Indianismo and Marxism: The mismatch of two revolutionary rationales

Alvaro Garcia Linera (with introduction by Richard Fidler for Links e-journal)

This important article by Álvaro García Linera, now vice-president of Bolivia, was first published in 2005. It traces the contradictory evolution of the two most influential revolutionary currents in the country's 20th century history and argues that Marxism, as originally interpreted by its Bolivian adherents, failed to address the outstanding concerns of the Indigenous majority. García Linera suggests, however, that the evolution of indianismo in recent decades opens perspectives for a renewal of Marxist thought and potentially the reconciliation of the two currents in a higher synthesis. Although framed within the Bolivian context, his argument clearly has implications for the national and anti-imperialist struggle in other parts of Abya Yale (the indigenous name for the western hemisphere).

Although Bolivia won formal independence from Spain in 1825, its national character remained fragile and incomplete. Not only did it lose significant territories over the years — to Brazil, Chile and, in the 1930s, Paraguay (the Chaco War) — the continuing existence of semifeudal property relations in agriculture deprived its overwhelmingly campesino Indigenous majority of property in land and was the material basis for their oppression as peoples. Indianismo developed among Bolivia's three dozen Indigenous peoples as an ideological reaction to this oppression, but only in recent years has it emerged as a dominant force in the political life of the country, in a process outlined by García Linera in the following article.

The Marxist current, on the other hand, developed primarily among the urban and mining proletariat and paid little heed to the distinct concerns and interests of the Indigenous majority as Indigenous peoples. The Theses of Pulacayo, for example, a political program adopted by the miners' union in 1946 under Trotskyist influence, while singling out agrarian reform as a central demand, advanced no demands that would encompass the Indigenous component within its strategy for permanent revolution. See also “Bolivia – From Colonialism to Indianism” (

“For this Marxism", García Linera writes, “there were neither Indians nor community, and one of the richest veins of classical Marxist thinking was blocked and rejected as an interpretative tool of Bolivian reality.” Insensitivity to the Indigenous reality inhibited the Marxists' ability to win the allegiance of the Indigenous masses, who for decades turned instead toward the nation-building program of a non-Marxist revolutionary nationalism, while developing distinctive Indigenous perspectives within that framework.

Although his article does not explore that classical Marxist vein, García Linera is clearly alluding to the writings of such leading Latin American Marxists as José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a Peruvian whose conceptual theorisation of the Indigenous reality was strongly influenced by the Bolshevik approach to Indigenous peoples and anti-imperialist movements, as well as by a current in Western Marxism represented most famously by Antonio Gramsci that emphasised the importance of national and cultural considerations in the development of mass revolutionary consciousness.

García Linera’s article was translated by Richard Fidler from the version published in the Mexican daily La Jornada, December 20, 2007, under the title “Indianismo y Marxismo: El Desencuentro de dos razones revolucionarias”. The ellipses in the translation follow those in La Jornada’s text.


Indianismo and Marxism:* The mismatch of two revolutionary rationales

Álvaro García Linera

Over the last hundred years, five major ideologies or “conceptions of the world” of a rebellious and emancipatory nature have developed in Bolivia. The first of these narratives of social emancipation was anarchism, which managed to articulate the experiences and demands of urban labouring sectors linked to small-scale self-employed and blue-collar work and the retail trades. A presence in some urban working class milieus from the late 19th century, it enjoyed its greatest influence in the 1930s and 1940s. [...]

Another ideology that was rooted in the experiences of previous centuries is what we could call an indianismo of resistance, which arose out of the defeat of the uprising and the indigenous government led by Zárate Willka and Juan Lero, in 1899. Repressed, the ethnic movement acquiesced to a renovation of the pact of subordination with the State through defence of the communitarian lands and access to the education system. The predominantly Aymara indigenous movement combined, in a fragmented way, negotiation by its native authorities with local uprisings until it was replaced by revolutionary nationalism in the middle of the last century.

