'Popular revolts' in Latin America: Its class autonomy is vital to the proletariat

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The massive eruption of workers’ struggles May 1968 in France, followed by the movements in Italy, Britain, Spain, Poland and elsewhere signified the end of the period of counter-revolution that had weighed so heavily on the international working class since the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave. The proletarian giant stood once again on the stage of history, and not just in Europe. These struggles had a powerful echo in Latin America, beginning with the “Cordobaza” in Argentina in 1969. Throughout the region, between 1969 and 1975, from Chile in the South to Mexico on the US border, workers put up an intransigent fight against the bourgeoisie’s efforts to make them pay for the unfolding economic crisis. In the waves of struggle that followed, that of 1977-80 culminating in the mass strike in Poland, that of 1983-89 marked by massive struggles in Denmark and Belgium, and by large-scale struggles in many other countries, the proletariat of Latin America continued to struggle, albeit not in such a spectacular manner. In doing so, it demonstrated that whatever its different conditions, the working class is one and the same international class in one and the same fight against capitalism.

Today, these struggles appear like a distant dream. The present social situation in the region is not marked by massive strikes, demonstrations and armed confrontations between the proletariat and the forces of repression, but by widespread social instability. The  “uprising” in Bolivia in October 2003, the massive street demonstrations that swept five presidents from power in a matter of days in Argentina in December 2001, the Chavez “popular revolution” in Venezuela, the ultra-mediatised struggle of the Zapatistas in Mexico – these and similar events are what predominate. In this maelstrom of social discontent the working class appears to be just another discontented stratum of society, one which if it wants to have any chance of defending itself needs to merge with the other non-exploiting strata. Revolutionaries cannot simply resign themselves to these difficulties in the class struggle, their responsibility is to defend unbendingly the proletariat’s class independence.

The autonomy of the proletariat in the face of all the other classes of society is the first precondition for the extension of its struggle towards the revolution. All alliances with other classes or strata and especially those with fractions of the bourgeoisie can only lead to the disarming of the class in the face of its enemy, because these alliances make the working class abandon the only terrain on which it can temper its strength: its own class terrain” (Point 9, Platform of the ICC).

The working class is the only revolutionary class. It alone bears a perspective for humanity as a whole. Today, when the proletariat is surrounded on every side by the increasing decomposition of a moribund capitalism, when it has great difficulty in imposing its own autonomous class struggle with its own interests to defend, it is more than ever necessary to remember the words of Marx in The Holy Family: “The question is not what goal is envisaged for the time being by this or that member of the proletariat, or even by the proletariat as a whole. The question is what is the proletariat and what course of action will it be forced historically to take in conformity with its own nature”.

Class struggle in Latin America from 1969-1989

The history of the class struggle in Latin America over the last 35 years, along with that of the rest of the international working class, has been one of hard struggles, violent confrontations with the state, temporary victories and bitter defeats. The spectacular movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s have given way to more difficult and tortuous struggles, where the central question of how to defend and develop class autonomy is posed more sharply than ever.

Of particular importance was the struggle by the workers of the industrial city of Cordoba in 1969. This struggle witnessed a week of armed confrontation between the proletariat and the Argentinean army and gave a formidable stimulus to struggles throughout Argentina, Latin America and the world. It was the beginning of a wave of struggles that culminated in Argentina in 1975, with the struggle of the steelworkers in the town of Villa Constitución, the most important steel-producing centre in the country. The workers of Villa Constitución faced the full force of the state. The ruling class wanted to use the crushing of their militancy as an example. The town was put “under a military occupation of 4,000 men ...The systematic combing of each neighborhood and the imprisonment of workers (....) simply provoked the anger of the workers: 20, 000 workers in the region came out on strike and occupied the factories. Despite assassinations and bomb attacks against workers' houses, a Committee of Struggle was immediately created outside the union. Four times the leadership of the struggle was arrested; but each time the committee re-emerged stronger than before. As in Cordoba in 1969, groups of armed workers took charge of the defence of working class neighbourhoods and put an end to the activities of the paramilitary bands. The action of the iron and steel workers who demanded a wage increase of 70% quickly gained the solidarity of the workers in other factories in the country, in Rosario, Cordoba, and Buenos Aires. In the latter city, for example, the workers of Propulsora, who went on solidarity strike and won all the wage increases they demanded (130.000 pesos a month), decided to donate half their wages to the workers in Villa Constitución” (“Argentina six years after Cordoba”, World Revolution n°1 1975, page 15-16).

