national liberation and agrarian reform, even if it assumes the leadership of the national revolutionary movement, that is as far as it is capable of going. At a given stage of the struggle it will join with the feudal-bourgeoisie and imperialism to crush the masses whose revolt endangers the system of private property.

So much had been proven by the experience of the Villarroel government which had conclusively demonstrated ‘that the petty bourgeoisie is not capable of fulfilling the bourgeois democratic tasks such as national liberation from imperialism, the destruction of big landed property and the realization of national unity’.

It was on to the shoulders of the working class that the role of leadership in the revolutionary struggle had descended. Although only a small minority of the population:

the role it will have to play as leader of the revolution flows not from its numbers but from the position it occupies in the economy of the country, from the backwardness of this economy and from the fact that the feudal-bourgeoisie has faltered as a class. One can say that the political weight of the Bolivian proletariat is in inverse ratio to its numbers and in direct ratio to the political impotence of the bourgeoisie and to the insignificance of national capital. It is foreign finance capital which takes the first place in the country and exercises an indisputable control over national life. But at the same time, imperialism has brought a proletariat into existence which will nave the gigantic task of putting an end to the oppression suffered by the country, of destroying large landed property and of leading Bolivian society to socialism. [11]

This perspective had a lot to recommend it. Even someone as unsympathetic to Trotskyism as Regis Debray, when confronted with the situation in Bolivia, described it as ‘a Russia in 1905, transplanted to Indo-America’ that ‘in many of its objective aspects, illustrate the theories of permanent revolution outlined by Trotsky’. [12] The working class was so central to the struggle against ‘the rosea’ that it appeared almost inevitable that it should take power itself. While the working class constituted less than 10% of the economically active population (3.2% in mining, 4.1% in manufacturing, and 1.5% in transport), nevertheless they had a stranglehold over the country’s economic life, and, because of the way they were brought together by the organisation of production, had a social weight out of all proportion to their numbers. The miners, in particular, sharing an incredibly hard life and concentrated together in tightly-knit communities, possessed immense reserves of solidarity and resistance. This, together with their control over the country’s most important export and source of foreign earnings, made them a force to be reckoned with. Only the MNR stood in the way, and such a petty bourgeois organisation was, according to the theory at least, incapable of holding on to the leadership in a revolutionary struggle.

1952: The Revolution

In an attempt to undermine the revolutionary forces that were mobilising against it, the Urriolagoitia government called presidential elections for May 1951. The MNR decided to participate and nominated Victor Paz Estenssoro for President and Hernan Siles Zuazo for Vice President. To virtually everyone’s surprise Paz overcame efforts at ballot-rigging and won, polling 54,000 votes to the conservative candidate’s 39,000. Such a result was not acceptable and the army stepped in, banned the MNR and installed a military junta. The MNR began preparations for a renewed revolutionary offensive.

Ironically, the junta was dealt a body-blow by the US government. During World War II, the Americans had bought considerable quantities of tin from Bolivia at below world prices and stockpiled it. The Korean War sent tin prices soaring to £1600 a ton, and the Americans intervened to bring prices down by selling off their stockpile. By June 1951 prices had fallen to £900 a ton. This caused uproar in Bolivia, because not only were the Americans forcing the price of tin down, but they were also making a considerable profit in the process. They had bought the stockpiled tin for between £250–400 a ton, an artificially low price that was Bolivia’s contribution to the war effort, and were now selling it off at prices of £900 a ton and above. The junta tried to insist on a world price of £1200 a ton and bring them to heel the Americans blocked Bolivian tin exports. The result was an economic slump that threw thousands out of work, and considerably weakened the unity of the junta. In February 1952 there were hunger marches in La Paz.

The MNR hoped to take advantage of the signs of disintegration that were appearing within the junta. They concluded a secret alliance with the commander of the paramilitary police, General Antonio Seleme, with the intention of staging a coup d’etat. The hope was that Seleme would be able to win over most of the army, while the MNR mobilised popular support. In the circumstances, if all went well, the junta would go without too much fuss, and Seleme would become Preisident with an MNR dominated government. What seems to have been envisaged was a rerun of the ‘military socialism’ of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, it has been argued that this ‘Villarroel-type formula ... a rapid coup involving little civil participation, followed by a military-civil coalition government’ was a conscious decision on the part of some MNR leaders, ‘due not just to tactical exigencies, but also out of a desire to diminish the role of labour in the coup and its influence in any following government’. [13] In the event, they were to be sadly disappointed.

