The Bolivian Road to Socialism

Source: Red Pepper

Politics in the UK and the EU is likely to be dominated for the foreseeable future by massive cuts in public service provision. The furious demonstrations that have taken place in Greece may be a harbinger of the popular protest to come. These demonstrations would have looked very familiar in Bolivia, where in the early years of this century a sustained popular uprising over several years succeeded in overthrowing a hated neoliberal regime and installing the progressive and radical government of the MAS (Movement towards Socialism) led by President Evo Morales. Can we learn from Bolivia about resistance to the neoliberal agenda and building an alternative? The answer is certainly yes – but that means understanding what has been happening there.

There is much debate on the left in Bolivia about whether the MAS government is heading towards socialism, or whether the revolutionary struggles of social movements and trade unions that brought it to power in 2005 are now giving way to electoralist, parliamentary politics and an accommodation with neoliberalism. In particular, the Bolivian experience raises questions about the state as a terrain of struggle. Is taking office within the state, as the MAS has done, essential to push through radical change? Or, as some would argue, is the state apparatus so inherently hostile to radical change that such a strategy is bound to fail and the world can and must be changed without taking ‘power’?

Overthrowing the neoliberals

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Bolivia was a test bed for the neoliberal agenda, enriching the ruling elite but marginalising and impoverishing the mass of the population. In 2003, however, the neoliberal government was overthrown as a result of a sustained campaign of popular resistance and in 2005 Evo Morales’ MAS was elected to government, committed to policies that included the re-establishment of Bolivian control over natural resource exploitation and a new constitution empowering the indigenous majority population and intended to end the centuries-long rule by a white/mestizo political elite.

Prior to this period – and there are clear parallels here with the political impasse in the UK – Bolivian politics was dominated by elite parties with little base in the grassroots. Divisions between trade union and community-based organisations, urban and rural social movements, and the indigenous and non-indigenous populations, had held back the development of effective oppositional alliances against the governing elite. In contrast, the election victory in 2005 represented a grassroots-based, bottom-up movement

co-ordinated nationally by the MAS, a new political party led by Morales, previously the leader of the cocalero (coca growers) movement.

The MAS in power

The MAS has only been in power since 2005 but has already made major progress on a number of fronts:

A new constitution drafted by a specially convened constituent assembly, and ratified by a national referendum. It entrenches – in principle – a range of rights and guarantees, especially, but not only, for the indigenous majority.

The hydrocarbons (oil and gas) sector has not been nationalised, but the share of the profits generated going to the Bolivian state has been greatly increased from 27 per cent to between 65 and 77 per cent.

A start has been made on the redistribution of land, on redistributive social policies and on economic and social infrastructural programmes such as transport.

At the same time, as a member of the ALBA grouping of radical Latin American states, Bolivia is starting to build international alternatives to neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank and IMF.

Most recently, Bolivia has hosted the Cochabamba global people’s conference on climate change, which is building a radical alliance to combat global warming in the wake of the Copenhagen climate conference’s failure.

Unsurprisingly, these policies have been subject to criticism from the right. But there has also been active debate on the left, with contrasting assessments of the achievements and limitations of the MAS government. On the one hand, there is the position of the government and its supporters, exemplified by Alvaro Garcia Linera, the vice president of Bolivia and a Marxist intellectual and former activist, and on the other a number of left-wing critics, both internationally and in Bolivia, including within the MAS itself.

For Garcia Linera, the MAS has succeeded in building a popular bloc capable of sustaining a new constitutional consensus to ‘refound’ the state. In his analysis, the MAS has deployed an ‘encircling strategy’ against the right-wing opposition, especially in Bolivia’s rich eastern provinces, utilising the mass support of the trade unions and a wide range of social movements and, when necessary, the coercive mechanisms of the state. Significant concessions were made to the opposition in order to split and marginalise it.

The defeat of the right was signified by the 2008 presidential recall referendum in which Morales increased his vote from 54 to 67 per cent, providing the democratic legitimacy for the reconstruction of the state and other elements of the MAS programme. In December 2009, Morales again won decisively in presidential elections with 63 per cent of the vote. Bolivia shows that governments can be both radical and far more popular than any in the UK in living memory.

The initial actions of the MAS in government have, for Garcia Linera, been defined by the overriding prioritisation of ‘decolonisation’. Political decisions are no longer made with reference to the US embassy, the IMF or the World Bank, and the increased oil and gas revenues provide the material basis for economic sovereignty. The government has also signalled its support for the campesino (peasant) economy, arguing that its communal productive logic represents a sustainable use of nature, ‘as opposed to the processes of depredation peculiar to the civilisation of surplus value’. Culturally, the long history of colonialism is being reversed, initially by the election of an indigenous president and now through the construction of a pluri-national state reflecting for the first time the interests of the indigenous majority.

