The Phantom, The Plebeian and the State: Grupo Comuna and the Intellectual Career of Álvaro García Linera

Marcelo Montaño Alvarado, Triunfo del Alma
Marcelo Montaño Alvarado, Triunfo del Alma

Specters of a Broken Marx

In 1999, a collection of essays appeared concerning the relevance of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto to the contemporary conjuncture in Bolivia. It may have gone by unnoticed, were it not for the fact that its authors were about to become the principal interpreters of the new movements that irrupted in the wake of the Bolivian state crisis of 2000-2005. The authors, a motley array of intellectuals from very different backgrounds, called themselves the grupo Comuna (Commune group): Raúl Prada, member of the group episteme which sought to use French post-structuralist anthropology to intervene critically in the contemporary Bolivian political scene; Luis Tapia, a scholar of counterculture informed by the writings of Antonio Gramsci and the Bolivian sociologist René Zavaleta Mercado; and finally, two critical Marxist intellectuals who had just been released from prison following their involvement in an Indianist guerrilla group called the EGTK, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar and Álvaro García Linera, future vice-president of Bolivia.

The title of that work was El fantasma insomne  – The Insomniac Phantom or, alternatively, The Ghost That Doesn’t Sleep – a clear reference to the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto (“A specter is haunting Europe”). 1 What the authors shared was the feeling that there was a general crisis of Bolivian Marxism which required new critical proposals, proposals that would be capable of intellectually supporting the on-going anti-capitalist struggle in Bolivia. This crisis was composed of many dimensions: the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism and the defeat of “real socialism” in many corners of the globe following the fallout of the Cold War (represented in Latin America specifically by the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1991); the consequent weakening of the stronghold of leftist unionism in Bolivia, which was disbanded in 1985 as part of the so-called “shock-therapy” of neoliberal reforms that dismantled the national-popular state; and the general criticism of the old Bolivian left for dogmatically adhering to a certain teleological conception of Marxism, a criticism which was especially pronounced within indigenous activist circles, where Marxism was considered to be an imported Western philosophy that therefore had little to offer to indigenous struggles. The wager of this collection of essays published by Comuna, then, was that Marxism in Bolivia is not dead, and should not be completely done away with – that there is a specter of Marxism which is, above all, not dormant, and that any contemporary theory of Marxism must give support to this spectral presence. In the apparently collective introduction to the publication, the authors write the following: “we are looking for the phantom that doesn’t sleep.” 2

The Insomniac Phantom is therefore a timely work, in the sense that its authors sought to work within the contemporary Bolivian conjuncture, consisting in the general crisis of the Left described above, which for the Comuna group nevertheless represented the opportunity for those specters of Bolivian Marxism to be rearticulated in powerful new ways. “Looking for the phantom that doesn’t sleep” was, therefore, much more than a question of building on a long history of Bolivian scholarship on the Left. What this group of intellectuals was looking for, the project that would inaugurate their work, was no less than a reinvention of the Left capable of identifying new strategies appropriate for the contemporary moment.

Contextualizing the work of Álvaro García Linera from the perspective of the general trajectory of the Comuna group can illuminate a number of the central theoretical gestures of his work, as well as help to understand the shifts in focus that his work was to undergo. It is worth drawing attention to the fact that, of the essays published in the English translation of Plebeian Power, five were originally published as part of a collective publication with the Comuna group, and all of the essays are contemporaneous with the group’s activity. Moreover, beginning in 2006 when García Linera becomes vice-president of Bolivia, ideological ruptures become visible in the different positions of its members. This comes to a head in 2011, when three of the members who had participated actively in Comuna signed a document with other activists which criticized the government of Evo Morales and García Linera for not following through on a number of key policies: “Manifesto for the Recuperation of the Process of Change for the People and with the People.” 3 Shortly afterwards, García Linera replied to this accusation in an essay entitled “NGOism, Infantile Illness of the Right,” attacking those who signed the Manifesto and marking the official break-up of the group. It is worth asking, therefore, if a more profound understanding of the direction which García Linera’s work has taken cannot be better understood from the perspective of the general group’s trajectory.

