While relatively obscure in North America, the Bolivian Revolution of 1952 was a pivotal moment in Latin American history: the near-victory of the socialist workers’ movement, heavily influenced by the Trotskyist Fourth International, represents the high water mark for the revolutionary workers’ struggle in South America, and arguably for Trotskyism as a whole as well. The misguided policies promoted by the Fourth International’s leadership allowed the Bolivian workers’ movement to let victory slip through their fingers, paving the way for decades of reactionary dictatorships and the dead end of Castro-Guevaraist guerrilla struggle. The internal debates over the Bolivian Revolution in the Fourth International would also play an important role in the foundation of our international, the International Workers’ League–Fourth International, under the leadership of Nahuel Moreno, a former faction of the Fourth International which opposed the leadership’s political line in Bolivia.
This piece, written in 2004, analyzes the events of the Bolivian Revolution and the Fourth International’s approach to it in detail, as well as providing a brief overview of later, smaller revolutionary opportunities in 1971 and 1985.
The 1952 Bolivian Revolution
By Alicia Sagra
(First published in Marxismo Vivo n.° 8, 2004, pp. 49-61., republished here with edits for clarity)
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.
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, and joined by the peasants and workers in the cities (both majority indigenous).
The impact of this revolution was profound: the mining industry was nationalized (until then it had been 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 exemplified by the Russian Revolution of 1917: a working class vanguard leading the whole people into revolutionary struggle. The possibility of moving towards the first workers’ socialist revolution in Latin America was clearly on the horizon.
Even more so if you consider that the Bolivian section of the then unified Fourth International (the Revolutionary Workers Party – POR) heavily influenced 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 was a Bolivian adaptation of the Trotskyist Transitional Program.
Unfortunately, revolutionary hopes were dashed. And part of the blame lies on the Trotskyist movement: the majority leadership of the Fourth International, led by the Greek militant Michel Raptis (Pablo) and Ernest Mandel, advanced a flawed analysis and pushed the POR to support the government of the MNR, and in doing so missed the best opportunity to seize leadership and move towards to a triumphant workers’ and socialist revolution.
In opposition to this mistaken policy, a minority of leaders such as Nahuel Moreno in Argentina (who later would found the IWL-FI), fought for a revolutionary workers’ program expressed in the slogan “All power to the COB”. Unfortunately, the POR followed the suggestions of Pablo and Mandel.
A workers’ and socialist revolution in Bolivia could have changed the course of history, even if it were to still fail in the long run to establish socialism on the continent. First, it would have posed a clear alternative to the bourgeois nationalist movements, like Peronism in Argenina, that dominated the political scene of many semicolonial countries. Second, it could have been a massive leap forward for Trotskyism’s political influence on the international stage. As history shows, in the absence of these developments, the Latin American left ended up dominated (from 1959 on) by the Castro-Guevara tendency that emanated from the triumphant Cuban revolution, embracing guerrilla warfare across Latin America.
1952: When Trotskyism could have led the seizure of power
There are a number of important similarities between the situation in Bolivia in 1952 and in Russia in 1917. The miners led an insurrection that defeated and disarmed the army, created their own militia and an alternative workers’ power, imposed the nationalization of the mines, universal suffrage, land reform and they did so all while defending a revolutionary program (the Pulacayo Theses) that promoted the seizure of power by the workers.
Bolivia is a living example of the combined and uneven development and confirms Trotsky’s assertion that this law is nowhere better expressed than in the most backwards countries. “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 rights and held in servitude to the owners of large estates. But at the same time, development of the mining industry 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 workers’ movement, among the most militant in the world.
In the midst of these contradictions, hemmed in by liberal regimes that offerred limited suffrage alternating with brutal dictatorships, the labor movement leapt forward. It did not stop to develop the social-democratic organs typical of the First and Second International. It also leapt past Stalinist attempts to reign in the workers’ movement, this that allowed the miners’ movement to move forward in its organization, heavily influenced by the Trotskyists.
