Workers Vanguard No. 868

14 April 2006



Trotskyism vs. Bourgeois Nationalism

The election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia in December was hailed by a range of liberal “anti-globalization” activists and social democrats internationally as a blow to U.S. imperialism, largely based on Morales’ pledge to nationalize oil and gas reserves. Heading the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS—Movement Toward Socialism), Morales won an outright majority of the vote in the biggest landslide victory since the end of military rule in 1982. Much of Morales’ support stemmed from the fact that he is an Aymara Indian, the son of a shepherd, in a country marked by deep anti-Indian racism. Reporting on Morales’ inauguration, the New York Times (22 January) commented that his election may represent “the hardest turn yet in South America’s persistent left-leaning tilt, with the potential for big reverberations far beyond the borders of this landlocked Andean nation.”

The Bush administration, which has chastised Morales for his base among Bolivia’s coca farmers, has responded cautiously to his election. The Washington Post (21 February) remarked in an article titled “U.S. Officials Soften Stance Toward Bolivia’s New Leftist President” that “for now, at least, the Bush administration is hoping that Evo Morales, who once threatened to become ‘America’s worst nightmare,’ is a man with whom it can do business.” The imperialists are also aware that Bolivia is a very poor country and that Morales has fewer resources at his disposal than Hugo Chávez in oil-rich Venezuela.

A bourgeois nationalist, Morales is committed to “Andean capitalism” and “free trade.” Immediately after his election, he traveled to Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia, a center of the country’s business elite, where he expressed sympathy for their demand for autonomy from the impoverished western region. He also agreed to privatize El Mutún, one of the biggest iron mines in the world, and has sought to cement the bourgeoisie’s allegiance by appointing to his cabinet a veritable rogues’ gallery of shady businessmen and supporters of his “neoliberal” predecessors. Thus Morales handed the Ministry of Mines to one Walter Villarroel, who in a previous stint in the government played a pivotal role in dismantling the state-owned Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL) and privatizing mining operations. Just last month, workers at Lloyd Aereo Boliviano, the country’s main airline, who were on strike demanding that the company be nationalized, clashed with police after Morales ordered military and police forces to seize control of the country’s airports in order to break the strike.

In calling to “nationalize” Bolivia’s natural resources, Morales echoes a longstanding program in Latin America. The main demand of the protesters in Bolivia last year for nationalization of oil and gas is supportable as a measure of national self-defense by a semicolonial country against the imperialists, albeit hardly socialist in character. In regard to the expropriation of the oil industry by the bourgeois-nationalist Cárdenas regime in Mexico in 1938, revolutionary Marxist leader Leon Trotsky wrote:

“Semicolonial Mexico is fighting for its national independence, political and economic. This is the basic meaning of the Mexican revolution at this stage. The oil magnates are not rank-and-file capitalists, not ordinary bourgeoisie. Having seized the richest natural resources of a foreign country, standing on their billions and supported by the military and diplomatic forces of their metropolis, they strive to establish in the subjugated country a regime of imperialistic feudalism, subordinating to themselves legislation, jurisprudence, and administration....

“The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defense.”

—“Mexico and British Imperialism,” 5 June 1938

Bolivia is itself no stranger to nationalizations, including in the petroleum industry. The military government of David Toro (1936-37) nationalized Standard Oil Company of Bolivia without compensation, setting up a state oil company. This company took over Gulf Oil Company of Bolivia in 1969. Only in 1996 were significant portions of the oil and natural gas operations privatized. Today the Brazilian company Petrobras controls some 51 percent of Bolivia’s extensive natural gas reserves and 95 percent of its refining capacity. However, most of the natural gas reserves are not being exploited. The Association of Organizations of Ecological Producers of Bolivia noted in a 2005 report that “Bolivia has eight sectors that generate more employment than gas” and that “the entire petroleum sector gives work to some 600 people, most of them foreigners.”

Morales’ call for “nationalizations” today most likely connotes merely increased taxation. He told the social-democratic In These Times (January 2006): “We want to tax the transnationals in a fair way, and redistribute the money to the small- and medium-size enterprises.” In the December presidential election, not only Morales but every candidate raised some form of the call to nationalize the natural gas industry. A savvy politician, Morales sought to sound more militant than his competitors, while simultaneously seeking not to irreparably alienate either the Bolivian bourgeoisie or the imperialists.