Revolutionary nationalism and primitive Marxism were two political narratives that emerged simultaneously and strongly after the Chaco War in relatively similar sectors (well-educated middle classes), with similar programs (economic modernisation and construction of the national State) in opposition to the same adversary: the old regime of the oligarchy and the employers.

Unlike this nascent Marxism, for which the problem of power was a rhetorical theme steeped in faithful adherence to the written texts, revolutionary nationalism from the outset developed as an ideology informed by a clear desire for power that had to be resolved in a practical way. It is not accidental that this thinking appealed to the officer corps of the army and that some of its promoters, such as Paz Estenssoro, participated in the administrations of the brief progressive military governments that undermined the conservative political hegemony of the time. Nor is it accidental that, over time, the revolutionary nationalists combined in a decisive way uprisings (1949) with coups d’état (1952) and participation in elections as demonstrations of a clear quest for power.

Taking the leadership of the revolution of 1952 through practical deeds and proposals, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR -- Revolutionary Nationalist Movement) was to make its party program become an entire conception of the world as issuing from the State, leading to a moral and intellectual reform that enjoyed political and cultural hegemony throughout Bolivian society for 35 years, independently of whether the successive governments were civilian or military.

Primitive Marxism

If we can indeed speak of a presence of Marxist thought from the 1920s on, Marxism as a political culture contesting for ideological hegemony gained momentum in the 1940s through the activity of the Partido de Izquierda Revolucionaria (PIR -– Party of the Revolutionary Left), the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR –- Revolutionary Workers Party) and the intellectual production of their leaders: Guillermo Lora, José Aguirre Gainsborg, José Antonio Arce, Arturo Urquidi, etc.

The emergence of Marxism and its social reception was to be distinguished by two constituent processes. The first lay in an ideological production directly linked to the political struggle, which warded off the temptation to engage in an academic Marxism. The main intellectuals who subscribed to this current participated in political activism, either in the parliamentary arena or in the organisation of the masses, and this was reflected in both the theoretical limitations of the intellectual production of that time and the ongoing articulation of their thinking with the practical political evolution of society.

Also significant in this new development was the reception of Marxism and of revolutionary nationalism itself among working people, as a result of a prior modification of the class composition of the economically most important cadres of the Bolivian mining and factory proletariat, which was in the midst of a transition from employment in artisanal workshops to employment by large companies.

However, it was a proletariat that internalised the technical rationalisation of the capitalist modernisation of large companies and that was subjectively inclined to a conception of the world guided by faith in technique as the major productive force, in the homogenisation of the work process and the industrious modernisation of the country [...] and it was in this new proletarian subjectivity now at the centre of the country’s fundamental economic activities that Marxism, as a discourse of modernising rationalisation of society, was to be rooted for decades.

The Marxism of this first period is doubtless an ideology of industrial modernisation of the country in the economic sphere and of consolidation of the national state in the political sphere. Basically, the entire revolutionary program of the distinct Marxist currents of that stage had similar objectives, until the 1980s.

Marxism came to form an extensive political culture among blue-collar and other workers and student sectors based on the supremacy of working-class identity over other identities and a profound belief in the progressive role of industrial technology in the structuring of the economy, in the central role of the State in the ownership and distribution of wealth, in the cultural nationalisation of society around these models and in the historical and class “inferiority” of the country’s predominantly peasant societies.

This modernist and teleological narrative of history, generally adapted from the economics and philosophy manuals, created a cognitive block and the exclusion, epistomologically, of two realities — the peasant and ethnic composition of the country — that were to be the starting point of another emancipatory project which, as time passed, would be superimposed on Marxist ideology itself.

Had the classic reading of the agrarian reality in Marxism been one of formal and actual subsumption, this would have helped to disclose the conditions of exploitation in this sector of production; instead, it was derived on the basis of a (biased) schema that judged according to ownership, the direct workers being lumped together with the “petty bourgeois” of dubious revolutionary loyalty because of their attachment to property.

