The recent uprisings and eventual electoral success of the Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia is one of the most hopeful historical events to have occurred so far this century. From its beginnings in the struggles against the privatization of water in 2000 up to the current attempts by the popular government to nationalize natural gas and redistribute land, the Bolivian revolution has captured the imagination of indigenous and leftist activists everywhere in the world.
Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson’s newest book, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics, covers this revolutionary upsurge from a leftist perspective that goes beyond Marxism as it is academically understood and places the demands for indigenous autonomy as the foundation for this revolution. The book opens with a description of the events in La Paz in October 2003 as witnessed by the authors and concludes with a critical look at what the victory of Morales and the MAS means for the future of Bolivia and the indigenous movements that put the party in power. In between these bookends, the reader is presented with a popular history of Bolivia. It is a history rich in resistance and almost as rich in reaction.
Like many other Latin American countries, the history of Bolivia is filled with colonialism, slaughter, and resistance. The forms of that resistance are many. Sometimes it involved only the creole or settler class against the colonialist overseers and their successor governments. Other times it involved only the indigenous peoples against those overseers. Sometimes it involved a coalition of members from both of the resisting classes in a movement against those oppressors. Indeed, sometimes the resistance itself was successful and took control of the reins of power. Unfortunately, when this occurred, the coalition between the creole forces and the indigenous peoples disintegrated, usually because of a creole belief in their ultimate superiority based on skin tone and culture.
It is at this crux that Hylton and Thomson tend to do their best analysis. It is also at this crux that leftists of the northern hemisphere should pay the most attention. The success and failure of movements past and present depend on understanding indigenous analyses and perceptions of history and leftism and somehow incorporating these into a revolutionary ideology that encourages the realization of both traditions. The alternative is to face a situation where for every progressive step forward we make in the struggle for social and economic justice, we end up taking at least one backwards, if only because of non-indigenous activists’ failure to grant the power to indigenous elements that is necessary to sustain those forward steps.
As noted above, the history of Bolivia is filled with instances of collaboration between radical movements of indigenous peoples and settlers and their descendants. Some of these historical moments were more than instances and actually moved the country towards a fairer and more equitable existence for all of its people. Yet, most of them resulted in a division amongst the very forces that created the positive circumstances. Often, the divisions revolved around land rights and the question of private property. This division then allowed the forces of reaction to creep back into power, harshening their repression of the popular forces each and every time, usually in the name of the nation. These lessons are not only important as regards our understanding of Latin America, they are also quite relevant to the worldwide struggle against neoliberalism and its neoconservative twin we are currently either part of or witness to.
Revolutionary Horizons is a brilliant and succinct survey of the struggle of the Bolivian poor and working peoples, who also happen to be primarily descendants of its original human inhabitants. One should read it not only for its importance to understanding the recently successful struggles against US imperialism in Bolivia and its neighboring lands but also for its relevance to the greater struggle against that very same opponent. While many in the United States have focused their energies on the US wars in Asia and the Middle East recently, the people of Latin America have been gaining power over their own lives and in doing so, have torn at the web of the Washington consensus and loosened the imperial grip that Washington has grown so used to. It’s only a matter of time before the stumbling military giant of US imperialism turns its attentions southward once again. Reading this book will help those opposed to this scenario understand what’s at stake.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com