The Bolivian “Revolution” of 2005

The immediate precursor to Morales’ election was a series of popular upheavals last May through June. Demonstrators protested against “neoliberalism”: the widespread privatizations of state-owned facilities and IMF-dictated austerity measures. Made possible by the defeat of a 1985 general strike, those measures resulted in the privatization of Bolivian mines and other natural resources, as well as telecommunications and transport. Laid-off miners and peasants were forced to eke out a living in small family businesses or other forms of self-employment. Many of these moved to El Alto, originally a suburb of the capital city of La Paz, but now an independent entity comprising some 800,000 people.

The 2005 upheaval was the latest in a series of desperate struggles by Bolivia’s impoverished masses. In 2000, large plebeian protests broke out in Bolivia’s third-largest city, Cochabamba, after the Hugo Banzer government acceded to World Bank demands and sold off the city’s water system to Bechtel and other corporations from imperialist countries, leading to water-rate increases of at least 200 percent. This “water war” led to Bechtel abandoning its stake and subsequently suing Bolivia for lost revenue in U.S. courts. Another revolt broke out in September 2003 upon the announcement that recently discovered natural gas reserves would be piped through Chile, a historic target of Bolivian nationalism since Chile’s victory in the 1879-83 “War of the Pacific,” which resulted in Bolivia losing its coastline. The 2003 “gas war” came to an end with the installation of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s vice president, Carlos Mesa, as president—a move that Morales was instrumental in bringing about.

The May-June 2005 protests and strikes erupted in El Alto after Congress passed a hydrocarbon bill proposed by Mesa that would favor the imperialists. Protesters raised numerous demands, including to nationalize gas and other resources, to oppose the autonomy of the wealthier Santa Cruz province, and to put Sánchez de Lozada on trial for killing protesters in the “gas war.” Mesa resigned on June 6, and elections were called for December.

The El Alto protests reflected the determination of the downtrodden masses to resist imperialist exploitation. However, to smash the chains of imperialist oppression requires a proletarian revolution led by a programmatically sufficient, i.e., a Leninist-Trotskyist, party to smash capitalist rule and establish a workers state. Such a revolution must have the perspective of spreading elsewhere in Latin America and, crucially, to the advanced capitalist countries, particularly the United States. But what has been missing since the inception of the protests in Bolivia has been participation by an organized proletariat. This in turn reflects not only the petty-bourgeois nationalist outlook of the protest leaders but the material devastation and atomization of the working class itself since the 1980s. Indeed, one of the bourgeoisie’s reasons for shutting down the state tin mines was to get rid of thousands of the miners, who had been some of the most class-conscious workers in Latin America.

The changed social composition of the recent protests has been noted by numerous individuals, including some who hail Bolivia’s “social movements.” Thus, in an article posted on the reformist Left Turn organization’s Web site, “El Alto: Epicenter of the New Bolivian Resistance” (19 January 2005), Jim Straub wrote:

“The IMF and World Bank’s economic ‘reforms’ wiped out entire sectors of the Bolivian economy—mining, manufacturing, and the public sector—that employed mass numbers of organized revolutionaries....

“Denied a livelihood in sectors like mining or public service, unemployed Bolivians gravitated to the few industries where there was any economic opportunity, the informal sector—which basically means the massive black market and street-level retail that dominates Latin America now—and coca growing....

“Whereas once armed miners and factory workers brought down governments, this past year it was indigenous associations of informal market workers and militant coca growers who forced corrupt President Sanchez Lozada to resign and flee the country.”

Permanent Revolution and Bolivia

In countries of combined and uneven development, the national bourgeoisie’s weakness and dependence on imperialism makes it incapable of achieving the gains realized by the French Revolution and other classic bourgeois revolutions, which laid the basis for economic modernization and the creation of an industrial society. As Trotsky wrote in The Permanent Revolution (1931):

“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”

In explaining the perspective of permanent revolution, Trotsky stressed that “the conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it. Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale.” The 1917 Russian Revolution broke imperialism at its “weakest link,” a backward, mainly peasant country. Generalizing from this experience, Trotsky insisted that a socialist order, which would provide material abundance for all, could not be constructed within the confines of one state. Ultimately the capitalist system had to be destroyed at its strongest points, the advanced industrial states. The proletarians of the more backward countries had to be linked to its class brothers and sisters in the West through an international revolutionary party.

