Revolution in Bolivia: All Power to the Popular Assemblies!
By Alan Woods
The Bolivian revolution is an inspiration to the workers and youth of the whole world. In the last few days it has reached a decisive stage. The masses have risen. The workers and peasants have occupied the streets and central squares in La Paz and El Alto. Miners march with dynamite in their fists. Thousands of peasants march on the capital. The army and police are powerless to control the situation. The hated President Carlos Mesa has been forced to resign. Parliament is suspended in mid-air. Power has passed to the streets.
Faced with the mighty movement of the masses, the Bolivian ruling class is paralyzed and impotent. The desperation and powerlessness of the ruling class is demonstrated by the fact that sections of the oligarchy are attempting to split the country, separating the wealthy eastern provinces around Santa Cruz from the more revolutionary western provinces around La Paz and El Alto. By this fact alone the degenerate oligarchy admits defeat even before the battle has started. They know very well that they cannot inflict a decisive defeat on the masses in a direct conflict.
The fact that sections of the ruling class want to break away from Bolivia exposes their complete bankruptcy. In a desperate effort to defend their power and privileges, these reactionary parasites would be prepared to destroy Bolivia. That is the real content of their so-called “patriotism.” Like every other oligarchy in Latin America, they are vampires and agents of imperialism who have become fat by sucking the life’s blood out of their country.
The crisis of Bolivia is exclusively the responsibility of the oligarchy and imperialism. It reflects the total impasse of capitalism in Bolivia, its inability to solve the most elementary needs of the people. The landlords and capitalists have ruined Bolivia and reduced a potentially prosperous country to beggary. No progress is possible as long as the wealth of the nation remains in the hands of these bandits.
This crisis is not just an episodic political crisis. It cannot be resolved by a change of government, a new President, a reshuffle of ministers, or even by new elections and a constituent assembly. It is a crisis of the system, and can only be resolved by a fundamental change in society. That is why the Bolivian workers and peasants have inscribed on their banner demands for the overthrow of bankrupt bourgeois parliamentarism and its replacement by workers’ and people’s power.
The main force in the Bolivian revolution is the working class and its natural allies, the peasantry and the poor masses of the cities. Over a period of 18 months’ struggle (since the autumn of 2003) the Bolivian masses have shown tremendous fighting spirit, courage and class-consciousness. Here is the final answer to all the half-hearts, cowards, skeptics and cynics who questioned the ability of the working class to change society! Here is the final answer to those who argued that the socialist revolution was no longer on the agenda in the 21st century!
General strike poses question of power
The working class has moved through its traditional mass organizations, the trade unions, the COB (Bolivia’s militant trade union federation), which has organized a general strike. The general strike is the instrument that has brought the masses to their feet, mobilizing millions, providing them with a focal point, concentrating their forces and inspiring them with the necessary inspiration and encouragement, while simultaneously disorganizing the ruling class and paralyzing the organs of state repression.
The success of the general strike, which is spreading every day to new areas and layers of the class, is a most important element in the revolutionary equation. It shows the workers what tremendous power lies in their hands. It proves that without the working class not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns and not a telephone rings. It proves that society cannot function without the working class—but society can function perfectly well without the parasites who have hitherto ruled it and led it into a bottomless abyss.
Yes, the general strike is a most powerful lever for mobilizing the working class, arousing previously inert and inactive layers to revolutionary activity and class-consciousness. But in and of itself the general strike can solve nothing. It poses the question of power, but cannot answer the question. The question is simply stated: who rules society? who is the master of the house? This question, however, must be answered, and answered without any hesitation or ambiguity.
No society can exist indefinitely in a state of ferment and instability. The ruling class complains about “chaos” and instability. They demand order. In one sense they are correct. Society has been reduced to a state of chaos by the rule of an irresponsible and corrupt clique of bankers, capitalists and landlords and their venal political servants.
The revolutionary movement of the masses is not the cause of the chaos, but an attempt to eliminate the chaos and institute a new order in society. It is self-evident that the new social order demanded by the masses can only be achieved by means of a radical and complete break with the old regime. In order to carry out this break it is necessary to pass beyond the limits of the general strike. It is necessary for the general strike to become transformed into an insurrection.
