Between April 9 and 11 of 1952, the Bolivian people, led by the miners (the country’s main industry) rose against the military junta which had been formed to prevent the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR, a nationalist bourgeois party that had won the elections) from taking office.
By Alicia Sagra
(First published in Marxismo Vivo n.° 8, 2004, pp. 49-61.)
The workers’ militias defeated the army and Hernán Siles Zuazo (MNR) and mining leader Juan Lechín Oquendo took power until the return of MNR leader Victor Paz Estenssoro to the country. Shortly thereafter, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) was founded, led by the miners, to which the peasants and popular sectors of cities (both large indigenous majority) joined.
The consequences of this revolution were very profound: the mining industry was nationalized (until then in the hands of the bourgeois “Thread” allied with imperialism) and an agrarian reform was carried out. However, the MNR government kept the capitalist system in the country and the revolutionary process was deflected and worn out. As a result, Bolivia remained one of the poorest semicolonial countries of the continent.
Unlike other revolutionary processes following the Second World War (such as China and Yugoslavia), the Bolivian revolution took place according to the “classic model” of class dynamics of the Russian Revolution of 1917: the working class leading the whole people. The possibility of moving towards the first workers socialist revolution in Latin America was raised clearly.
Even more so if you consider that the Bolivian section of the then unified Fourth International (the Revolutionary Workers Party – POR) had a very strong influence among the miners and the COB. Suffice it to say that the program adopted by the COB were the Theses of Pulacayo (voted in 1946 by the federation of miners following a proposal by the POR), which were an adaptation to Bolivia of the Trotskyist Transitional Program.
Unfortunately, the possibility of advance of the revolution was foiled. And it was for liability (a real betrayal) of a sector of trotskyism: the majority leadership of the Fourth International, led by the Greek Michel Raptis (Pablo) and Ernst Mandel, whom based on erroneous analysis and political conclusions oriented the POR to support the government of the MNR and so removed the only possibility of alternative leadership to move towards to a triumphant workers’ and socialist revolution.
In opposition to this nefarious policy, a minority of leaders such as Argentine Nahuel Moreno (who later would found the IWL-FI), fought for a revolutionary workers’ policy expressed in the slogan “All power to the COB”. Unfortunately, the POR followed the guidelines of Pablo and Mandel.
A workers’ and socialist revolution in Bolivia could have changed the course of history (even if that revolution would not have spread to other countries and the government of the COB had been being overthrown). First, it would have posed a clear alternative to the bourgeois nationalist movements that, such as Argentine Peronism, dominated the political scene of many semicolonial countries. Second, it could have facilitated a big jump in the mass influence of Trotskyism. Not evolving so, the Latin American “space of struggle” ended up being occupied (from 1959) by the Castro-Guevara guerrilla warfare that emanated from the triumphant Cuban revolution.
Today we speak of the “opportunist gale” that devoured the vast majority of the world left (including much of organizations claiming to be Trotskyist) following the capitalist restoration in the former workers states. The analysis that led the Pablo-Mandel current to its betrayal in Bolivia in 1952 were different from today. But their consequences were similar (much more serious, we can say, because of the weight of the POR): to capitulate to the bourgeoisie and capitalism is to betray the revolutionary processes.
It is no coincidence if the followers of Pablo-Mandel (the organization known as the United Secretariat (US) of the Fourth International are now one of the ideological and political props of the current “opportunist gale” and a reference for all those ex-Trotskyists who are following that path.
64 years after the beginning of the heroic Bolivian revolution, we pay our tribute through this article by Alicia Sagra for the journal Marxismo Vivo no. 8, 2004, pp. 49-61.
The same story has now been repeated with variations in Bolivia for more than 50 years. On the one hand the mass movement, with the working class at the head, commits itself, its blood and its life, destabilizes, and in cases destroys the bourgeois regime. Alternative organs arise that practically have the power in their hands and eventually, due to a leadership that ends up supporting some employer sector, everything turns frustrated and more hunger and misery follow, often accompanied by cruel massacres. Would it be possible to avoid that history repeats itself?
1952: When Trotskyism could have led the seizure of power
A number of elements combined to lead that the closest to the Russian revolution of 1917 could have occurred in 1952 in Bolivia. The miners led an insurrection that defeated and disarmed the army, created an own militia and an alternative workers’ power, imposed the nationalization of the mines, universal suffrage, land reform and they did so defending a revolutionary program (the Pulacayo Theses) that posed the taking of power by the workers on the agenda.
Bolivia is a living example of the combined and uneven development and confirms Trotsky’s assertion that this law “is not being exposed to us anywhere with the evidence and the complexity with which the fate of the backward countries patents it. Scourged by the whip of material needs, backward countries see themselves forced to advance by leaps and bounds.” So, this mainly agricultural country entered the twentieth century with semi-feudal relations in the countryside, where its population (mostly Quechua and Aymara) was stripped of all civic right and maintained a relationship of servitude with the owners of large estates. But at the same time, an extended mining gave rise, on the one hand, to a strong mining oligarchy (the Patiño, Hottschild, Atamayo) that were among the largest fortunes in the world and, on the other hand, to a powerful mine proletariat, among the most militant in the world.