Critics of the MAS

Yet for the critics the record of the MAS has been disappointing. For them, the insurrectionary period during 2000 to 2005 was a revolutionary epoch in which mass mobilisation from below and state crisis from above opened up opportunities for fundamental transformative change to the state and society, but the period since 2005 has seen a retreat from such a possibility. In particular, critics argue, the focus of popular politics has shifted from the streets to the electoral arena, and the actions of the MAS in government have dampened the prospects of a socialist revolution. The MAS government has turned out, they say, to be moderately reformist in nature and there has been a relative decline in the self-organisation and activity of the working class and indigenous organisations in the wake of Morales’ victory.

One of the litmus tests in this respect concerns the demand by the social movements in the period of struggle against the neoliberal regime for a revolutionary constituent assembly that would transform the economy, state and society. For the left critics of the government, instead of the organic participation of the main social movement organisations in the formation and execution of the assembly, the body that was actually set up was tightly controlled by the MAS government in a way that precluded genuinely revolutionary and participative processes and outcomes. For these critics, indigenous liberation has been dissociated from the project of revolutionary socialist transformation, and indeed there have been significant policy continuities with the previous neoliberal regime. While the tax take from the hydrocarbons sector has been significantly increased, for instance, the MAS has stopped well short of nationalisation. Some critics conclude that Morales and his government are not interested in challenging capitalism, but in reintroducing a state-led model of capitalist development at the economic level and pluralising government and civil society at the political level.

Another contentious issue is the evolving relationship between the MAS, the government and the social movements. For some, the MAS is becoming absorbed into government, and it is the case that many leaders from the social movements have been co-opted into administration, especially at local level, potentially weakening their organisations and subordinating them to the state. Others, though, point to the fact that, while most social movement leaders remain broadly supportive of the MAS government, this does not deter them from criticism on many specific issues. Many social movement leaders position themselves to the left of the MAS, suggesting that the social movements continue to demonstrate a capacity to pressure the MAS government.

The MAS’s own inconsistent rhetoric has also clouded important issues. Garcia Linera (and Morales himself) initially talked in terms of an ‘Andean capitalism’ in which ‘Bolivia will still be capitalist for 100 years’. However, as the government has become more secure, as the international climate has turned in its favour with the global financial crisis and recession, and with the increasing assertiveness of the radical left grouping of Latin American states, the government increasingly uses the language of anti-capitalism and ‘communitarian socialism’.

What if?

Judging such issues is inevitably difficult, especially from the other side of the world, but it is relevant to ask some ‘what if?’ questions:

What if the government had ‘taken on’ the right, rather than made concessions to it? How likely might this have made the prospect of serious internal conflict, even civil war or a coup (as in Allende’s Chile), with the possibility of external intervention and/or the possible loss of the eastern provinces and their hydrocarbons and profitable agriculture?

What might have happened if the MAS had pursued a more explicitly socialist programme, such as full nationalisation of hydrocarbons or maximal redistribution of land? Would this have strengthened popular support within the country, as the left implies, or might it have led to greater external pressure as well as internal opposition, potentially derailing the government? Importantly, in the light of the problematic experiences of other revolutionary regimes, would the government have been able to run the nationalised industries effectively and ensure the productivity of redistributed land?

There are, of course, no definitive answers to such questions. But, at the very least, they should cause us to pause before criticising the MAS government too harshly.

The state

Differences of view such as those just discussed raise crucial questions of left strategy, not only for Bolivia but for progressive movements around the world, including in the UK. A key question is the looming presence of the state. In Bolivia, the MAS has moved from opposition to government, using state power to advance its agenda while seeking to maintain its base in the social movements and civil society.

For some on the left, such as John Holloway, whose most recent book Crack Capitalism was summarised in the previous issue of Red Pepper, any attempt to use the capitalist state for radical ends is doomed to failure. Marxists have long argued that the state is not a neutral instrument, but an integral element of capitalism, which manages economic problems (such as the banking crisis) on behalf of capital and channels opposition into manageable forms that are compatible with capitalist social relations.

A radical critique of the state is crucial to continually remind ourselves of the need for caution and scepticism about the claims of governments. It must be borne in mind when, for example, the MAS exaggeratedly claims the nationalisation of hydrocarbons. And yet, as an integral element of capitalism, the state is beset by contradictions, like capitalism itself. It may be an arena within which the contradictions of capitalism can be managed but it is also one within which capital may be contested, by activists ‘in and against the state’, as Hilary Wainwright argues in her book Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy. Thus, in Bolivia in the revolutionary period, the radical social movements were able to occupy local state structures created by the neoliberal regime in an attempt to cement its position, and use them instead as institutional bases for the mobilisation that toppled the neoliberal regime and brought the MAS to power.

Working oppositionally in and against the capitalist state in ways like this is different, however, from the MAS strategy of winning state power through the electoral representative democratic process and then attempting to use the state to advance the revolutionary process. Issues such as the contested process of organising the constituent assembly pose sharply the danger of the state subordinating, and substituting for, grass-roots community organisations – though the defenders of the Bolivian government would argue that MAS management of the assembly was necessary to ensure that the new constitution was steered through effectively in the face of bitter opposition.