For this Marxism, there were neither Indians nor community, and one of the richest veins of classical Marxist thinking was blocked and rejected as an interpretative tool of Bolivian reality; furthermore, this position forced the emerging political indianismo to take a firm stand in the ideological struggle in opposition to both the nationalist currents and the Marxists who were rejecting and negating the national agrarian and ethnic communitarian subjects as political productive forces capable of serving as the regenerative powers of the social structure that they were in fact in the Indianist conception.

In the end, a much more exhaustive reading of the indigenous and communitarian subject matter was to come from a new, critical and non-state centred Marxism which, from the closing years of the 20th century and the early 21st, drawing on the thinking advanced by René Zavaleta, sought a reconciliation of indianismo with Marxism that could articulate the processes of production of local and universal consciousness.


The universal franchise, the agrarian reform that put an end to the latifundio [large estates] in the Altiplano [the high Andean plateau] and the valleys, and free and universal education, made the ideology of revolutionary nationalism an horizon of time enveloping a good portion of the imagination of the campesino communities that appealed, in this type of citizenship, recognition and social mobility, for a national and cultural homogenisation capable of displacing and diluting the national ethnic program of resistance that had been gestating for decades. There were moments of decreasing ethnic content in the discourse and ideology of the campesinos, of hope for inclusion as conceived in the state-sponsored proposal for mestizo cultural cohesion and the conversion of the nascent campesino unions into the main support of the nationalist state, both in its mass democratic phase (1952-64) and in the initial stage of its dictatorial phase (1964-74).

The material support for this period of national state hegemony was the growing social differentiation in the countryside, the accelerating decline of the peasant society that gave rise to a rapid growth in the large and intermediate sized cities and the flexibility of the urban labour market that facilitated the belief in a successful mobility from countryside to city through access to stable salaried employment and admission to higher education as a means of social promotion.

The initial setbacks to this projected economic modernisation and nationalisation of the society began to be manifested in the 1970s, when ethnicity in the form of surname, language and skin colour was reverted to by the dominant elites as one more mechanism of selection for social mobility, restoring the old colonial logic of social classification and disqualification which, combined with the social networks and economic status, had stood as the major means of social advancement and decline.

This, added to the tightness of the modern labour market, unable to accommodate the increasing migration, opened up a space of nascent availability for the resurgence of the new vision of the indianista world which, in the preceding 34 years, had traversed a number of periods: the formative period, the period of state cooptation and the period of its conversion into a strategy for power.

Gestation of Katarista indianismo

The first period is the period of gestation of Katarista indianismo. It started as political discourse that began to reinterpret history, language and culture systematically. It was a denunciatory and questioning discourse which, from the standpoint of historical revision, was critical of the inability to fulfill the promises of citizenship, mestizaje [mestizo-isation], political and cultural equalisation with which nationalism had addressed the indigenous campesinos since 1952.

The fundamental contribution in this period is the reinvention of Indianness, but now not as a stigma but as a subject of emancipation, as an historical design, as a political program. It involved a genuine discursive rebirth of the Indian through the vindication and reinvention of their history, past, cultural practices, poverty, virtues, which had a practical effect in the formation of self-identification and organisational forms.

From the outset, indianismo collided with Marxism and confronted it with the same vehemence as it criticised the other major ideology of the period, Christianity, both being considered the major ideological components of contemporary colonial domination.

Based on this strengthening, in opposition, the Katarista indianismo discourse in the late 1970s went on to divide into some major components. The first, the trade unionist, which was to initiate the formation of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB –- United Union of Farm Workers of Bolivia), an event that symbolically marked the definitive break by the farmworkers union movement with the nationalist state in general and in particular with the campesino military pact that had inaugurated a military trusteeship over the farmers' organisation. The other component was party politics, not only with the formation of the Partido Indio, in the late 1960s, but also the Movimiento Indio Túpak Katari (Mitka) and the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpak Katari (MRTK), which were to join, in an incomplete way, in various electoral contests until the late 1980s. The third component, alongside the political and trade union components, was the academic, historiographic and sociological research current that was devoted to a rigorous exposition of this historical revisionism through the study of various instances of uprisings, caudillos (local chiefs) and indigenous claims from the time of the colony to our day.