In the midst of these contradictions and of liberal regimes of limited suffrage, combined with brutal dictatorships, the labor movement jumped stages. It didn’t pass through the first nor the second international.
Neither did the Stalinist attempt succeed, and that allowed the miners’ movement to move forward in its organization, highly influenced by the Trotskyists.
Moreover, the extreme poverty of the Bolivian economy thwarted the attempt to achieve a Bonapartist government, supported by the labor movement, in order to resist the Yankee pressure. The deplorable economic situation prevented a policy of major concessions, as occurred in Argentina with Perón, causing a colossal development of the Trotskyist influence and opened the door to the workers’ revolution.
How the revolution was managed
The rebellion of the colonial and semicolonial world, with the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, is the world dizziness in which the revolutionary events in Bolivia develops. In Latin America, they had been a number of bourgeois nationalist regimes that resisted the entry of US imperialism. To do this, they relied on a mass labor movement on the rise, to which they made major concessions, and which they in turn controlled with the threat of the imperialist danger. These were the regimes that Trotsky defines (taking the case of Mexican cardenismo) as “bonapartism sui generis” (Cárdenas in Mexico, Perón in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, APRA in Peru, Toro, Buhs, Villarroel in Bolivia).
The two main political actors of the Bolivian revolution of 52 arise in this period. In 1940 the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) is born, presenting itself as nationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-American, at first with marked sympathy for Nazi Germany. Its founder and main leader is Victor Paz Estenssoro. On the other hand, in 1936, in exile (in Argentina), the POR (Revolutionary Workers Party) is founded, which evolves towards Trotskyism and becomes the Bolivian section of the Fourth International. Its founders were Aguirre and Marof, but after the accidental death of the first and the departure of the second, the direction falls in Guillermo Lora’s hands.
A succession of populist governments and reactionary coups took place that did not respond to the growing demands of the masses. In July 1946, sections of the working class and of the mass movement – with the exception of the miners – staged an insurrectionary uprising that culminated in the arrest of President Gualberto Villarroel (in which the government the MNR participated) whom they hanged from a lamppost in the Morillo square opposite the Government House.
This spontaneous insurrection could not give a positive response, which was used by sectors of the pro-US oligarchy. From there the six years of the so called “rosquero” start. Six years during which the oligarchy of the tin, the “Thread” dictatorially rules in favor of US imperialism. The predecessor of the CP, the Stalinist Partido de Izquierda Revolucionaria (PIR) participates with ministers in the government of the “Thread” with the argument that it is “anti-fascist” for being pro-American. This prevents stalinism from gaining influence among the miners who quickly take the leadership in the opposition to the government.
In 1944, the Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB) is founded, and in November 1946 the miners representatives meat in Pulacayo where the theses presented by the Llallagua miners and written by Guillermo Lora, principal leader of the POR, were unanimously aproved. These theses, titled “program of transitional demands” calls for the mobilization for the current demands and for the arming of the workers to face the struggle for power.
This program is massively propagandized by the FSTMB and especially by the Trotskyist militants, who are gaining weight and prestige in the mine workers’ rank and file. This is being confirmed when a block between miners leaders and leftist leaders is formed months later from the federation of miners to run in the elections. Although 90% of the population does not vote (only those who could read vote) the Workers’ Block wins in the mining districts and 7 MPs (five deputies and two senators) are being elected, including Juan Lechín Oquendo, principal mine worker leader, linked to the MNR, and Guillermo Lora, principal leader of the POR.
These workers MPs, known as the Parlamentary Miners Block, gave a great example of how to use the parliament to serve the workers’ struggle and the revolution. In addition to putting their seats at the service of the struggle, they used them to develop a big campaign for the destruction of the army and the formation of workers’ militias. This led them to lose their immunity, to be imprisoned and expelled from the country.
The revolution of April 9
In May 1951, Victor Paz Estenssoro of the MNR wins the presidential election with the support of workers’ votes due to their anti-imperialist and anti-government position. But that does not give him the government. Outgoing President Mamerto Urriolagoitia carries out a coup (the “mamertazo”), invalidates the elections and hands over power to a military junta headed by General Ballivian, who establishes a highly repressive government.
On 9 April 1952, the police and a sector of the army, in accordance with the MNR, try a countercoup that is defeated, and their leaders take shelter in different embassies. But the failed coup acts as a trigger for an impressive workers’ revolution that could have changed the future of the continent and of the world revolutionary leadership.