In order to carry out this task, the working class must be organized. It must draw in every layer of the class—not only the industrial proletariat, the miners and oil workers, but the white-collar workers, the teachers, the bank employees, the civil servants. It must not restrict its appeal to the traditional organized sections, but must strive to draw in the hitherto unorganized layers—the unemployed, the urban poor, the housewives, the street vendors, the students, the small shopkeepers and the peasants.
For this titanic task, the traditional structures of the COB are insufficient. It is necessary to set up new organizational forms—action committees and revolutionary cabildos [councils]—which are broad and flexible enough to draw the wider masses into the revolutionary movement. The insurgent workers have begun to organize themselves in different ways—revolutionary assemblies, strike committees, open cabildos etc. That is the way to proceed! The new social order can only be built from the bottom up. Its first task is to struggle against the existing power, to confront it in struggle and to defeat and disarm it. That is the central goal, the task of the moment.
The committees and cabildos must be organized and linked up on a local, district, regional and national level. Their initial function will be as organs of mass struggle. Their most pressing tasks will be determined by the immediate demands of the movement: to organize and centralize the struggles of the masses: strikes, demonstrations, roadblocks, boycotts etc. They must organize self-defense units to maintain order and protect the workers’ demonstrations and picket lines against fascist aggressions. They must organize the distribution of supplies to the population and prevent speculation and profiteering. They must control prices and ensure the functioning of all public services.
To the degree that the workers’ organizations succeed in performing these tasks, they will naturally assume the role of an alternative power—a workers’ government. They will challenge the old authorities and increasingly displace them. The old corrupt officials and bureaucrats will be elbowed to one side as the masses begin to take the running of society into their hands.
Elements of dual power
In truth, the elements of dual power already exist in Bolivia, as is proven by the reports we have received from eyewitnesses (see Bolivian People’s Assembly launched). The decisions taken by the First Amplified Meeting of the National Popular Assembly demonstrate the unerring revolutionary instinct of the masses.
By a decision of this meeting, El Alto, the storm center of the Bolivian revolution, has declared itself to be the General Staff of the revolution. This means that the most determined proletarian elements have decided to place themselves at the head of the nation, providing the necessary leadership to the popular masses. The latter will look to the proletariat to provide them with firm leadership. The whole record of El Alto in the last period of ferocious class struggles convinces us that they will not be disappointed.
Secondly, they have decided to set up a united leadership of the National Popular Assembly specifically as an organ (instrument) of power, standing at the head of the Federation of neighborhood committees (juntas vecinales), linked to the COB, the miners’ union and other workers and peasants unions throughout the country.
It is absolutely necessary to establish a centralized revolutionary leadership. Without this, it will be impossible to defeat the centralized power of the bourgeois state. The new power moreover has posed before itself the tasks of supply, self-defense, control of the press (another essential task of the revolutionary movement) and also political questions.
The last point is extremely significant. The movement has already gone far beyond the limits of a “normal” trade union struggle. The original limited aims of the movement have receded into history. Even the demand for the nationalization of the oil and gas industries—though still correct and necessary—is no longer sufficient.
This is not a question of nationalizing this or that sector, but of who runs society. The struggle over a single issue (the control of Bolivia’s natural resources) has become transformed into a question of power. Whoever does not understand this—whoever tries to drag the movement back into “safe” channels, such as constitutional reform, constituent assemblies etc., is, in effect, playing a counterrevolutionary role.
The National Popular Assembly inscribes on its banner the nationalization of oil and gas. That remains correct. But the first question is: who will carry this out? It is quite possible that the bourgeoisie, faced with the possibility of losing everything, will now offer some form of “nationalization” in order to defuse the movement. They are already playing with the offer of new elections and a Constituent Assembly (sometime in the future). All this is a deceit—an attempt to confuse the masses and demobilize them.
But the workers are vigilant and will not allow themselves to be tricked so easily. They have already had the experience of 2003, when the revolutionary movement succeeded in overthrowing Lozada, only to be cheated of power by a parliamentary maneuver at the top that merely replaced Lozada by Mesa. In essence nothing changed. The masses know this very well and are not inclined to be fooled twice in the same way.
