Centrist Debacle in Bolivia
Originally published in Workers Vanguard No. 3 (December 1971). First posted online at http://anti-sep-tic.blogspot.com/2009/05/1971-dec-centrist-debacle-in-bolivia.html
The issue of the role of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario in the recent Bolivian events has become inevitably a factional football in the power fight between the Healyite (SLL-WL) and Lambertiste (OCI) wings of the now split International Committee. But in addition to providing a test of, the revolutionary capacity of both wings of the IC, the lessons of Bolivia are important in their own right, as a verification, in the breech, of the lessons of the October Revolution of 1917. The POR is an avowedly Trotskyist organization under the leadership of Guillermo Lora, which since 1970 has claimed agreement with the anti-revisionist avowals of the IC. Despite its opportunist policy following the 1952 Bolivian uprising in Conciliating the left wing of the bourgeois nationalist MNR government of Paz Estenssoro, the POR is an organization which must be, treated seriously because of its considerable implantation in the most militant sector of the Bolivian proletariat, the tin miners.
The POR played an active role in the People’s Assembly which came into existence under the bonapartist regime of left militarist General Juan Jose Torres, which was overthrown by the rightist coup of General Hugo Banzer in August. The People’s Assembly was composed of a majority of representatives from working-class organizations and included representatives of the significant left political organizations. The basis for adherence to the People’s Assembly was defined as support to the Theses of the Fourth Congress of the Central Obrera Boliviana, the main trade union federation, which is heavily influenced by left nationalists and Stalinists. The People’s Assembly pledged to lead the struggle against imperialism and for socialism:
“The People’s Assembly is a revolutionary anti-imperialist front led by the proletariat, constituted by the Central Obrera Boliviana, the trade union confederations and federations of a national character, the people’s organizations and the political parties of revolutionary orientation. It recognizes as its political leadership the proletariat and declares that its program is the Political Theses passed by the Fourth Congress of the COB, held in May 1970….
“The People’s Assembly constitutes itself as the leadership and unifying center of the anti-imperialist movement and its fundamental goal consists in attaining national liberation and the establishment of socialism in Bolivia.
(from the statutes of the People’s Assembly, reprinted in the POR organ Masas of 13 July 1971)
According to the POR, the People’s Assembly was a body of the soviet type which had the potential to become an institution of dual power – i.e., that it was an embryonic workers government within and in contradiction to the bourgeois government under Torres. Masas engaged in occasional sharp criticism of the CP for pursuing a “rightist and pro-government line” in the Assembly but did not systematically expose the CP and the other reformist parties for their betrayal of the working class in attempting to subordinate the Assembly to Torres, devoting at least as much emphasis to praising the Assembly and defending it against “leftist” detractors.
Even on the basis of insufficient documentation, what emerges clearly is a pattern of centrist vacillation on the part of the POR. For example, in an article written by Guillermo Lora after Banzer’s coup is the admission:
“At this time [October 1970] everybody thought – including we Marxists – that the arms would be given by the governing military team, which would consider that only through resting on the masses and giving them adequate firepower could they at least neutralize the gorila right. This position was completely wrong….”
(Bulletin, 27 September 1971)
To have placed any confidence in Torres to arm the masses shows the most severe disorientation on the part of the POR over the crucial question of the class nature of the state. Torres was a bonapartist seeking to balance between the working class, roused by a foretaste of power and eager to struggle for its own, class rule, and the reactionary generals – at the head of a bourgeois state. Although forced to grant concessions to the masses, Torres, as Lora points out:
“…preferred to capitulate to his fellow generals before arming masses who showed signs of taking the road to socialism and whose mobilization put in serious danger the army as an institution.”
The issue is clear, but the attitude and role of the POR is not. For in the 31 May 1971 issue of Masas we find a call for the formation of independent workers and peasants militias and the categorical assertion that: “General Torres Will never arm the workers and peasants militias. “
An article in the SLL’s Workers Press of 24 August quotes POR leader Filemon Escobar:
“…we will work for political objectives that help radicalize the present process – for example, worker-participation in COMIBOL [Bolivian Mining Corporation].”
And Lora’s Bulletin article speaks of “the danger to the state that majority working class participation in COMIBOL would mean.” Yet a major article in the 31 May Masas exposes the plan for “worker-participation at COMIBOL as the point of departure for the bureaucratization and political control over the ‘worker-managers’ on the part of the state,” counterposing to this the demand for “workers control – with veto rights” and pointing out that workers control does not obviate the class struggle.
A severe blunting of a hard Leninist edge is apparent in an article in the 9 May Masas which states:
“…the fundamental contradiction in Bolivia is nothing else than that which exists between the proletariat and imperialism.”