In Chile likewise, in the early 1970’s, the workers fought to defend their own class interests, and refused to sacrifice their interests in the name of the Allende’s Popular Unity government: “Working class resistance to Allende began in 1970. In December 1970, 4,000 Chuquicamata miners struck, demanding higher wages. In July 1971, 10,000 coal miners struck at the Lota Schwager mine. New strikes at the mines of El Salvador, El Teniente, Chuquicamata, La Exotica and Rio Blanco spread at around the same time, demanding higher wages... In May-June 1973, the miners began to move again. 10,000 struck at the El Teniente and Chuquicamata mines. The El Teniente miners asked for a 40% wage rise. Allende put the O'Higgins and Santiago provinces under military rule, because the paralysis at El Teniente seriously threatened the economy" (“The irresistible fall of Allende”, World Revolution n°268).

Major struggles also took place in other important proletarian concentrations in Latin America. In Peru in 1976, semi-insurrectional struggles in Lima were bloodily suppressed. A few months later, the Centramin miners were on strike. In Ecuador, a general strike broke out in Riobamba. Mexico was hit by a wave of strikes in January of the same year, then in 1978 a new wave of general strikes swept Peru. In Brazil, ten years of relative social calm was broken when 200,000 steelworkers took the lead in a wave of strikes that lasted between May and October. In Chile in 1976, strikes broke out among the metro workers in Santiago, and in the mines. In Argentina, strikes broke out again in 1976, despite repression by the ruling military junta, in the electricity industry, and in the car industry in Cordoba, which witnessed violent confrontations between the workers and the army. The 1970s were also marked by important episodes of struggle in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Uruguay.

During the 1980’s the proletariat was fully involved in the international wave of struggles that began in Belgium in 1983. The most developed of these struggles were marked by determined efforts by workers to spread their movement. In 1988, for example, education workers in Mexico fought for an increase in wages: “The demand of the education workers from the beginning posed the question of the extension of the struggles, because there was a general discontent against the austerity plans. 30,000 public employees were holding strikes and demonstrations outside of union control, though the movement was dying down by the beginning of the movement in the education sector. The education workers themselves showed a recognition of the need for extension and unity: at the beginning of the movement, those in the south of Mexico City sent delegations to other education workers, calling on them to join the struggle, and they also took to the streets in demonstrations. Similarly they refused to restrict the fight to teachers alone, regrouping all education workers (teachers, manual and administrative workers) in mass assemblies to control the struggle” (“Mexico worker’s struggle and revolutionary intervention” World Revolution n°124, May 1989).

The same tendencies appeared in other parts of Latin America: “Even the bourgeois media has been talking about a ‘strike wave’ in Latin America, with workers’ struggles breaking out in Chile, Peru, Mexico (…) and Brazil; in the later case there have been simultaneous strikes and demonstrations against a wage freeze by bank, dock, care and education workers” (“The difficult path to unification of class struggle”, World Revolution n°124, May 1989).

Between 1969 and 1989, the working class in Latin America took its place fully within the historic renewal of the working class’ international struggle, with its advances and retreats, its difficulties and its weaknesses.

The collapse of the Berlin wall, and the subsequent tidal wave of bourgeois propaganda about the “death of communism”, caused a profound ebb in workers’ struggles internationally, characterised essentially by the proletariat’s loss of its own class identity. The effects of this ebb were all the more damaging for the proletariat in the peripheral countries, such as in Latin America, inasmuch as the development of the crisis and social decomposition thrust the wretched, oppressed and pauperised masses into inter-classist revolts, making it even more difficult for the workers to assert their own class autonomy and to keep their distance from “people power” and popular revolts.

