Marxism and Indigenism in Bolivia: A Dialectic of Dialogue and Conflict


On Sunday morning, April 10, 2005 I sat in the book-lined living room of Álvaro García Linera’s modest La Paz apartment and talked to the former guerrilla and political prisoner – now a mathematician and sociologist – about the Bolivian traditions of Marxism, indigenism, and the contemporary state of the Left and popular movements in the country.

JRW: I’m here in La Paz with Álvaro García Linera. First, what was your personal political formation like? How did you become an intellectual on the side of popular movements?

AGL: I belong to a generation that lived through the last moments of the dictatorships in Latin America. In Bolivia there were dictatorships until 1982, military dictatorships. I was 14, 16, 17 years old. These last moments touched me and therefore I was influenced by these experiences of childhood, of adolescence. However, it also touched me to see, in the struggle against the dictatorships and the re-conquest of democracy, two grand social actors of this epoch.

On the one hand, the miners of the great mines that were the centre of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), revindicating democracy. And it effected me to see, between 1979 and 1980 – I was living in La Paz – the emergence of the Aymara Indians that made their first road blockade in 1979, and left isolated the city of La Paz. They fought against the military. And this had a massive impact on me. This was an actor that I didn’t know, an actor that was very distant for me. During the blockade of ’79 I was 15 or 16 years old. And this, for me, was going to be very, very important.

I had a lot of enthusiasm. My exposure and learning initially was not through practice but through reading, books, or political theory, reading on indigenous history. Who were these actors that had blockaded the city, demanding democracy, talking in a language that I didn’t know, with flags that I didn’t understand? Who is this? And so, history, the reading of history.

Five or six years after this encounter in my adolescence, and after I’d been to Mexico to study, I had a closer encounter with the leaders of the indigenous movements. From then, 1985, until today, I’ve read, learned more, looked more closely, I’ve been learning more. And I found my particular intellectual perceptions, trying to understand this historical experience through my mental schemas and through my practical experience with the sector that is not available in books. But through this intent to understand it through the tools of books and the intent to invent tools that were not in books but came out of these movements’ own history.

JRW: You wrote an article recently in Barataria on Marxism and Indigenism in Bolivian history. Can you describe, historically and contemporaneously, what are the contradictions between Indigenism and Marxism, and what are the possibilities of a union between the two?

AGL: Here in Bolivia, Marxism as an ideology is about 60 or 70 years old, with a presence in intellectual circles. In the first period, a very marginal Marxism, whose referent was Tristan Marof, was present in the 1920s. He was very similar to José Mariátegui in Peru toward Indians. According to some historians they were planning an uprising in Sucre, the indigenous people, Tristan Marof, and his four lawyers. It’s a very interesting historical presence. And this, this first encounter between Marxism – small, marginal, a few intellectuals – and the practical indigenous movement was broken in the 1940s when two big currents, already much more consolidated, installed themselves here in Bolivia: the Trostkyists and the Stalinists.

They were already political currents with an organizational structure. They had more people, were more inclusive. And they abandoned whatever close connection with Indians, and dedicated themselves to working strictly with workers. That is, if the revolution was to be from the workers, and socialism was what was coming, the task was to look for workers, and the Indians didn’t exist, or were petty bourgeoisies, or were slaves who had to be liberated by the workers.

A very primitive reading of the indigenous population, and in this way it broke a fruitful, very beautiful, relationship between Indians and Marxists, opting for another type of Marxism better connected to the workers’ sectors. It was an extremely primitive Marxism because it couldn’t be a conveyor of critical tools that could help the theory adapt itself to a reality that wasn’t Europe, that wasn’t Russia, a reality where there were indigenous people, other languages, other cultures, and where workers were a tiny part of the population. In sum, it couldn’t succeed.