The meeting at El Alto therefore “rejects all the maneuvers of the ruling class to bring about a constitutional succession or elections by these same political tricksters (politiqueros)” and instead calls for the setting up of Popular Assemblies at departmental levels under the control of the COB, and elected delegates from the mass meetings (elegidos en asambleas y cabildos).
The question of the party
The role of the COB in all this is absolutely central. It is the traditional mass organization of the Bolivian workers. It has played an outstanding role in organizing and extending the general strike. But we must sound a note of caution. The leaders of the COB must not limit themselves to radical speeches. They must pass from speeches to action.
The COB leaders have stated that the COB made a mistake in the autumn of 2003 when it did not take power. That is quite right! The COB could and should have taken power at that time. This was quite possible. Instead, the leaders of the COB vacillated, lost time and in the end they allowed Carlos Mesa to take power. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and that also applies to politics. Of course, to commit errors is only human. But it would be criminal to repeat the same mistake twice.
The COB leaders have also stated that the reason they did not take power was the absence of a revolutionary party. That is an extraordinary admission to make! It is true that the reason the October Revolution in Russia triumphed was because of the existence of the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. But it is also true that in February the Bolshevik Party was a small minority in the working class and the soviets. In Bolivia there is no Bolshevik Party—although there is a strong Bolshevik (Trotskyist) tradition among the workers and many thousands of activists have been schooled in this tradition, which is expressed in the Pulacayo theses passed in 1946 by the miners federation and later adopted by the COB.
If a Bolshevik Party existed in Bolivia the task of taking power would be immeasurably easier. But the task still remains and cannot be deferred to a later date. The working class is not a tap that can be turned off and on according to the desires and conveniences of the revolutionary party, the COB or anyone else. The workers and peasants of Bolivia are demanding that power be transferred into their hands right now. The objective conditions are most favorable for this. In fact, it is impossible to conceive of more favorable circumstances. If this opportunity is allowed to slip through our fingers, it may be many years before a similar opportunity will arise.
In such a situation, to refuse to take power on the grounds that “we do not have a revolutionary party” is not a sufficient excuse. There have been circumstances in history when the workers have taken power without the aid of a revolutionary party. It is sufficient to cite the case of the Paris Commune in this respect. Marx said that the workers of Paris had “stormed heaven.” They overthrew the old bourgeois state and set about creating a new kind of state power—or more correctly, a semi-state, as Engels called it—a power organized on extremely democratic lines, representing the majority of society against the tiny minority of exploiters.
Lenin pointed out many times the four basic rules of the Paris Commune, which served as a basis for the Soviet power in Russia:
1. Free and democratic elections with right of recall of all functionaries.
2. No official to receive a higher wage than a worker.
3. No standing army but the armed people.
4. Gradually all the tasks of running society should be performed by everybody in turn (“when everybody is a bureaucrat in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat”)
This simple program can be the basis for a workers’ state in Bolivia. There is no great mystery here, no particular difficulty. Every Bolivian worker and peasant can easily understand the principles of soviet power, the principles of the Paris Commune. The Bolivian worker and peasant may not understand exactly what they want, but they understand perfectly well what they do not want. They do not want Mesa or any one of the alternative bourgeois candidates. They do not want the rule of the Bolivian bankers, landlords and capitalists. They do not want their country to be subordinated to the imperialists. They do not want a fake bourgeois parliament or a fake “constituent assembly.” They want to take power.
In February 1917 the Russian workers and soldiers, organized in the soviets, overthrew the thousand year-old tsarist regime. As in the case of the Paris Commune, there was no party to lead them. That did not stop them, but it did mean that they were unable to carry through the revolution to the end. It resulted in the abortion of “dual power.” In the end Lenin and Trotsky succeeded in winning the support of the majority of the workers in the soviets through a combination of principled firmness and tactical flexibility.
The main slogan of the Bolsheviks after February was “All Power to the Soviets” (not the Constituent Assembly” as some so-called Trotskyists in Latin America seem to imagine). But it should not be forgotten that at this time, the Russian soviets were under the leadership, not of the Bolsheviks (who remained a small minority) but of the left reformists and centrists (Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries). When Lenin advanced the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” he was saying to the leaders of the Soviets: “Take the power. You have the support of the majority. If you take power, we Bolsheviks will support you and then the struggle for power will be reduced to a peaceful debate within the soviets.”