The noxious effects of capitalist decomposition and inter-classist revolts

The collapse of the Eastern bloc was both a product and an accelerating factor of capitalism’s decomposition, against a background of deepening economic crisis. Latin America was hit hard. Tens of millions were forced from the countryside into the shantytowns of the major cities in a desperate search for non-existent jobs, whilst at the same time millions of young workers were being excluded from the process of wage labour. Over the course of 35 years, with a particularly brutal acceleration during the last ten years, this has led to a massive growth in those strata of society who, whilst not exploiting others' labour power, have been left to starve and eke out a hand-to-mouth existence on the edges of society.

In Latin America as a whole, 221 million (44% of the population) live in poverty. This represents a 7 million increase over last year (of these, 6 million live in extreme poverty) and a 21 million increase since 1990. This means that 20% of the population of Latin America now live in extreme poverty (according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – ECLAC).

The impact of this social decay can be seen in the growth of the informal, self-employed economy of street-selling. The pressure of this sector varies according to the economic strength of the country. In Bolivia, in 2000, the self-employed outnumbered wage earners (47.8% of the working population were self-employed compared to 44.5% wage earners); in Mexico the ratio was 21.0% compared to 74.4% (ECLA).

In the continent as a whole 128 million people live in slums; that is, 33% of the urban population (“UN: Slums increase a 'time bomb'", October 6 2003. ONE news[1]). These millions are faced with little or no sanitation or electricity and their lives are plagued by crime, drugs and gangs. The slums of Rio have been the battleground for rival gangs for years, a situation graphically portrayed in the film City of God. Workers in Latin America, especially in the slums, are also faced with the highest murder and crime rates in the world. The ripping apart of family relations has also led to a massive growth in the number of abandoned street children throughout the region.

Tens of millions of peasants are finding it increasingly difficult to scrape a miserable living from the soil. In some tropical areas, this has served to accelerate the process of environmental destruction spearheaded by the logging companies and others, as land-hungry peasants are forced to encroach on the soil of the rainforest. This in turn offers only a temporary respite since its thin soil is quickly exhausted, resulting in a spiral of deforestation.

The increase in the numbers of the pauperised masses has had a serious impact on the proletariat’s ability to defend its class autonomy. This appeared clearly at the end of the 1980’s when hunger revolts broke out in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. In response to the revolt in Venezuela, which left over one thousand dead and as many injured, we warned of the danger to the proletariat of such revolts. “The vital factor for nourishing this social tumult was blind rage, without any perspective, accumulated over long years of systematic attacks against wage levels and living conditions of those still at work; it expressed the frustration of millions of unemployed, of youths who have never worked and are being pitilessly driven into the swamp of lumpenisation by a society which, in the countries of capitalism's periphery, is incapable of offering these elements any prospect for their lives...

The lack of proletarian political orientation, opening up a revolutionary perspective, meant that it was this rage and frustration which was the motor force behind the street riots with their burning of vehicles, impotent confrontations with the police and, later on, the pillaging of food and electrical goods shops. The movement which began as a protest against the 'package' of economic measures thus rapidly disintegrated into looting and destruction without any perspective” (“Venezuela: communiqué to the whole working class”, from Internacionalismo, ICC publication in Venezuela, reproduced in World Revolution no124 May 1989).

In the 1990’s the desperation of the non-exploiting strata has been increasingly utilised by parts of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. In Mexico, the Zapatistas initially proved particularly adept at this, with their ideas about “popular power” and representing the oppressed. Whilst in Venezuela, Chavez has mobilised the non-exploiting strata, especially the slum dwellers, with the idea of a “popular revolution” against the former corrupt regime.

These popular movements have had a real impact on the proletariat, especially in Venezuela where there is a real danger of the working class being dragged into a bloody civil war behind different fractions of the ruling class.