Moreover, the extreme poverty of the Bolivian economy thwarted attempts to form Bonapartist government of class collaboration with the labor movement against the external threat of US imperialism. The terrible economic situation prevented the government from making major concessions to workers, such as what occurred in Argentina with Perón, allowing Trotskyist influence to ferment and opening 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 chaotic stage on which the revolutionary events in Bolivia were set. 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 by repeatedly reminding it of the threat of the imperialist danger. These were the regimes that Trotsky defines (in his analysis of Cardenismo in Mexico) 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 appeared in this period. In 1940 the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) is born, presenting itself as nationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-American, and initially with open sympathy for Nazi Germany. Its founder and main leader was Victor Paz Estenssoro. On the other hand, in 1936, while in exile in Argentina, the POR (Revolutionary Workers Party) was founded, eventually gravitating towards Trotskyism and becoming the Bolivian section of the Fourth International. Its founders were Aguirre and Marof, but after the untimely death of the first and the departure of the second, leadership fell 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 (whose the government the MNR had joined), and hanged him from a lamppost in the Morillo square opposite the Government House.
This spontaneous insurrection could not provide a positive political program, a weakness leveraged by sectors of the pro-US oligarchy. Thus began the six years of the so called “rosquero” (lit. “donut”), during which the “Thread” oligarchy dictatorially ruled in favor of US imperialism. The predecessor of the CP, the Stalinist Partido de Izquierda Revolucionaria (PIR) participated with ministers in the government of the “Thread” with the argument that it is “anti-fascist” for being pro-American. This prevented Stalinism from gaining influence among the miners who quickly took up opposition to the government.
In 1944, the Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB) is founded, and in November 1946 the miners’ representatives met 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” called for the mobilizations in support of their political program and the arming of the workers to prepare for the struggle for power.
This program is heavily promoted by the FSTMB and especially by the Trotskyist militants, who were quickly growing their influence among the mine workers’ rank and file. This was confirmed when a bloc uniting the leaders of the miners’ movement and of the leftist movement was formed in preparation for upcoming elections. Although 90% of the population could not vote (only those who could read could vote) the Workers’ Bloc won in the mining districts and 7 MPs (five deputies and two senators) were elected, including Juan Lechín Oquendo, a key leader of the mine workers with connections to the MNR, and Guillermo Lora, principal leader of the POR.
These worker-MPs, known as the Parliamentary Miners’ Bloc, provided a great example of how to use the parliament to serve the workers’ struggle and the revolution. In addition to placing their seats at the service of the workers’ struggle, they used them to develop a grand campaign for the destruction of the army and the formation of workers’ militias. Consequently, they lost their political immunity, were jailed and later exiled from the country.
The revolution of April 9
In May 1951, Victor Paz Estenssoro of the MNR won the presidential election with the support of workers’ votes due to their anti-imperialist and anti-government position. Estenssoro did not get a chance to take power. Outgoing President Mamerto Urriolagoitia carried out a coup (the “mamertazo”), nullified the elections and handed over power to a military junta headed by General Ballivian, who established a highly repressive government.
On 9 April 1952, the police and a sector of the army, in cooperation with the MNR, attempted an unsuccessful countercoup, and their leaders take shelter in various foreign embassies. But the failed coup acts as a catalyst for an impressive workers’ revolt that could have changed the future of the continent and the international workers’ movement.
The police, seeing that they would soon be defeated by the military, delivered some weapons to the factory workers and to the people of La Paz. Meanwhile, the miners of Oruro and Potosí, which had already formed armed regiments, began to march toward La Paz. The miners working in Milluni near La Paz seized a military train carrying armaments. In La Paz, the workers completely defeated seven regiments and confiscated their weapons. The dictatorial regime was overthrown, and the insurgent workers put the MNR back in power. Paz Estenssoro returned from exile and took over the presidency greeted by crowds and regiments of armed workers shouting “Long live the MNR! Long live Paz Estenssoro ! Nationalize the mines! Agrarian reform!
On April 12, remaining military units still resisting the militias surrendered. The prisoners weere forced to parade through La Paz in underwear, guarded by the mine workers’ militias.
The Foundation of the COB: The Establishment tof Dual Power
On April 16, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) is founded, rooted in the workers’ militias and the unions, and with Trotskyists playing a leading role, bringing together all of the militias and labor and peasant organizations in Bolivia.
The COB was born in the heat of the revolution, brandishing the Theses of Pulacayo and bearing considerable influence from the Trotskyists, although it never ceased to be lead by Lechín who consistently held to the policy of the MNR.