It is also true that the MAS in government has so far has made no frontal assault on capital (either industrial capital, such as hydrocarbons, or landed/agricultural capital), merely increasing the state share of hydrocarbon profits and expropriating some large latifundias (estates) that were not being used productively. Instead, what the new constitution proposes is a plural economy, one with different economic spaces – strengthening the indigenous communal economy, aiding the co-operative economy, promoting the state economy and guaranteeing the private economy.

This kind of compromise may be viewed in two ways. For left critics it guarantees the position of capitalist enterprises while frittering away the opportunity for more radical movement away from capitalism. For those such as Garcia Linera, it opens up possibilities for an economy oriented to a greater degree towards use and social need rather than prioritising profit. It attempts to chart a transitional path away from capitalism that draws on indigenous practices and awareness of environmental sustainability, and recognises the pitfalls of a more rapid transition. These include not only the question of how far popular opinion in Bolivia is currently anti-capitalist or merely opposed to neoliberalism and externally-based multinationals, but also the question of the capacity of either the state or the popular movements to manage a socialised economy effectively.

Transnational, national, local

One of the reasons why it has often proved difficult for radical governments to use the state against capital and neoliberalism has been the increasingly lopsided power relationship between a globalised capitalism and the confined reach of the nation state. Bolivia is interesting here because of the way ‘the state’ increasingly operates at a complex intersection of local, national and transnational state institutions and practices.

First, local state spaces have been crucially important. In the 1990s local institutions created by the neoliberal regime were colonised by oppositional social movements and transformed into organisational bases for opposition. Today the MAS is starting to implement a key decolonising aspect of the new constitution by allowing municipalities to vote to adopt traditional indigenous forms of local self-government, so that the institutions of the indigenous population that traditionally provided local

self-administration in the absence of, or in opposition to,

the (capitalist and racist) national state now have recognition within the refounded state.

Second, in the past couple of years Bolivia has been an active participant, as a member of the ALBA group of Latin American countries (also including Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador), in setting up supra-national quasi-state structures for trade and economic cooperation. These institutions are alternatives to neoliberal global institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, and the ALBA group, encouraged by the financial crisis and recession, and in recognition of the ecological crisis, promotes an anti-capitalist message of solidarity, cultural diversity and social justice.

Learning from Bolivia

In the period since 2000 Bolivia has successfully overthrown a neoliberal regime and begun to build new institutions and policies, especially a refounded state that is less alienated from the mass of the population than the neoliberal capitalist state. Clearly this is still a project under construction, but it raises the wider issue, important far beyond Bolivia, as to whether and how the capitalist state can be reshaped as part of the building of that ‘other world’ which is so necessary. What would such a state look like? How would it function? The new Bolivian constitution, alongside radical initiatives elsewhere in Latin America, from the Zapatistas’ alternative local state structures in Chiapas, Mexico, to the Venezuelan communal councils, may help to take such questions forward.

The Bolivian experience indicates the importance of linking local, national and supranational state action, though how to do this effectively and democratically remains a work in progress. Additionally, and most importantly, a radical refounding of the state must embody an active dialectic between state and social movements. In Bolivia, the period in which the social movements led the revolutionary process has given way to one in which leadership has passed to the MAS holding power in the state apparatus. We must hope for a continuing alternation between these two ‘moments’.

For this, it will be crucial that the left and indigenous movements continue to mobilise actively and strategically, and there are currently encouraging signs of this occurring. Regional and local elections in Bolivia earlier this year were marked by the election of left activists opposing the MAS. In recent weeks, major challenges to the government have emerged, based especially but not exclusively in the mining town of Potosi, situated in the poorest part of the country. Widespread mass mobilisations have called for the government to do much more to address poverty and inequality, and to turn anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal rhetoric into reality. There are also vocal criticisms of a state bureaucracy that still often seems to undermine rather than implement the more radical elements of government policy.

These challenges, uncomfortable though they may be for the government itself, should be seen as confirmation that the radical impulse in Bolivia is not at an end but intends to build on the major advances already achieved.

What might Bolivia’s recent experience mean for us in the UK? Clearly, the context is very different, but – at a time when even the financial crisis and recession do not seem to have shaken the grip of neoliberalism here – Bolivia reminds us that neoliberal regimes can indeed be overthrown. There is an alternative.

In the Bolivian case, this required a rejection of elite party politics, a radical alliance between the trade unions and social movements, and sustained mass action on the streets. It then required the ability of the MAS to hold together the broad alliance necessary to win power and begin to map out and implement a movement towards socialism. Might it just be possible that, in the coming years in Europe, including the UK, in the context of recession and swingeing state expenditure cuts, such revolutionary perspectives will come to seem more appealing?

Mike Geddes is an Honorary Professor at the University of Warwick. For more about events in Bolivia, including several interviews with Garcia Linera, visit