Introduction: A Bolivian Marxist Seduced

Aldo Cardoso, Guerra Del Agua: Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2000
Aldo Car­doso, Guerra Del Agua: Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2000

From time to time, his­tory throws some unsus­pect­ing left­ist intel­lec­tual the reins of state power. Sud­denly, the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice meets its dou­ble, polit­i­cal prac­tice; the com­plex­i­ties and stakes of each begin to mul­ti­ply. We are see­ing the begin­ning of this process, no doubt, with Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and his coterie of Syriza MPs inspired by Louis Althusser and Anto­nio Gram­sci.1 In Spain, Podemos’s Pablo Igle­sias may find more the­o­ret­i­cal affin­ity with Ernesto Laclau and Perry Ander­son,2 but the sit­u­a­tion is sim­i­lar: a pro­fes­sional intel­lec­tual must begin to take seri­ously the idea of con­trol­ling a sig­nif­i­cant appa­ra­tus of state power. Years of writ­ing, polemi­ciz­ing, and orga­niz­ing open up to an almost mirac­u­lous acces­sion. As Georges Bataille says: Impos­si­ble, yet there it is!

But the con­tra­dic­tions lead­ing to a pos­si­ble reju­ve­na­tion of the Euro­pean Left have already left their mark else­where: Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era, vice-pres­i­dent to Bolivia’s Evo Morales, was per­haps the first Marx­ist intel­lec­tual to sit in state power in the 21st cen­tury. His work reflects a con­tin­ued engage­ment with a unique polit­i­cal exper­i­ment in Bolivia, and can be read, there­fore, as a guide to a ter­rain on which some are try­ing to plow an even­tual road to social­ism. It is the wager of this dossier that much can be learned by more closely exam­in­ing both Linera’s the­ory and his polit­i­cal prac­tice – not only to under­stand the man him­self, but also, to under­stand the inno­v­a­tive polit­i­cal process from which he can­not be sep­a­rated, and which may por­tend some­thing of the future for the elec­toral Left in other parts of the world.

Gar­cía Lin­era had a long his­tory as an extra-par­lia­men­tary polit­i­cal activist before tak­ing up his cur­rent role. After grow­ing up in Cochabamba, Lin­era trained as a math­e­mati­cian at Mexico’s UNAM dur­ing the early 1980s. His 1985 return to Bolivia coin­cided with what would later come to be seen by him and oth­ers as the begin­ning of that country’s neolib­eral exper­i­ment. Dur­ing that period, he became an influ­en­tial mem­ber of an indi­genist insur­rec­tionary group called the Tupaj Katari Guer­rilla Army (EGTK). In Linera’s own words: “I was and still am a Marx­ist seduced by indige­nous insur­gency.”3

For his alleged role in some small-scale sab­o­tage by the EGTK, Lin­era was impris­oned in 1992. He remained in jail with­out charge for five years, tak­ing the time to study soci­ol­ogy and pro­duce sev­eral writ­ings on the Boli­vian work­ing class. His release from prison set him on a new polit­i­cal course, and in 1999 he was a found­ing mem­ber of the intel­lec­tual col­lec­tive Comuna. In the tumul­tuous years of 2000-2005, his the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal endeav­ors led him into an encoun­ter with and even­tual entry into Bolivia’s Movimiento al Social­ismo (MAS) after the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of that party in 2004-5,4 cul­mi­nat­ing in his win­ning the vice -pres­i­dency alongside the country’s first indige­nous pres­i­dent, Evo Morales.

In Latin Amer­ica, the fig­ure of the intel­lec­tual states­man is clas­sic. Argentina’s mid-19th cen­tury Pres­i­dent Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, for instance, was a thinker of lib­er­al­ism in the moment of that ideology’s ascen­dency dur­ing the post-inde­pen­dence period. His major work, Facundo: Civ­i­liza­tion and Bar­barism, attempted to grap­ple with two par­a­dig­matic issues of his era: the role of the state and the ques­tion of post-colo­nial national iden­tity. Of course, Sarmiento’s answer to this lat­ter ques­tion was that Amer­i­can iden­tity – defec­tive on account of racial mix­ing and stunted cul­tural growth – must be rejected in favor of some­thing more civ­i­lized, i.e., more Euro­pean. The state’s role was to pur­sue this project of refine­ment. Thus, his pres­i­dency (some 23 years after the pub­li­ca­tion of his great work) com­prised sev­eral bru­tal mil­i­tary cam­paigns in order to pacify the pampa and to resolve, in prac­tice, the issue of Argentina’s indige­nous iden­tity.