The police, seeing themselves being defeated by the military, deliver some weapons to the factory workers and to the people of La Paz. Meanwhile, the miners of Oruro and Potosí, whom had already taken the regiments, begin to march toward La Paz. The Milluni miners (a mine near La Paz) seize a military train carrying armaments. In La Paz, the workers completely defeat seven regiments and take all their weapons. Thus the dictatorial government falls and the insurgent workers give the government to the MNR. Paz Estenssoro returns from exile and takes over the presidency as the crowd, where the presence of contingents of armed miners and factory workers stands out, shouts: Long live the MNR! Long live Paz Estenssoro ! Nationalization of the mines! Agrarian reform!
On April 12, the military who were still resisting the militias surrender. The prisoners are forced to parade through La Paz in underwear, guarded by the mine workers militias.
The foundation of the COB: dual workers’ power institutionalizes
On April 16, basing itself on the workers’ militias and and the unions, and with the Trotskyists playing a leading role, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) is founded, which brings together all militias and all labor and peasant organizations of Bolivia.
The COB is being born in the heat of the revolution, brandishing the Theses of Pulacayo and with the considerable influence of the Trotskyists, although it never ceased to be lead by Lechín who always would defend the policy of the MNR.
Either way, the influence of the POR was important, much stronger then stalinism’s. The historian Dunkerley says that “much of the preparatory work (to found the COB) was undertaken by representatives of the POR, Edwin Möller, Miguel Alandia Pantoja and José Zegada (…) . (2)
From that moment the forces of workers’ power are concentrating in the COB which, due to the position of its leadership, puts itself at the service of supporting the bourgeois government of Paz Estenssoro.
The militias and the Armed Forces
From April 11, militias, organized by the unions, are the only armed force in the country and gather between 50 and 100 thousand men. The army is in a process of profound disintegration and the government decrees to reorganize the army first on 24 July (more than three months later). Let’s see how the situation is being described by the anticommunist general Gaty Prado Salmon: “In the barracks the situation was tense to the extent that the officers were divided between those who supported and those who condemned the revolution. Nobody did anything except stand guard so that most of the military equipment would be kept from the revolutionary crowd. The feeling of defeat, however, was made worse when we found out the details of what had happened during the three days of fighting, confirming that the army had been defeated everywhere. The desertion of the High Command made the officers feel even more abandoned. A certain number, fearing repression, defected from their units without delay and sought asylum in foreign embassies or went voluntarily into exile. Others, forgetting their duty, went home to await developments. A few remained in the barracks trying to regroup their units, to control the soldiers and maintain a semblance of order and discipline (…)”. While this was happening (17 June 1952), the COB adopted (…) the draft presented by the miner representatives declaring that, “the National Body of the Armed Militias of the Central Obrera Boliviana will be organized as follows: 1. the National Command 2. Departmental and Special commands. The National Command will consist of the National Leader, comrade Victor Paz Estenssoro and Commander in Chief, comrade Juan Lechín Oquendo (…) the commanders of the cells will be chosen by the militians of the departments, by the Departmental Centers and by the National Command of the COB” (…) The analysis of the military commanders is different. They thought that the resolution was an attack on the institution of the army and even more, it was humiliating …). (3)
The nationalization of mines
The nationalization of the mines was one of the main banners of the revolution. Paz Estenssoro, with the invaluable help of Lechín, manages to prevent the workers from occupying the mine and convince them to wait for the nationalization decree which is being issued on 31 October 1952. But despite that, the revolutionary pressure is of such a magnitude that the MNR has to adopt the demand for nationalization without compensation (although some compensation was paid afterwards in order not to angry imperialism), and under workers’ control. This POR slogan is being unanimously taken by the miners and its achievement (regardless of it being subsequently emptied of contents) meant a great revolutionary victory and a great reinforcement for the mining proletariat that for more than 50 years acted as the undisputed vanguard of the Bolivian working class. It would take the bourgeoisie more than 30 years to completely reverse this conquest.
The revolution in the countryside
The peasants, mostly Quechua and Aymará, were at least 70% of the population and living an unsustainable situation. They were outside of the national economy, had no right to vote, did not have access to education, had to fulfill obligations to large landowners who acted as feudal lords with all rights, even of seigniors. This situation had already caused some explosions and the peasant masses were gradually waking up and making some progress in their organization. Following the outbreak in the cities and the collapse of the army, a strong movement of land occupation takes place, centrally in the Cochabamba Valley and in the Lake Titicaca zone.
The accumulated hatred during so many years of exploitation, of oppression and humiliation is evident in these occupations, many of which are very violent and lead to the execution of the landowners and their families. The process of occupations turns massive until August 2, 1953, when the MNR government implements the agrarian reform law, simply legalizing what the peasants had achieved through direct action.
The land reform did not solve the problem of the countryside. The land does not solve all the problems of the peasantry and does not even guarantee a large increase in the supply of foodstuffs for the country. To do this requires electricity, mechanization and modernization of the agricultural sector, as well as improved communications and means of exchange. Which is impossible to realize without the expropriation of the mainsprings of the economy and the international extension of the revolution.