A second moment in this period of discursive and elite formation of the Aymara identity was to occur in the early 1980s, when there was a slow but growing decentralisation of this discourse; the ideologists and activists of Katarista indianismo fragmented, giving rise to three major currents. The cultural current, which sought refuge in musical circles and religious belief, and is now referred to as the “pachamámicos” [worshipers of Pacha Mama, the Indigenous name for Mother Earth].

A second current, less urban than its predecessor, came to be referred to as the current of the “integrationist” political discourse insofar as it publicised Indian claims as a means of exerting pressure for a degree of recognition within the prevailing state structure. It was a discursive formation of the indigenous as litigants demanding recognition by the State in order to be incorporated within the existing nationhood and citizenship, but without abandoning their own cultural particularities. The Katarista wing of the movement for recognition of Indianness is the one that embodied this position. Here “indigenous” is the absence of equality before the State for a cultural identity (Aymara and Quechua) that thereby becomes a signifier of a lack of rights (equality), of a future (full citizenship) and an identifying distinction (multiculturalism).

The distance from the modernising discourse of revolutionary nationalism is not rooted in this terrible destiny of what has been understood by citizenship and the institutional framework in which to exercise it, but in the recognition of cultural plurality in order to be able to accede to it, which was to be precisely the contribution of the modest liberal discourse to the problematic of the “peoples” and “ethnic groups”.

A third discursive variant of this Katarista indianismo movement was to be a strictly national indigenous one. It involved a discourse that did not ask the State for the right to citizenship, but clearly affirmed that it should be the indigenous themselves who should be the governors of the State because they wanted to be. A state which, precisely because of this Indian presence, would have to constitute itself as another State, another republic, insofar as the contemporary republican state had been a power structure erected on the exclusion and extermination of the indigenous.

From this standpoint, the indigenous then appears not only as a political subject but as a subject of power, of command, of sovereignty. In its initial stage, this discourse took the form of a pan-indigenism, in that it refers to a common Indian identity that extends throughout the continent, with small regional variants. This transnational view of the indigenous civilising structure can be considered expansive of the imagined community insofar as it goes beyond the classic localism of the indigenous demand; yet, at the same time, it presents a weakness in that it minimises the actual differences among the indigenous peoples and the different strategies for integration, dissolution or resistance opted for by each indigenous nationality from among the many republican regimes established since the last century.

That is why a second stage, a current within this indianista component headed by Felipe Quispe and the Ayllus Rojos organisation, made two new contributions. On the one hand, the recognition of a Bolivian popular identity, the product of centuries of bastardised cultural and working-class mestizaje in various urban and rural zones. From this new standpoint, the forms of Bolivian popular identity, such as working class identity, and to some degree the campesino identity in certain regions, appear as collective subjects with which it is necessary to design policies of alliance, agreements of mutual recognition, etc. That was the political significance of the so-called theory of the “two Bolivias”.

The second contribution of this discourse is the specificity of the Aymara indigenous identity. The Aymara Indian appears clearly as a collective identity and as a political subject heading toward self-government, self-determination. Its importance lies in its ability to centre the discourse in specific territorial settings, in verifiable population centres and more compact and effective institutional systems of power and mobilisation than those of pan-indianismo. That it why it can be said that on the basis of this discursive formation, the Indian and indianismo become a strictly national discourse, the discourse of the Aymara indigenous nation.

State co-option

The second period in the construction of the national indigenous discourse is the period of state co-optation. This began in the late 1980s, in periods characterised by a major political frustration of intellectuals and activists in the indigenous movement, insofar as its hopes of converting the strength of the unionised indigenous mass into an electoral force did not yield the anticipated results.

(...) At a time when the society and the parties of the Marxist left were witnessing the brutal disintegration of the identity and strength of the organised working class, the adoption and re-elaboration of an ethnicist discourse appeared to them as an alternative option in those subjects considered most receptive. Hence the conceptual structure with which this declining left appropriated the indigenous discursive construction failed to capture the entirety of the logical structure of this proposal, which had required a dismantling of the colonial and vanguardist framework that characterised the left at that time.

