At the end of Ben Dangl’s first book, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, he wrote, “Neoliberalism has dug its own grave in Latin America, and new alternatives, both in the street and the state, are evolving in its place.… However, if these new leaders and economic alliances fail to reverse destructive policies, social movements know what they want and how to make themselves heard.” After the election of a number of left-leaning presidents, Dangl returned to South America to explore the uneasy relationship between leaders of the seven “Pink Tide” nations and the social movements that were often instrumental in their election.
The product of that exploration is Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, focusing on Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay. Many of these are the same countries covered by Oliver Stone in “South of the Border,” but in many ways Dangl’s book is the guide that Stone’s movie was not. Rather than visit presidential palaces, Dangl writes from the neighborhood streets where the region’s powerful social movements originated—and where social policy is most acutely felt. From this vantage point, the particularity of each country’s “dance” between social movements and the state is brought to the surface.
Dangl’s main goal seems to be drawing out lessons useful for the United States, convincing liberals and progressives that genuine progress doesn’t begin and end with the ballot box. The book’s final chapter drives this home, highlighting inspiring struggles across the U.S. from the past few years.
Dangl doesn’t paint all Pink Tide presidents with a single brush. He assesses each country with surprising nuance for the amount of ground he has to cover in so short a space. While Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales have uneven records, they represent the interest of social movements “exponentially more than the opposition.” Among the evidence he cites is Chávez’s negotiations to bring Venezuela’s oil back under state control, a move which allowed Chávez to funnel oil wealth into programs for health care, literacy, education, and subsidized food for poor communities. Dangl writes of the symbiotic relationship between Chávez and Venezuelan social movements: “Without the support of these movements, Chávez would not still be in power. And without Chávez’s leadership, many of these movements would still be facing the type of repression they saw under previous administrations.”
At the same time, these leaders do sometimes come into conflict with the same people who have supported them. Dangl writes, “many of the South American presidents’ actions, today and in the past, against social movements were due in part to the constraints they found themselves in as leaders of states enmeshed in global capitalism and beholden to Washington, the financial market, military powers, corporate interests, corrupt officials, bureaucracy, and the stranglehold of debt, among other factors.”
What emerges over and again in Dancing with Dynamite is that these pressures need to be counterbalanced by strong, independent social movements. Dangl presents Argentina as a cautionary tale of what happens when movements are too dispersed, lacking structure and unity. When the Argentine economy collapsed in December 2001, after $140 billion was pulled out of the country by foreign investors, ordinary people found themselves unable to access any money from the bank. Hundreds of thousands streamed into the streets, the anger so great the country saw five presidents in two weeks.
Workers took over their businesses and ran them as cooperatives, many of which are still operating that way today. The potential of this moment (which helped inspire the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago) sadly ended, as a combination of government repression and co-option paved the way for a return to the status quo. “So it was that one of the most expansive and momentous grassroots uprisings of the 21st century dissipated,” Dangl writes.
Dancing with Dynamite is a well-written and useful guide for those who know little about the region, as well as an effective polemic for those looking to debate what lessons leftists in this country can take away.
Trotskyism’s influence in Bolivia
While Dangl’s book is wide-ranging, the argument that S. Sándor John makes in Bolivia’s Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes is quite specific. He asserts that the strongest Trotskyist tradition in the Western hemisphere made Bolivia’s historical radicalism distinctive among South American nations. He also claims the particular development of a radical, militant political culture (in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere) paved the way for the explosive social movements of recent years.
The idea for Bolivia’s Radical Tradition came to John during his travels in Bolivia. The book is an attempt to “understand a place where miners spoke in Quechua-inflected Spanish of Leon Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ while offering coca leaves and cigarettes to El Tío, a pre-Inca deity of the world beneath the world.” This scene is striking for a number of reasons, not least for its challenge of the stereotypical conception of “working class” as white factory workers in an industrial city. Some two-thirds of Bolivians identify as indigenous, a greater number than anywhere else in Latin America. The tradition of militant radicalism in Bolivia defies those who attack Marxism for ignoring race, as it defies the claims that Marx’s ideas just don’t apply to non-Europeans.