On 9 April 1952, MNR commandos, together with units of the para-military police, took to the streets of La Paz. To their horror, the army remained loyal to the junta and moved in to crush them. At the end of the first day, the revolt seemed doomed and Seleme fled (forfeiting any claim on the Presidency in the process). The MNR leader, Hernan Siles, was made of sterner stuff, and appealed to the working class for support. The workers of La Paz rallied to the MNR cause, and, armed with captured weapons, made a fight of it.

The tide was decisively turned by the intervention of the miners. Armed miners from Milluni seized the railway station above La Paz, captured a munitions train and cut the line. At the same time, other miners surrounded the town of Oruro, preventing troop reinforcements leaving for La Paz. Cut off from reinforcements and with the centre of La Paz in rebel hands, the army’s position was hopeless. After a last stand by students of the military college, the army surrendered on 11 April.

Over 600 people had been killed in three days of fighting, but victory was complete. Power was effectively in the hands of a triumphant working class that with rifles and dynamite had smashed the military. What would they do with that power?

Dual Power

Immediately after the army surrender, Hernan Siles installed himself as interim President and appointed a cabinet with three working class leaders in it: Juan Lechin for the miners, German Butron for the factory workers and Angel Cromez for the transport workers. When Victor Paz arrived back from exile on 17 April, he took over as President.

The situation that confronted the MNR was quite remarkable. Instead of a coalition government with a section of the military, they found themselves in a coalition with the trade unions. Instead of a programme of limited land reform, increased trade union rights, and heavier taxation of mining profits, they found themselves confronted with demands for the nationalisation of the mines without compensation, workers’ control, and the dispossession of the landowners and the distribution of their land to the peasants. The army that they had been relying on to maintain them in power had been disarmed and its officers thrown into prison; the country was completely in the hands of armed workers’ militia. Showing considerable political skill the MNR leaders did not try to stand against the hurricane that had overwhelmed them, but bent with it. They gave away as little as they could, but nevertheless presided over revolutionary changes in Bolivian society that the Trotskyists, in keeping with the theory of Permanent Revolution, had assumed they would oppose to the bitter end.

The same day that Paz arrived back in Bolivia, the trade unions came together to establish the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) which they intended should supervise the activities of the government. According to Lora this was ‘the highest achievement so far of the Bolivian labour movement’; the COB ‘was master of the country, and indeed for a certain period it was the only centre of power worthy of the name’. He emphasises that the COB was more than just a Bolivian version of the TUC (God forbid!): ‘the COB did not just embrace labour unions, nor did it limit its activities to promoting the formation of working class federations. It also included popular associations which, although they called themselves unions were not strictly speaking so’. [14] Tenants, housewives, students and peasants organisations all affiliated, although representation was weighted to ensure a working class majority. The COB had under its control its own armed forces, the workers’ militia. The worker ministers in the government were there as its representatives. The COB thus had much more in common with the Petrograd Soviet in March 1917 than with the British TUC. It was the institution through which the working class exercised ‘co-gobierno’ (co-government).

Initially, the POR had a strong position within the COB, controlling the leadership of a number of unions and riding high on the wave of working class militancy. Differences with the union bureaucracies soon led to conflict. Whereas the POR looked to the COB overthrowing the government and taking power itself, Lechin and the other union leaders wanted to institutionalise dual power as co-government. They had entrenched themselves in the government, increasing the number of worker ministers to five and even secured representation for the COB on the MNR Executive. They were quite happy to share power with the petty bourgeoisie and believed that the undoubted gains they made for the working class would satisfy it. In effect they were content to become the left of the MNR.

The decisive break between the union leaders and the POR came over the terms for the nationalisation of the mines. The MNR had the intention of nationalising the mines itself and in July 1952 went as far as it intended by declaring a state monopoly on the sale and export of minerals. The COB pressed for nationalisation without compensation and under workers’ control, and threatened to withdraw its ministers from the government. Massive demonstrations by armed miners reinforced the point.

