My attention was recently drawn to an article signed by Luis Oviedo, entitled The Counterrevolutionary Position of Socialist Appeal. Having read the article, I could not decide whether it was the product of bad faith or simple ignorance. Certainly, the method used is contrary to every basic principle of Marxism and above all Trotskyism, which comrade Oviedo and the Partido Obrero claim to defend. By Alan Woods (December 17, 2003)
See the translation in Spanish:
Marxismo frente a sectarismo - Respuesta a Luis Oviedo
"The dogs bark: therefore the caravan is moving." (Arab proverb)
An alien method
My attention was recently drawn to an article signed by Luis Oviedo, entitled The Counterrevolutionary Position of Socialist Appeal (in Prensa Obrera nº 826). Having read the article, I could not decide whether it was the product of bad faith or simple ignorance. Certainly, the method used is contrary to every basic principle of Marxism and above all Trotskyism, which comrade Oviedo and the Partido Obrero (PO) claim to defend.
The Argentine PO has had some success in recent years. In its ranks there are good militants who sincerely wish to advance the cause of Trotskyism and the socialist revolution in Argentina and Latin America. Its members have undoubtedly done some good work in developing the movement of the piqueteros. All this merits our sincere respect, and we believe that in our past polemics with the PO we have always maintained a scrupulous and respectful attitude.
This is not a little detail. The inability to answer criticisms and differences in a democratic and comradely way will undermine the party and prevent it developing beyond a certain limit. All internal differences and criticisms will be stifled and silenced. This means that all the good work done by the members will be undone sooner or later.
The reason for this is not at all diplomatic. We are not liberals but Bolsheviks, and we maintain the genuine traditions of the party of Lenin and Trotsky, which we have defended against revisionism for more than seventy years, nationally and internationally. It should be added that revisionism comes in all the colours of the rainbow, and contains not only a right but also a "left" colouring.
Why were the great Marxists so scrupulous in answering the ideas of their opponents? This was not for sentimental reasons, but because the aim of a polemic is to raise the political level of the cadres, not to score cheap debating points. There is nothing easier than to erect a straw man and then demolish him. That is just what Luis Oviedo has done. He distorts our ideas, which he then triumphantly "answers" (that is to say, he answers what has not been said). Then, like a little boy with new shoes, he struts around proudly telling everybody: "You see how clever I am." Unfortunately, this method is far from clever, and is entirely alien to the method and traditions of Bolshevism.
In polemics we have always attempted to treat the arguments of our opponents with fairness. We have never distorted or caricatured the arguments of our political opponents - and for one very good reason. If we distort the positions of our opponents that would make our reply completely worthless, and nobody would learn anything from it. That is why Lenin and Trotsky (or Marx and Engels if it comes to that) were always very scrupulous in their polemics with political opponents. That is why they always included long passages from the writings of the latter. In that way, nobody could ever accuse them of distorting the arguments of their opponents. That was not the method of genuine Trotskyists, but of the Stalinists. From a reading of comrade Oviedo's article nobody can learn anything about the position of Socialist Appeal, El Militante, or anything else. Then what was the point of writing it?
Mythology instead of argument
The article by Luis Oviedo contains so many mistakes and misrepresentations that it would require a book to answer them. Unfortunately, life is short and we have too much work to do to permit ourselves such a luxury. There is an old Russian saying "A fool can ask more questions than twenty wise men can answer." But we will arm ourselves with patience and do what we can. The result is rather long and cumbersome. It is longer than its author would have liked but not as long as would really be necessary to answer all the many distortions and falsifications contained in the PO article.
