Your latest issue (Volume 4, no 3, Summer 1992), devoted to the Bolivian events of 1952, reprints ‘Trotskyism in Bolivia’ by Juan Rey-Juan Robles from the December 1947 New International, journal of the Shachtman tendency in the United States.
In the 1950s I was a member of Shachtman’s Workers Party—International Socialist League (WP-ISL). Sam Ryan (Roth), leader, along with Dennis Vern, of the Vern-Ryan tendency which came over to the Shachtman tendency in Los Angeles from the SWP, had become very interested in the conduct of the Bolivian Trotskyists in 1952. He had written several pieces for the SWP Internal Bulletin on the subject, and was quite avid, having gotten someone fluent in Spanish to translate everything he could find on the Bolivian Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR - Revolutionary Workers Party).
The Northern California-based left opposition in the ISL, of which I was a part, was quite impressed by Ryan’s arguments that the FOR had missed a revolutionary situation in Bolivia in 1952. When in 1957 Shachtman came out for liquidating the ISL into the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, we made contact with the Vern-Ryan group, hoping that they also opposed Shachtman’s liquidationist course. On the contrary. They told us that they had joined the ISL because they thought it was a Social Democratic organisation, and they were very, very happy to be joining a much bigger one (actually the SP-SDF was only slightly bigger than the ISL, but Shachtman was pushing the myth that it was much larger). So that ended our contact with Vern-Ryan.
We were impressed by what Ryan wrote on Bolivia, but it turned out that this line was at some variance with the tendency’s actual political appetites. The literary posture of a group may not correspond with its main direction of political motion. This point has been proved to me over the years again and again, as for example with the Healy tendency in the 1950s, or with the attempt by Al Richardson’s Revolutionary Communist League (Chartists ) in 1972 to make a distinction between the Spartacist League US and the ‘different and superior’ journal Workers Action in California (which was in fact published by the Spartacist League US). This is why we have reserved judgement on the Haston-Grant majority of the British Revolutionary Communist Party of the 1940s. Literary postures, when seen from a great distance, may not be what they appear, when experienced on the ground.
The Shachtman WP-ICL had a journalistic collaborator, apparently a Polish emigrÃ© probably resident in Chile, who wrote on Latin American affairs under the name Juan Rey or Juan Robles. When writing on East Europe he used the name Andrzej Rudzienski, which might have been his real name.
In May 1952 ‘Juan Rey’ raised the call for a workers’ government in Bolivia, criticising the FOR, official section of the Fourth International, for tailing the bourgeois nationalist Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR - Revolutionary National Movement):
‘At this moment Bolivia is the most revolutionary country in South America, and it could precipitate the social revolution. But clear revolutionary consciousness is lacking. The FOR (‘Trotskyists’) will not issue the watchword “All power to the workers’ unions”, because it does not want to break with the nationalists. If the workers’ unions do not present an ultimatum to the government, they will miss the revolutionary situation, and they will then be defeated. Only a workers’ government, representing the whole working class, including the nationalists, Stalinists and Trotskyists, could realise the bourgeois-democratic postulates of the revolution, that is, agrarian reform and the economic liberation of the country. But that would be a Socialist revolution.’ (‘Crisis Lies Ahead in Bolivian Revolution as Armed Workers Face Nationalist “Allies”’, Labor Action, 19 May 1952)
This was following the April 1952 destruction of the army at the hands of the pro-MNR national police, joined by armed workers, which then led to the disappearance of the national police, leaving a vacuum ripe for dual power and the seizure of state power, at least on the Altiplano, by the organised Bolivian working class. A very equivocal formation called the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB - Bolivian Workers Central Organisation) did come to exercise considerable but irresolute authority, while American imperialism hastened to reconstitute an officer corps. The tin mines were nationalised, and the PatiÃ±o family left for their Paris retreat.
The situation predictably decomposed, facilitated by the Stalinists in the COB and Juan Lechin, an MNR politician popular with the miners. The situation then slid backwards over several years into something resembling the old order.
Juan Rey’s call, in the pages of Labor Action, for authentic workers’ soviet power in Bolivia, was hotly disputed by the journal’s editor, Hal Draper, on the bureaucratic collectivist premise that at no time and under no circumstances should a Stalinist party be willingly allowed to participate in a major public event. In an introduction to Juan Rey’s article, Draper opined:
‘Information on the course of events in Bolivia and on the exact character of the political movements in that country is extremely limited in New York. Yet we feel constrained to point out that if the Bolivian Stalinist movement is similar to its counterparts in other lands, it is very doubtful whether it would be either possible or desirable for the left wing workers there to form a government in affiance with the Stalinists.’
Draper’s position was the first major issue which impelled me into opposition to the ISL leadership. The Stalinists were not some alien conquering force - they stood at the head of sectors of the working class as union leaders. If we couldn’t engage in political struggle with Stalinists in a situation where they depended on a proletarian base, and under conditions approximating to dual power, when could we? I thought Draper’s line tended to treat the Stalinists as if their essential social quality was not based on the configuration of class forces, but some kind of black magic.
International Communist League