Either way, the influence of the POR was signficant, much stronger than that of Stalinist groups. 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 on, the forces of workers’ power were concentrated in the COB, which, due to the position of its leadership, put 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, were the only armed force in the country and number between 50 and 100 thousand men. The army was in a process of total disintegration, promting the government to issue decrees reorganizing army on 24 July (more than three months later). Anticommunist general Gary Prado Salmon described the situation as follows: “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 militia memberss of the departments, by the Departmental Centers and by the National Command of the COB” (…) The military commanders saw the resolution as an attack on the institution of the army and a humiliating one at that. (3)
The Nationalization of the Mines
The nationalization of the mines was one of the main slogans of the revolution. Paz Estenssoro, with the invaluable help of Lechín, managed to prevent the workers from occupying the mines and convinced them to wait for the nationalization decree which was to be issued on 31 October 1952. But despite that, the revolutionary pressure was so strong that the MNR had to adopt the demand for nationalization without compensation (although some compensation was paid later on in order not to anger imperialism), and under workers’ control. This POR slogan was unanimously taken up by the miners and its achievement (regardless of later backracking) meant a great revolutionary victory and a great morale boost 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 in an unsustainable situation. They were outside of the national economy, had no right to vote, no access to education, had to fulfill obligations to large landowners who acted like feudal lords. This situation had already caused a few outbursts, and the peasant masses were gradually waking up and making some progress towards their self-organization. Following the outbreak of revolution in the cities and the collapse of the army, a wave of land occupations begins, primarily in the Cochabamba Valley and in the Lake Titicaca zone.
The accumulated hatred of so many years of exploitation, oppression and humiliation was clearly on display in these occupations, many of which were very violent and led to the execution of the landowners and their families. The occupations continued to increase in scale until August 2, 1953, when the MNR government implemented the agrarian reform law, simply legalizing by decree what the peasants had already achieved through direct action.
The land reform did not solve the problems of the countryside. Land alone could not address all the problems of the peasantry and did not even guarantee increases in the country’s food supply. To do this would require electricity, mechanization and modernization of the agricultural sector, as well as improved communications and means of exchange. To do so would have required the expropriation of industrial machinery and the international extension of the revolution.
However, the conquests achieved were huge and show the strength of the revolution. The Agrarian Reform Law did not only legalize the occupations, it dissolved the hacienda system and disributed land to indigenous communities and new communities formed by former estate workers, while stating that “the land belongs to those who work it” and therefore is outside the market; this was an achievement of the revolution that to this day remains partially intact, and which remains an obstacle for 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 large familial estates were abolished, large lots of property remained legal in the form of agricultural enterprise. Thanks to this loophole, many large estates survived the reform by simply renaming themselves as companies. Despite being a great achievement, the land reform was ultimately 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 Power to the COB” or Joint-Government and Critical Support to the MNR”?
Evidently, an unprecedented situation was unfolding: 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.
Of course, we know now that that revolution would ultimately fail. Lechín, one of history’s most pragmatic and sinister bureaucrats, held the leadership of the COB, and through him the government and the reactionary bourgeoisie tried to dismantle the revolution. But for a short period conditions were ripe for the implementation of Lenin’s April Theses policies: to convince the majority of the workers organized in the COB and in the militias that Paz Estenssoro’s government was not theirs, that he would not deliver the people from imperialism, nor work nor bread nor land, and that to achieve these goals, the COB had to take power.
The Bolivian Trotskyists were in a very good position 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 break with the bourgeois government and to fight for the COB’s power in order to respond to the interests of the workers and peasants. On the contrary, he gave critical support and defended the joint government, ie the participation of ministers of the COB in the MNR government, in hopes that the COB would control the bourgeois government.
Nine days after the uprising of April 9, the POR 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 worker-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 10th Conference it states: “At present our tactics are to group our forces, to unite the proletariat and the peasantry in a single bloc to defend a government that is not ours.” “Far from launching the slogan of the overthrow of the Paz Estenssoro regime, we prop it up so that it can withstand the onslaught of the “Thread” (…) This attitude is manifest 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 were two powers in the country, but the stronger power, which had a mass character, was the popular and workers’ organizations’, which, thanks to a conciliatory policy promoted by the leadership, 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, the proletariat was armed and backed by the masses, 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 insisted on rescuing the bourgeoisie. In Russia this obstacle was overcome and the workers seized power. But not in Bolivia.