The dawning of the 21st century has not seen a lessening of the destructive impact of the escalating desperation of the non-exploiting strata. In December 2001 the proletariat of Argentina – one of the oldest and most experienced in the region – was swept up in a popular revolt which despatched five successive presidents from power in the space of 15 days. In October 2003, the main sector of the proletariat in Bolivia, the miners, were sucked into a bloody “popular revolt” led by the petty-bourgeoisie and the peasantry, which left many dead and wounded, all in the name of defending Bolivian gas reserves and the legalisation of coca production!

The fact that significant parts of the proletariat have been sucked into these revolts is of the greatest importance, because it marks a profound loss of class autonomy. Instead of seeing themselves as proletarians with their own interests, workers in Bolivia and Argentina saw themselves as citizens sharing common interests with the petty-bourgeois and non-exploiting strata.

The absolute necessity for revolutionary clarity

With the deepening world economic crisis and advancing social decay, there will be other such revolts, or as in the case of Venezuela, possibly bloody civil wars – massacres that could physically and ideologically crush important parts of the international proletariat. Faced with this grim prospect it is the duty of revolutionaries to insist on the need for the proletariat to struggle to defend its own specific class interests. Unfortunately, not all revolutionary organisations have lived up to their responsibilities at this level. Thus the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, faced with the explosion of “popular” violence and demonstrations in Argentina, completely lost its political bearings and turned reality on its head. “Spontaneously proletarians went out onto the streets, drawing with them young people, students and substantial sections of the proletarianised petty-bourgeoisie who are pauperised like themselves. Together they directed their anger against capitalist sanctuaries: banks, offices, but above all the supermarkets and shops in general, which were attacked like the bakeries in medieval bread riots. The government, hoping to intimidate the rebels, couldn’t find a better response than to instigate a savage repression resulting in dozens of deaths and thousands wounded. The revolt wasn’t extinguished but instead spread to the rest of the country and increasingly began to assume a class character. Even the government buildings, symbolic monuments to exploitation and financial robbery, were attacked. (“Lessons from Argentina, Statement of the IBRP: Either the revolutionary party and socialism or generalised poverty and war”, Internationalist Communist n°21, Autumn/Winter 2002).

More recently, faced with the growing social turmoil in Bolivia that culminated with the bloody events of October 2003,  Battaglia Comunista published an article praising the Bolivian Indians’ ayllu (communal councils) “The ayllu could only have played a role in the revolutionary strategy if they had counter-posed to the present institutions the proletarian content of the movement and overcame their archaic and local aspects, that is, only if they had operated as an effective mechanism for unity between the Indian, mixed and white proletariat in a front against the bourgeoisie, overcoming all racial rivalry (…) The ayllu could have been the point of departure for the unification and mobilisation of the Indian proletariat, but this in itself is insufficient and too precarious for providing the foundation for a new society emancipated from capitalism”. This article was published in November 2003 (Battaglia Comunista n°11, also available on their web site), after the bloody events of October when it was precisely the Indian petty-bourgeoisie that had led the proletariat, particularly the miners, into a desperate confrontation with the armed forces. A massacre where proletarians were sacrificed to allow the Indian bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie to grab a bigger “slice of the cake” in the redistribution of power and profits on the basis of the redistribution of power and profits gained from the exploitation of the miners and the rural workers. As one of their leaders, Alvero Garcia clearly admitted, the Indians as such have no misty dreams about the ayllu being a starting point for a better society.

The IBRP’s enthusiasm for the events in Argentina is merely the logical conclusion of their analysis of the “radicalisation of consciousness” of the non-proletarian masses in the periphery: “The diversity of social structures, the fact that the imposition of the capitalist mode of production upsets the old equilibrium and that its continued existence is based on and translated into increasing misery for the growing mass of proletarianised and disinherited, the political oppression and repression which are therefore necessary to subjugate the masses, all this leads to a potential for a greater radicalisation of consciousness in the peripheral countries than in the societies of the metropoles (…) In many of these [peripheral] countries the ideological and political integration of the individual into capitalist society is not yet the mass phenomenon it is in the metropolitan countries” (“Theses on communist tactics for the periphery of capitalism”, available on the IBRP web site www.ibrp.org).[2] Thus, the violent, massive demonstrations by the masses have to be seen as something positive, and in the IBRP’s imagination the proletariat’s submerging under a tide of inter-classism was not the expression of a sterile and futureless revolt, but the concretisation of “a potential for a greater radicalisation of consciousness”. And as a result the IBRP has shown itself utterly incapable of drawing the real lessons from events such as those of December 2001 in Argentina.