(...) The MNR is the political party which, with greater clarity, detected the significance of the discursive formation of an indigenous nationalism. It viewed it as a danger, as it did the difficulties being experienced by the indigenous movement. Through the alliance with Victor Hugo Cárdenas and a series of intellectuals and activists in the indigenous movement, the MNR converted a rhetorical recognition of the country’s multicultural character into state policy, while the Law of Popular Participation created mechanisms of local upward social mobility that could absorb the discourse and action of a good share of the increasingly discontented indigenous intellectual milieu.

The application of the Law of Popular Participation, while it did contribute in some cases to a notable strengthening of the local union organisations that had managed to establish themselves electorally on the national scene, can also be seen as a fairly sophisticated mechanism of co-option of local leaders and activists, who were beginning to turn and support their struggles and their organisational forms around the municipalities and indigenous bodies expressly created by the state. The autonomous indigenous identity that had been formed since the 1970s, built upon the organisational structure of the “unions”, thus came up against a kaleidoscopic fragmentation of identities of ayllus, municipalities and “ethnicities”.

(...) With the exception of the Great March of 1996 in opposition to the National Institute of Agrarian Reform law, the social protagonism of the social struggles had been displaced from the Aymara altiplano to the coca farming zones of Chapare, where the predominant campesino-type discourse was complemented by some indigenous cultural components.

The indianismo of the 1990s

The third period of this new indianista cycle can be characterised as a strategy for power and it developed in the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. Indianismo ceased to be a vestigial ideology of resistance to domination and expanded to become a proto-hegemonic conception of the world attempting to mount a challenge for the cultural and political leadership of society to the neoliberal ideology that had prevailed during the eighteen previous years. In fact, it can now be said that the most important and influential emancipatory conception of the world in the present political life of the country is indianismo, the discursive and organising nucleus of what can today be termed the “new left”.

The material base of this historical positioning of indianismo is the capacity for community-based revolt with which the indigenous communities respond to an increasing deterioration and decline of the campesino community structures and mechanisms of social mobility between the countryside and the city. Manifested as early as the 1970s, the neoliberal reforms of the economy dramatically affected the price system of the urban-rural economic exchanges. With the stagnation of the traditional agrarian productivity and the opening of the free importation of goods, the terms of exchange, usually unfavourable for the campesino economy, drastically worsened, squeezing purchasing power, savings and consumption of campesino families. Added to this was a major tightening of the urban labour market and a decline in income from the limited urban labouring activities that campesino families periodically used to complement their incomes. This restricted the urban-rural complementarity of labour that campesino families used to plan their strategies of collective reproduction.

With the blocking of the mechanisms of social mobility internal and external to the communities, with an accelerated migration to the cities in recent years, but with an increase in the dual residency of some communities belonging to rural zones as conditions of relative productive sustainability (which in the long run were the zones of greater indigenous campesino mobilisation), the point of departure of the revolts and expansion of indianista ideology occurred when the economic liberalisation reforms affected the basic conditions of reproduction of the agrarian and semi-urban community structures (water and land). The growing deterioration of the traditional economic structure of the rural and urban society had resulted in a strengthening of community ties as mechanisms of primary security and collective reproduction. The politicising effect that indianismo had on culture, language, history and skin, the elements specifically used by urban “modernity” to block and legitimate the contraction of the mechanisms of inclusion and social mobility, were the palpable components of a communitarian ideology of emancipation that rapidly eroded the neoliberal ideology. This indianismo drew together a mobilisable, insurrectional and electoral mass force positing the politicisation of the discursive political countryside and consolidating itself as an ideology with state ramifications.