What we find in The Insomniac Phantom is a general attempt, and this is true for Gutiérrez Águilar and García Linera in particular, to reclaim the category of class and insist on the need to give it a renewed understanding in order to make it operative in the contemporary conjuncture. This theoretical position directly challenged the post-Marxist tradition inaugurated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, with their variations on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. For Gutiérrez Águilar, for example, history continues to be that of class struggle, and the possibility of revolutionary and emancipatory action lies, therefore, in the conditions of possibility of actual class relations in their current forms. In García Linera’s contribution, which is reproduced in the recent English translation of Plebeian Power, the questions of accident and necessity, and of the possibility of the revolution come, as is often the case in his work, to the fore. 4 His arguments are extremely dense, but develop themes  first found in his earlier work Value Form, Community Form, concerning the role of the periphery of the world capitalist system and those areas of the Bolivian economy which are yet to be submitted to the real subsumption of labor by capital. 5

These two authors should be contrasted with the work of Raúl Prada and Luis Tapia, whose reclaiming of Marx lies not so much in a new interpretation of class, but rather in the production of political subjectivity. In other words, in this early stage García Linera stands out principally for his insistence on the question of the materialist determination of the conditions of production and of subjectivity more generally, as well as for the question of historical necessity. 6

Plebeian Bolivia

In the later months of 1999, those “phantoms that do not sleep” began to rise from the dead. A series of roadblocks in the Department of La Paz, directed by former EGTK leader Felipe Quispe and in protest of the neo-liberal government, was accompanied in 2000 by the infamous Water Wars in Cochabamba. Government plans to allow the privatization of water in a joint venture that included the multinational company Bechtel were protested at a local level by a conglomerate of social actors under the name of the Coordinadora del agua. The members of the Comuna group identified not only as intellectuals but also as activists, and they very quickly became involved with what would soon be called Bolivia’s “new social movements.” It was as if The Insomniac Phantom had anticipated the unexpected return of popular forces acting in the name of a commons which resisted the capitalist dispossession that had become the norm since the 1985 New Economic Plan, conjuring those specters which were now effectively entering the social scene.

The years 2000–2001 were a prolific moment for the members of Comuna, who would release three separate publications in those two years alone. The first of these, El retorno de la Bolivia plebeya (The Return of Plebeian Bolivia), saw the first use of the word “plebeian” to describe the popular forces that were revolting across the country. 7 It was also the publication that would bring visibility to the group as a serious intellectual endeavor that had to be heeded. Thereafter, the following year, the group published Pluriverso (Pluriverse), 8 and Tiempos de rebellion (Rebellious Times). 9

This is a moment of very swift intellectual maturation within the group’s collective sense of identity, where we see a number of themes that would be important for how the group comes to understand the current moment, and, of course, for the development of García Linera’s thought on the popular movements. In The Return of Plebeian Bolivia, for example, García Linera first characterizes the contemporary moment as one of crisis, a crisis of the state and even of the state form, and of that crisis as both threat and opportunity for the left. “The possibility of reconstructing a worker’s and popular horizon,” they would write in the introduction to the publication, “is not simply in resistance, in the prolonging of agony, but rather in radically thinking through the crisis, in order to learn in it, understand the weaknesses and obstructions of the past, and to understand the world.” 10 It is also where we witness a collective attempt to take on the work of Bolivian sociologist René Zavaleta Mercado, and above all to reinterpret his analysis of Bolivia as a “motley society” (what Zavaleta calls sociedad abigarrada). They write in the introduction, in reference to the book’s purpose: “We have operated a symbolic selection, as Zavaleta does, of processes, struggles and events, in order to think through the times that we live and we have lived, and to assemble a series of political and historical explanations and interpretations about this conflictive ensemble of processes that we still call Bolivia – precisely because of the history that has been lived.” 11

A number of the essays included in the anthology Plebeian Power come from these publications. The reader will notice that a series of questions, many of which were already in some way present in The Insomniac Phantom, return in ways that are very productive for analyzing contemporary Bolivian society. In “The Death of the Twentieth Century Working-Class Condition” (published as part of The Return of Plebeian Bolivia), we see García Linera denounce the conservatism of a worker’s movement stuck in an imaginary past, unable to realize that the moment of the miners’ union power was over. 12 The question of the conjuncture, of what is historically possible and the necessity of working with conditions that are at hand are all found here. A different set of questions are raised in the essay “Union, Multitude and Community: Social Movements and Forms of Political Autonomy in Bolivia” (published as part of Rebellious Times), where García Linera adopts a Zavaleta-style study of societal forms that are, in Linera’s typical style, strongly grounded in an understanding of the social as a productive process closely tied to political economy, following his innovative readings of Marx for indigenous societies. 13

