Socialist Worker

Revolution lives on in the 21st century

Alex Callinicos argues that revolution lives on in the 21st century, as shown by Bolivia’s uprising

Issue No. 1959

Bolivian workers show the reality of revolution today(Pic: Sebastian Hacher)

Bolivian workers show the reality of revolution today(Pic: Sebastian Hacher)

Who talks of revolution today? The mainstream social democratic left — re-branded as the “centre left” — has long given up talking about socialism, let alone revolution.

These days it is George Bush and his neo-cons who have stolen the word “revolution” to describe the imposition of US style neo-liberal capitalism through the power of the Pentagon.

Even the anti-capitalist movement shies away from the idea of revolution. Not long ago writer and activist Susan George said, “I must confess that I no longer know what ‘overthrowing capitalism’ means at the beginning of the 21st century.”

Yet even though the word “revolution” has fallen into disrepute, the thing itself stubbornly refuses to die.

Neo-liberal capitalism is devastating lives around the world. From time to time, their suffering goads working people to revolt.

When this happens, we get a glimpse of what revolution is really about — both in the forms of self

organisation that emerge to wage the struggle and in the political dilemmas the movement confronts.

The most important — and extraordinary — contemporary example is provided by Bolivia, where popular risings have overthrown two presidents in barely 18 months.

Bolivia has suffered particularly brutally at the hands of neo-liberalism. The country’s tin mines were privatised in the 1980s at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. Some 30,000 miners lost their jobs.

Many ex-miners, along with landless peasants, have survived by producing the only crop they could live off — coca. This made them prime targets for the US government’s “war on drugs”.

The final turn of the vice came with the seizure of Bolivia’s huge natural gas reserves by European multinationals such as BP and Repsol.

But the attempt by global capital to swallow Bolivia whole provoked an explosive response.


First in 2000 a mass movement against the privatisation of water drove the US multinational Bechtel out of the Cochabamba region.

Then in October 2003 huge protests against the multinationals’ control of Bolivia’s natural gas converged on the capital, La Paz. President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada was forced to resign and flee to Miami in a helicopter.

The 2003 uprising proved merely the prelude to what has been called the Second Gas War of May and June 2005. This latest rising focused on mass demands for the nationalisation of the natural gas industry.

Losada’s successor, Carlos Mesa, was forced out last month for opposing even an increase in the tax on gas royalties.

The risings have been marked by a spectacular convergence of a range of different struggles.

The Aymara Indians make up 62 percent of Bolivia’s population, but have been systematically excluded from economic and political power.

This oppressed majority has found a voice in the contemporary movements of the Bolivian poor.

The Federation of Neighbourhood Committees of El Alto, the overwhelmingly Indian city that overlooks La Paz on Bolivia’s high plateau, was a key force in organising mass strikes, daily demonstrations and a blockade of the capital.

As in 2003, the coca farmers also played a critical role. But this time the main organisations of the Bolivian working class — the national Workers’ Central and the Regional Central of El Alto — were at the centre of the protests.

The Bolivian risings have thus made visible some of the main features of a revolutionary situation. The working people and the poor have been goaded into rebellion against the dreadful material conditions they suffer.

In fighting they have built and strengthened mass organisations of struggle. Their collective power represents a challenge to the way in which society is normally run — from the top, by and in the interests of the rich and privileged.

This is at the very heart of revolution as it is understood in the Marxist tradition. Socialism, Marx said, is the self emancipation of the working class. It’s about workers, together with all the oppressed and exploited, freeing themselves through a revolution from below.

But nothing has been resolved in Bolivia. The latest rising was followed by a truce, in which Mesa was replaced by Eduardo Rodriguez, who will serve as interim president until elections are organised later in the year.

The rich white oligarchy that dominates Bolivia hasn’t given up. It is demanding autonomy for the rich eastern lowland region where the natural gas reserves are concentrated.

It can expect the support of the White House and of the multinationals, which are threatening to sue Bolivia if the reserves are nationalised.

The oligarchy and their foreign allies will count heavily on the army and police, who are the last line of defence of the existing order. Some 67 people were killed in ineffective efforts to crush the 2003 rising.

The Scottish autonomist Marxist John Holloway coined the slogan “Change the world without taking power”, which has become very popular among sections of the Latin American left. But if we ignore the state, this doesn’t mean that the state — and in particular its repressive forces — will ignore us.


One strategy for dealing with the state is to try to take control of it by winning elections. Evo Morales, leader of the coca farmers and the Movement Towards Socialism, represents this option in Bolivia.

Morales came a close second in the 2002 presidential elections and many people think he will win next time. Richard Gott predicted in the Guardian recently that a Morales presidency in Bolivia would be a focus for indigenous movements throughout the Andes region of South America.

It would also be an ally of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba in challenging US imperialism, he argued.

Undoubtedly if Morales won it would be a huge fillip for the left in Bolivia and throughout Latin America. But a strategy that makes winning elections the main lever of social change leads nowhere.

Already Morales has come under increasing criticism for his caution. When the mass movement demanded the complete nationalisation of gas reserves, Morales advocated increasing the tax on royalties to 50 percent and opposed Mesa’s resignation.

Jean Friedsky recently reported from Bolivia on the radical website ZNet:

“The feeling among Evo’s theoretical base (poor and indigenous) is that he cares more about international approval and the long term viability of his political party than about the life of the average Bolivian…

“He started asking for nationalisation in week four and only because he was the last remaining force on the left not demanding it.”

To see elections as the key to change is to believe that the left can win control of the existing state.

Inevitably this leads to what Morales has been doing — tailoring policies to suit what the local ruling class, the multinationals, and international capitalist institutions regard as “realistic”.

But great movements from below up-end all these calculations. One of the slogans of the French events of May-June 1968 was “Be realistic — demand the impossible!”


When the masses take to the streets, the impossible has a funny trick of becoming realistic.

Thus in Bolivia today, nationalising the gas reserves — which would reverse the logic of neo-liberal privatisation — has become a serious option.

But really to entrench this alternative social logic, in which the economy would be run on the basis of democratic decisions about what the mass of people need, would require a revolution.

It would mean going beyond what the risings in Bolivia have achieved so far, which is removing obnoxious politicians and driving the political system into crisis.

The mass organisations of the workers and the poor would have to develop into real organs of popular power that could begin to take over running society — to become the basis of a new state directly controlled by the exploited and oppressed majority.

These emerging organs of popular power would, of course, run up against the existing state.

The movement would have to find ways of dividing the forces of repression —of winning over rank and file soldiers and police officers.

The more the movement splits and disorganises the repressive state apparatuses, the easier it would be for the new popular power to sweep them aside and take control of society.

This may seem like fantasy, but it is what nearly happened in Portugal during the revolution of 1974-5, as Socialist Worker’s recent interviews with veterans of that country’s revolution showed.

Revolution itself isn’t a fantasy. It is put on the agenda by mass revolts against neo-liberalism, of which the most spectacular to date are the two uprisings in Bolivia.

The higher the level of resistance, the more the movements to which it gives rise are confronted with the classic dilemma of reform or revolution — of taking over the existing state or seeking to overthrow it from below.

One of the greatest difficulties our movements face is the way in which many activists’ political imagination has shrunk as a result of the defeats suffered by the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is this that encourages even figures as closely identified with the great movements of today as Evo Morales to narrow their political horizons to negotiating a somewhat better deal within the present system.

We have to win the new generation of activists emerging from these movements to understanding that revolution isn’t just possible.

In a world dominated by poverty, war and environmental destruction, it’s essential.

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Sat 9 Jul 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1959
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