Class struggle and indigenous liberation

IN 1871, the indigenous leader Tupac Katari was drawn and quartered by the Spanish for leading an indigenous insurrection that held La Paz, Bolivia, besieged for 184 days. Katari was unafraid of the brutal death awaiting him. Before the Spanish literally ripped him into pieces he promised, “You will only kill me, but I will return and I will be millions.”

In 2001, hundreds of thousands rose up in Cochabamba during the first “water war” to fight water privatization; two years later, another water war erupted in El Alto. Shortly afterward the gas wars began, ranging two years and drawing enough people into struggle from across the nation to topple two presidents.

One uprising followed another over the course of half a decade, in a “cycle of rural and urban re-awakening of the exploited classes and oppressed indigenous majority that gradually spread throughout most of the country.” It was frequently remarked that Katari’s promise had been kept.

Jeffrey Webber’s first book, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia, made the striking argument that the promise of the 2000–2005 insurrectionary cycle in Bolivia was in many ways betrayed by the neoliberal policies of the administration of President Evo Morales. In Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia, Webber provides an equally striking account of how indigenous liberation and class struggle became tightly intertwined during that insurrectionary cycle. He traces the historical formation of indigenous working-class struggle, from the death of Tupac Katari in 1871 to the rise of the first indigenous president, Morales, in the wake of the second gas war in 2005.

Webber’s descriptions of the 2005 gas war, for which he was present, fully place the reader in the midst of the action, excitement, and revolutionary possibilities. He also introduces some incredibly useful theory for understanding what’s happened in Bolivia since then. But the chief value of Red October is that the history it provides, unlike many other recent academic works, refuses to buy into the idea that Marxism is something alien to the indigenous. Webber meticulously shows time and again that during the history of Bolivia, a country in which the vast majority identify as indigenous, distinctions between “working class” and indigenous, or between “indigenous liberation” and “class struggle,” are impossible to make.

“Since as far back as the Spanish exploitation of the Potosí silver-mines in the sixteenth century, mining had been the central axis around which the Bolivian economy turned,” writes Webber. The Spanish empire was underwritten by the silver flowing out of the Cerro Rico in Potosí, mined by enslaved indigenous people. When in 1900 tin became the most important extracted resource (and remained so until the mid-1980s), it gave tin miners a potentially powerful role.

 As the 1900s wore on, capitalist development in Bolivia required new indigenous lands, sparking two important developments. First, it tended to proletarianize the formerly atomized indigenous peasantry. Second, Bolivian capitalists divided the newly proletarianized from the rest of the population through a more rigid racial ideology. Webber concludes this turn was “driven by the state’s efforts to exclude the indigenous population from formal politics, appropriate their lands, and transform them into propertyless and disciplined agrarian proletarians.”

Real ties developed between urban intellectual socialists and indigenous leaders. This was particularly true in the Chayanta rebellion of 1927, an uprising of 10,000 indigenous across much of Bolivia. Subsequent years saw stronger resistance to racial oppression and to class-based exploitation emerge, particularly in the camps at tin mines. Revolutionary Marxism (including significant Trotskyist influence) began to mix with Quechua-Aymara indigenous traditional cultural practice. The miners’ culture additionally put high value on participatory democracy:

This manifested itself in the primacy of independent syndicalism over party-politics, frequent mass-assemblies in the mining camps, a tradition of popular control of mining delegates sent to higher federations, autonomy of strike-committees from the national executives of union-organizations.... Such an environment made the union much more than a union. Instead, it acted as a pivotal reference-point for all aspects of working-class life in the mining zones. The union fought for workers’ basic material interests. It stressed mass participation and active engagement with national politics. It was through the union that popular militias were formed and cultural activities organized.