Lenin made speeches on these lines on innumerable occasions after February. He demanded repeatedly that the leaders of the Soviets take power and implement a policy in the interests of the workers and peasants. The Bolivian Marxists should do the same. Those who stand at the head of the COB and the Popular Assemblies have a duty to take the movement forward. If you say “A” you must say “B,” “C” and “D.” By their actions the leaders have plunged bourgeois society into a profound crisis. Having taken the movement so far, it is impossible now to turn back. It is necessary to grasp the nettle, to advance to the seizure of power.
In principle, it would be quite possible for the workers of Bolivia to take power through their democratic organs—the popular assemblies, strike committees, revolutionary cabildos and neighborhood committees (juntas vecinales) and then proceed to build a party—or more correctly parties, since all trends can be accommodated except those of the counterrevolution. The thing is to take power while the conditions allow it, and not to wait.
Reformism and the question of power
At this point the reformists of all kinds will enter into panic. They will present all kinds of difficulties, problems and dangers. They will attempt to frighten the workers with the specter of power. The reformists are never short of arguments against the workers taking power. The main argument is always the same: the risk of civil war, of terrible bloodshed and violence. Of course, if this argument were correct there would never have been a single revolution in the whole of human history, and humanity would still be languishing under conditions of slavery. But all history shows that it is not correct.
On paper the ruling class in Bolivia possesses a considerable armed power. It has an army and a police force. In theory, this is more than sufficient to maintain “order” (that is, to keep the masses in conditions of servitude forever). But unfortunately for the ruling class the army and the police are composed of men and women, and men and women are affected by the general mood of society. The rank and file of the army and police in the main naturally sympathise with the workers and peasants, although they can usually be kept under control by the habits of discipline and fear of the officers. But in a crisis as deep as that of Bolivia, cracks open up even in the tops of the army. Discipline is stretched to breaking point and the slightest pressure can destroy it altogether.
A significant section of the army officers in Bolivia are discontented with the whole situation. They see the rottenness and corruption of the oligarchy. Their sense of national pride is injured by the spectacle of big foreign corporations plundering the country’s natural wealth. Some have publicly associated themselves with the demand for the nationalization of oil and gas. Above all, the attempts on the part of the reactionary oligarchy to split away from Bolivia—a step that, if it were carried out, would signify the destruction of nation—has caused indignation and fury in the ranks of the officer corps.
Splits have opened up in both the army and the police, revealing the fact that what we are witnessing is no ordinary crisis but a crisis of the regime. The parliament is hanging by a very feeble thread. All the bourgeois political leaders and parties are discredited. The institutions of bourgeois power lack any real authority. The old state power is cracking apart like a block of brittle concrete that has been struck by a heavy sledgehammer. A good push, however, will be necessary to bring the whole unsound structure crashing to the ground.
Some leaders of the COB have unfortunately drawn the wrong conclusions from the existence of radical trends among the army officers. It seems that Solares has some illusions in the possible emergence of a left army officer to lead the movement. Probably he is thinking of an analogy with Venezuela. But there can be no such analogy. In Venezuela, the movement around Hugo Chavez emerged out of a defeated insurrection of February 1989 (the Caracazo). This was undoubtedly a progressive development. It enabled the masses to regroup after a terrible defeat and advance, first on the electoral-parliamentary plane and subsequently through direct mass action that has placed the perspective of a socialist revolution firmly on the agenda in Venezuela.
The situation in Bolivia today is not only not similar to that in Venezuela in 1989-90. It is the exact opposite. The working class has not been defeated. On the contrary, it is on the offensive and is sweeping all before it. It is setting up organs of power and directly challenging the bourgeois regime. This is far more advanced than the kind of spontaneous mass insurrection that we saw in the Caracazo. The consciousness of the Bolivian workers is also more advanced. This reflects the revolutionary traditions of 1952, when the workers of Bolivia rose up and shattered the forces of the bourgeois state. It is also the results of decades of activity and propaganda of a Bolshevik (Trotskyist) character that has left a deep imprint on the thinking of at least the most advanced layer.