Within the government, however, the worker ministers were persuaded that the United States would not tolerate nationalisation without compensation and that they had to be placated if the government was to survive. Accordingly on 31 October 1952, the major tin mining companies were nationalised, but with the promise of compensation for their owners. Lechin signed the decree before thousands of armed miners, firing their rifles and machine guns in the air in celebration. At last, ‘the rosea’ had been smashed. The POR bitterly attacked the sell-out over compensation, both in the COB and in its press. The party newspaper, Lucha Obrera, warned that the road ‘chosen by the government leads to the strengthening of the capitalist class, to the submission of the country to Yankee imperialism’. [15] Lechin decided that the time had come to break with the Trotskyists and launched a campaign to drive them out of the trade unions. He was successful. While the POR managed to maintain some influence in a number of unions and remained strong in the more militant mines, at national level and especially in the COB, the party was routed. In the process, the COB was filled with union men who were given government posts and salaries to ensure their loyalty. By the end of 1953, the COB had been transformed from the expression of working class militancy and democracy into a bureaucratically manipulated body completely in the hands of the union leaders. To a large extent the influence that the POR had exercised in the months immediately after the April insurrection was shown to have been dependent on Lechin’s goodwill. Once that goodwill was withdrawn their influence was reduced to its proper Proportions.

At the Tenth Congress of the POR in June 1953, it was decided that the opportunity for a working class seizure of power had passed, that the party should recognise this, come to terms with its weaknesses, and set about the task of winning a majority of the working class to its politics. This perspective was not acceptable to the Pabloite Latin American Bureau of the Fourth International which urged the removal of the ‘defeatist’ Lora leadership. The opportunity for socialist revolution had not passed, it was argued, and if the revolutionary party was weak then the correct perspective was for the POR to push the MNR left along the road to revolution. The ensuing internal conflict resulted in the disintegration of the POR and the virtual collapse of Bolivian Trotskyism as a political force for the next fifteen years.

Before we consider the reasons for the failure of the POR 1952–53, it is important to be clear about the scale of the 1952 Revolution. One recent account gives an excellent overview:

the Bolivian revolution of 1952 led to dramatic and permanent restructuring of Bolivian Society. Power was wrenched from the hands of a small exploitive elite which had held it for centuries; the army was destroyed aim worker and peasant unions became the dominant armed power in the lanm landlords were forcibly dispossessed, labour taxes abolished, and land turned over to the peasants who worked it; the crucial mining industry was nationalised, with control shared between government and the miners; the government took control of the export industry and most modern manufacturing, leaving over two-thirds of the nation’s capital in its hands; the middle classes; and even urban property, the traditional hedge against inflation, was effectively redistributed by laws giving renters security of tenure at fixed rents which soon became purely nominal. It was, in short, a radical revolution. [16]

The two most crucial areas of change were the nationalisation on the mines and the distribution of the land to the peasants. These two measures completely destroyed and swept away the old ruling class and created an altogether changed social context for Bolivian politics.

In the mines nationalisation was accompanied by a system of workers’ participation, ‘control obrero’. The FSTMB was given two places out of seven on the board of the state mining corporation, COMIBOL, while in each mine the miners elected a worker controller to work with management on their behalf and who had the power to veto any decisions detrimental to their interests. In the short term, the miners received substantial benefits and improvements in pay and conditions that proved sufficient to maintain their loyalty to Lechin and to undermine the influence of the POR.

While the peasantry played no part in the fighting of 9–11 April 1952, the overthrow of the junta and the destruction of the army soon produced an effect in the countryside. The COB, at the urging of the POR, sent delegations into the villages to rally support for the revolution and mobilise the peasants against the landowners. They distributed weapons to the peasant unions that sprang up and within a short time the countryside was in flames. Landowners and their families were killed or driven off, their haciendas burned and their lands taken by those who worked them. The MNR government tried to curb this movement of peasant revolt, but in vain. By the time the Agrarian Reform Decree was introduced in August 1953, the peasants had already broken the age-old power of the landowners.