However, the conquests achieved were huge and show the depth of the revolution. The imparted Agrarian Reform Law did not only legalize the occupations, it dissolved the haciendas and allocated land to indigenous communities or new communities formed by former estate workers, but stated that “the latifundia is not being recognized”, that “the land belongs to those who work it” and therefore is outside the market; this is an achievement of the revolution that they to this day haven’t been able to totally liquidate, and that remains an obstacle to proceed with the capitalist exploitation of the countryside.
The agrarian reform law was imposed by the revolutionary mobilization of the masses, and from the beginning the MNR tried to limit its scope. For example, while the large estate is not recognized, large property is legalized in the form of agricultural enterprise. So many large estates were maintained through the process of changing its name and called themselves Agricultural Company. Despite being a great conquest, the land reform was insufficient “between 1954 and 1968, only about eight of the 36 million hectares of cultivated land changed hands. After two years, 51% of the large estates in La Paz, 49% in Chuquisaca and 76% in Oruro had been affected, but in Tarija the figure was 33%, in Santa Cruz 36% and in Cochabamba only 16%, a national total of 28.5%.” (4)
All the power to the COB or co-government and critical support to the MNR?
Evidently, one was facing an unprecedented situation: a revolution that liquidates the bourgeois army and organizes its own proletarian army, that imposes the nationalization of the mines and a land reform, that runs an organ of national, centralized and armed dual power, and that has a Trotskyist program.
Everything was of course not in favor. Lechín, one of the ablest and most sinister bureaucrats that history has produced, had the leadership of the COB and, through him, the government and the bourgeois reaction tried to dismantle the revolution. But there were extraordinary conditions to implement the policy that Lenin advised in his April Theses: to convince the majority of the workers organized in the COB and in the militias that Paz Estenssoro’s government was not theirs, that the liberation from imperialism woudn’t come with him, neither work nor bread nor land, and that to achieve that, the COB had to take power.
And the Bolivian Trotskyists were in very good condition to face this task. Although they had not succeeded in consolidating their influence organically, they had gained great political prestige. Their role in the events of April was such that even one of the founders of the Stalinist party acknowledged that “This armed uprising was led and guided to victory by the leading staff of the MNR, Hernán Siles Suazo, by Juan Lechín Oquendo, Edwin Möller, Alandia Pantoja, Villegas and others”. (5) That is, the POR was in a very good position, with a correct policy, to wage the fight to win the majority leadership of the COB and lead the struggle for the seizure of power.
But the Bolivian POR, following the advice of the Pabloite leadership of the IV Internacional (6), applied a policy opposed to the Leninist one.
Lora himself acknowledged that “The COB was the master of the country, and indeed, for a certain period, was the only center of power worthy of the name.” (…) That “For the majority of the masses, the COB was its only leader and its only government.” (7) However, he did not call to distrust the bourgeois government and to fight for the COB’s power as the only way to respond to the interests of the workers and peasants. On the contrary, he gave critical support and defended the co-government, ie the participation of ministers of the COB in the MNR government, in that way hoping that the COB would control the bourgeois government.
Nine days after the uprising of April 9, it declared that “to the extent that it conducts the promised program, the POR supports the government that emerged from the popular uprising of April 9 (…) that had two workers ministers in the petty bourgeois government, but that was entirely controlled and bound to the decisions of the COB.” (8) And in the resolutions of its X Conference it states: “At present our tactics is to group our forces, to unite the proletariat and the peasantry in a single block to defend a government that is not ours.” “Far from launching the slogan of the overthrow of the Paz Estenssoro regime, we prop it so that it withstands the onslaught of the “thread” (…) This attitude is manifested first as a pressure on the government to accomplish the deepest aspirations of the workers and peasants.” (9)
The situation in Bolivia after 9-12 April 1952 was similar to Russia after the February Revolution of 1917. There was two powers in the country, but the strongest, which had mass character, was the popular and workers’ organizations’, which, because of their conciliatory leaderships, granted the power to a weak bourgeois government. The seizure of power by the soviets and the COB could have been done peacefully. The old military apparatus had already collapsed. The way was open for workers’ power, which had their own weapons and the people following, and it could have had total power. The only obstacle to the COB and the Russian soviets carrying out this task was that their leaderships were insistent in rescueing the bourgeoisie. In Russia this obstacle was overcome and the workers seized power. But not in Bolivia.
The big difference was how the revolutionary party acted. The Bolsheviks demanded that the soviets break with the bourgeois provisional government and take power themselves as the only way to achieve peace, bread and land, while the POR called to defend the bourgeois government so that it would “accomplish the deepest aspirations of the workers and peasants.”