Two more books would be published over the subsequent three years as commentaries on the neoliberal crisis and the new social movements: Democratizaciones plebeyas (Plebeian Democratizations) 14 in 2002 and Memorias de octubre (Memories of October) in 2004. 15 In the first, we witness the word “plebeian” return to the fore of the theoretical gesture, but this time not as an analysis of the possibility of social movements themselves, but as a critique and analysis of institutional forms of power, and particularly of the state. The general notion of “crisis” to define the moment that Bolivia entered at the turn of the 21st century is now much more specifically applied to the state, and this is particularly prevalent in García Linera’s analyses. He co-authors an essay with Gutiérrez Águilar entitled “The Neoliberal State Cycle and its Crisis” (this would be the last essay Gutiérrez Águilar would write in publications which also included García Linera, as she later became one of the new government’s fiercest critics), and writes an essay of which he is the sole author entitled “The Twilight of a State Cycle.” Memories of October provides theoretical reflections on the insurrection of October 2003, also known as the Gas Wars, which forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to step down and leave the country for his own safety. It was widely regarded as a victory for the Left and indigenous groups, and produced a document called the October Agenda which called for a Constituent Assembly, among other demands. It is interesting that García Linera, unlike the other authors of this collection, writes his contribution about the state: his contribution is called “State Crisis and Indigenous-Plebeian Uprisings in Bolivia.” 16 Just as the October Agenda was in many ways an important moment for García Linera’s eventual transition into the state, so too were these last two publications important for Comuna’s increasing intellectual concern with the possibility of revolution not only against, but also of the state.

The State of the Question

By 2005, the intellectual interests of the Comuna group turned to the question of the state – which coincides, of course, with García Linera’s own transition into the Bolivian state as vice-president. As is apparent in Plebeian Power, García Linera himself had already begun to write important texts on the question of the state, including very concrete proposals for new directions for political reform (see, for example, the 2004 essay “Indigenous Autonomies and Multinational State”). 17 A series of three texts conclude the existing publications signed by the group: in 2005, Horizontes y límites del estado y el poder (Horizons and Limits of the State and Power); 18 in 2007, La transformación pluralista del estado (The Pluralist Transformation of the State); 19 in 2010, El Estado. Campo de lucha (The State: A Battlefield). 20

The first publication, Horizons and Limits of the State and Power, represents what are probably the most mature elaborations of the group on the historicity of the crisis of the Bolivian state. The prologue to the work refers to two dimensions: the first is the crisis of the Bolivian state specifically, due to the colonial nature of the state that continues to separate access to citizenship according to distinctions between white and Indian culture; the second is a more general crisis of the state form, in which the particular type of capitalist development over the last decades has placed into question the sovereignty of the state apparatus. The essays contained in this collection are a highly theoretical approach to the state, but one can detect a tone of optimism in some of the authors, which opens up the question of reconfiguring state power. García Linera’s contribution, “The Struggle for Power in Bolivia,” 21 for instance, reflects the intensity of the recent political reconfiguration. Once again, the reader can detect a number of questions that maintain absolute importance for García Linera: the question of the historical possibility of different kinds of resistance, and of how social movements articulate themselves and whether they are  able to consolidate more lasting articulation.

In the final essay that García Linera publishes with the Comuna group in 2010, entitled “The State in Transition: Power Bloc and Point of Bifurcation,” it is possible to detect a change in tone with respect to previous writings with the Comuna, where García Linera, now ideologue of the state, attempts to write the official history of state consolidation in Bolivia. As Jeffery Webber notes in his contribution to this dossier, there is a turning point in García Linera’s writings as vice-president that takes place during these years where the previous openness to the plurality of forces of the Left becomes re-interpreted as a conflict between left- and right-wing Bolivia, where all those that do not side with the state are supposed to be under the influence of the latter. This change is curiously apparent in the difference between a first version of “The State in Transition” published in 2008 and the final version, published with Comuna in 2010. 22 Whereas the question of the “point of bifurcation” remains an open one in 2008, in 2010 García Linera reveals the final crystallization of the new state formation to be the “victory of the left” in the approval of the new Constitution in 2009. The question becomes, therefore: does this official history not represent a closure of the more open-ended process with which the so called “process of change” began, as we see a new hegemonic bloc take power while others become marginalized from the political process – others that had hoped that the Constituent Reforms would mean something very different for Bolivia? Or does this apparent change in García Linera’s position have to do more with his precise understanding of the historical conjuncture, of what is necessary and what is possible within a political configuration where, one must not forget, a right-wing counter-revolution remains a very real threat?