Both in its “Theses”, and in its analyses of concrete situations, the IBRP makes two major mistakes which mirror the commonplaces of the leftist and anti-globalisation movement. The first, is a theoretical vision according to which bourgeois or petty-bourgeois movements for the defence of national interests directly antagonistic to those of the proletariat (like the recent events in Bolivia or the Argentine uprisings of December 2001), can somehow be transformed into proletarian struggles. And the second – merely empirical – mistake, is to think that such miraculous transformations have actually taken place in real life, and to imagine that movements dominated by the petty bourgeoisie and nationalist slogans are somehow real proletarian struggles.

We have already undertaken polemics with the IBRP over their political disorientation faced with the events in Argentina in an article in International Review n°109 (“Argentina: Only the proletariat fighting on its own class terrain can push back the bourgeoisie”). At the end of this article we summed up our position as follows: “Our analysis absolutely does not mean that we despise or under-estimate the struggles of the proletariat in Argentina, or in other zones where capitalism is weaker. It simply means that revolutionaries, as the advance guard of the proletariat, with a clear vision of the line of march of the proletarian movement taken as a whole, have the responsibility to contribute to the clearest and most exact vision of the strengths and limitations of the working class struggle, of who are its allies, and of the direction its struggle should take. To do so, revolutionaries must resist with all their strength the opportunist temptation – as a result of impatience, immediatism, or a historical lack of confidence in the proletariat – to mistake an inter-classist revolt (as we have seen in Argentina) for a class movement”.

The IBRP has answered this critique (see Internationalist Communist n°21 Autumn/Winter 2002) by restating their position that the proletariat led this movement and condemning the ICC’s position “The ICC emphasises the weaknesses in the struggle and points to its inter-classist and heterogeneous nature and its bourgeois leftist leadership. They complain about the intra-class violence and the domination of bourgeois ideology such as nationalism. For them this lack of communist consciousness makes the movement a ‘sterile and futureless revolt’” (“Workers’ struggles in Argentina: polemic with the ICC”). Clearly the comrades have not understood our analysis, or rather they prefer to see in it what they want to see. We can only encourage readers to read our article.

Against this standpoint, the Nucleo Comunista Internacional – a group formed in Argentina in late 2003[[3]] – draws wholly different lessons from these events, on the basis of a very different analysis. In the second issue of their bulletin the comrades conduct a polemic with the IBRP over the nature of the events in Argentina: “...the IBRP wrongly says that the proletariat pulled the students and other social layers behind it; this is a really gross error and one which they share with the comrades of the GCI. The fact is that the workers’ struggles that took place throughout 2001 demonstrated the incapacity of the Argentine proletariat to assume the leadership not only of the whole of the working class, but also to put itself at the head, as the ‘leader’, of the social movement that went into the streets to protest, pulling along with it the whole of the non-exploiting social strata. On the contrary what happened was that the non-proletarian layers led the events of the 19th and 20th of December; therefore we can say that the development of these movements had no historical future as has been demonstrated in the year that followed” (“Two years since the 19-20th December 2001”, Revolucion Comunista n°2).

Speaking of the proletarians' involvement in the looting the GCI[[4]] says: “while there was a search for money and above all trying to take as much as possible from businesses, banks…, there was more to it than that: it was a generalised attack against the world of money, private property, banks and the state, against this world that is an insult to human life. It is not only a question of expropriation but of affirming the revolutionary potential, that is the potential for the destruction of a society that destroys human beings” (“Concerning the proletarian struggle in Argentina” Comunismo 49).