And when the government of Paz Estenssoro began to turn to the right, as it couldn’t be otherwise, the POR found another bourgeois variant in which pin their hopes: the left of the MNR, led by Lechín. At its national conference in November ’52 it stated that “the POR will support the left of the MNR in its fight against the party right”, and in August 1953, after a ministerial crisis, it asserted: “The only political result of the present situation is the displacement of the right of the MNR from power by the left. All power to the left!” (10)
The left wing of the MNR did not have a different class character; although its principal figure was Lechín, it was but the left wing of a bourgeois party. The POR not only didn’t confront the illusions of the masses, it was a prisoner of its own wishes. So it went from trusting that Paz Estenssoro would move towards revolution and Trotsyism (11) to put all its hopes on the “left wing”, especially on John Lechín Oquendo who it considered was under its influence. In one of his analysis of the revolution, Lora says, “Lechín didn´t do anything else than operate under the powerful pressure of the masses and the POR. In the speeches by labor leaders of this period (he refers to the years ’52-’53) and in the plans presented to the Paz Estenssoro government, the imprint of the POR can be found.” (12) Out of the clever politics of the wily bureaucrat to use the POR (just as he used other organizations subsequently) so that it wrote the red speeches that would allow him to camouflage himself before the radicalized masses, Lora fell into the illusion that they were directing Lechín. At the level of the Fourth International, it was even said that Lechín was a “clandestine militant of the POR”. When they realized that on the contrary, it was the POR that was unconsciously militating for Lechín’s counterrevolutionary policy, little could be done.
As expected, the MNR left didn’t open any revolutionary way out of the situation. What it did was give the time necessary for the government to reconstruct the army so that the militias would waste their ammunition and end up with almost useless weapons. (13)
Just four years after the outbreak of the revolution, the POR perceived what the real situation was. In a resolution of its executive committee of May 1956 it states: “Strengthening and developing all organs of power in view of the clashes with the government, with the bourgeoisie, with the oligarchy and with imperialism, against the parliament and the attempts to reduce the power of the unions which the Siles government will intend to do, we will urge the tendency of the masses demanding: Let the COB solve all the problems! All the power to the COB! (14)
The revolutionary way out was set at last! It was a victory for those who had defended that policy within the ranks of the Fourth International, as was the case of our current. But it was a belated victory. So much time with the wrong policy of sowing illusions in the bourgeois government and the Lechín bureaucracy, had its fruits. This proposal of the POR remained in total minority within the COB. The moment when the Trotskyists may have lead the seizure of power in Bolivia had passed. This was recognized by Lora himself in 1963, in one of his few known self-critics and then never mentioned again: “The POR used these events to launch the slogan of “total control of the goverment by the left” ( …) The slogan, however, contained the signs of a huge ideological mistake: the belief that the workers could reach power via Lechín. It would have been more correct to mobilize the masses behind the slogan “all power to the COB” (…) “The slogan “all power to the COB” could have led to the victory of the workers on two exceptionally favorable occasions. The first was when the agitation around the immediate nationalization of the mines without compensation and under workers control reached its highest point (first half of 1952). The second came with the defeat of the coup of January 6, 1953. Not taking proper advantage of these opportunities and adapt oneself to go backwards shouting the slogans of the MNR lef, were the POR’s biggest mistakes.” (15)
The dismantling and the defeat of the revolution
As expected the government began to develop a policy to address one of the central problems that had raised the revolution: the one of armaments. The aforementioned General Gay Prado explained one of these tactics: “With this goal (to have a degree of control over the militias), through deception, the Chief of Headquarters, Germán Armando Fortun, offered to supply the COB all the necessary advices in order to improve the organization of the armed militias such as the appointment of enough instructors to give militiamen disciplined attitudes, basic military training and responsibility, about the understanding that the militias, in the final nanalyisis, would form the reserve of the Armed forces of the Nation (…)
The offer of the GHQ was warmly accepted by the COB (…) thus it was to some extent a success in addressing the problem of militias, at least from themement that it prevented them from becoming a structure of a parallel army. The National Command of the militia never worked properly”. (16)
Thus, the government of Paz Estenssoro, with the support of labor organizations, was subjecting the workers’ militias to the bourgeois army. Instead of fighting to make the workers’ militias increasingly independent and oppose them to the bourgeois armed forces, the Lechín leadership “warmly accepted” the proposal of the High Command of the genocidal army, which had been defeated by the revolution.
From the reconstruction of the army followed different MNR governments (Lechín was vice president in one of them) all moving with the same goal of slowly dismantling the dual power. It is false what was said (to justify the capitulation to the MNR governments) that imperialism was preparing a coup at that time. Conversely, imperialism let the MNR and the Lechín bureaucracy fulfill the task of disassembling the revolution. And the MNR (just as Lechín) was careful to act well in order to get imperialist support. Lechín’s famous trip (as vice president) to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist China was part of that.
The blow came later, after the MNR had completed the dirty work and had started wearing out. The increasingly reactionary MNR actions cost it quite a loy. It opened a major crisis in its relationship with the mass movement that expressed itself in various ruptures (Walter Guevara Arze founds the PRA, Lechín creates the PRIN, Hernan Siles Suazo, second figure of the party, forms the MNR Left).