Sarmiento is not a ran­dom point of ref­er­ence, how­ever. In a way, the issue he attempted to tackle, the chal­lenge of post-colo­nial iden­tity – includ­ing the nation-state form itself – has been woven through the polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual his­tory of Latin Amer­ica. If those in the left­ist polit­i­cal tra­di­tion in Latin Amer­ica have approached this ques­tion in terms of the inter­na­tional divi­sion of labor, the impor­tance of the agrar­ian ques­tion, and the­o­ries of depen­dency, then they have nonethe­less been haunted by the excess of iden­tity. The speci­ficity of indige­nous artic­u­la­tion and its rela­tion­ship to nation­al­ity varies con­sid­er­ably through­out the region and over time,5 yet sim­i­lar ques­tions per­sist: how can one con­cep­tu­al­ize a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal sub­ject in Latin Amer­ica? What is the basis for polit­i­cal and social cohe­sion? Where do class pol­i­tics begin and national or indige­nous pol­i­tics end?

The MAS has pro­vided at least a prac­ti­cal answer to these ques­tions for the case of Bolivia. Its base when it came to power was the nearly two-thirds of Boli­vians who self-iden­ti­fied as indige­nous in 2001. Yet these two-thirds con­tained mul­ti­tudes: agrar­ian coca-grow­ing union­ists who had been min­ing union­ists before the dis­man­tling of the state extrac­tive com­pany, COMIBOL, in the mid 1980s; pre­car­i­ous urban work­ers in explod­ing high­land slums; small tribal orga­ni­za­tion in the East­ern Ama­zo­nian basin. As Rob Albro sug­gests, con­tem­po­rary indige­nous pol­i­tics in Bolivia is as much about “the con­ver­gence of shared pop­u­lar expe­ri­ences in the neolib­eral era” as about ances­try.6

Gar­cía Lin­era was no stranger to the ques­tion of indige­nous iden­tity even before he joined the MAS. As Irina Feld­man points out in her con­tri­bu­tion to this dossier, Linera’s engage­ment with Fausto Reinaga cen­ters pre­cisely on indige­nous speci­ficity and its rela­tion­ship to cap­i­tal­ism. Reinaga, indi­an­ista par excel­lence, poses chal­lenges to Marx­ism that will be rec­og­niz­able to any­one famil­iar with post-colo­nial the­ory more gen­er­ally: what rel­e­vance can an imported polit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy of eman­ci­pa­tion have in the utterly dif­fer­ent con­text of Latin Amer­ica? How can a Euro­pean body of thought be any­thing but another tool of neo­colo­nial and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal oppres­sion fol­low­ing on 500 years of dom­i­na­tion? As Feld­man shows, Reinaga’s legacy is some­thing that Gar­cía Lin­era must con­stantly engage with both as a the­o­reti­cian and a politi­cian. The fact that Gar­cía Lin­era faces this chal­lenge squarely while insist­ing on the impor­tance of Marx­ian analy­sis is, in part, what makes him an inter­est­ing fig­ure.

Yet Gar­cía Lin­era did not appear ex nihilo, and Indi­an­ismo is not his only inter­locu­tor. In the first place, his work can­not be sep­a­rated from the legacy of var­i­ous fig­ures who came to promi­nence in Bolivia in the 1980s. This includes, per­haps most impor­tantly, Rene Zavaleta Mer­cado – a fig­ure who also directly engaged with the speci­ficity of Bolivia as it relates not only to indige­nous iden­tity, but also to the his­tory of its mass work­ing class move­ment, which in some ways found itself with con­sid­er­able polit­i­cal power after the National Rev­o­lu­tion of 1952. In addi­tion to Zavaleta, Lin­era has been influ­enced Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui, a his­to­rian and the­o­rist of peas­ant move­ments with whom Gar­cía Lin­era worked in his post-impris­on­ment aca­d­e­mic post, as well as (if only neg­a­tively) Guillermo Lora, a Trot­sky­ist who serves as one of sev­eral implicit objects of polemic when Gar­cía Lin­era attacks the old or ortho­dox Left.