This distance between indigenous people and Marxism easily lasted until the 1980s. And in these years, during the 1970s, the indigenous movement and its leaders surged forward once again. And these manual Marxists, primitive Marxists, simply saw the Indians as reactionaries because they wanted to talk about historical themes that weren’t relevant to social revolution, or they were petty bourgeois, or they were racists. This Marxism lasted from the 1940s until the 1980s, and couldn’t get closer to, it didn’t read correctly, the indigenous movements, and so the social facts collided. And therefore here the indigenous movement of the 1970s and 1980s rose up in confrontation with Marxism, not only in confrontation with liberal ideologies. No, they also rose up against Marxists because the Marxists considered them to be counterrevolutionaries and racists. As a result, one of the slogans of the indigenists of the1980s was “ni Marx ni menos” or “neither Marx nor less,” because there had been a confrontation between them, not recognition.

In the 1980s this confrontation between the two would attenuate because there was a defeat of the Left in Bolivia. These Marxists lost influence in the mines that were closing, lost influence in the factories that were closing, and lost historical legitimacy because of the failure of administration of the UDP (Democratic Popular Union) government (in power from 1982-1985). They became a marginal sector. And the indigenists who had been rising up with force would quickly be coopted by NGOs (non-governmental organizations), or by the state that started a series of reforms under multicultural neoliberalism.

Therefore, in the 1980s and 1990s, to talk of active indianisms and marxisms isn’t relevant, because what was prevalent was a debate of modernizing ideologies between liberals. However, small, marginal groups like us, were looking for, continue looking for – very much at the margins, very isolated – an articulation between Indianism and Marxism. Something we did in the 1980s, was an effort to give body to the ethnic demand through a reading of the role of national identities in revolutionary processes, the role of agrarian communities and the possible transformation of capitalism, a study that was detailed, but in these moments was without influence.

We tried to give body to the theme of revindicating nationalities, to transcend mere description of ethnicity and its politicization, like the national identity demand. We tried to transcend mere ethnic discourse to a discourse of indigenous nationalism.

We tried in the 1980s, but without much influence. But these things we worked on in the 1980s – in the distinct scenario of the 2000s, in a scenario of political crisis, in a scenario of the weakening of neoliberal ideologies, and the weakness of the traditional Marxists – were going to find more fertile ground, between certain ideas that we had worked on from the margins, of some Marxists who wanted to dialogue with Indianism. Since 2000 these ideas have had more force. They’ve succeeded in expanding themselves to other intellectuals, to the level of social movement leaders. And there is a revitalizing of Indianism. But already this was not an Indianism in confrontation with Marxists because the Marxists of the old epoch, who had been enemies, had disappeared.

So, now we are in an interesting process, a new open dialogue not seen since the 1920s, a new dialogue still with reticence, still with a certain distance, and certain skepticism. But a new open dialogue between Marxist intellectuals who critique the primitive Marxism of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and who approach Indianism not with the intention to control it but to offer tools of analysis, tools of interpretation, to offer tools of comprehension of indigenous social movement. I think we’re in a new historic effort after almost 100 years, of a much more fruitful dialogue between the two grand readings of the transformation of Bolivia, that is Indianism and Marxism.

JRW: The uprising of October, 2003 was a very important conjuncture here in Bolivia. From your perspective, who were the principal actors of the insurrection, and what were the most important discourses and demands?

AGL: There were multiple actors. One of the first actors were the Aymara Indians of the countryside, organized in communities, under the form of unions. But the unions (sindicatos), as you know Jeff, aren’t workers’ unions. It’s the historic name of a traditional, communal structure here in Bolivia.

The first actors who mobilized, marched, participated in a hunger strike, then a blockade of the roads in the Lago Titicaca region, were the Aymara indigenous. There was a military intervention with 8 deaths, and these 8 deaths would begin to expand a sentiment of cohesive ethnic identity. Initially they were the first national actor, the Aymara indigenous, around the city of La Paz.