With the loss of strength of the MNR, the center of power was gradually moving towards the rebuilt army. And in November 1964, the coup led by generals René Barrientos Ortuño and Alfredo Ovando Candía is victorious.
In mid-1965 the military government unleashes an offensive to liquidate the remains of dual power. The army occupies the mines and defeats a general strike called by the COB. The workers’ districts of La Paz rise but without any leadership. The Army and Air Force use all their weapons to clear workers’ barricades and achieve their goal. So was the great workers’ revolution of 1952 buried.
The controversy in the Fourth International: two policies regarding the Bolivian revolution
There are currents that believe that Trotskyism as a whole failed for not be able to keep a Bolshevik policy in Bolivia in 1952. Such is the case, for example, with the Argentine Liborio Justo (17). That position has nothing to do with reality. First, because it is not true that no one questioned the policy that was being implemented in Bolivia, and second, because the fact is that there was not one but two policies regarding the Bolivian revolution within the Fourth Internacional.
The responsibility for the policy of the Bolivian POR, which was not only a mistake but evolved to a betrayal, lies centrally in the Pabloite leadership of the Fourth International, which won the young and inexperienced Bolivian section for its policy. Even before the outbreak of the revolution, the international leadership had given the course to support the MNR: “Moreover, in the event of mass mobilization under the impulse or the preponderant influence of the MNR, our Bolivian section should support the movement with all its strenght, not abstain, but rather intervene vigorously in view of carrying it as far as possible, understanding this as the seizure of power by the MNR based on the progressive program of the anti-imperialist united front.” (18) A year after the revolution it said, “The POR began with a correct although critical support of the MNR government.” (19)
But those were not the only voices on the Bolivian revolution heard in the Fourth International. There were those who asked for explanations, such was the case of the California tendency of the SWP led by Vern and Ryan (who later left the Trotskyist movement), denouncing the policy of the POR as Menshevik, basically for not opposing the bourgeois government but supporting it “critically”. But there were also those who tirelessly defended an alternative proposal to the leadership of the Fourth International and the Bolivian POR. It was the case of our current led by Nahuel Moreno. (20)
The current led by Moreno developed its policy as the knowledge of the Bolivian reality was advancing, but from the outset called to confront the bourgeois government of the MNR. In May 1952, opposing the critical support to the MNR the government, Frente Proletario, the newspaper of the Argentine POR, said: “the Bolivian workers’ vanguard should be aware that its struggle is beginning now, and that the crucial moment has arrived to determine by its own and decisive weight whether it will win, advancing by the revolutionary path to genuine workers’ power or lose, following the path of conciliation and passive hope in the leadership of the MNR.” (21) On June 26, 1952, before the reorganization of the army, under the title “Paz Estenssoro wants to disarm the revolution”, we said: “Today as never, the slogan For cadres of armed workers! must become reality to deal with it the Estenssoro government which is paving the way of betrayal”.
From May/June ’52, the Argentine POR began to put forward the COB control of the government and the denunciation of Juan Lechín Oquendo as government agent in the COB. Finally, in January 1953, we denounced the treacherous character of the leadership of the COB, stating that “Lechín serves the “Thread” while very clearly raising the slogan “All power to the COB .” (22)
During all that period, there is not one line to be found where the Pabloite leadership of the Fourth International, which defined the situation as “very advanced Kerenskyism” (23), calls for the power of the COB and of the militias. In 1954, before MNR’s turn to the right, the Pabloite leadership proposes a democratic program: general elections, universal suffrage, constituent assembly and presentation of workers lists in these elections as a way to provoke a differentiation within the MNR. Moreno (using the same tactic as Lenin in 1917) replies, “The orientation would be perfect with one addition: In order to ensure all this (constituent assembly, elections, etc.) it is necessary for the COB to take power.”
The existence of two opposing policies is indisputable. Therefore the problem is not of Trotskyism in general. It was the policy of the Pabloite leadership (based on the conviction that it was necessary to enter or support the CPs, the socialist parties or the bourgeois nationalists from which the centrist currents that would lead the revolution would emerge), applied by Lora, which failed in Bolivia and frustrated the great opportunity that the revolution opened for Latin American Trotskyism.
The lessons of the revolution
The Bolivian revolution of 1952 was the largest, the most perfect and classic workers’ revolution that occurred after the Russian one of 1917.
This revolution was so profound that despite being defeated, the defeat of another revolution (of 1985) was needed to finish reversing its conquests. And some of them, such as the land reform, have not been completely eliminated yet.