It is an elementary proposition that the task of the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves. It is entirely unworthy of revolutionaries to surrender this task to anyone else. We must not entrust our destiny to the representatives of other classes, no matter how sincere and progressive they may seem to be. Our advice to the workers is this: trust only in yourselves, in your own forces, your own organization and consciousness. We must not look for saviors from on high, but must move to take the running of society into our own hands. In the words of the Internationale:
No judge, no emperor, no God.
We workers know the way they love us,
And only we can will our good.”
The Constituent Assembly slogan
At the present time all the conditions exist for a peaceful transference of power to the working class in Bolivia. Only the leadership is lacking. Sooner or later, on the basis of their collective experience, the masses, beginning with the proletarian vanguard, will draw the necessary conclusions and move to take power. But if too much time is wasted, if the leadership vacillates and loses opportunities, if the leaders do not pass from speeches to actions, the opportunity can be missed, as it was missed in the autumn of 2003.
The ruling class has suffered a series of heavy blows in Bolivia. It is down but not yet out. It can still stagger back to the struggle and even win. But its chief weapon will not be force (only because it has not got sufficient forces to rely upon) but cunning. It is not strong enough to crush the revolution in blood, at least for the moment. It cannot use the mailed fist, for to do so would be to plunge the country into a civil war, which it would not be certain of winning and would very likely lose. Instead it must rely on delaying tactics, wooing the masses with false smiles and hypocritical promises.
The bourgeoisie will play for time, conscious of its weakness. It will try to hold onto power by advancing all kinds of “clever” alternatives and lawyers’ tricks. Among these, the main trick is to offer the masses a Constituent Assembly—a slogan which, regrettably, has been taken up obsessively by certain left groups in Latin America. We will speak clearly on this subject (not for the first time). The slogan of the Constituent Assembly, in the concrete conditions of the Bolivian revolution is nothing more than a deception and a trap.
In a situation where the masses are openly in revolt against the bourgeois order, in which bourgeois parliamentary politics are regarded by the overwhelming majority with a mixture of contempt and suspicion, in which the working class, in alliance with the urban poor and the peasants, are building organs of revolutionary power in opposition to the bourgeois parliament, in such a situation, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly has a counterrevolutionary content. It is the slogan of the bourgeois counterrevolution in a democratic disguise.
Instead of soldiers with machine guns and bayonets they will send their second line of defense into action: the professional “democratic” and “left” politicians, the smart lawyers and constitutional experts. They will promise the sun, the moon and the stars—sometime in the future, after the workers and peasants have called off their struggles and gone home to await the decision of constitutional debates that take place behind locked doors. “Wait for the Constitution,” “Wait for elections,” “Wait for this and wait for that.” And when the workers have sunk back into inactivity, the old exploiters can quietly resume control over the state and society.
If the working class fails to take power, probably Evo Morales will come to power, and this will be the Bolivian equivalent of a Kerensky government. But whereas in Russia, Kerensky’s government lasted only a few months, this will not necessarily be the case in Bolivia. The reason for the short duration of Russian Kerenskyism was the existence of two powerful alternatives: Bolshevism and fascism. That is not the case in Bolivia, at least not at the present time. Given the weakness of the ruling class at the present time, a bloody right wing coup is practically ruled out. The bourgeoisie will have to base itself upon other forces. It will have to lean on its left boot. Bolivia will pass through a stage of bourgeois parliamentarism, which will be very unstable and subject to continual crises, but which can theoretically last for some time.
The ace card in the sleeve of the ruling class and its strategists (probably its only card) is the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. They will dangle this slogan before the people like a skilful angler dangling a fat worm before a fish he wishes to eat for supper. Yet some on the Left continue to support this demand, although they do not bother to ask themselves why it is also supported by the bourgeoisie. In order to hide their embarrassment at this self-evident contradiction, some of them resort to sophisms such as: “Ah but whether we support the Constituent Assembly slogan or not depends on who calls it.”
Such “clever” sophistry does not carry us very far at all. Nor does it remove the central contradiction. For if the working class is strong enough to convene the Constituent Assembly, it is strong enough to take power into its own hands. That, in fact, is the real situation in Bolivia, and any other perspective is merely a reactionary diversion. Our slogan is not the Constituent Assembly but All Power to the Popular Assemblies. We must concentrate the minds of the masses, and in particular the working class and its vanguard on the question of power.