Then, this actor would be accompanied by other urban actors in the city of El Alto. (Ex-president) Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada fell from power on October 17. From the 7th or 8th of October the movement started to incorporate urban actors with a complex, combined identity. They are actors that mobilize themselves under a neighbourhood identity, the federations of united neighbours (in El Alto this refers to FEJUVE), but it depends on their geographic relationships, and their social condition of labour. They are actors who, through this idea of neighbour, recuperate discourses and organizational forms that are more worker-oriented – this is the case for example in the El alto neighbourhood Santiago 2, a neighbourhood of ex –miners – or if you go more toward the zone that exits towards the lake (Lake Titicaca), they are actors that are going to revindicate or mobilize cultural repertoires, some mobilizational repertoires and discourses that are more indigenous.

Something like this is the base of the neighbourhood identity, but with multiple gradations, some more worker, others more indigenous, peasant, or more commercial. This is interesting. Therefore, there was no single actor when they mobilized themselves, or a single identity that mobilized itself in El Alto. Although there is no doubt that El Alto is the most indigenous city in Bolivia. According to the last census close to 80 percent self-identified as indigenous.

But this doesn’t mean much in itself. In some cases “indigenous” becomes the identity in discourse, in symbols, and in other cases its “worker”, and in other cases “neighbour”, and in other cases small business people. These become the mobilized identities.

So, I think El Alto is an interesting mix between a type of indigenous migrant identity of the first generation with a worker-indigenous identity – which is not contradictory, the worker indigenized – and an identity more towards worker-mestizo. There are distinct variations depending to which zone of the city you go.

(Talking again about the central actors of October.) And then of course there is the presence of other actors of more classical workers, coming from Oruro, from the Huanuni mine, from the Concidi (?) mine, and the cooperativsts (also miners). And you have the presence of other peasants, strictly peasants in the classical sense, in Cochabamba. And finally small sectors of the urban middle class that in the end entered a hunger strike, maybe 50-100 people.

So, this is a mobilization that articulated itself in functions of time and geography. There are multiple actors, and multiple identities, flexible identities, porous identities.

JRW: What is the role of natural resources, especially gas and water, in the contemporary struggles?

AGL: The theme of water has been a detonating theme of social mobilization. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bolivia suffered processes of privatization of state public resources. In the middle of a crisis of Left thought, the cooptation of indigenous leaders by the state, a hunger for modernization, the way of the free market, privatizations – and this happened almost without resistance, almost without resistance. Don’t forget, Jeff, that between the 1980s and the 1990s the three big parties that had free market proposals obtained 70 percent of the national electorate. There was a cultural and ideological hegemony in Bolivia, of liberalization and modernization.

But there was a moment when this was going to break apart, first it was going to be because there was so much promised with very few results. This was going to be the first symptom that would generate certain malaise at the end of the 1990s.

However the detonator of the mobilization that would convert this malaise into collective action was when the state wanted to begin privatizing non-state public resources, like water. Water in Bolivia is a non-state public resource in the countryside, with systems of traditional administration going back 700, 800, 900 years. The water of the rivers, the lakes, from the summits, is regulated by public communal systems. They are very complicated. The system of water in the agricultural zones is more complicated than the system of land. At the end of the 1990s, in 1999 the intent was to privatize in a manner mediated through concessions.

Land and water are basic, fundamental elements of the reproduction of peasant communities. There is a memory, their histories, their dead, their future. And when it started to be privatized it produced some of the articulations of social mobilization that caused the Water War in Cochabamba in 2000. It wasn’t only urban residents but peasant irrigators of the urban periphery. And from here, the rural zones, would be mobilized the most important urban-rural alliance since 1952 (the year of the national revolution).

Then, the second large mobilization based here in the high-plains (altiplano) in October 2000 when, opposing a parliamentary law, the so-called law of water, the Aymara Indians blockaded the city of La Paz for 20 days. And from here surged a leadership, and from there begins this story (of the water struggle).

Water played a role in articulating rural forces, indigenous and peasant, and forces from the urban periphery, and in some case urban sectors, like in Cochabamba, for the defense of the social function, of the value of use over the value of changing this resource. And this would be a unifying, mobilizing, politicizing factor in local structures of daily life that assumed the defense of this resource, and from here the demands would be amplified the horizons of politicization of society: Indigenous, popular, urban.