The difference between these two historical examples was the course of action chosen by the revolutionary party. 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 inevitably pivot to the right, the POR found another bourgeois faction on 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; while its principal figure was Lechín, it was but the left wing of a bourgeois party. The POR not only failed to dispel the masses’ misplaced trust in the bourgeois government, it was a prisoner of its own hopes. So it went from trusting that Paz Estenssoro would move towards revolution and Trotskyism (11) to putting all of its hopes on the “left wing”, especially on John Lechín Oquendo who they considered to be under their influence. In one of his analysis of the revolution, Lora says, “Lechín did not do anything more 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 mark of the POR can be seen.” (12) Thanks to Lechín’s clever political maneuvering, he was able to use the POR (just as he would later use other organizations) so that it would provide him with revolutionary speeches that would allow him to endear himself before the radicalized masses, all while Lora bought into the illusion that they were directing Lechín. At the level of the Fourth International, Lechín was even considered a “clandestine militant of the POR”. By the time they realized that on the contrary, it was the POR that was unconsciously militating for Lechín’s counterrevolutionary policy, it was too late.
The MNR left did not provide open any revolutionary solutions to Bolivia’s problems. What it did do was stall for time until the government was able to reconstruct the army and marginalize the militias. (13)
Just four years after the outbreak of the revolution, the POR finally recognized the trap that they had fallen into. 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 power to the COB! (14)
A revolutionary line 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 own Morenoist current. But it was a belated victory. All of the time wasted following the flawed policy of support for the bourgeois government and the Lechín bureaucracy produced a bitter outcome. This proposal of the POR remained a minority position within the COB. The moment when the Trotskyists could have led the seizure of power in Bolivia had come and gone. This was recognized by Lora himself in 1963, in one of his few moments of self-criticism: “The POR used these events to launch the slogan of “total control of the goverment by the left” ( …) The slogan, however, contained the hallmarks 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 left, 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 produced the revolution: the question of the armed proletariat. The aforementioned General Gary Prado explain one of the tactics used by the government: “With this goal [to gain a degree of control over the militias], through deception, the Chief Quartermaster, Germán Armando Fortun, offered to supply the COB all the necessary training in order to improve the organization of the armed militias, such as the appointment of instructors to give militiamen disciplined attitudes, basic military training and responsibility, with the understanding that the militias, at the end fo the day, 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 that moment 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 subordinating 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.
Following the reconstruction of the army, various MNR governments were elected (Lechín was vice president in one of them) all moving towards the same goal of slowly dismantling institutions of dual power. Continued suport for the MNR was justified under the false pretext that imperialism was preparing a coup at the time. Conversely, imperialism let the MNR and the Lechín bureaucracy complete the task of dismantling the revolution. And the MNR (just as Lechín) was careful to behave itself 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 coup came later, after the MNR had finished the dirty work and had begun to wear out. The increasingly reactionary actions by the MNR cost it quite a lot of support. It opened a major crisis in its relationship with the mass movement that expressed itself in various ruptures (Walter Guevara Arze would found the PRA, Lechín created the PRIN, Hernan Siles Suazo, second in command of the party, formed the MNR Left).
With the weakening of MNR, the center of power was gradually shifting towards the newly 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 unleashed an offensive to crush what remained of dual power. The army occupied the mines and defeated a general strike called by the COB. The workers’ districts of La Paz rose in revolt, but without any leadership. The Army and Air Force used all their weapons to clear workers’ barricades and achieve their goal. And thus, the great workers’ revolution of 1952 was buried.
The Controversy in the Fourth International: Two Policies Regarding the Bolivian Revolution
There are political tendencies that believe that Trotskyism as a whole failed for not being able to maintain a Bolshevik political line in Bolivia in 1952. This is the case, for example, for Liborio Justo of Argentina (17). Such a position is pure fantasy. First, because it is false to say that no one questioned the policy that was being implemented in Bolivia, and second, because the fact is that there were 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 into outright betrayal, lies primarily wih the Pabloite leadership of the Fourth International, which won the young and inexperienced Bolivian section to its political line. Even before the outbreak of the revolution, the international leadership had set in motion a plan 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 debating the Bolivian revolution within the Fourth International. There were those who demanded explanations, such as the California tendency of the SWP led by Vern and Ryan (who later left the Trotskyist movement), denouncing the policy of the POR for not opposing the bourgeois government. But there were also those, such as our own Morenoist tendency, who tirelessly fought for an alternative proposal to that of the leadership of the Fourth International and the Bolivian POR. (20)
The current led by Moreno modified its policy as it learned more about the situation in Bolivia, but even from the outset it called on workers to oppose the bourgeois government of the MNR. In May 1952, opposing critical support to the MNR 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 on its own 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: “Now more than ever, the slogan For bands of armed workers! must become reality to deal with it the Estenssoro government which is paving the way of betrayal”.