Our question is simple: what role does the national bourgeoisie play in this schema? For the fatal illusion fostered by the nationalist-Stalinist cabal was precisely the conception of the “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisie as an ally. What was required of the POR was precisely to break the working class from subordination to the “revolutionary,” “anti-imperialist” regime of Torres. To Marxists, the counterposed class forces are the working class supported by the peasantry on the one side and the bourgeoisie – both the puppets of imperialism and the “progressive” nationalist wing – on the other.
The OCI’s response to the grave accusations levelled against the POR is an attempt to bluff it out. The 19 September statement declares:
“…the coup d’etat organized by the CIA and the military dictators of Brazil and Argentina and facilitated by the action of the Torres government is the proof that the policy carried by the POR was fundamentally based on the interests of the Bolivian proletariat…
“… All those who attack the POR through this, represent the enemies of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They take the sides of imperialism and Stalinism. They are agents of counterrevolution and are enemies, conscious or unconscious, of the Fourth International.”
This kind of argumentation can simply be dismissed out of hand. As Trotskyists, we have listened too many times to the hysterical accusations of Stalinists of all stripes along the same lines: the ferocity of U.S. imperialism’s aggression against the NLF and the North Vietnamese regimes proves that their leaderships have not sold out; all those who attack Chairman Mao are taking the side of imperialism; Trotsky was a conscious or unconscious agent of fascism; those who stand in opposition to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, ad nauseam. We only that this “defense” of the POR says nothing about the POR but a great deal to the discredit of the OCI.
The OCI asserts that the People’s Assembly was “under the leadership of the Trotskyist party, the POR.” This statement is open to question. In an interview in the 9 August Bulletin, POR leader Victor Sossa States that “the POR represented only around 20 per cent of the delegates, perhaps a little more.” Yet he expected that the Assembly, still predominantly influenced by Stalinists, bourgeois nationalism and “ultra-left adventurist petty-bourgeois groups, ” to do the following:
“In the case of a coup the People’s Assembly will call a general strike, will assume the military and political command of the masses. The decision to go over to the systematic organization of militias is geared to this perspective and prepares the working class for the inevitable confrontation, the fight to fully install its own government, the workers and peasants government.”
The question here is not whether the POR had already established its hegemony over the workers organizations, but whether it was struggling to do so – whether the POR’s perspective was to expose the reformists’ and nationalists’ treachery before their supporters by demanding that the Assembly counterpose itself to the regime, breaking all ties with the regime and struggling to establish a workers and peasants government – i. e. the dictatorship of the proletariat. It would appear that the POR placed political confidence in the Assembly under its existing leadership.
Soviets: Form vs Content
What was the role of the POR within the People’s Assembly? The OCI notes that:
“…the setting up of the People’s Assembly expresses the fundamental trend of the period, the will of the proletarian and peasant masses to enter into the struggle for power.”
But Allende’s Popular Front government in Chile, for example, also without doubt represents “the will of the proletarian and peasant masses to enter into the struggle for power” – yet we know that the Chilean masses have been terribly deceived and they are likely to pay for their misleaders’ promises in blood. The willingness of the working masses to struggle is not in dispute. In Bolivia, as in Chile, Spain, Vietnam and dozens of other instances, the question is whether their combative heroism has been betrayed.
The OCI declares:
“It is the unity in and around the People’s Assembly, organ of dual power, which under the leadership of the Trotskyist party, the POR, dominated the whole revolutionary process before and after the confrontations of August 20-23.”
What does it mean to acclaim the “unity in and around the People’s Assembly”? If the People’s Assembly was indeed an embryonic soviet form, how was the struggle for its leadership carried out? A soviet is a united front of the working class raised to the level of struggling for power. There is nothing sacred about the soviet or any other united front form. Soviets arise, even spontaneously, in revolutionary crises as the proletarian axis in the dual power situation, with the potential under revolutionary leadership to oust the bourgeois state power and become the agency of working-class rule – i.e. to consummate the revolution on the national plane. They are the best arena in which the Bolsheviks can demonstrate their superiority in carrying forward the tasks implicit in the soviet as an embryonic form of the state of a different class: the seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. A Menshevik-led soviet, for example, may indeed be an authentic soviet – but it will inevitably betray. Thus a Leninist call for the formation of soviets, for power to the soviets, must contain within it the perspective of struggle within the soviet: in order to demonstrate to the workers that it is they, unlike the revisionists and reformists, who have nothing to fear from soviet power and that only their policy can achieve and defend it. The existence of a soviet is in itself no guarantee of revolutionary principle. (Even the Stalinists have called – bureaucratically, to be sure – for the formation of soviets in their “left” zigzags, after having doomed the workers in advance by their policies – policies which guaranteed the ruin of the soviet.) Without the presence of revolutionaries intransigently struggling at every point to expose before the working class the traitorous misleaders within its ranks, the People’s Assembly offered no more promise for the Bolivian proletarian revolution than George Meany’s AFL-CIO raised to the political level. Does the OCI really want to boast that the POR expounded “unity in and around the People’s Assembly”?