Hydrocarbons (of which natural gas is the most important) would be the second unifying factor of this society in October, 2003. I think that through hydrocarbons various things were articulated. As in the situation with water, there was an articulation of historical memory, and a condition of autonomy in the reproduction of indigenous communities.

And hydrocarbons articulated another historical memory connected to two things. The Indians were those who died in the Chaco War (1932-1935) to defend petroleum that was supposedly in Tarija. 50,000 people died in this war, and at that time we had a country of about 1.5 or 2 million people. 50,000 is a lot of people! A lot! And the majority of the dead were Indians. To die in lands unknown to them. They were able to die for petroleum – that turned out not to be there – but they went to die. And there’s not a peasant family in El Alto, the altiplano, that doesn’t have a dead or mutilated grandfather, or a survivor of the Chaco War. This is important, very important. One starts to see the stories of contemporary adolescents who weren’t in the Chaco War but who remember that their father went, that their grandfather went. So, there’s this.

But also in this theme, the theme of hydrocarbons, there is a species of collective intuition, that the debates over hydrocarbons are playing with the destiny of this country, a country accustomed with having a lot of natural resources but always being poor, always seeing the natural resources serve to enrich others. And I think the people understand it, beyond all the technical debates, beyond all of this. There is a reflection. This is a natural resource. And we’ve had silver, we’ve had tin, we’ve had rubber, and we’ve always been poor. Enough, I want to say no. With this other natural resource we don’t want to be poor! We want it to serve us, to come to our houses (domestic access to natural gas). I want to cook with gas in place of animal waste, or that my son, my daughter can have a job. This is the second historic element.

And a third element, I believe, is that the theme of gas permitted the channeling of a rejection of the free market economic model that served very few of the people. Gas was a pretext. Through the defence of gas, its recuperation, this is a rejection of privatizations, a rejection of foreign investment, as the only factors of economic modernization.

So, I think there are three articulated memories: a memory of the 1930s, a memory that dates back to when Pizarro arrived here, and a memory that is more immediate, resistance to a free market economic model that in the last 20 years has not provided for the welfare of the people. These three things functioned as articulators, politicizers, and mobilizers of social expectations.

JRW: Last question: What are the weaknesses and strengths in this historical conjuncture for the Left, and for popular movements in general?

AGL: It’s a moment that we have to view through a historical perspective, with ups and downs, the construction of identities, of force, of discourse. One has to see it in the long historical cycles of the reconstitution of the popular.

Now it’s under indigenous leaders, for the last 80 years it was under the leadership of the workers. And it’s a process that had more than 10 years of articulation. This process is going to have possibly a cycle of 20 or 30 years more, with highs and lows, failures, and some victories.

At the same time this process of reconstitution is situated in a very particular historical moment: the rupture of conservative ideologies, and the projects of modernization and of power. Lamentably, it has found the popular indigenous movement in its first periods of formation, not in its moment of advanced consolidation. This brings to light many weaknesses. It’s almost to wish that the crisis happened at a later time because the indigenous popular movement hasn’t had time for the long period of maturation in many areas, and this has weakened its capacity to resolve this crisis.

But history is like that and you can’t hope that all the conditions will align in a propitious manner. So, seen through a historical perspective we have 30 years to mature, but seen through a more concrete perspective there are a series of challenges, and weaknesses of the movement to respond to these challenges, so that I’m sure if they can respond. Let’s go through them.

The unification of forces is necessary, not under the old vertical form of the COB that was top-down, but a more horizontal formation. Because here no sector wants to dilute itself in another, no sector accepts the leadership of another. This is good, it seems to me. But it’s very risky when it paralyzes and prevents the unification of forces.

How do we invent systems of horizontal articulation, thematic, temporary, that don’t dissolve the identity of one in the leadership of another? This is a great challenge, and an urgent one, because if they could overcome this challenge now, the indigenous and the popular sectors could easily govern this country. However, they’re not prepared for this crisis of the dominant powers. This is the first weakness. They need a capacity of articulation that is much more serious, much more solid, thematic, that breaks with corporatism.