To this vision, the NCI oppose a very different analysis of the relationship between these events and the development of the class struggle:

The struggles in Argentina in the period 2001/2002 were not a one-off event, they were the product of a development which we can divide into three moments:

a) The first was in 2001; as we said above, this was marked by a series of struggles for typical workers’ demands, their common denominator being their isolation from other proletarian detachments, and the imprint of the counter-revolution: mediation produced by the hegemony of the political leadership of the union bureaucracy.

However, despite this limitation, important expressions of workers’ self-organisation took place, such as the miners of Rio Turbio, in the south of the country, Zanon, in Neuquen, Norte de Salta with the unity of the construction workers and the unemployed former oil workers. These small workers' detachments were the vanguard putting forwards the necessity for the ‘UNITY’ of the working class and the unemployed proletarians (…)

b) Secondly, there were the specific days of 10th and 20th of December 2001, which, we repeat, were not a revolt led either by sections of the working class, or by the unemployed workers, but an inter-classist revolt; the petty-bourgeoisie was the element that held it together, since the economic blow by the De La Rua government was aimed directly against their interests, and against their electoral base and political support, through the December 2001 decree freezing bank accounts (…)

c) In the third moment, we must be very careful not to make a fetish out of the so-called popular assemblies, which took the lead in the petty-bourgeois neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires City far from the workers’ centres and neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, at this moment there was a very modest development of struggles on the workers’ terrain, and these continued to grow: municipal workers and teachers demonstrated, demanding to be paid their wages, industrial workers struggled against lay-offs by the employers’ organisations (for example lorry drivers).

It was at this moment that the employed and unemployed workers were faced with the possibility not only of a real unity, but also of sowing the seeds for an autonomous organisation of the working class. Against this the bourgeoisie tried to divide and divert the proletariat and this was done with the complicity of the new piquetera bureaucracy, throwing to the ground the experiment that had been a great weapon in the hand of the proletariat, as was the case with the so-called National Assembly of employed and unemployed workers.

For these reasons we think that it is an error to identify the struggles that developed throughout 2001/2202 with the events of the 19 and 20th December 2001, since they are different from each other, and one is not the consequence of the other.

The events of the 19th and 20th December had absolutely no working class character, since they were not led by the proletariat nor by the unemployed workers; rather the latter rode shotgun for the slogans and interests of the petty bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires City, which differ radically from the goals and aims of the proletariat (…)

It is fundamental to say this, because in this period of capitalism’s decadence, the proletariat runs the risk of losing its class identity and its confidence as the subject of history and the decisive force of social transformation. This is due to the downturn of proletarian consciousness as a consequence of the explosion of the Stalinist bloc and the impression on workers’ thinking of capitalist propaganda about the failure of the class struggle.  In addition to this the bourgeoisie has been inculcating the idea that class antagonisms no longer exist, rather people are united or divided according to whether they have been inserted into the market or excluded from it. It thus tries to erase the river of blood that separates the proletariat from the bourgeoisie.

This danger has been seen in Argentina during the events of 19th and 20th December 2001, where the class was incapable of transforming itself into an autonomous force struggling for its own class aims, but rather was sucked into the whirlpool of inter-classist revolt under the leadership of non-proletarian social layers (…)” (op. cit.).

The NCI places the events in Bolivia squarely within the same framework: “Starting from the premise of saluting and completely supporting the Bolivian workers in struggle, it is necessary to make clear that the combativeness of the class is not the only criterion for determining the balance of the forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, since the Bolivian working class has not been able to develop a massive and unified movement that could draw behind it the rest of the non-exploiting sectors in this struggle. The opposite in fact has happened: it was the peasants and the petty-bourgeoisie that have led this revolt.

This means that the Bolivian working class has been diluted in an inter-classist ‘popular movement’, and we affirm this for the following reasons:

a) because it was the peasantry that directed this revolt with two clear objectives: the legalisation of coca-production and preventing the sale of natural gas to the USA;

b) because of the use of the demand for a constituent assembly as the means for getting out of the crisis and as the means for ‘the reconstruction of the nation’;

c) and because nowhere did the movement put forward the struggle against capitalism.