We stand accused, among other things, of "slavishly following the existing leaderships" and "reverential respect for the bureaucratic leaderships." This matter can, happily, be settled quite simply. We know that Luis Oviedo is an assiduous reader of our international website, www.marxist.com, and that he has a good reading knowledge of the English language. Let us therefore make him a modest proposition: Comrade Luis, please show us anywhere on our website where we give the slightest indication of "slavishly following the existing leaderships" or having a "reverential respect for the bureaucratic leaderships," in Britain, Bolivia or anywhere else. If Luis can do this, we will gladly rectify our mistakes. If he cannot, we invite him to publish a clear retraction of every word he has written, or else stand exposed as a falsifier.
What is involved here is a discussion of how to build the revolutionary tendency with roots in the masses. In order to build the party, it is not sufficient to have correct ideas. It is necessary to develop the correct tactics to convince the masses that our ideas are correct. Unfortunately, the PO does not have a correct position in relation to the objective tasks of the Bolivian revolution (or for that matter, the Argentine revolution). It has made some fundamental mistakes and is not prepared to admit them. That is the real reason for the present polemic, which we will deal with in relation to the slogan of the Constituent Assembly.
But the problem does not end there. It is a question of both form and content. Even if the PO had a correct position, it would be reduced to impotence by its hopelessly sectarian attitude to the workers' movement. Luis Oviedo shows not even the slightest glimmering of understanding of how to approach the Bolivian working class and its organizations. It boils down to the usual crude ultimatism that is the hallmark of ultra-left groups the world over. With methods like this we will really not get very far.
Luis Oviedo, it must be added, is not just a rank and file member of the PO but one of its main leaders and theoreticians. We are therefore entitled to assume that his article reflects the position of the PO leadership as a whole. If that is not the case, then we invite Jorge Altamira and the other leaders of the PO to repudiate it. If they do not, then every word in this reply applies to them also.
The article of Luis Oviedo is quite remarkable for the large number of errors concentrated in a very small space. There is at least one mistake in every sentence, and sometimes two. We start with what is quite a common accusation against our tendency. However, there is one thing we should be grateful to comrade Oviedo for. He has, in a few lines, provided us with a convenient compendium of all (or most) of the myths that the PO and all the other pseudo Trotskyist ultra-left groups have been assiduously disseminating about our tendency for many years. It is well known that if you repeat the same lie many times then some people will begin to believe it.
To begin at the beginning, comrade Oviedo writes: "Its prolonged dissolution into British Laborism has left indelible marks on Socialist Appeal, the tendency headed by Ted Grant and Alan Woods: tailing is the registered trademark of the leadership of this current."
"Dissolution" implies that we have long ago ceased to exist as a separate and identifiable entity. But if that were really the case, one wonders why comrade Oviedo would bother to attack us so ferociously. Such an attack suggests that we not only exist as a definite entity, but that this entity is causing the leadership of the PO some difficulties. The PO is compelled to attack our tendency because it is worried about the success we are having internationally. It is afraid of the growth of our influence in Latin America and inside the PO itself. And therefore it is attempting to construct a barrier between ourselves and its own rank and file by launching a series of attacks based on a series of distortions.
Marxists and the mass organizations
When the ultra-left groups attack us on the question of our work in the mass organizations, they believe that they are attacking our weak side. As a matter of fact, they are attacking one of our strongest sides - that side that always distinguishes a genuine Marxist tendency from a sect: our firm and persistent orientation towards the mass organizations of the working class. When we hear this kind of criticism, we merely shrug our shoulders. It is ABC that a Marxist tendency must always strive to conduct revolutionary work in the mass organizations of the proletariat. This was explained by Lenin and Trotsky (or, for that matter, by Marx and Engels) a long time ago. A child of six should be able to understand this. But since the leaders of the PO do not understand it, we are obliged to restate some of the fundamentals.
The ultra-left groups are fond of quoting Lenin's writings from the period 1914-17, when he insisted repeatedly on the need for an independent revolutionary party and call on the British Marxists to leave the Labour Party. This was answered in advance by Trotsky when he wrote. "But Lenin had in mind a break with reformists as the inevitable consequence of a struggle against them, and not an act of salvation regardless of time and place. He required a split with the social patriots not in order to save his own soul but in order to tear the masses away from social patriotism." (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p.156.)
