Long March to Revolution

John McGough

Revolutionary Horizons
Past and Present in Bolivian Politics
by Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson
Verso Books, 2007, 177 pages, $22.95 paperback.

REVOLUTIONS AT FIRST appearance may seem sudden or spontaneous events.  But they are also built over the long-haul, through generations of resistance and the preservation in collective memory of traditions of struggle and solidarity.

Rebellions and revolutions partake of long historical memories.  These are primarily not the tales of diplomatic statecraft and great armies, but the communal legacies and resources of solidarity and resistance of the oppressed. These operate along other vectors of time — stretching back over generations and even centuries — than that of the official history of the rulers.  

Revolutionary Horizons, Past and Present in Bolivian Politics, by Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, sets out to excavate these long memories of struggle in relation to contemporary Bolivia.  The recent wave of rebellion, opening up with the Water Wars in Cochabamba in 2000, is viewed in light of “a long-neglected, underground history that has scarcely begun to be written.” (30)  

This history and analysis is especially timely, given the hope inspired around the world by the movements in Bolivia in their struggles against neoliberal capitalism and the current threats of reactionary restoration posed by the secessionist elite in la media luna, the resource-rich eastern “crescent” of the country.

Memory of Revolution

For Hylton and Thomson, revolution “is a conjuncture or process rather than a single event.” (30) The authors have a particular eye for the indigenous peasant politics and forms of community and resistance.

With a wide and long lens, they cast the recent wave of resistance as a “convergence of two traditions of political struggle” — an Indian tradition of “urban siege” with roots in the takeover of La Paz by indigenous Aymara peasants led by Tupaj Katari in 1780, and a “national-popular” fight against imperialism based in strong traditions of radical proletarian trade unions and represented by the national revolution of 1952. (7, 12)  

In the late 18th century, the Spanish empire was breaking apart. Corregidors, or regional governors, resorted to more oppressive measures to maintain themselves and the Spanish coffers. The weakening colonial administration combined with mild reforms that encouraged the assertion of indigenous social and political power.  

Quechua forces led by Tupaj Amaru liberated areas in the Oruro region, while the Aymara under Tupaj Katari seized areas around La Paz; these areas were under indigenous rule, with non-colonial systems of trade, political decision-making, and justice recognized. In 1781, Spanish forces retook La Paz, murdered Katari and — temporarily — reasserted control. But indigenous memories of an alternative political power in era of revolt would endure.

The creole merchant elite took away their own lessons. They used their economic and political power to steer the early-1800’s independence struggle away from any direct intervention by the indigenous majority, resulting in a creole republican “weak-state” regime of “domination without hegemony.” (45)

An internal colonialism replaced the more direct, Spanish version. But throughout the long century from independence to the national revolution of 1952, the indigenous majority exploited the weak state administration, strong regional and ethnic differentiation in the country, and divisions amongst ruling elites, to preserve their communal traditions of social and political organization and assert their power.  

Hylton and Thomson write of Federal War in the late 1890s:

“The federalism advocated by Liberal intellectuals, party leaders, and their provincial political brokers — which promised a return to stolen community lands…and an end to colonial tribute exactions — seems to have meshed with Aymara community ideas of collective control over land tenure, natural resources, and local and regional self-government.”  (55)

This “combined” revolutionary process was evident most strongly in the national revolution of 1952.  The political vanguard of the revolution was undoubtedly the middle-class nationalist party, the National Revolutionary Movement, and a combative, relatively newly formed proletariat, organized in the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), in turn led by the Trade Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers (FSTMB). An insurgent peasantry, though, did much to destroy the old order and pave the way for educational, electoral and land reform measures. (79)  

But the indigenous peasant majority was still sidelined. “Indigenista elements were subsumed within a progressive nationalist ideology centered on mestizaje or race mixture…Revolutionary consciousness for creole nationalists and socialists alike did not call up the memory of 1781.” (80)

Divisions between peasants and workers, creoles and indigenous, would undo the 1952 revolution, as repressive military populist regimes exploited them to weaken both workers and peasants up to the neoliberal era and the Third Bolivian Revolution.  

The Third Bolivian Revolution

Hylton and Thomson’s account of the recent era of rebellion from 2000 to 2005 is gripping. Again, these struggles are a “convergence of the dual traditions of struggle,” but this time with “the indigenous element” primary. (147)

This time the forces at the barricades, blockading roads and taking over towns and cities, are those such as the “Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life” in Cochabamba and the FEJUVE (Association of Neighborhood Councils) in El Alto, the sprawling “informal” city above La Paz.  