The tin miners were to be at the vanguard of struggle in Bolivia for decades, leading an increasingly confident and combative proletariat through a series of strikes, and were a decisive force in the 1952 national revolution. When a 1964 counter-revolution ushered in two decades of dictatorship, the power and organization of the working class were important reasons why the left could not be liquidated, as in Chile, Argentina, or Guatemala. This did not, unfortunately, preclude any violence: “Trade-union activists in the mines suffered repression, exile, imprisonment, selective assassinations, and even full-scale massacres.”

With the ousting of the last Bolivian dictator, Hugo Banzer, the country returned to formalized democracy. Webber identifies four important legacies left by the Banzer regime: (1) the bourgeoisie in Santa Cruz grew in power and prominence, and is today still the heart of the right wing and of Bolivian capitalism; (2) the indigenous peasantry suffered enormously under Banzer—economically and through military repression—driving many into support for the newly-formed katarista indigenous nationalist movement; (3) Banzer’s failed attempt to destroy the workers’ movement inadvertently put it at the forefront of the struggle for democracy; and (4) billions in debt racked up by Banzer eventually led to a debt crisis and hyperinflation, paving the way for the neoliberal policies that did what two decades worth of dictatorships could not: dismantle the powerful tin miners’ union.

Within a few years of the neoliberalization of the Bolivian economy, over 25,000 miners were fired. But much of the groundwork had been laid for a tightening of the ties between indigenous liberation and class struggles. Miners in search of work eventually settled in three main locations: outside of Cochabamba, in El Alto, and in the Chepare, where they became cocaleros. In each location rural and urban traditions of resistance mixed to powerful effect. When struggle shook Bolivia to its core for the five-year period beginning in 2001, the heart of the uprisings were in Cochabamba and El Alto. The leading social force that emerged during this period was the cocaleros.

Across the globe, including here in the United States, uprisings of various sizes and forms are showing us that people of color and the indigenous are not outside capitalism, nor its relentless exploitation and oppression. The idea that Marxism has nothing to say to these people is untrue. It is of course no more likely that the indigenous will flock to Marxism than any other section of society. But it is no less likely.

The degree to which Red October is such an original contribution speaks volumes about how frequently Marxism is edited out of the picture. From numerous wings of academia, indigeneity is frequently celebrated, but the indigenous are essentialized as those from a far-off time, somehow standing outside of the march of time.

These thinkers come from a diverse set of schools within academia (postcolonialism, postmodernism, etc.) that look at social explosions like those rocking Bolivia as “new social movements” (NSM). For these academics, there is an assumption that social struggle cannot be explained in Marxist terms, such as class and economic exploitation. Instead NSM theorists were more concerned with social roles.

For example, the Cochabamba Water War is frequently held up as an example of an NSM, the fight for water a reimposition of indigenous cultural values, including worship of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). There is no doubt this sort of rhetoric was employed to rally support around hundreds-year-long attacks on indigenous cultural practice; but ignored by this analysis is water’s role in farming, drinking, cooking, and a host of other tasks associated with survival.

It seems that an obvious approach to understanding class struggle would be to take a hard look at how class formation has occurred. But “new social movement” theories deny class any significant role.

Webber provides ample explanation of the limits of previous theoretical frameworks. He points, for example, to tendencies of neoliberal multiculturalism to naturalize the existence of capitalism; and to artificially separate ethnicity and culture from the economy and the “material reality foundations of social life.” One result of this is for observers to focus on changes such as “citizenship,” without considering the hard limits of what citizenship could mean under capitalism. This framework led many to overestimate the impact of cultural gains on the oppressed. It makes it impossible to see the convergence of indigenous and class struggle; and ignoring the limits of cultural gains makes it difficult for one to understand the need for indigenous people to engage in class struggle.

Webber correctly asserts, “for the international anticapitalist left, the insurrectionary cycle in Bolivia in the first five years of the current century constitutes a rich source for inspiration and reflection.” As struggles explode across the globe against the policies of neoliberalism, tools like Red October enable us to begin shedding the ideological baggage left by decades of neoliberal influence in the academic world. It should be widely read and discussed.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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