As Peter Baker explains in his essay, Gar­cía Linera’s work must like­wise be seen in rela­tion to his three col­lab­o­ra­tors at the core of Comuna the­o­ret­i­cal group: Luis Tapia Mealla, Raul Prada Alcoreza, and Raquel Gutiér­rez Aguilar. From 1999 until 2010, Gar­cía Lin­era was rarely alone in address­ing a given issue at any par­tic­u­lar moment. With an espe­cially intense pro­duc­tion dur­ing the 2000-2005 period of polit­i­cal upheaval (start­ing with the Cochabamba Guerra del Agua and cul­mi­nat­ing in the elec­tion of Morales), the group dis­cussed class com­po­si­tion, the role of the state, and the ques­tion of polit­i­cal sub­ject­hood at great length. These issues cut across the group’s col­lec­tive texts and often rebounded sev­eral times in essays and books penned by indi­vid­ual mem­bers dur­ing that period. Polit­i­cal prac­tice and the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice were increas­ingly bound together dur­ing those those years when, as Lenin once put it, decades hap­pened in weeks.

Indeed, it is in such moments of speedup that two dis­tinct lev­els of prac­tice, pol­i­tics and ide­ol­ogy, become some­what indis­tin­guish­able. Each the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tion is nec­es­sar­ily also a polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion, and each polit­i­cal inci­dent presents the pos­si­bil­ity of an uncer­tain tra­jec­tory to be accounted for in the­ory. Thus, Gar­cía Linera’s entry into the state appa­ra­tus could only com­pli­cate the rela­tion­ship between the­ory and pol­i­tics. As Jef­frey Web­ber argues in his con­tri­bu­tion to the present dossier, the bur­dens of a state man­ager include ide­o­log­i­cal pro­duc­tion itself. The newly-con­sti­tuted left-pop­u­lar Boli­vian state has cre­ated nar­ra­tives to jus­tify its own actions, and Linera’s intel­lec­tual prowess has thus been use­ful to the state, even (or espe­cially) when it has remained within the par­a­digm of a depen­dent extrac­tive cap­i­tal­ism. For Web­ber, every­thing that Gar­cía Lin­era pro­duces in his cur­rent role is a poten­tial exam­ple of the­o­ret­i­cal disin­gen­u­ous­ness.

And yet, it would be a mis­take to dis­miss Gar­cía Lin­era, even if he func­tions as a hired intel­lec­tual gun for the Pluri­na­tional Boli­vian state, which is itself a com­plex and inter­nally-var­ie­gated machine.7 What is required to truly under­stand the vice-president’s role in Bolivia, in addi­tion to the type of sharp recon­struc­tion and empir­i­cal eval­u­a­tion that Web­ber pro­vides, is a sense of Bolivia’s ongo­ing politico-the­o­ret­i­cal debates – the stakes of which are no less than the strat­egy and direc­tion of a poten­tial rev­o­lu­tion.

All three con­trib­u­tors to this dossier provide impor­tant analy­ses along these lines, yet the work we present here is only a begin­ning. To con­tinue this task, a greater effort toward trans­la­tion will be required.8 Thus, one hopes that the much-needed Eng­lish edi­tion of Ple­beian Power, released as part of the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism series last year,9 will be only one step in the larger project of open­ing the con­tri­bu­tions of Boli­vian polit­i­cal the­ory to the Eng­lish-speak­ing world.10 From the other mem­bers of Comuna, to indige­nous the­o­rist and activist Felipe Quispe, to a prior generation’s fig­ures like Reinaga and Zavaleta, Boli­vian the­ory pro­vides deep insights not only on the present and past con­junc­tures of that coun­try, but rather on cen­tral ques­tions for any com­rade any­where.

As the whole global Left watches to see when hap­pens when Marx­ists try to use the state to fight neolib­er­al­ism in Europe, we could all ben­e­fit by crit­i­cally read­ing Gar­cía Lin­era and track­ing his polit­i­cal tra­jec­tory – be it as an inspi­ra­tion, or as path to be avoided. There­fore, as a com­pan­ion to the recent paper­back edi­tion of his Ple­beian Power,11 we offer the fol­low­ing essays in the spirit of dis­sem­i­na­tion, engage­ment, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary debate the world over.

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era: A Boli­vian Marx­ist Seduced.

  1. Stathis Kou­ve­lakis, “Greece: Phase One,” inter­view by Sebas­tian Bud­gen, Jan­u­ary 22, 2015. 

  2. Pablo Igle­sias, inter­view by Mat­teo Puc­cia­relli, Verso Books, trans. David Broder, Decem­ber 23, 2014; Dan Han­cox, “Why Ernesto Laclau is the Intel­lec­tual Fig­ure­head for Syriza and Podemos,” The Guardian, Feb­ru­ary 9, 2014. Laclau and Ander­son – a curi­ous cock­tail. 