Starting in May/June ’52, the Argentine POR published articles advocating for the COB control of the government and the denunciation of Juan Lechín Oquendo as a government agent within 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)
Throughout this period, the Pabloite leadership of the Fourth International, which defined the situation as “very advanced Kerenskyism” (23), failed to call for power to the COB and the militias. In 1954, before MNR’s turn to the right, the Pabloite leadership proposed a democratic program: general elections, universal suffrage, a constituent assembly and the 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) replied, “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 represented for Latin American Trotskyism.
The lessons of the revolution
The Bolivian Revolution of 1952 was the largest, the most perfect and classic workers’ revolution to have occurred since the Russian Revolution of 1917.
This revolution was so profound that despite being defeated, the defeat of another revolution (of 1985) was needed to finish the reversal of its conquests. And some of them, such as the land reform, have yet to be completely eliminated.
But these great conquests of the revolution: the nationalization under workers’ control, the land reform, without the consolidation of the most important conquest on the agenda, the seizure of power by the workers, were emptied of staying power and began to be used to the advantage of bourgeoisie. 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) who at the end of the day 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”. Today, the fact remains that 2 million, primarily indigenous, rural families work 5 million hectares of land, while fewer than 100 families own the 27 million other hectares of arable land.
But the biggest negative consequence of the defeat of the revolution of ’52 was the crisis of revolutionary leadership. In ’52, it may have been possible to reverse this crisis. If the struggle for workers’ power had developed further (to say nothing of what would have happened if it had fully succeeded) in Bolivia under the leadership of a Trotskyist party, a door would have opened for the Fourth International to win mass influence, at least in Latin America. That alone could have changed the destiny of our continent. Imagine what might have happened if in 1959 the outbreak of the Cuban revolution had had the backing of a revolutionary International with mass influence with the ability and the willingness to extend the revolution on the continental level.
But that opportunity was missed. And due to the worst of reasons. Not due to the superiority of the enemy, but because the revolutionary party didn’t live up to tasks of the day. It did not propose a fight for workers’ power, and instead capitulated to the class conciliation government. Thus, Engels’ darkest prediction came true 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 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 remnants of the split POR won 2,239 votes for president, against 786,729 of Siles Suazo of the MNR and 12,273 for the Stalinist candidate.
Twice more, history repeats itself
The Bolivian working class has extraordinary resilience. So, after experiencing dictatorships and fierce repression, 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 dual power. In both cases, the COB led and centralized the fighting, and its leadership (still led by Lechín) refused to fight for power, giving support to bourgeois factions.
The result was predictable: the defeat of the revolution. In 1971 this occurred through the coup led by General Banzer, inaugurating seven years of a repressive dictatorship.
In 1985, the defeat occured “peacefully”. 10,000 miners occupying the city of La Paz for 16 for days, armed with explosives, were convinced by Lechín to return to their districts because they supposedly had no weapons. The bourgeoisie, with mediation provided by the Church, expedited the election to replace the dying popular front government headed by Siles Suazo. The workers, deeply demoralized, witnessing the fall of a government they believed to have been theirs, saw how their former “comrade” Paz Estenssoro emerged as the new president. Ironically, president selected by the Revolution of ’52 would be the man to implement the neoliberal plan of dismantling what remained of the conquests of the revolution. This defeat, 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 proposed by the socialist program 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 central workers’ organization, leading the peasants and other popular sectors, has returned to jeopardize the bourgeois power. It is the responsibility of Bolivians and Latin American revolutionaries to make every effort to build the revolutionary leadership that prevents history from repeating itself once more.
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 Gary 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 Fourth International came out of WWII in a weakened state. Trotsky had been murdered and the FI had suffered the persecution and extermination of a large number of its cadres at the hands of both 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 theorized that a third world war was imminent, (between the USSR and western imperialism) and that the CPs would radicalize. They promoted a policy of entryism into 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 ministers 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 used by the militias.
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 Gary 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 Fifth 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
Addendum: 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 supported by a 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 upholding 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 can we get weapons? The fundamental thing is to teach grassroots workers that they have to arm themselves against the militarized 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 not only the army, but also the 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. Since then, December 21 has been commemorated every year as the “Miner’s Day”.