When questions of power politics between the wings of the IC were not so clearly and ultimatistically posed, the OCI was willing to take a more critical attitude toward the POR on precisely this question. A letter to the POR leadership dated 30 July 1970 and later published in the Lambertistes’ public theoretical magazine discussed the COB Theses which the POR had helped prepare and voted for. The sections of the COB document singled out for sharp criticism by the OCI include the following:
“In order to attain socialism, it seems necessary first of all to make a unity of all the revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces. The people’s anti-imperialist revolution is linked to the struggle for socialism. The people’s front is an alliance of related classes, and the unitary instrument for making the revolution. The expulsion of imperialism and the realization of national and democratic tasks will render possible the socialist revolution.” (La Verite, October 1970)
What this paragraph sets forward is the Menshevik theory of stages, pure and simple – first national liberation, then socialist revolution. It is the classic reformist rationale for class collaboration, which has led to the most bitter and bloody defeats for the working class. And yet the POR supported this resolution and continued to acclaim it in Masas. Instead of struggling around this question, the POR compromised around a contradictory hodge-podge document which contained affirmations of internationalism, condemnations of class collaboration alongside praise of the so-called “socialist” nations and clear popular frontism.
It speaks well of the Lambertistes that they were willing to raise to the POR and subsequently make public their criticisms of the POR’s departure from principle. Now, however, the OCI’s opportunism has gained the upper hand, and so all critics of the POR become “agents of counterrevolution”!
And what of the POR’s conduct since the coup? The 6 December issue of the SWP’s Intercontinental Press reprints a declaration signed by the POR – along with the Communist Party, the “POR” of the Moscoso Pabloists, left nationalist groups and General Torres himself! The document again pays lip service to “the leadership of the proletariat, the ruling class of the revolutionary process” but the tone of the document is nationalist-populist (“revolutionary priests,” “revolutionary officers,” “patriots,” “the power is now in the hands of foreigners,” etc.) and its core is the following:
“Therefore the need is undeniable to build a fighting unity of all the revolutionary democratic and progressive forces that the great battle can be begun in conditions offering a real perspective for a popular and national government….
“This is not a battle that concerns only one sector of the exploited people, or one class, institution or party. … Any form of sectarianism is counterrevolutionary. Let us be worthy of the sacrifice of those who fell August 21 defending Bolivia.” (our emphasis)
In fact, the declaration is a classic popular front which subordinates the working class to alien class forces and ideologies to which it is in fundamental and irreconcilable opposition.
Healyite Pop Frontism
For the political bandits of the Healyite SLL-WL, the OCI’s decision to march in lockstep behind the POR is a godsend, a cheap way to assert their Leninist orthodoxy and cast themselves as the principled left wing in the IC split. But the real difference between the Healyites and the POR on proletarian policy toward a “leftist” bourgeois government is that the POR has had the opportunity to wreck a pre-revolutionary situation and the Healyites have not. Healy-Wohlforth have seized on Bolivia as a pretext for ridding themselves of the OCI, which was increasingly playing a dominant role in the IC — and that’s all. For although they would now prefer to bury it, the Healyites have a shining example of how they would deal with a Popular Front bourgeois government: Chile.
The 21 September 1970 Bulletin advised the workers of Chile:
“There is only one road, and that is the revolutionary road of the October Revolution…. as a step in this understanding the workers must hold Allende to his promises….”
Wohlforth’s road is not that of the October Revolution, but of those Bolsheviks, Stalin prominent among them, who very nearly ruined the chances for October by their policy – denounced by Lenin and Trotsky – of support for the bourgeois Provisional Government “insofar as it struggles against reaction or counterrevolution.” Wohlforth’s statement parallels the notorious Pravda articles capitulating to Menshevism in February and March of 1917, filled with statements like the following:
“The way out is bringing pressure to bear on the Provisional Government with the demand that the government proclaim its readiness to. begin immediate negotiations for peace.”
Against this policy Lenin declared: “To turn to this government with a proposal of concluding peace is equivalent to preaching morality to the keeper of a brothel,” And Trotsky, in Lessons of October, said:
“The programme of exerting pressure on an imperialist government so as to ‘induce’ it to pursue a pious course was the programme of Kautsky and Ledebour in Germany, Jean Longuet in France, MacDonald in England, but never the programme of Bolshevism.”