The events in Bolivia have a great similarity to those in Argentina in 2001, where the proletariat was also submerged under the slogans of the petty-bourgeoisie. These ‘popular movements’ have in fact had a quite reactionary aspect, raising the slogan of reconstructing the nation, or expelling the ‘gringos’ and returning  natural resources to the Bolivian state (…)

Revolutionaries must speak clearly and base themselves on the concrete facts of the class struggle, without deluding or deceiving themselves. It is necessary to adopt a revolutionary proletarian position, and therefore it would be a serious error to confuse what is a social revolt with narrow political horizons, with an anti-capitalist proletarian fight”. (“The Bolivian Revolt” Revolucion Comunista. n°1).

The NCI’s analysis is based on real events; it demonstrates clearly that the IBRP’s idea of the “radicalisation of consciousness” among the non-exploiting strata is idealist wishful thinking. The concrete reality of the situation in the periphery is the growing destruction of social relations, the spread of nationalism, populism and similar reactionary ideologies, all of which are having a very serious impact on the proletariat’s ability to defend its class interests.

Fortunately, this reality appears not to have gone completely unnoticed by the IBRP, or at least by parts of it. In Revolutionary Perspectives n°30, the Communist Workers’ Organisation comes a good deal closer to reality in its analysis of events in Argentina and Bolivia: “As in the case of Argentina, these protests were inter-classist and without a clear social objective and will be contained by capital. We have seen this in the case of Argentina, where the violent upheavals of two years ago have given way to austerity and pauperisation(…). Whilst the explosion of revolt shows the anger and desperation of the population in many of the peripheral countries, such explosions cannot find a way out of the cataclysmic social situation which exists. The only way forwards is to return to the struggle of class against class and link it with the struggles of the metropolitan workers” (“Imperialist tensions intensify – class struggle needs to intensify”).

That said the article does not denounce the role either of nationalism or of the Indian petty-bourgeoisie in Bolivia. So “officially” the IBRP still defends a position that the Indian “ayllu could be the starting point for the uniting and mobilisation of the Indian proletariat”. The reality was that the ayllu was the departure point for the mobilisation of the proletarians of Indian origin behind the Indian petty-bourgeoisie, peasants and coca growers in their struggle against the bourgeois fraction in power.

This aberrant position of Battaglia Comunista, attributing a possible role in the development of the class struggle to “communal Indian councils” has not gone unnoticed by the NCI, who considered it necessary to write to Battaglia (in a letter dated 14th November 2003) in order to raise precisely this point. After pointing out that the ayullu are part of “a caste system dedicated to maintaining the social differences between the bourgeoisie – whether it be white, coloured, or indigenous – and the proletariat”, the NCI goes on to criticise Battaglia Comunista as follows:

In our opinion, this position is a serious mistake, inasmuch as it tends to attribute to this traditional indigenous institution the ability to provide a starting point for the workers’ struggles in Bolivia, even if afterwards it was to determine their limits. We consider that these appeals by the leaders of the popular revolt for the reconstitution of the mythical ayullu amount to nothing less than the creation of artificial differences between white and indigenous sectors of the working class, as do the fact of demanding from the ruling class a bigger share of the cake produced from the surplus-value extorted from the Bolivian proletariat no matter what its ethnic make-up.

Contrary to your declaration, we are firmly convinced that the ‘ayullu’ could never act as an ‘accelerator and integrator into one and the same struggle’, given both its own reactionary nature, and the fact that the ‘indigenous’ approach is itself based on an idealisation (a falsification) of the history of those same communities: as Osvaldo Coggiola (in Indigenismo Boliviano) says ‘in the Inca system, the ayullu’s communal elements were integrated into an oppressive caste system in the service of the upper stratum, the Incas’. This is why it is a serious mistake to think that the ayullu could act to accelerate or integrate the struggle.