The need to build an independent revolutionary party is ABC for Marxists. However, after the ABC, there are more letters in the alphabet, and a child who only repeated the first three after a few years at school would not be considered very bright. In the present epoch, the revolutionaries are faced with powerful mass reformist organizations - both mass parties and trade unions - which have the support of millions of workers. Our ability to grow depends decisively on our ability to win over the base of these organizations, especially the trade unions, but also the mass reformist parties.
In the founding document of the Marxist movement, The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain that the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties:
"They have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
"They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
"The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only: 1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
"The Communists are, therefore, on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others: on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement." (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.1, pp.119-120).
These remarks are a closed book for the PO leaders, yet they express the essence of what separates real Marxism from a sectarian caricature. The ultra-left groups always forget that the mass forces of the Communist International were only formed on the basis of great events, in the period 1917-23. In most cases, the mass parties of the new International were formed out of splits in the old parties of the Second International. Moreover, in some cases the Communists actually won a majority of the old organisations, as in France, Germany, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia.
A sectarian attitude to the old reformist mass organizations was characteristic, not of Lenin and Trotsky, but of the ultra-lefts in Holland, Britain and Italy, against which Lenin and Trotsky waged a relentless struggle. Although they tried to quote Lenin's writings of the period of the First World War against him, they had understood nothing of Lenin's dialectical method. Lenin's book "Left Wing Communism - an Infantile Disorder" was written in the early days of the Communist International to answer the arguments of the "Lefts", which re-appear at every stage in the writings of the ultra-left groups. Lenin explained that it was a crime to split away the advanced workers from the mass, and that such tactics, far from undermining the trade union bureaucracy, actually serves to strengthen it:
"To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labour aristocrats, or workers who have become completely bourgeois...
"If you want to help the 'masses' and win the sympathy and support of the 'masses', you should not fear difficulties or pin-pricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the 'leaders' (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations - even the most reactionary - in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.53.)
Luis Oviedo suffers an apoplectic attack when the mass trade union confederations in Argentina (CTA and CGT) are mentioned, let alone the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB). They are "bureaucratic", you see. Yet Lenin explained how the Bolsheviks even conducted illegal work in the "Zubatov" unions, set up by the Tsarist police to keep the workers away from revolutionary ideas. Without knowing it, the leaders of the PO are repeating the arguments, not of Lenin and Trotsky, but of the "Left Communists" whom Lenin criticized so ferociously in the early years of the Communist International. At the Second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin and Trotsky waged a struggle against the "infantile disorder" of ultra-leftism. The Manifesto of the Second Congress, written by Trotsky, states that:
"The Communist International is the world party of proletarian uprising and proletarian dictatorship. It has no aims and tasks separate and apart from those of the working class itself. The pretensions of the tiny ultra-left groups, each of which wants to save the working class in its own manner, are alien and hostile to the spirit of the Communist International. It does not possess any panaceas or magic formulas but bases itself on the past and present international experience of the working class; it purges that experience of all blunders and deviations; it generalises the conquests made and recognises only such revolutionary formulas as are formulas of mass action." (Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Comintern, Vol.1, p.131.)
The same document adds: "Waging a merciless struggle against reformism in the trade unions and against parliamentary cretinism and careerism, the Communist International at the same time condemns all sectarian summonses to leave the ranks of the multi-millioned trade union organisations or to turn one's back upon parliamentary and municipal institutions. The Communists do not separate themselves from the masses who are being deceived and betrayed by the reformists and the patriots, but engage the latter in an irreconcilable struggle within the mass organisations and institutions established by bourgeois society, in order to overthrow them the more surely and the more quickly."
