Socialist Worker

Bolivia 1952 - a glimpse of workers' power

Sixty years after the Bolivian revolution, Steve Henshall shows how workers beat the army

Issue No. 2297

This month, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Bolivia’s revolution of 1952. Despite brutal repression, poverty and a low level of development, the stranglehold of the tin barons and the political elite was broken through revolutionary struggle.

Ordinary workers managed to defend themselves from a military backlash that followed a failed coup. They achieved in days what reformist organisations hadn’t managed in decades.

For a time, workers ran the streets—and their own organisations briefly matched parliament’s power. 

The revolution came out of the growing isolation of successive governments and the growth of a confident workers’ movement.

The revolutionary period was short-lived, but set a standard for Bolivians even today. The heights of the struggle show that even a relatively small working class in a backward economy can take the lead and reshape society. 

It shows that ordinary people can make history—not just small groups of guerrillas or politicians.

At the time of the revolution Bolivia’s economy was centred on tin production. The majority of Bolivians were peasants, but a small working class developed around the mines.

The miners were central to the economy, despite being geographically isolated. They developed a tradition of radicalism through their struggles with the brutal mining bosses.

Political power was centred in the hands of a tiny elite of mine owners. But a number of competing ideologies and opposition groups had developed since the Great Depression.

Undoubtedly the most influential of these was the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). It opposed the grip of US imperialism on Bolivia’s economy. But this anti-imperialism took contradictory forms.

The MNR campaigned against Bolivia’s support for the Allies in the Second World War, and a number of its intellectuals showed interest in German and Italian fascism. But on the home front it emphasised bourgeois social reforms and economic nationalism.

By the late 1940s the MNR had grown massively, and dropped its fascist inclinations. In 1949 it led the opposition forces in a short civil war, and in 1950 attempted an insurrection with the support of the miners.

Quell

When the government called elections in 1951 in an attempt to quell discontent, the MNR stood and won.

The army was unable to accept such a result. Straight away it banned the MNR and installed a military junta.

The MNR prepared to overthrow the junta, and formed a secret alliance with the commander of the paramilitary police that they hoped could win over large sections of the army.

On 9 April they took to the streets. But to their dismay the army didn’t split and instead moved to crush them.

The leadership decided to retreat. But within days the intervention of workers had changed everything. 

Factory workers faced up to the military. Miners armed with dynamite took the railway station in Milluni, seizing ammunitions and cutting the line.

Popular militias were established which managed to overrun the army at the same time as winning layers of low ranking soldiers to switch sides.

The rebel soldiers brought weapons and wore their caps backwards in defiance of their old officers.

Three days of fighting ensued as workers fought to disarm the army loyalists and take the presidential palace.

With the capital La Paz in the hands of the rebels, students of the military college made a last stand. The army surrendered on 11 April.

Despite the MNR’s vacillation, they found themselves thrust into power—not by the backroom deal they expected, but by a workers’ offensive.

Exile

On 17 April, Victor Paz Estenssoro of the MNR returned from exile and was named president. His new cabinet included three working class leaders representing the miners, factory workers and transport workers.

On the same day, the trade unions met and established a central organising body called the COB. It attracted all sorts of popular organisations, including peasants, domestic workers and students.

This was far more than just a congress, like the TUC in Britain. It was an organ of the working class that put

forward serious demands and for a time had the power to enforce them.

Workers’ militias controlled the streets, and on Mayday 40,000 armed workers marched through La Paz.

Guillermo Lora, leader of Bolivia’s Trotskyists (see box) described the COB as “the only centre of power worthy of the name.”

Bolivia rested upon two powers.

On the one hand there was the newly formed government. On the other the COB became the focus for those workers who had beaten the junta through their own actions. It forced the MNR to go way beyond its original ambitions.

The major advances of the revolution included the nationalisation of the three big mining companies, land redistribution and universal suffrage. These three standards are still referred to as “the state of 52” in Bolivia.

But dual power cannot last for long—eventually one side will triumph over the other. Despite the power that was in the hands of the working class, it was handed by their leaders to the MNR government.

The working class were not attacked straight away. But by 1956 a “stabilisation plan” was presented to develop capital accumulation.

Many of the gains that were made were driven back as the government divided the unions, rallied the peasantry behind the government and rebuilt the army.

The 1952 uprising was deflected. But the COB and the miners remained a dangerous force throughout much of the rest of the century in the face of the authoritarian governments to come.

And the memory of revolution continues to inspire workers in Bolivia and beyond today.

Further reading:

J Crabtree, Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (2005)

J Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins (1984)


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