The peasantry made up over 70% of the economically active population of Bolivia and had for centuries lived under the heel of the landlords. Bolivia’s land ownership was among the most unequal in the world and provided the basis for a system of labour relations bearing all the marks of feudalism. The revolution did not just change the pattern of landownership, but destroyed a whole society:

To appreciate the meaning of feudalism, we must look beyond social institutions to the workaday behaviour of individuals. Where peasants used to have to work without pay at least three days a week (and sometimes as much as five), they now have no such obligation. They are also relieved of the need to provide eggs, firewood, cheese and other goods for the landlord, and to work periodically at menial tasks in and around the manor house. They are allowed to go to school, to carry arms, to own property, to vote – in short, they have ‘become’ human beings, whereas they were previously treated as part of realty, to be bought, sold, rented or leased as appurtenances to an estate. [17]

The peasantry were the main beneficiaries of the revolution. The crucial question for the future was to whom would they give their allegiance, who would win their support?

Now we must turn to consider the question of why, in the course of the Revolution, the POR failed to become the leadership of the working class and consequently failed in its objective of leading the working class to power and establishing a workers’ state. How far were the mistakes and weaknesses of the POR itself responsible?

Certainly there were organisational and political weaknesses and Lora himself has identified many of them. While the party grew in strength and influence during the Sexenio (1946–52), this, he said,

put in relief our organisational weaknesses. Internally, there continued to be applied the norms learned in the reading club, or in the best cases, in a propaganda circle ... A chasm yawned between the goals of the party and its primitive work methods. This was a typical case of growing pains. Exceptionally favourable circumstances had placed us at the head of the masses ... We were converted into a powerful party, but in spite of all this organisationally we had many of the characteristics of a circle of friends.

The POR did not make the necessary and vital transition from the activities of the Marxist study circle to mass agitation. The party’s increasing ‘penetration of the masses was not accompanied by the formation of cells in factories or in the streets, and their labour was confined to the propagation of revolutionary principles ... the extreme weakness of the party was expressed in its rudimentary organization’. [18]

Was this failure on the part of the POR a subjective failure whereby the revolutionary party let down the working class? Or was it a failure produced by objective conditions? [19] While the ‘programmatic’ and purely propagandist tendencies of ‘Orthodox Trotskyism’ were strongly working in favour of the first alternative, objective conditions were important too. Working class consciousness in Bolivia, for all its militancy and combativeness, did not in the course of the Revolution, rise above trade union consciousness. The most advanced workers who led the class in struggle were revolutionary syndicalists. They looked to the trade unions to achieve their ends and did not recognise the need for a revolutionary party in the Leninist sense at all. As they were recruited into the POR, they brought these politics with them and this vitiated against turning the party into a combat organisation. There was no need for it: the trade unions would do the fighting while the party provided the programme. Certainly the Thesis of Pulcayo is an example of this process at work. When confronted with accusations of anarcho-syndicalism with regard to the Thesis, Lora replied to the effect that this was the only possible way to proceed if the party was to have a role. There is no real reason for doubting this. Lora completely rejected syndicalism in theory, but working class consciousness was such that the party inevitably adapted itself to syndicalism in practice.

The most damaging consequence of this was political rather than organisational: the party’s reliance upon Juan Lechin. For a considerable time, Lechin made overtures to the POR: according to Lora, he ‘did not hide his sympathies for the POR and he even attended training courses given by POR militants’. The party welcomed him with open arms, first of all because ‘they saw him as someone who was prepared to become a revolutionary leader’ and secondly because ‘they thought that he would help to carry Trotskyist ideas to the unions’. Even after he entered the MNR government and became a member of the MNR Executive, they continued for some time to have the perspective that the course of development of the struggle would inevitably force him to break with the MNR and drive him in a revolutionary direction. Lechin, Lora writes, ‘was seen as incarnating the radicalism of the masses’. It was only later that he ‘utilised typical bureaucratic measures ... setting up a great apparatus which distorted the will of rank and file trade unionists’. [20] The party’s faith in Lechin left it unprepared for his political evolution and it paid the price when he turned on it. There are considerable grounds for criticising the POR here. They neglected the building of the revolutionary party and instead trusted Lechin to do it for them. Their main political role was supporting him.

This brings us to what seems to be the decisive factor that goes most of the way towards explaining why the working class was not able to take power. The POR’s perspectives derived, as we have seen, from Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. From this they concluded that the Bolivian petty bourgeoisie would, in a revolutionary situation, align itself with ‘the rosea’. While the MNR might occupy the leadership in the struggle for a while, it was incapable, because of its class composition, of carrying it through to its bourgeois-democratic conclusions. Once this was demonstrated in practice, then the POR would be able to win the leadership of the working class, brush the MNR aside and carry the struggle through to socialism.