These questions remain open, and to some extent will only be decided a posteriori, and perhaps, as Walter Benjamin reminds us in his theses on history, only by the victors. We suggest that a critical approach to these questions requires, on an empirical level, more studies such as those by Jeffrey Webber, James Petras, and Henry Veltmeyer 23 to underline the gap between the rhetoric of the current MAS government and the direction of its actual policies; and, on a theoretical level, an engagement with the notion of the “historically necessary” and ¨historically possible” – the question of how to defend the revolution – which has been used to justify the general direction of the current Bolivian administration and is particularly well elaborated by Álvaro García Linera himself. The future anterior – What will have been of these movements? – here appears to be appropriate, suggesting the need to keep our eyes and ears open to the voices of the specters that perhaps, still, do not sleep, in order to interpret the 2000-2005 insurrections in Bolivia in light of future developments in the country.

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


1 Álvaro García Linera et al., El fantasma insomne : pensando el presente desde el manifiesto comunista (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 1999). All translations are the author’s unless otherwise stated, with the exception of essays published as part of Plebeian Power where the author has remained faithful to the original translations. 
2 Álvaro García Linera et al., El fantasma insomne, 9.
3 Colectivo Manifiesto 22 de Junio, “For the Recuperation of the Process of Change for the People and with the People,” Dialectical Anthropology 35 (2011): 285-293.
4 See Álvaro García Linera, “The Communist Manifesto and Our Present: Four Theses on its Historical Actuality”, in  Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014). 
5 Álvaro García Linera, Forma valor, forma comunidad: aproximación teórica-abstracta a los fundamentos civilizatorios que preceden al Ayllu universal (Chonchocoro: [publisher not identified], 1995).
6 Although García Linera never cites the French intellectual, this focus on necessity resonates strongly with the late work of Louis Althusser.
7 Álvaro García Linera et al., El retorno de la Bolivia plebeya (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2000).
8 Álvaro García Linera et al., Pluriverso (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2001).
9 Álvaro García Linera et al., Tiempos de rebelión (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2001).
10 García Linera et al., El retorno de la Bolivia plebeya, 8.
11 García Linera et al., El retorno de la Bolivia plebeya, 7.
12 See also “The Death of the Twentieth Century Working-Class Condition”,  in García Linera, op. cit. (2014).
13 See also: “Union, Multitude and Community: Social Movements and Forms of Political Autonomy in Bolivia”, in García Linera, op. cit. (2014).
14 Álvaro García Linera et al., Democratizaciones plebeyas (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2002).
15 Álvaro García Linera et al.,  Memorias de octubre (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2004).
16 See also: “State Crisis and Indigenous-Plebeian Uprisings in Bolivia” in García Linera, op. cit. (2014).
17 Cf. “Indigenous Autonomies and Multinational State”  in García Linera, op. cit. (2014).
18 Álvaro García Linera et al., Horizontes y límites del estado y el poder (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2005).
19 Álvaro García Linera et al., Transformación pluralista del estado. La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2007). 
20 Álvaro García Linera et al., El estado. Campo de lucha (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2010).
21 See also: “The Struggle for Power in Bolivia” in García Linera, op. cit. (2014).
22 Only the first version of this essay has thus far been translated into English. Refer to: Álvaro García Linera, “The State in Transition: Power Bloc and Point of Bifurcation”, Latin American Perspectives, 37.4 (July 2010), 34-47.
23 See Jeffrey R. Webber, Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Leiden: Brill, 2011) and from the same author, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011). Finally, see also James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer,  What’s Left in Latin America? (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 95-134.

Author of the article

is a final-year PhD student in Hispanic Studies at Texas A&M University, where he is writing his dissertation on the changing meanings of indigeneity and the increased visibility of indigenous actors in the public sphere in Bolivia over the last forty years.