It is true that the Bolivian revolt was led by the indigenous peasant communities and the coca-leaf farmers, but there lies precisely its extreme fragility and not its strength, since it was purely and simply a popular revolt where the proletarian sectors played a secondary role, and consequently the inter-classist Bolivian revolt suffered from the absence of any revolutionary or even working class perspective. Contrary to what some currents of the so-called Trotskyist or Guevarist camp think, we can in no way characterise this revolt as a ‘revolution’, at no time did the indigenous and peasant masses adopt the objective of overthrowing the system of Bolivian capitalism. On the contrary, as we have already said, the events in Bolivia were strongly marked by chauvinism: the defence of national dignity, the refusal to sell gas to Chile, opposition to attempts at eradicating coca cultivation”.

The role played by the ayullu is strikingly similar to the way the ZNLA (Zapatista National Liberation Army) has used the indigenous “communal organisations” to mobilise the Indian petty-bourgeoisie, peasants and proletarians in Chiapas and other areas of Mexico, in its struggle with the main fraction of the Mexican bourgeoisie (a struggle which is also integrated into the inter-imperialist conflict between the US and the European powers).

Those sectors of the Indian populations in Latin America who have not been integrated into the proletariat or bourgeoisie have been cast into extreme poverty and marginalisation. This situation “has led intellectuals and petty-bourgeois and bourgeois political currents to try to develop arguments to explain why the ’Indians’ are a social body that offers a historical alternative and to involve them, as canon fodder, in the so-called struggles for ethnic defence. In reality these struggles hide the interests of bourgeois forces, as we have seen not only in Chiapas, but also in ex-Yugoslavia, where ethnic questions have been manipulated by the bourgeoisie to provide the formal pretext for the struggle of imperialist forces” (“Only the proletarian revolution will emancipate the Indians”, in Revolucion Mundial, the ICC publication in Mexico, n°64, Sept-Oct 2001).

The vital role of the working class in the capitalist heartlands

The proletariat is faced with a very serious deterioration of the social environment in which it has to live and fight. Its ability to develop its confidence in itself is threatened by the growing weight of the desperation of non-exploiting strata and the use of this by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces for their own ends. It would be a terrible dereliction of our revolutionary duty to underestimate this danger in any way whatever.

Only by developing its independence as a class, by asserting its class identity, by strengthening its confidence in its ability to defend its own interests will the proletariat be able to transform itself into a force capable of rallying behind it the other non-exploiting social strata.

The history of the proletarian struggle in Latin America demonstrates that the class has a long and rich experience to draw on. The efforts of the Argentine workers to return to the path of independent class struggle (described in the quotations above from the NCI)[[5]] demonstrate that the proletariat’s militancy remains intact. Nevertheless, enormous difficulties remain, testimony both to the long-standing weaknesses of the proletariat in the peripheries of capitalism, and to the tremendous material and ideological force of the process of decomposition in these regions. It is no accident that the most important expressions of class autonomy in Latin America take us back to the 1960s and 70s, in other words before the process of decomposition had made such profound inroads into the proletariat’s sense of class identity. This only underlines that the key to the global balance of class forces remains with the proletariat of the most powerful capitalist economies, where its most advanced detachments are better able to resist the damaging effects of decomposition. The signal for the end of fifty years of counter-revolution in the late sixties was rung in Europe and was then answered in Latin America; by the same token, the reconstitution of the proletariat as a historical antidote to capitalist putrefaction will necessarily radiate out from the most concentrated and politically experienced battalions of the working class, in the first place those of western Europe. But there is no question that the workers of Latin America will have a vital role to play in the future generalisation and internationalisation of struggles. Of all the sectors of the working class in the peripheries of the system, they are certainly the most advanced politically, as witness the existence of revolutionary traditions within it in the past, and the appearance of new groups searching for revolutionary clarity today. These minorities are the tip of a proletarian iceberg which promises to sink the unsinkable Titanic of capital.

Phil 

[2]. See our critique of these Theses published in International Review n°100.

[3]. See their web site at http://www.geocities.com/ncomunistainternacional/

[4]. The GCI (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste) is an anarcho-leftist group, fascinated amongst other things by violence for its own sake, in all its forms. Some of its most “radical” positions – of anarchist inspiration – dress themselves up in historico-theoretical justifications which make them look remarkably like the positions of some groups in the communist left.

[5]. See also World Revolution n°247, September 2001