Unfortunately, the petty bourgeoisie did not abide by Trotsky’s theory. However reluctantly, and only under immense working class pressure, the MNR did preside over a bourgeois-democratic revolution that swept away the old ruling class, liberated and enfranchised the peasantry, and won considerable benefits for the working class. If anything, the trade union consciousness of the working class was strengthened by nationalisation and the ‘control obrero’. Ironically, while the POR confidently expected the failure of the MNR government to satisfy popular demands to force the COB to split with it, the very success of the MNR government was, in fact, to split the POR. First of all in 1954, a faction that included a good number of the party’s leading grade unionists, actually defected to the MNR left, and then, as we have seen, the party proceeded to split over its attitude towards the MNR.

If the MNR government had set its face against nationalisation of the mines and land reforms, then there is every likelihood that in the ensuing struggle the working class would have seized power itself. They were the dominant force in Bolivia and their victory in an armed conflict with the MNR would have been certain. Instead of the working class remaining content to take control of its own areas of immediate concern, the mines and the factories, it might have gone on and completed the smashing of the state, replacing dual power with workers’ power. This is the essence of the distinction between trade union consciousness and revolutionary consciousness. The miners were satisfied with taking control of the mines and trusted their unions to defend this gain. They had too much confidence in their unions. They did not accept the need to extend their control over the whole of Bolivian society and consequently did not see the need for a revolutionary party.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the miners’ consciousness are brought out in a marvellous book by June Nash, We Eat The Mines And The Mines Eat Us. [21] Here she explains the great reserves of strength and militancy that the mining communities have, giving great attention to their distinctive folk culture, rooted in the pre-colonial past. This she argues, has given them the ability to withstands massive repression and still continue resisting. At the same time, however, this culture must be recognised as having weaknesses, because while it did provide the basis for taking control of the mines, it did not provide a basis for generalisation, for taking control of the whole of society. When the MNR government agreed to nationalisation and control obrero, they reinforced this consciousness and POR efforts to go beyond it failed.

Certainly fear of the working class taking power was the crucial factor that the MNR leadership felt made it necessary for them to acquiesce in the revolutionary changes that followed April 1952. Similarly, the US government was persuaded that the only alternatives to the MNR were the Trotskyists and Communists.

In this sense, the POR failure can best be seen as a consequence of what Tony Cliff has called Deflected Permanent Revolution. The Bolivian petty bourgeoisie was able to play a role unforeseen by Trotsky. It possessed an autonomy that he had not thought possible. On the one hand the weakness of the capitalist class, especially after 1929, and on the other the trade union consciousness of the working class, enabled the petty bourgeoisie to play an independent role that confounded the POR’s expectations. The party broke up in the process of trying to come to terms with this. [22]


Dual power is never a stable condition. Inevitably it resolves itself in the triumph of one side of the duality over the other. In 1952–53, the Bolivian working class had power in its hands; the country was controlled by armed workers’ militia. Rather than taking that power for itself, the leadership of the working class, the COB, decided to share it with the MNR, and in the process allowed themselves to be incorporated into the state. The gains for the working class were enormous, but as events were to show, they were not in the long run compatible with the continued existence of a capitalist state in Bolivia. Initially, the MNR leadership had to give ground and make concessions, but the intention was always at the earliest opportunity to break the working class and restore it to its proper place in society. The harsh fact was that the extent of working class power in Bolivia obstructed the process of capital accumulation, and while this could be tolerated for a while, it could not be tolerated indefinitely.

The attack on working class power began in 1956 after Hernan Siles Zuazo was elected President. He introduced a stabilization Plan drawn up by an American, George Jackson Eder that was designed to solve the country’s economic problems at the expense of the working class. As Eder candidly admitted afterwards, his Plan ‘meant the repudiation, at least tacitly, of virtually everything that the Revolutionary Government had done over the previous four years’. [23] This would only be possible if the unions were defeated.