The struggle of the working masses in Bolivia has been a negative confirmation of the perspective of permanent revolution. In 1952, in 1970-71 and again in 1985 the proletariat, with the tin miners in the lead, engaged in powerful actions, up to and including outright insurrection. But these struggles were betrayed by the workers’ misleaders, who tied the proletariat to the class enemy by preaching the need to ally with a supposedly “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisie. The coalition governments (popular fronts) that the workers’ misleaders entered into with the bourgeois nationalists strengthened the forces of capitalist reaction, leading time and again to military coups and bonapartist rule.

While past struggles were defeated by the betrayals of the workers’ leadership, the material devastation of Bolivia—in particular the shutting down of the tin mines and much of industry—raises another issue. The proletarian instrumentality for overturning capitalism has been qualitatively diminished. If one looks at only the relationship of forces within Bolivia itself, this period does not augur well for the struggle against imperialism and its domestic bourgeois agents. As Trotsky stressed in The Permanent Revolution:

“Under the conditions of the imperialist epoch the national democratic revolution can be carried through to a victorious end only when the social and political relationships of the country are mature for putting the proletariat in power as the leader of the masses of the people. And if this is not yet the case? Then the struggle for national liberation will produce only very partial results, results directed entirely against the working masses.”

Militants radicalized by the depredations of imperialism and capitalism in Bolivia must grasp the necessity of linking the struggles of the Bolivian masses to those in adjoining countries such as Brazil, Chile and Argentina, where there are more viable concentrations of the proletariat, as well as to the struggles of the North American working class. This proletarian-internationalist perspective is sorely lacking among the pseudo-Marxists who have enthused over the recent protests and their petty-bourgeois and bourgeois-nationalist leadership.

A case in point in the U.S. is the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO), which cheered Mesa’s resignation with a Socialist Worker (17 June 2005) article, headlined “Victory in Bolivia!” that exclaimed: “Although the fight for nationalization of gas and oil is not yet resolved, the social movements have delivered a stunning blow to the Bolivian oligarchy and U.S. imperialism.”

Also fatuously enthusing over the 2005 upheaval is the Internationalist Group (IG), whose founding members found their way out of the International Communist League in the mid 1990s due to their irrepressible appetites to cheer for forces remote from the working class. The IG turned an accusing finger on us in their Internationalist (December 2005). They pontificate:

“For its part, the now centrist Spartacist tendency has reached a new low as its Mexican comrades now denounce us for calling for soviets in the May-June Bolivian events, claiming this is impossible since according to them there is ‘no working class in Bolivia today’ (never mind the thousands of factories in the city of El Alto alone). In other words, these fake-Trotskyists believe socialist revolution is impossible in Bolivia.”

Although the IG evokes “thousands of factories in the city of El Alto alone,” these are, for the most part, not “factories” in the usual meaning of the word but small, often family-run and -owned textile shops and sweatshops. As Straub puts it, they are “people without regular work, union representation, or even the proverbial Boss to struggle against.” This is on top of the extensive unemployment in El Alto.

Writing in CounterPunch (14 October 2005), Raúl Zibechi notes:

“With regard to jobs, El Alto is characterized by self-employment. Seventy percent of the employed population works in family-run businesses (50%), or semi-business sectors (20%). These jobs are mostly in sales and the restaurant business (95% of the employed population), followed by construction and manufacturing.”

What often pass as “trade unions” are in fact groupings of artisans and the self-employed. A case in point is the Regional Workers Center (COR), which was a leading component of the El Alto protests. Noting the emergence in the 1970s of labor federations for merchants and artisans with “a strong territorial worker identity,” Zibechi wrote: “Thus emerged trade unions and organizations of artisans and vendors, bakers and butchers, who in 1988 created the COR, now joined by local bars, guesthouses, and municipal employees. These groups are mostly made up of small businesses owners and self-employed workers, a social sector that in other countries is not usually organized.”

