A Revolution’s Heritage

Against the Current, No. 155, November/December 2011

Marc Becker

Bolivia’s Radical Tradition:
Permanent revolution in the Andes
S. Sándor John
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009, 320 pages, $55 cloth.

S. SÁNDOR JOHN’S Bolivia’s Radical Tradition explores in detail the emergence in Bolivia of what became the strongest Trotskyist tradition in the Americas, thanks in large part to militant tin miner unions.

The emergence of Trotskyism in South America’s poorest country is a bit of a curiosity. Trotsky never wrote on Bolivia, and initially the country where his views found their most fertile ground was marginalized from the Fourth International. In fact, together with Sri Lanka and Vietnam, Bolivia built one of the strongest Trotskyist traditions in the world.

S. Sándor John teaches Latin American, U.S. and labor history at the City University of New York. Beginning from the introduction of leftist thought into Bolivia in the 1920s, John argues for the continued relevance of Trotsky’s thought to a critique of the country’s problems. He traces the contributions of a series of radical intellectuals including Tristán Marof, José Aguirre Gainsborg, and Guillermo Lora to the dissemination of Trotskyist ideas to miners and peasants. He highlights the significance of a landmark 1946 Thesis of Pulacayo on the miners’ politics, and its continuing relevance to current social movements.

John charts the development of Bolivia’s history through a series of historical events, including a 1952 revolution, a 1971 coup, 1985 protests against neoliberal economic reforms, and the election of the Indigenous socialist Evo Morales to the presidency in 2005. He presents these points as a series of frustrated opportunities of the Trotskyist left to lead the working masses to take power. John argues that Trotskyist activists, while ultimately failing (so far), have fundamentally influenced leftist political organizing efforts in Bolivia. Furthermore, he believes that had activists adhered more tightly to a Trotskyist line, the left would have realized more success in Bolivia.

John situates his work in a seeming irony of a radical leftist tradition emerging in the most Indigenous country in South America. In examining the intersections of Indigenous and class struggles, John positions Bolivia in the context of the Indigenous socialist tradition that José Carlos Mariátegui introduced in neighboring Peru. While those unfamiliar with this history might find his descriptions of a seemingly seamless blending of Indigenous and leftist expressions to be curious, it is part of what lends so much strength to Bolivia’s militant labor traditions. (Full disclosure: This reviewer contributed a blurb for the book.)

Bolivia is home to one of the most radical labor traditions in the Americas. Along with Guatemala, it also has one of the highest concentrations of Indigenous peoples. Given these realities, the 2005 election of Morales should not so much be a surprise as it raises questions of why conservative white elites had managed to dominate the country’s political and economic structures for so long.

Equally surprising to some outsiders might be why a left opposition to Morales has emerged in Bolivia. While opposition to what should seemingly be a sympathetic government is not the central concern of his excellent study, John does help put this development in context.

Indigeneous Heritage, Miners’ Struggle

Bolivia’s Indigenous heritage does, in part, explain the introduction of a strong Trotskyist tradition into the country. Just as in the 1920s the Comintern pressed North American radicals to make Black liberation (“the Negro question”) a fundamental part of their program and active work, John shows how the Comintern urged special and detailed attention to the realities and struggles of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia.

The Comintern called on the young communist parties in Latin America to overcome any “indifference . . . regarding the race issue in Latin America” and to “devote all their energy to a conscientious study of the race question’s characteristics in each particular country.” It made a special point of noting that “in Bolivia…the proletariat is indigenous.” (26)  Their involvement contrasted with that of anarchists who predominated in the largely mestizo urban labor movement.

Furthermore, local adherents of Stalinism became discredited among the miners when the Comintern’s subsequent popular front strategy subordinated the interests of the miners to an alleged “progressive national bourgeoisie.” These factors provided an opening for the growth of Bolivian Trotskyism.

A second factor that led to the emergence of Trotskyist thought was Bolivia’s disastrous loss to Paraguay in the 1932-1935 Chaco War. The humiliating defeat led many Bolivians to reflect on the nature and structures of their country, and these fissures in turn created openings and spaces for the emergence of a new Trotskyist political party (two, in fact).

The Revolutionary Workers Party (POR) struggled with fundamental contradictions, including debates as to whether it should appeal to Bolivian nationalism or Marxist internationalism. Competing ideas for how to organize the party continued to haunt and plague the young party.

John describes how the POR had intermingled historical roots with the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), which also emerged out of the crisis of the Chaco War. The MNR, which initially displayed European fascist influences, realized much more success in gaining power, first through a short-lived coalition with nationalist military leaders and then a successful 1952 revolution.

Trotskyist organizing among tin miners laid the groundwork for the revolution, although John argues that the way this history subsequently played out highlights the inability of nationalist regimes to make much-needed deep changes in society. Differences of opinion within the POR over whether to ally with the MNR ultimately led to splits, with the MNR in power repeatedly denouncing Trotskyist ideas as it moved toward a reliance on Wall Street.

Labor leader Juan Lechín represented the left wing of the MNR, but John provides extensive details on the inherent tensions between Lechín and Trotskyists. For example, John points out, Lechín advocated agrarian reform while the POR wanted an agrarian revolution. John also condemns Lechín because once the miners overthrew the old regime in the April 1952 insurrection, he handed power over to the MNR rather than allowing the workers and peasants to assume power and act in their own interests.

Was the POR pushing Lechín leftward, or was Lechín coopting the left in support of the MNR? As John observes, Trotskyists faced both pain and glory for having joined the MNR revolution. The fractures that working with the MNR created in the POR only widened as deepening Cold War tensions pushed the MNR to the right.

Radicalized miners and the POR also had a complicated relationship with Che Guevara when he parachuted into the country in 1966 in an attempt to launch a hemispheric revolution. Some miners tried to support Che Guevara, even voting to donate money for medicines for his guerrillas.

From his guerrilla base, Guevara was aware of a massacre of striking miners on June 24, 1967, but his failure to tap into this Indigenous and labor radical tradition largely explains his failure in Bolivia. A divided POR led to differing attitudes toward his National Liberation Army (ELN).

A wing aligned with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (led by Ernest Mandel) sought to link up directly with the ELN, whereas another led by Guillermo Lora had more reservations about guerrilla strategies and became highly critical of Guevara’s efforts.

Analyzing Defeat, Looking Ahead

As with a failure to connect with Guevara, the story of Trotskyist influences in Bolivia is one of lost and failed opportunities. Splits and disagreements over electoral and other strategies further weakened the movement.

Nevertheless, John strongly argues in favor of Trotsky’s continuing relevance for Bolivia, as well as worker and peasant organizing efforts in general. John is not a disinterested observer of these events, and his deep commitment to social justice and a transformation of society is apparent throughout the discussion.

In assembling this story, John draws on an impressive amount of research, including an extensive array of archival documents and oral history interviews as well as direct experiences with working-class movements in the country.

He brings written documents and oral interviews into a conversation with each other in a way that highlights their mutually reinforcing contributions and deepens our understanding of historical developments in Bolivia. The result is an important study of the history of one of the strongest Trotskyist traditions of the 20th century.

November/December 2011, ATC 155