While the unions remained on the defensive, trying to hold on to the gains they had made, the MNR went on the attack. Siles had three prongs to his strategy: to divide the unions, favouring some and singling out others, notably the miners; to rally the peasant to the government and mobilize the peasant militia against the labour movement; and most crucially to restore the Bolivian army. The strategy met with some success. The unions were successfully divided so that when the COB called a general strike against the Plan on 1 July 1957 it failed to get the support of a number of unions representing factory, transport and oil workers. Indeed, soon after, in November, the COB actually voted to accept the Plan. Later when miners struck at Oruro in March 1959 Siles brought lorries full of armed peasants into the city to overawe them. But these measures only worked for a while. The impact of Eder’s Plan was such that resistance to it began to spread. Even those unions that had initially supported the Plan were forced to oppose its consequences. In the factory workers’ federation a rank and file revolt threw out a leadership that was too slow to adapt to this. Serious fighting broke out in the countryside between peasant unions that supported Siles and those opposed to him. In these circumstances, the MNR government became increasingly dependent on the third prong of its strategy, the army.

Alongside of this attempt to break the power of the unions, the MNR government had another, potentially, even more damaging strategy. This involved a shift in the economic basis of the country as dramatic as had occurred with the rise of the tin mines, ‘a shift from the altiplano and tin to the east and agriculture and hopefully oil’. This would turn the miners into ‘an economic anachronism’ and break their hold on to the economy once and for all. [24] Steven Volk has provided the best account of this shift:

Although most of Bolivian history has been concentrated on the relatively narrow altiplano, the eastern lowlands constitute 70 per cent of the national territory. And while mining generally occurs in the highlands, the eastern regions have abundant reserves of oil, natural gas, and wood, and present optimal conditions for the cultivation of rice, sugar, cotton and the raising of cattle.

He argues that the MNR government, together with the United States, deliberately began the development of this region, not just to undermine the miners but also to foster a new bourgeois class. He continues

The early steps of creating an economic infra-structure in the region were finished by 1961. These included various projects designed to link the eastern region to the rest of the nation: completion of the Cochabamba–Santa Cruz highway with a $50 million loan from Eximbank (1953–54): construction of feeder roads and bridges on this highway with $33.7m million in US loans (1954–59); the Santa Cruz–Yacuiba, Argentina railroad financed by Argentina (begun in 1955); and, the Santa Cruz–Corumba, Brazil, railroad, financed by Brazil (begun in 1957). Other US loans helped construct sugar mills, import mechanized agricultural equipment, explore for oil, support colonization programs, and subsidize sugar, rice and cotton producers.

By 1960, over sixty US assistance projects were operating in Santa Cruz. [25]

By the beginning of the 1970s Santa Cruz had become the dynamo of the Bolivian economy.

While this development of the eastern lowlands was getting under way, the MNR still faced the immediate problem of dealing with the working class. In 1960 Victor Paz was once again elected President with Lechin as his Vice President. The Stabilization Plan continued in effect, but for a while Lechin was able to use his influence to moderate opposition. Lechin hoped to be the MNR Presidential candidate in 1964 and was prepared to sacrifice virtually anything for this. In 1963 Paz introduced a plan to reorganize the tin mines, the Triangular Plan, sponsored by among others both the US and West German governments. This proposed a programme of rationalisation, closing pits, sacking miners and restoring labour discipline: ‘control obrero’ was abolished. The time had come for the settling of accounts between the MNR and the miners. Meanwhile, Lechin had realized that Paz intended to stand for the Presidency again in 1964 and that he was moving to a decisive break with the left. In January 1964, the MNR left split away to form the Parlido Revolucionario de la Izquierda Nacionalista (PRIN). Co-government was at an end.

There was massive resistance in the mines and this provided the rallying point for growing opposition to the MNR. By October 1964 the struggle had reached such proportions that the government looked in danger of being overthrown by a new working class uprising. On 3 November 1964 the army intervened in order to head off the developing crisis, and installed General Rene Barrientos in power. The coup was welcomed by Lechin’s PRIN, by the Bolivian CP (formed in 1950 as a breakaway from the PIR), and even by some Trotskyists who saw it as a victory for the working class. Indeed, Barrientos did claim that his intention was to restore the gains of 1952. Yet in May–June 1965 the trade unions were banned, massive wage cuts imposed and troops occupied the mines with hundreds of miners killed. Barrientos was to attempt a ‘Brazilian’ solution to Bolivia’s crisis. [26]