Reading the IG’s breathless accounts of Bolivian events (gathered on its Web site under the grandiloquent title of “Bolivia: Class Battles in the Andes”), one would never know that anything had changed in the world over the past 20 years, whether in Bolivia or elsewhere. The IG denies the magnitude of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and the retrogression of proletarian consciousness worldwide accompanying this defeat. The purpose of this is to prettify existing reality in the hope of passing off as “revolutionary” the alien class forces they accommodate—whether it be burnt-out Stalinist sellouts from the DDR East German deformed workers state, trade-union opportunists in Brazil, or the like (see “Norden’s ‘Group’: Shamefaced Defectors from Trotskyism,” International Bulletin No. 38, June 1996, which can be ordered from the Spartacist Publishing Company).

The IG is a past master at denying reality. It can conjure up a fraternal section in Ukraine made up of total counterfeits (see “IG’s Potemkin Village Idiocy Ad Absurdum,” WV No. 828, 11 June 2004). The IG can conjure up a proletariat where it barely, if at all, exists, while it ignores powerful concentrations of the working class. Thus it’s notable that while the IG has written scads of articles on Bolivia (literally seven in the Summer 2005 issue of their press alone), it has mainly ignored East Asia—China, Japan and Korea—which has become an industrial heartland of the world.

The 1952 Revolution

In 1952 the Bolivian working class, led by tin miners organized in the FSTMB miners union, spearheaded a promising opportunity for workers revolution. In April of that year an attempted coup sparked an insurrection in which armed workers defeated the army. A powerful labor federation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), was formed and became the primary authority not only for organized labor but for much of the peasantry and urban petty bourgeoisie. As miners demanded workers control of the newly nationalized tin mines and peasants anticipated the promised land reform by seizing some large estates, COB top Juan Lechín joined the bourgeois government of Víctor Paz Estenssoro’s Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). Thus Lechín and other “workers ministers” became the bourgeoisie’s instrument to subordinate the aroused masses to the capitalist regime.

At the time, the POR (Revolutionary Workers Party), an ostensibly Trotskyist organization, enjoyed real influence in the COB executive. The POR was led by Guillermo Lora, who became known for his national Menshevism and contempt for anything outside the borders of Bolivia, boasting that “Bolivia is the richest experience of world Trotskyism.” Lora demonstrated his disdain for the lessons of the Russian Revolution, not least the need for the political independence of the working class. The POR supported Lechín’s entry into the bourgeois government, asserting that it “supports the left wing faction of the new cabinet,” and called on Paz Estenssoro to “realize the hopes of the workers by organizing a cabinet composed exclusively of men of the left of his [bourgeois!] party.” In counterposition, the Bolsheviks in 1917 refused any support to the bourgeois Kerensky government, exposed the reformist Menshevik and Social Revolutionary class traitors who joined the government, and led the working masses to shatter bourgeois rule through proletarian revolution (see “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Bolivia,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 40, Summer 1987).

The nationalization of the tin mines as well as a modest agrarian reform were among the concessions granted by the Bolivian bourgeoisie in 1952 as a means of staving off revolution. However, as subsequent events proved, such reforms are eminently reversible. Indeed, as the threat of social revolution receded, the capitalists began to move against the workers. The army was rebuilt with U.S. dollars and advisers, on the basis of a decree cosigned by Lechín. This army became notorious for its bloody massacres of the combative miners. By 1957 the MNR felt sufficiently secure to invite the U.S. to take over the Bolivian economy under the “Triangular Plan” of austerity and union-busting.

When the IG today gushes over the FSTMB miners’ participation in protests, it is trying to dupe the uninformed reader into believing the FSTMB is still the spearhead of the militant proletariat. This is sheer chicanery. Between 1985 and 1987 the state tin mining company reduced its workforce from 30,000 to 7,000; subsequently the operations were privatized. The Library of Congress, in its country study on Bolivia, notes, “The restructuring of the nationalized mining sector, especially the mass layoffs, had decimated the FSTMB.” The bulk of the people working in the industry today are in fact engaged, along with their families, in sifting through the remains of closed mines or straining minerals out of rivers, selling what they find on the black market or on the street. Their atomized position makes them more akin to petty-bourgeois prospectors rather than proletarians.