A second weakness is in the following area: to have the capacity to create political structures that permit an alliance with the popular urban social sectors that aren’t unionized. When Evo Morales (leader of the political party Movement Toward Socialism, MAS), or Quispe (peasant leader Felipe Quispe) call for actions they can articulate “the popular.” But there are large urbanized sectors that are not organized in federations of neighbours or unions… they’re individual, and very influential.

The middle class and the ascending part of the popular class that have influence. They are the ones that buy newspapers, that listen to the radio, that appear on television, that drive taxis. And they’re influential. This is where there are limitations to bring in our social and popular movements, and political leadership.

It’s not enough to mobilize and conquer the unions to govern Bolivia. This also requires the disorganized popular sectors, who constitute the majority at the urban level. This is a second element that the movements have as a challenge; it’s a contemporary weakness and a challenge.

A third element is a better clarity of their projects of emancipation. What is possible? What is desirable? What is imaginable today in terms of change? There’s a certain ambiguity. And this ambiguity can weaken the movement’s relationship to its own base and, what’s more, with urban supporters. You’re not going to have the capacity to establish hegemony without the city. And what project do the Indians offer to the workers of the giant corporation, who don’t identify as indigenous, who don’t want to be indigenous, but who are as equally impoverished as the indigenous? What discourse?

What discourse do they have to give to the impoverished middle classes, beyond the recognition of rights, that the indigenous legitimately have conquered? What project for the country? Which projects could be more hegemonic for the country, with the capacity to articulate the indigenous and the popular, not exclusively indigenous, also the people. The idea of hegemony is still weak, I think, in our movements. There have been very vital movements to resist, to oppose, but to lead – which they can do – here there are many limitations, in structure, in discourse, in the clarity of projects.

And a fourth element, but one that is much more in the longer term, is the reconstitution of the proletariat in Bolivia. There are many workers in Bolivia, but the working class is divided into other identities, fragmented, diluted…a working class that identifies as neighbours not as workers, that identify as students, not as workers. There is no autonomous construction of an identity and mobilizing force of workers. There are a few unions here, in Cochabamba, that echo an older epoch. Unions on the defence, tiny, the last of the privileged, preoccupied with defending their work, incapable of looking forward. This is important. We don’t have this. We don’t have this. To articulate our workers, our adolescents, that are students, are teachers, others that work in small workshops. Thousands, and thousands, and thousands. I did a study in 1999, and I arrived at the conclusion that only 8 percent of Bolivian workers are organized. 8 percent! The rest no. And the rest identify as indigenous, as neighbours, as artisans, as nothing, they don’t have unions, they don’t have security, they don’t have identity, they don’t have formation. To reconstruct this workers’ fabric is the plank for another type of modernization, through work, that compliments the indigenous project which is more agrarian. This includes their urban force, which is still related to the countryside. This the great challenge that we have here in Bolivia to construct forces of emancipation.

But the working classes, in the sense of mobilized actors, construct themselves in decades, not in a week, nor in three years. They construct themselves in 20 years? If there was a strong articulated workers’ movement under the contemporary material characteristics, with the indigenous movement, maybe we would be in much more propitious moments to make massive structural changes in the country.

For the moment, I think we are before changes – using the old language – democratic. That is to say, the decolonization of the state, the construction of equality, the appearance of collective rights, that for Bolivia are a gigantic revolution. For 500 years the indigenous here had been considered animals without rights. This already is gigantic. Seen in the perspective of the world, it’s not a big thing, but for Bolivia it’s a lot. And the possibility of large transformations more structural in nature, that will irradiate in a historic summation of workers’ forces with indigenous-peasant forces. With this… maybe we’ll be here discussing things beyond democracy, or capitalism with better distribution, that represent the limited horizon that represents today’s reality.

Jeffery R. Webber is a member of the Toronto branch of the New Socialist Group and a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is currently in Bolivia. Thanks to Susan Spronk for helpful editorial comments.

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