This indianismo, as a strategy of power, presents two variants in today’s situation: one with a moderate profile (the Movimiento al Socialismo -- MAS; Instrumento Politico por la Soberanía de los Pueblos -- IPSP) and another that is radical (Movimiento Indígena Pachakuti -- MIP-CSUTCB). The moderate variant is the one that has been articulated around the campesino unions of the Chapare confronting the cocalero eradication program. Using a campesinista discourse that has come to acquire more ethnic connotations in recent years, the cocalero union members have managed to establish a range of flexible and plural alliances. Calling for a program of inclusion of the indigenous peoples in the power structures and placing greater emphasis on an anti-imperialist posture, this variant can be defined as left indianista because of its capacity to encompass the national-popular, Marxist and left memory formed in previous decades; this has produced a relatively favourable urban, multisectoral and pluriregional reception to its appeals, making it the major parliamentary political force of the left and the principal municipal electoral force in the country.

For its part, the radical indianista current adheres more clearly to a program of total indianisation of the structures of political power. While the campesino theme figures consistently in the discursive repertoire of this indianismo, all of the assertive elements are organised and directed by ethnic identity (“Aymara and Quechua original nations”). That is why this current has been consolidated only in the strictly Aymara urban and rural world, and why it can be considered as a type of national Aymara indianismo.

Notwithstanding their significant differences and conflicts, both currents share similar political trajectories:

(a) Both have the unions and indigenous agrarian communities as their organised social base.

(b) The parliamentary “parties” or “political instruments” are a product of negotiated coalitions of campesino unions and, in the case of the MAS, the urban masses, which have joined together to gain access to parliamentary representation; the “union-mass-party” triad, so characteristic of the old left, has been cast aside, with “party” being read as a parliamentary extension of the union.

(c) Their leadership and a major part of their intellectuals and officialdom (to a larger degree in the MIP) are indigenous Aymaras or Quechua and direct producers, and the incursion into the political arena has taken the form simultaneously of a class and ethnic self-representation.

(d) The ethnic, integrationist identity in some cases, or self-determined in others, is the discursive basis of the political project with which the state is confronted, and the appeal is to the rest of the society, including the salaried working class.

(e) Although democracy is a stage for the presentation of its demands, there is a proposal for the expansion and full development of democracy based on the exercise of non-liberal organisational logic, and the proposition of an agenda of power centred around a type of co-government of nations and peoples.

This article was first published in the magazine Barataria No. 2, March-April 2005, El Juguete Rabioso (Edición Malatesta: La Paz). It was translated by Richard Fidler from the version published in the Mexican daily La Jornada, December 20, 2007, under the title “Indianismo y Marxismo: El Desencuentro de dos razones revolucionarias”. The ellipses in the translation follow those in La Jornada’s text.

Álvaro García Linera, born October 19, 1962 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Completed his undergraduate studies in his native country, then traveled to Mexico and studied mathematics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In 1985 he returned to Bolivia where he linked up with groups of miners and Indigenous peoples and embarked on a political quest for an Indigenous government for liberation of the peoples. In 1992 he was arrested and jailed for five years for his participation in the command structure of the Ejército Guerrillero Tupak Katari (EGTK –- Tupak Katari Guerrilla Army). From 1997 on, he has devoted himself to teaching and social research as a professor in various universities in Bolivia and as a guest lecturer in various universities in France, Spain, Mexico and Argentina. In 2004, he was awarded the “Agustín Cueva” prize in Social Sciences of the School of Sociology and Polical Science of the Universidad Central del Ecuador. He has published in various languages dozens of essays, academic articles, books and research studies. His most recent works include in particular “Lucha por el poder en Bolivia” in Horizontes y limites des Estado y el poder (Muela del Diablo Editores: La Paz, 2005); Estado multinacional (Editorial Malatesta: La Paz, 2005); Sociología de los movimientos sociales en Bolivia (Diakonia/Oxfam G.B., Plural: La Paz, 2004), and “Los impactos de la capitalización: Evaluación a medio término”, in: Diez años de la capitalización, Luces y Sombras (Presidential delegation for the review and improvement of capitalization, La Paz, 2004). He participated in the 2005 election campaign as Evo Morales’ running mate. On January 21, 2006 he took office as vice-president of Boliva.

Republished from Links, international e-journal for socialist renewal

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