  3. Biografía,” Vicepres­i­den­cia del Estado Pluri­na­cional, accessed Feb­ru­ary 14, 2015. 

  4. Sven Harten, “Towards a ‘Tra­di­tional Party’? Inter­nal Orga­ni­za­tion and Change in the MAS in Bolivia,” in Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Social­ismo in Bolivia: The First Term in Con­text, 2006-2010, ed. Adrian J. Pearce (Lon­don: Insti­tute for the Study of the Amer­i­cas, 2011): 78-80. Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era joined the party in 2005 at the request of Morales in order to become his run­ning mate. He was only one of a large cohort of urban mes­tizo intel­lec­tu­als (not iden­ti­fy­ing as indige­nous per se) to join dur­ing the 2004-5 period after MAS decen­tral­ized its can­di­date rolls and opened them to those out­side the Cocalero syn­di­cal move­ment. This influx of urban intel­lec­tu­als like­wise per­mit­ted the entry into the party of can­di­dates who had only recently ran on other party lines, in effect latch­ing onto MAS’s ris­ing for­tunes with lit­tle or no sym­pa­thy for their plat­form. 

  5. For the gen­eral the­o­ret­i­cal under­pin­ning of this claim, see James Clif­ford, “Indige­nous Artic­u­la­tions,” The Con­tem­po­rary Paci­fic 13, no. 2 (2001): 467–90. For var­i­ous indige­nous polit­i­cal artic­u­la­tions in Bolivia, see Xavier Albó, “From MNRista to Katarista to Katari”, in Resis­tance, Rebel­lions, and Con­scious­ness in the Andean Peas­ant World: 18th to 20th Cen­turies, ed. Steve J. Stern. (Madison: Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin Press, 1987): 379-419. 

  6. Robert Albro, “The Indige­nous in the Plu­ral in Boli­vian Oppo­si­tional Pol­i­tics,” Bul­letin of Latin Amer­i­can Research 24, no. 4 (Octo­ber 1, 2005): 436. 

  7. Robert Cavooris, “From Sub­al­tern to State: Toward a Left Cri­tique of the Pink Tide,” View­point 4 (Octo­ber 2014). 

  8. In part as a result of his vice-pres­i­den­tial posi­tion, Lin­era has already received some atten­tion from the Left in other parts of the world. Con­nec­tions to the likes of Anto­nio Negri and Slavoj Žižek have lent him some noto­ri­ety, and he has some­what reg­u­larly trav­elled the world to attend con­fer­ences such as New York’s Left Forum, and more recently, a French con­fer­ence on the work of Nicos Poulantzas. Even so, with­out trans­la­tion, Gar­cía Linera’s the­o­ret­i­cal uni­verse and poten­tial con­tri­bu­tions were largely unknown. A sin­gle trans­la­tion of a short 2005 arti­cle in New Left Review has been the pri­mary work cir­cu­lated in Eng­lish. See Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era, “State Cri­sis and Pop­u­lar Power,” New Left Review vol. 37. Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary 2006. 

  9. Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era, Ple­beian Power: Col­lec­tive Action and Indige­nous, Work­ing-Class, and Pop­u­lar Iden­ti­ties in Bolivia, ed. Pablo Ste­fanoni, trans. Shana Yael Shubs et. al., (Boston: Brill, 2014). 

  10. Already, Stacey Alba D. Skar has pub­lished a trans­la­tion of Raquel Gutiérrez’s Rhythms of Pachakuti – which offers a very dif­fer­ent and very crit­i­cal account of the MAS “process of change”: Raquel Gutiér­rez Aguilar, Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Indige­nous Upris­ing and State Power in Bolivia, trans. Stacey Alba D. Skar (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press Books, 2014). Also, Sil­via Rivera Cusicanqui’s land­mark work has been avail­able in Eng­lish for some time: Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui, Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peas­ant Strug­gles Among the Aymara and Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900-1980 (United Nations Research Insti­tute for Social Devel­op­ment, 1987). 

  11. As part of the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism book series, the paper­back edi­tion has dif­fer­ent bib­li­o­graphic infor­ma­tion: Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era, Ple­beian Power: Col­lec­tive Action and Indige­nous, Work­ing-Class, and Pop­u­lar Iden­ti­ties in Bolivia, ed. Pablo Ste­fanoni, trans. Shana Yael Shubs et al (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket, 2014). 

Author of the article

is a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.