Trotsky's method, like that of Marx and Lenin, was a combination of two things: an implacable defence of ideas and principles, and an extremely flexible approach to tactics and organisational questions. This is summed up in the "Open letter for the Fourth International", written in the spring of 1935:
"Any attempt to prescribe an identical course for all countries would be fatal. Depending upon national conditions, upon the degree of the decomposition of the old working class organisations, and finally upon the state of their own forces at a given moment, the Marxists (the revolutionary socialists, the internationalists, the Bolshevik-Leninists) can come forward, now as an independent organisation, now as a faction in one of the old parties or trade unions. Surely, no matter what the time or the arena may be, this factional work serves only as a stage on the road of creating the new parties of the Fourth International - parties which may be created either through the regroupment of the revolutionary elements of the old organisations, or through the agency of independent organisations. But on whatever arena, and whatever the methods of functioning, they are bound to speak in the name of unqualified principles and clear revolutionary slogans. They do not play hide-and-seek with the working class; they do not conceal their aims; they do not substitute diplomacy and combinations for a principled struggle. Marxists at all times and under all conditions openly say what is." (Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, pp.25-26.)
One would think that these lines are clear enough. There is no revolutionary "cook book" that can give us a recipe for how to work in all countries at all times. What is clear is that the revolutionary party always begins as an embryo and that in order to overcome their isolation from the masses it is not only permissible but obligatory for the revolutionaries to develop flexible tactics to penetrate the mass organizations of the working class, on condition that they always maintain a firm position on all principled questions.
The tendency to which I have the honour to belong has consistently maintained a principled position for decades, defending the basic teachings of Marxism and fighting for the socialist revolution, nationally and internationally. However, it is not enough to have correct ideas, it is necessary to know how to express these ideas in a way that will get an echo in the working class. All the sectarians come to a full stop at this point. In order to break the masses away from the old reformist leaders it is necessary to conduct serious, systematic work in the mass organizations, starting with the unions. In his article, Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International (1935), Trotsky characterises sectarianism as follows:
"The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.
"Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished programme and a living - that is to say, imperfect and unfinished - mass struggle... Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class." (Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p.153.)
These lines express perfectly the essence of sectarianism. They are reflected in every line of Oviedo's article. The whole manner in which he approaches the COB is indicative of the haughty sectarian attitude that alienates workers and leads to the isolation of the revolutionary current from the masses. It is the reason why the ultra-left groups are always doomed to sterility. This applies even to those cases, like that of the PO, where they manage to build a relatively strong group of a couple of thousand. That is, of course, a serious achievement. But it is only the beginning. In a country like Argentina, a party of two or three thousand is still very small in comparison to the size of the working class.
The question is posed even more clearly in Britain, where the entire organized working class is in the trade unions, and the key unions are affiliated to the Labour Party. As early as 1932 Trotsky advised his followers in Britain to enter the Labour Party. When the centrist ILP left the Labour Party in that year they had a following of at least 100,000 workers. That is a lot more than the PO at the present time. What advice did the Old Man give them? Trotsky's advice to the ILP was three-fold: a) work out a genuine Marxist policy, b) turn your backs on the Stalinists and face towards the trade unions and the Labour Party and c) join the Fourth International.
Even though the ILP had a considerable base among the advanced workers, Trotsky still insisted that they should penetrate the Labour Party, which still enjoyed the support of millions of workers. Brushing aside the excuses of the ILP leaders - that there was no real left in the Labour Party, that they would be expelled, and so on - he argued for work inside the LP:
"The policy of the opposition in the Labour Party is unspeakably bad. But this only means that it is necessary to counterpose to it inside the Labour Party another, a correct Marxist policy. That isn't so easy? Of course not! But one must know how to hide one's activities from the police vigilance of Sir Walter Citrine and his agents until the proper time. But isn't it a fact that a Marxist faction would not succeed in changing the structure and policy of the Labour Party? With this we are entirely in accord: the bureaucracy will not surrender. But the revolutionists, functioning outside and inside, can and must succeed in winning over tens and hundreds of thousands of workers." (Trotsky, ibid, p.142.)