The working class must take power!
As always happens in every revolution, events are moving with extreme rapidity. Last Monday, half a million people demonstrated in the streets of La Paz. The same day President Mesa announced his resignation. Armies of workers, peasants and miners are on the march. And the revolutionary consciousness of the masses is also taking giant steps forward. Yesterday, the workers’ and peasants’ representatives voted in El Alto for a program that amounts to workers’ power. That message must be spread to every city, town and village in Bolivia, even as the general strike is spreading to every city, town and village.
Lenin long ago explained the conditions for a revolutionary situation: the ruling class must be in crisis, split and unable to act. The middle class must be vacillating between revolution and loyalty to the old order. The working class must be aroused and willing to make the greatest exertions and sacrifices to change society. Last but not least, there must be a revolutionary party and leadership. All these conditions are now present in Bolivia—with one important exception—the revolutionary party.
The workers have shown their willingness to fight and their iron determination. To the degree that the workers take decisive action they will attract to their side the mass of the petty bourgeoisie, which is also seeking a way out of a crisis that has become intolerable for the whole of society. Lenin wrote that for the revolution to succeed it was necessary for the middle class to be vacillating between the ruling class and the working class. But in Bolivia that is not the case. At least in La Paz, the mass of the middle class—probably the decisive sections—support the revolutionary movement.
As for the army and police, they show no signs of moving decisively to suppress the revolution. According to some reports peasant women, marching at the head of demonstrations, have appealed successfully to the police not to act against the marchers. As a result there have been no cases of serious repression so far. Given the situation, and the splits within the army and police, just one such incident would be enough to shatter the army in pieces.
The old state apparatus is breaking down before our very eyes. The mood of the masses is not to seek accommodation with the old power but to sweep it aside, to smash it utterly and build a new society. It is not only Mesa who is discredited but the whole social and political order. That is why the masses cry: “Down with the bourgeois parliament!” But something must be put in its place: that something can only be a workers and peasants government based on, and answerable to, the Popular Assemblies.
The decisive element is the movement of the working class, which is taking direct action from below. The workers are occupying the factories. According to one report that I have just received, the oil workers union has voted that every lorry loaded with gas cylinders that leaves Senkhata will be accompanied by one representative of the workers and one from the neighborhood committees (juntas vecinales) who will make sure that the lorry is not diverted into speculative activities or sent to the suburbs of the rich. This is a concrete example of workers’ control from below.
The most urgent task is to unite the most conscious elements of the workers vanguard on a revolutionary program. The time for making revolutionary speeches is over. It is necessary to pass from words to deeds. The present favorable conjunction will not last indefinitely. Time is not on our side. What is needed is decisive action. The Bolivian ruling class has revealed itself as weak, corrupt, degenerate and reactionary. It must be overthrown and replaced by a workers government.
In the past there have been many revolutionary movements in Bolivia. Some have succeeded; some have failed. But none have carried out a fundamental change in society, and therefore none have solved any of the fundamental problems. But this time there is a big difference. A revolutionary wave is sweeping through Latin America. The reactionary forces are everywhere on the defensive. Everywhere the workers and peasants are beginning to rise. Just one decisive victory of the working class in any country of Latin America can dramatically alter the whole situation.
The revolutionary movement in Venezuela provides a source of inspiration for millions of poor workers and peasants. The recent upheavals in Ecuador (which are by no means finished) are an expression of the general instability, which has revolutionary implications. Now Bolivia has placed the socialist revolution on the order of the day. The workers and youth of all Latin America—and of the whole world—will welcome the Bolivian revolution with the greatest enthusiasm and support it by every means at their disposal.
Not long ago the skeptics and cynics were speaking in contemptuous terms about the alleged death of socialism and the impossibility of revolution anywhere on the planet. They wished to smother the natural optimism of the youth under a thick shroud of corrosive pessimism and doubt. The inspiring events that we are witnessing in Venezuela and Bolivia have cut the ground from under the feet of these ladies and gentlemen. We can now fling their words back in their faces and say: What a wonderful period in human history we have been born in! What an inspiration are the struggles of the working class! And what marvelous possibilities are beginning to open up for the human race!
—In Defense of Marxism (UK), June 9, 2005.