Trotskyism emerged in Bolivia despite isolation, underdevelopment and wide dispersion of workers. Many of these factors actually contributed to the relative indifference from the Communist International, which was then in the hands of Trotsky’s longtime antagonist, Stalin. Unlike in the United States, France, Spain, or elsewhere, Bolivian Trotskyism emerged before a Communist Party became established. In these other places, Trotskyists competed for members with organizations that took their marching orders from Moscow. But in Bolivia, as John writes, when “the miners organized on a national scale, they entered the political field when no such hegemonic party of the left existed.”
The key contribution of Bolivian Trotskyism may have been the Thesis of Pulacayo, which attempted to apply a number of Trotsky’s ideas to Bolivia. Among these were was the theory of permanent revolution, albeit one that differed significantly from what Trotsky had actually laid out. Trotsky argued that in backwards countries, where the bourgeoisie was too politically weak to carry out its own revolution, a united front of workers and peasants could potentially bring a country from feudal conditions to workers’ revolution. The Thesis stated that the proletariat should first accomplish a bourgeois revolution, stopping short of socialism. John criticizes this vision of a revolutionary process broken up into separate stages, and shows how it complicated the miners’ approach to their central role in the 1952 revolution.
He also makes clear the myriad contributions made by Trotskyism. Revolution from below took special root amongst tin miners. As producers of Bolivia’s chief export, their economic leverage far outstripped their numbers. The Marxist ideas they encountered pushed the miners to the vanguard of Bolivian labor, a position they would occupy for decades. John writes:
This movement helped indigenous miners forge a worldview that vindicated their central role in the nation’s life, providing it with an international context and historical mission.… No longer to be derided and despised, the rich cultural production of Bolivia’s poor would be a part of a struggle for a different, better world.
Seventy years before Evo Morales was propelled to the presidency by an explosion of social movements, wide swaths of ordinary Bolivians were learning their collective power, and taking pride in indigenousness.
Bolivian Trotskyism was also notable for its approach to women. While elsewhere women were pushed to the background of struggles, as early as 1959, the party published the pamphlet “Toward Women’s Liberation.” Other bulletins of the time stressed a “woman’s importance in the revolutionary struggle, whether she is a worker or a housewife.” Women of the mine zones should be at union meetings “and every national miners’ meeting,” and committees of housewives “should be organized and linked to the union organizations,” on the national as well as local scale. “[The mines] Siglo XX and Catavi must send housewives’ delegates to the next mine union plenary.”
Bolivia’s Radical Tradition makes a strong case for the impact of Trotskyism on the strength of Bolivian class struggle. The one thing it lacks is a more complete accounting of the collapse of class struggle in the mid-1980s. More attention could have been given to how neoliberal shock treatment was pushed through, which effectively destroyed the powerful miners’ union. After fifteen years nearly absent of struggle, social movements exploded again in the resource wars that eventually brought Morales to the presidency. There are sketches of a convincing argument that Trotskyism played a significant role in this new wave of struggle. Many of the miners displaced in 1985 emerged somewhere in struggle in 2000–2005. The theoretical legacies implanted in the consciousness of Bolivian workers likely contributed. But with barely more than twenty pages covering the 1971–2010, it’s difficult to make that claim emphatically.
It is obvious that the history of Bolivian radicalism is in fact distinct in Latin America. It is difficult to find mention of “Leninist” movements in Latin America that aren’t actually talking about some form of Stalinism or Maoism. The influence of the Soviet Union on the region is a lesser-discussed side effect of the Cold War, which often prevents us from imagining a proletarian force emerging from below in Latin America. Bolivia’s Radical Tradition allows us to do that.