Neoliberal privatization had by now nearly destroyed the state-sponsored mining sector and withdrawn other social supports.  International capital pressured the meager Bolivian state to more aggressive measures of appropriation in return for loaned funds.  In Cochabamba, this meant the privatization of water provision in return for $600 million in debt relief.  

Cochabama’s water system was taken over by Aguas de Tunari (controlled by Bechtel and Edison, U.S. and Italian corporations). Rates were hiked 100% in some cases, with 15% of household budgets going to pay for water. (101) In protest the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, or Coordinadora, organized a general strike to shut down the city in January 2000.  

Troops were sent in, injuring more than 175 people and escalating the Coordinadora’s demands to now fight for expelling the multinational and turning over the system to a semi-public self-managed collective. In April, Aguas de Tunari was kicked out. Thus began the new wave of struggle loosely defined around demands for collective control of resources, punishment of murderous elites and a new definition of the nation that, following the Gas War of 2003, would become known as the “October Agenda.”

Organizations like the Coordinadora and FEJUVE combine militant former miners and indigenous peasants migrating to service jobs in or near regional cities.  These cross-sectoral, open and participatory formations, organized in large assemblies, somewhat mitigate the power of caudillos (authoritarian leaders). This courageous wave of struggle of Bolivia’s dispossessed expelled corporations, forced out presidents, and won — partially — two central demands of the “October agenda” representing national-populist and indigenous politics: nationalization of hydrocarbon resources and the convoking of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new pluri-national constitution.  

Hylton and Thomson argue, rightly, that the landslide election of Morales and the MAS in 2005 obviously resulted from this third revolutionary wave, but cannot be considered its victory. If MAS is the “party of the movements,” and especially of the indigenous masses, it also tails these movements and “converts the interests of the party into the interests of the indigenous majority.”(148)  Morales’ historic election coincided with a demobilization of the movements, and the MAS has significantly compromised elements of the “October agenda.”  

Hylton and Thomson show that the new Hydrocarbons law is a “nationalization” in name only — more royalties will flow to the state, but the resources and their infrastructure remain under corporate control.

The MAS have watered down the measures for constituting the Constituent Assembly to appease the right wing, basing elections to the Assembly on existing electoral districts and criteria that benefit the oligarchy.  Once again, the indigenous — who demand collective representation — are marginalized.

Does a Revolution Take Power?

The strength of Revolutionary Horizons rests in its concise survey of around 300 years of Bolivian history and political struggle, with particular emphasis on the traditions of communal organization and resistance of the mostly peasant indigenous majority.  Indigenous traditions of resistance — blockades, land seizures, the assertion of “alternative institutions of self-government” (117) — are contrasted to an urban, industrial “old Left” politics based on taking state power.

But Hylton and Thomson do not present an analysis of the social and political power and potential limitations of these traditions of resistance. There is much to be appreciated by revolutionaries of the lessons of “self-organization, local self-government, and autonomous spaces forged by the mobilized popular forces in the countryside and cities since 2000.” (25)  But we should be cautious to over-generalize or exaggerate strategic political conclusions from these factors.  

In not subjecting the more autonomist or “micro-gobierno” politics to scrutiny, while critiquing the “old Left” politics of the party and proletarian-as-vanguard, the authors tacitly endorse the former.

Especially as the hard-won partial victories and deepening of the process of the Third Bolivian Revolution are under threat from a secessionist oligarchy in the resource-rich media luna, when we critique the compromises of Morales and the MAS, we shouldn’t say that these are inevitable results of state-centered, inevitably compromised electoral politics. Rather, they are the result of not going far enough towards the takeover and remaking of the state as an organ of revolutionary democracy.

I agree with the authors’ critique of the compromised and substitutionist politics of Morales and the MAS; but Hylton and Thomson do not indicate what a different party of the movements might look and act like.  We are left to wonder if they think such a party is possible at all.

In these urgent times, we need to articulate a strategy that includes the creation and empowering of “territorial micro-governments” (26), together with a national and hegemonic program for power that makes these alternatives real and neutralizes — and ultimately defeats — the reactionary right.

ATC 138, January-February 2009