The defeat of the Bolivian working class flowed directly from the lure to seize power in 1952. Instead of smashing the state when they had the opportunity, the union leaders attached themselves to it, relying on union muscle to extract concessions. Clearly it was only a matter of time before the MNR leadership would begin trying to claw back the concessions it had made. When they did the miners resisted heroically: between 1952 and 1967 there were no less than 139 miners’ strikes, 16 of them national strikes involving the whole of the FSTMB membership. But they were defensive struggles and all the time the MNR government was strengthening its position. Rather than moving to overthrow it before it became too strong, the union leaders continued their collaboration, trying to win concessions and favours. Once the army was re-established with American help, it was only a matter of time before a final move was made to smash the unions and wrest back the gains of 1952. When June Nash was discussing the union leadership’s collaboration with MNR governments in this period with a group of rank and file miners in 1979, one of them said to her: ‘This kind of petty bourgeois politics broke the skull of the working class’. [27]


1. In his Revolutionary Marxism Today, London 1979, Ernest Mandel does not so much as mention the 1952 Bolivian Revolution, while devoting considerable attention to Cuba. Similarly, Pierre Frank in his The Fourth International, London 1979, does not mention either the Bolivian Revolution or Guillermo Lora, one of the most important Trotskyist theoreticians and activists in the world today.

2. S. Klein, Parties and Political Change in Bolivia, Cambridge 1969, p. 153.

3. S. Volk, Class, Union, Party: The Development of a Revolutionary Union Movement in Bolivia, 1905–52, pt. 1, Science and Society 39, Spring 1975, p. 40.

4. G. Lora, A History of the Bolivian Labour Movement, Cambridge 1977, p. 180.

5. C. Hodges, The Latin American Revolution, New York 1974, p. 29.

6. S. Volk, Tin and Imperialism, NACLAS Latin America and Empire Report 8, 2, February 1974, p. 17.

7. Lora, op. cit., pp. 241–242.

8. H.J. Spalding, Organized Labor in Latin America, New York 1977, p. 215.

9. The Thesis is printed in NACLAS Latin America and Empire Report 8, 2, February 1974, pp. 19–23.

10. Lora, op. cit., p. 246.

11. G. Lora, The Great Decade of Struggle, Fourth International, May–June 1952, pp. 89–90; July–August 1952, p. 128.

12. Regis Debray, Che’s Guerilla War, London 1975, p. 344.

13. J.M. Malloy, Bolivia: The Uncompleted Revolution, Pittsburgh 1970, p. 157.

14. Lora, History ..., p. 283.

15. J. Alexander, Trotskyism in Latin America, Stanford 1973, p. 137.

16. J. Kelley and H.S. Klein, Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality, Berkeley 1981, p. 123.

17. Heath, Revolution and Stability in Bolivia, Current History, December 1965, p. 335

18. Alexander, op. cit., p. 125.

19. The ‘crisis of leadership’ formulation has always seemed to tend towards a version of vulgar materialism. Society is divided into two parts and then one part is used to explain the development of the other. The question of revolutionary leadership cannot be separated from the development of the working class in this way. As Marx put it, who is to educate the educator.

20. Lora, op. cit., pp. 242, 243, 300.

21. June Nash, We Eat The Mines and The Mines Eat Us, New York 1979.

22. Tony Cliff, Permanent Revolution, International Socialism (first series) 61.

23. G.J. Eder, The Bolivian Economy 1952-1965, New York 1966, p. 87.

24. J.M. Malloy, Bolivia’s MNR, New York 1971, p. 45.

25. S.S. Volk, Bolivia: The War Goes On, NACLAS Latin America and Empire Report 8, 2 February 1974, pp. 4–6.

26. For discussion of this see J.M. Malloy, Authoritarianism and Corporatism: The Case of Bolivia, and from James M. Malloy Authoritarianism and Corporatism in Latin America (Pittsburgh 1977); and for a recent account of the fate of these efforts see Latin America Bureau, Bolivia: Coup D’Etat, London 1980.

27. June Nash, Workers Participation in the Nationalized Mines of Bolivia 1952–1972, from David Brownman et al., Peasants, Primitives and Proletarians, The Hague 1981, p. 317.