But these great conquests of the revolution: the nationalization under workers’ control, the land reform, not being followed by the major conquest that was on the agenda, the seizure of power by the workers, were emptied of content and began to be used to the advantage of bourgeois power. Thus, the nationalized companies served to enrich the MNR administrators, and thus a new bourgeoisie was formed which replaced the old mining oligarchy displaced by the revolution. Workers’ control was institutionalized in the form of the COMIBOL workers executives (24) whom in the end only served to strengthen the power of the union bureaucracy. The agrarian reform law was flouted, and the big estates returned, using the ruse of calling themselves “Agricultural Companies”, and the fact is that 2 million rural families (mostly belonging to indigenous peoples) work 5 million hectares of land, while fewer than 100 families own 27 million hectares of the remaining arable land.
But the main negative consequence of the defeat of the revolution of ’52 has to do with the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. In ’52, the possibility arose to began to reverse this crisis. If the struggle for workers’ power had developped (let alone if it had succeeded) in Bolivia led by the Trotskyist party, the possibility would have opened for the Fourth International to win mass influence, at least in Latin America. That could have changed the destiny of our continent. Imagine what might have happened if in 1959 the outbreak of the Cuban revolution had had a revolutionary International with mass influence with the ability and the willingness to extend the revolution on the continental level.
But that possibility was frustrated. And that frustration came in the worst way. Not due to the superiority of the enemy, but because the revolutionary party didn’t live up to the circumstances. It didn’t proposed a fight for workers’ power but capitulated to the class conciliation government. From there, the law enunciated by Engels was fulfilled in Bolivia: “a revolutionary party that loses its opportunity disappears for a whole historical epoch.”
The POR entered a very deep crisis and began a process of successive divisions that led to the dispersion of the Bolivian Trotskyism which never regained the mass influence that it had in ’52, and thus opened room for Stalinism to develop, which until then had not been able to take root in the Bolivian working class.
In the 1956 elections, the candidate supported by the sectors in which the POR had split won 2,239 votes for president, against 786,729 of Siles Suazo of the MNR and 12,273 of Stalinism.
Twice more, history repeats itself
The Bolivian working class has extraordinary resilience. So, after going through dictatorships and strong repressions, two other important revolutionary processes took place in 1971 and 1985 that, although of smaller magnitude than the one of ’52, again raised the question of power. In both cases, the COB led and centralized the fighting, and its leadership (still led by Lechín) refused to fight for power, giving (explicitly or implicitly) support to some bourgeois variant. A position that, in fact, was strengthened by the different sectors of the left, with different arguments (the COB is not a soviet, it is only a trade union, it is run by a bureaucracy) refusing to demand of its leadership to break with the bourgeoisie and take power to implement the worker program of the COB.
The result was predictable: the defeat of the revolution. In the first case this occured by the coup led by General Banzer inaugurating seven years of a repressive dictatorship.
In the second case, the defeat occured in a “peaceful” way. Lechín convinced the 10,000 miners loaded with dynamite who occupied the city of La Paz for 16 for days to return to their districts because they supposedly had no weapons. The bourgeoisie, with the mediation of the Church, forwarded the election to replace the dying popular front government headed by Siles Suazo. The workers, deeply demoralized, seeing what they believed was their government fail, witness how the old acquaintance Paz Estenssoro emerges as the new president. Ironically, the one who had been the president imposed by the Revolution of ’52 is the same to apply the neoliberal plan of dismantling what remained of the conquests of the revolution. This defeat, that was much less violent than the previous ones, was the deepest of them all.
The workers, influenced by the Communist Party and other leftist organizations, believed that they had come to power through the popular front government and now felt that they had failed in fulfilling the historic goal indicated by the socialist thesis of the COB. This provoked a massive sense of demoralization which deepened with the consequences of the implementation of the neoliberal plan: privatization, mine closures and mass layoffs of workers.
But, true to its tradition, again the Bolivian working class, with its glorious worker’s central oprganization, leading the peasants and other popular sectors, has returned to jeopardize the bourgeois power. It is the responsibility of the Bolivians and Latin American revolutionaries to make every effort to build the revolutionary leadership that prevents history from repeating itself again.
1 Historia de la Revolución Rusa. Cap. l.
2 Rebellion in the Veins, Verso, London, 1984, p. 64.
3 Poder y Fuerzas Armadas, 1919-1982, General Gay Prado Salmon, Cochabamba 1984.
4 Rebellion in the Veins, Durkerley, Verso, p. 73.
5 Memorias del primer ministro obrero, Waldo Álvarez, La Paz, 1986, p. 188. Möller and Alandia Pantoja were members of the POR.
6 The IV International came out very weakened of WW II. Trotsky had been murdered and the FI had suffered persecution and the death of a large number of his cadres in the hands of Nazism and Stalinism. The leadership in charge (Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel), very young and inexperienced, was impressed with the expropriations realized by the Red Army. They characterized that the third world war was imminent, (between the USSR and imperialism) and that the CPs would radicalize. They led the “sui generis entrism” in the CPs (in order to orient their leaderships towards a revolutionary policy), and in the nationalist movements in colonial or semi colonial countries.