One must be sharply critical, as was Trotsky, of those Bolsheviks who would have let slip a revolutionary opportunity if it had not been for the sharp correction of Lenin. But more than criticism is merited by the Healyites, who claim to stand on the shoulders of the Bolsheviks, to have assimilated the “lessons of October.”
Lenin expressed his policy in an uncompromising formula:
“Our tactic: absolute lack of confidence; no support to the new government; suspect Kerensky especially; arming of the proletariat the sole guarantee;. . . no rapprochement with other parties.”
Against Lenin’s policy stand both the centrism of the POR-OCI and the Healyite pseudo-Leninist posturing.
And now the Healyites sanctimoniously denounce the POR-OCI for the same kind of Pop Frontist capitulation which they themselves espoused for Chile!
Healy lawyers for the LSSP
But perhaps an even purer example of Healyite hypocrisy is the question of Ceylon. The 30 August Bulletin declares:
“…Though less known than the evolution of the LSSP in Ceylon, the role of Lora and the POR has been no less treacherous and important.”
For years, in endless articles, the Healyites have used the betrayal of the Ceylonese masses by the LSSP – which tail-ended the bourgeois nationalist party of Mrs. Bandaranaike and when it came to power in 1964 entered the government – as an expose of the United Secretariat Pabloists, who covered for the LSSP until the last moment. (The Bulletin has just concluded yet another four-part series on the subject.) And rightly so, for their role over Ceylon was an important verification of the SWP-United Secretariat’s departure from Trotskyism. But what the Healyites are unlikely to mention is that they themselves are tarred with the same brush!
In May 1960 the SWP, then affiliated with the IC as was Healy’s SLL, began to get increasingly nervous about the line and conduct of the LSSP. On 17 May Tom Kerry addressed a letter on behalf of the SWP’s Political Committee to the LSSP. It states:
“We are greatly disturbed by the parliamentary and electoral course now pursued by the leadership of the LSSP….
“Your policy of working for the creation of an SLFP government appears to us to be completely at variance with the course of independent working class political action which you have always promoted in the past as a matter of principle….
“Your new political course also appears to us to be a form of ‘popular frontism’ of the kind promoted in many countries by the Stalinists since 1935 – that is, class collaboration between the working-class parties and a section of the bourgeoisie….”
Despite their concern the SWP leadership hesitated to raise this betrayal in the public press.
On 8 August James Robertson, then a member of the SWP, wrote to the Political Committee:
“I am addressing you on the matter of our party’s public silence concerning the recent and continuing betrayal of the Ceylonese working class and of the world Trotskyist movement by the, Lanka Sama Samaja Party. I refer, of course, to that party’s entry into a ‘Popular Front’ electoral pact with the Stalinist party and with the left bourgeois nationalist party represented by the widow Bandaranaike.
“In raising this matter privately with several members of your body I was told that letters have been sent the Ceylonese and that your view is that for the present a greater advantage is to be gained by revolutionary Marxists in the LSSP through our remaining publicly silent, I must disagree and urge you to reconsider…”
The letter concludes:
“Comrades, that you condemn the Ceylonese ex-Trotskyist I have no doubt, but your failure to raise this publicly and with great seriousness does the movement internationally a disservice.”
And what was the position of Gerry Healy, who now proclaims himself the world’s only consistent anti-Pabloist After having written to the SWP that delicate maneuvers among the Pabloists were required in Ceylon, Healy on 14 August wrote to the SWP’s Joe Hansen:
“We discussed at some length… the proposition concerning the situation in Ceylon. We think that it is necessary to write again asking for the fullest possible information concerning the present situation in the party in Ceylon.
“There is no doubt that they are in a severe crisis but if we take their situation and recent events in Europe it is not improbable that there will now be important developments inside the Pablo camp, This is all the more reason for us to proceed with caution – as you have in the past so rightly insisted.
“We are going to cable them tomorrow for information and we suggest you do likewise and hold up for the time being publication of anything in the Militant “
Rebuild the Fourth International!
It is their own sordid history which gives the lie to the Healyites’ claims of internationalism and anti-revisionism. If the Lambertistes – who in 1952 launched the struggle against Pabloism never transcended centrism and have now hardened themselves in opportunism – their line on Bolivia and their conduct at Essen, the Healyites’ pretensions of principle have always rested on sand.
Only the Fourth International – rebuilt in the process of struggle against all varieties of Pabloist revisionism, including the inverted Pabloism of the IC – can provide the way forward toward the decisive victory of the international working class.