The COB, the historic union federation of 1952, has also changed radically. As Herbert S. Klein notes in A Concise History of Bolivia (2003): “The base of the radical left has been transformed with the decline of the old labor central, the COB, and the miner’s FSTMB and the rise of new peasant organizations.… Soon the CSUTCB [peasant confederation] held a major stake in the COB and would eventually take over its leadership and reorient its demands toward these new themes.”

It is a logical consequence of the recent protests that Bolivia’s new leader is a farmer. His crop, and that of his social base, is coca, which after the collapse of the tin market became a key export. In fact, the coca farmers “union” has supplanted the FSTMB as the strongest component of the COB!

U.S.-imposed drug eradication programs—carried out under both Democratic and Republican administrations—brought financial ruin to Bolivia’s coca farmers. Morales seeks to cooperate with the U.S. in eradicating cocaine production while hoping that Washington will allow him to “depenalize” the coca leaf. Coca has many traditional uses. Many chew it to alleviate hunger pains—a powerful inducement in the second-poorest country of the Western Hemisphere. The Bush administration, however, is predictably hostile to anything having to do with coca. This puts Morales in a tight spot between his social base and the imperialists he is seeking to placate. As Marxists, we oppose the U.S. rulers’ “war on drugs” and call for decriminalizing drug use.

For Socialist Revolution Throughout the Americas!

Numerous commentators have predicted that if Morales doesn’t carry out his campaign pledges, he will fall as did the previous two presidents. This may be true. Then again, Bolivia has had almost 200 governments since gaining independence from Spain in 1825, and each has administered economic exploitation and misery. It points to the weakness of Bolivia’s bourgeoisie that a president can be toppled largely through activities as simple as blocking its main roads. In the context of tremendous backwardness, Bolivia’s instability recalls what Trotsky, addressing Spain’s chronic turmoil, called “the chronic convulsions expressing the intractable disease of a nation thrown backward” (“The Revolution in Spain,” 24 January 1931).

Confined to the borders of Bolivia and with the proletariat absent as an organized force, the social upheavals that grow out of the country’s instability can only result in some variant of capitalist rule. What is crucially necessary is to build an international revolutionary workers party that can link the struggles of Bolivia’s impoverished masses—particularly of those proletarians that exist—to the powerful working class that exists in other Latin American countries, the U.S. and elsewhere. Such a party will be built in Latin America in sharp opposition to bourgeois nationalists and reformist politicians of all stripes.

It will also be built in opposition to the national chauvinism that has long characterized even “leftist” politics in Bolivia. Guillermo Lora’s POR largely focused its opposition to the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer in the 1970s on accusations that the latter had sold out the “fatherland” to Chile and Peru. The POR also accused Banzer of betraying the “great national task” of regaining access to the sea—an implicit call for war to reverse Bolivia’s defeat by Chile in the late 19th century. The last time landlocked Bolivia attempted to win a “road to the sea,” the result was the bloody Chaco War of 1932-35, in which Bolivia battled Paraguay over the potentially oil-rich Chaco region and access to the Paraguay River outlet to the Atlantic. With Standard Oil backing Bolivia and Shell Oil on Paraguay’s side, the war ended in defeat for Bolivia and intensified Bolivian nationalism. How deep this nationalist sentiment runs was shown in the recent “gas wars” protests, when chauvinist denunciations of Chile for “stealing” Bolivia’s natural gas were rampant.

The task of tearing South and Central America out of backwardness and subjugation to imperialism falls to the proletariat of the region. As Trotsky stressed in “Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution” (May 1940):

“The slogan in the struggle against violence and intrigues of world imperialism and against the bloody work of native comprador cliques is therefore: the Soviet United States of South and Central America....

“Only under its own revolutionary direction is the proletariat of the colonies and the semicolonies capable of achieving invincible collaboration with the proletariat of the metropolitan centers, and with the world working class as a whole. Only this collaboration can lead the oppressed peoples to complete and final emancipation, through the overthrow of imperialism the world over.”