7 Guillermo Lora, Historia del Movimiento Obrero boliviano.
8 Lucha Obrera (paper of the POR) 18.1V.1952, p 2. The worker minister are Lechín and Butrón.
9 These of the X conference of the POR, quoted by Liborio Justo in Bolivia: la revolución derrotada, Rojas Araujo editor, Cochabamba: 1967, p. 223.
10 Internal bulletin of the POR, quoted by Liborio Justo in Bolivia: la revolución derrotada.
11 “His speech (Paz Estenssoro´s) from July 21 (1952) is quite clear. Not only did he offer to “nationalize the mines and bring the revolution to the countryside without considering the consequences,” but promised to “arm the miners and factory workers” so that they could defend the revolution in their own way” Lucha Obrera Aug 5, 1952. “The President, reviewing the whole of his past political attitude, points to anti-capitalist objectives and not merely anti-imperialist and anti-feudal ones for the revolution. This speech can very easily be regarded as Trotskyist (….)” Lucha Obrera, May 8, 1953.
12 La Revolución Boliviana: análisis crítico. Guillermo Lora, La Paz: 1963, p. 254.
13 One of the policies of Paz Estenssoro was to change the caliber of the weapons of the army, so that they stopped importing ammunition for the previous caliber.
14 Resolution of the Executive Committe of the Bolivian POR of May 1956, cited by Liborio Justo, and by Nahuel Moreno in The Party and the Revolution.
15 Guillermo Lora, La revolución boliviana: análisis crítico. La Paz: 1963
16 Poder y Fuerzas Armadas, General Gay Prado Salmon.
17 Liborio Justo (Quebracho). One of the founders of Argentine Trotskyism, author of one of the best works on the Revolution of ’52 (Bolivia: the revolution defeated). He abandoned Trotskyism and the Fourth International and went on to defend the construction of the V International.
18 “Specific and general tasks of the revolutionary Marxist proletarian movement in Latin America.” Third Congress of the Fourth International August 1951- Quoted in The Party and the Revolution, Nahuel Moreno.
19 Quatrième Internationale review, April 1953.
20 Nahuel Moreno, Argentine Trotskyist, founder and main leader of the IWL-FI. In 1952 he led the Argentine POR from which he participated in the controversy over the Revolution of ’52 along with other Latin American Trotskyists with whom he had formed the SLATO (Latin American Secretariat of Orthodox Trotskyism).
21 Frente Proletario, No. 73, May 29, 1952.
22 Frente Proletario, nº 107, January 15, 1953. Quoted in: “El Trotskismo obrero e internacionalista en la Argentina”.
23 Quatrième Internationale, Julio 1953, quoted by N. Moreno in The Party and the Revolution.
24 State owned mining company
The Pulacayo Theses
In November 1946, at the Pulacayo Congress of the FSTMB (Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia), the “Theses” presented by the delegates POR were approved, although they were not in majority.
The FSTMB was founded in 1944. Most of its leaders, headed by Juan Lechín Oquendo, belonged to the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement). There were also minorities of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (POR), and of the Stalinists PIR.
The historical Pulacayo Theses posed a revolutionary program for the miners, the working class and the people of Bolivia. They opened by maintaining the rejection of class collaboration, along with the struggle against the bourgeoisie, the landlords, imperialism and fascism. They raised a set of transitional demands, aimed at the seizure of power. We quote only a few lines:
“[…] 1. Basic vital salary and sliding scale of wages …
“[…] 2. 40 hours week and sliding scale of working hours … Only these measures will allow us to prevent the workers from beeing destroyed by poverty and that the bosses’ boycott artificially create an army of unemployed …
“[…] 3. Occupation of the mine … Mine Committees should decide the fate of the mine and of the workers in the production … Down with the bosses’ boycott, occupy the mines!
“[…] 6. Workers’ Control of the mines … The workers should control the technical management of the operation, the ledgers, intervene in the appointment of category employees and above all, should get interested in publishing the benefits … and the fraud that they make when it comes to paying taxes … “
“[…] 7. Armament of the workers … If we want to prevent a repetition of the slaughter of Catavi , we have to arm the workers … Where get weapons? The fundamental thing is to teach grassroots workers that they have to arm themselves against the to the teeth armed bourgeoisie; the means will be found. Have we forgotten that we work daily with powerful explosives?
“Every strike is the potential beginning of civil war, and we must be properly armed on our way to it. Our goal is to win, and we must not forget that the bourgeoisie has both army, police and fascist gangs … All unions are required to form armed pickets with the youngest and most combative workers. Trade union picketing must be militarily organized …
“Against future massacres, armed workers cadres! “
NOTE: 1. Slaughter of Catavi: on December 21, 1942 the Army strafed a march from the Siglo XX mine to the town of Catavi, where management was located. Dozens of workers, women and children died. The site of the massacre came to be known as “Campo María Barzola”, the name of the fallen woman who had led the march with a flag. Thus, December 21 is being commemorated every year as the “Miner’s Day”.