In his polemic with the leaders of the ILP, Trotsky criticised them for breaking with the Labour Party at the wrong time and on the wrong issue. (Instead of picking a political issue, which could be understood by the mass of Labour workers, they broke away on an organisational question - the independence of the ILP's parliamentary caucus):
" The ILP split from the Labour Party chiefly for the sake of keeping the independence of its parliamentary fraction. We do not intend here to discuss whether the split was correct at the given moment, and whether the ILP gleaned from it the expected advantages. We don't think so. But it remains a fact about every revolutionary organisation in England that its attitude to the masses and to the class is almost coincident with its attitude toward the Labour Party, which bases itself upon the trade unions. At this time, the question of whether to function inside the Labour Party or outside it is not a principled question, but a question of actual opportunities. In any case, without a strong fraction in the trade unions, and consequently in the Labour Party itself, the ILP is doomed to impotence even today." (Trotsky. Writings 1935-36, pp.141-3.)
To continue our lesson for little children: in Britain the mass organizations of the working class are the Labour Party and the trade unions. We are accused of working in these organizations for a "prolonged" period. To this accusation, we plead guilty! In Britain, any tendency that claims to be Marxist that did not conduct such work would be condemned to irrelevance. If you doubt this, please examine the records of those self-styled Marxist groups that have been constructing phantom "revolutionary parties" in the clouds for an even more "prolonged period" and which have ended in a complete farce.
Trotsky's method is absolutely clear from the lines quoted above. In Britain, where millions of workers are organised in and around the trade unions and the Labour Party, even a party of 100,000 is little more than a big sect. What would he say today about the fussing and fiddling of the minuscule groups on the fringes of the Labour Party? The SLP has collapsed ignominiously, despite the fact that it is led by a well-known trade union militant, the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill. The Socialist Alliance, led by the SWP, is split and in crisis.
Despite the colossal discontent with Blair, the workers do not see these groups as a serious alternative. They receive derisory votes and lose their deposits with monotonous regularity. On the other hand, there is a sharp turn to the left in the unions, most of which are affiliated to the Labour Party. The Marxist tendency represented in Britain by Socialist Appeal has been very active in this process. And history shows that a shift to the left in the trade unions must tomorrow find its reflection in the Labour Party.
Sectarianism and the mass organizations
What attitude should Marxists take towards the COB and its leadership? For the ultra left ultra-left groups the answer is, as always, childishly simple. Their attitude towards the workers' organizations is always the same: shrill denunciations of betrayal, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year, every year. The problem is so simple, you see! All that is necessary is to shout at the top of your voice that everyone else is a traitor and that the masses should stop foolishly following these traitors and follow the PO instead. Then everything would be fine!
The problem is that, despite all the shrill denunciations and shouting, the masses do not follow the ultra-left groups but remain stubbornly loyal to their traditional mass organizations. They will not be convinced by denunciations and insults. On the contrary, such an approach will merely serve to repel them, drive them further into the arms of the leaders and discredit the Trotskyists, who will appear before the masses as sectarian splitters and wreckers. This is the image that the Stalinists have tried to foist on the Trotskyists for decades. Unfortunately, the conduct of the ultra-left groups serves to confirm this caricature. They have given Trotskyism a bad name with workers everywhere. This is a crime for which they cannot be forgiven.
The pseudo Marxist sectarians do not proceed on the basis of the real movement of the working class and its organizations. Instead, they work with ideal categories, abstractions outside time and place. They have a fixed and unalterable notion that the trade union leaders are unable to lead the class struggle. In the general sense, they have a point, inasmuch as a successful struggle presupposes a consistent revolutionary perspective and policy, which these leaders do not possess. Therefore, even in the best case, they will end up in unsatisfactory compromises, even where they honestly want to fight, which is often not the case.
Yes, all that is true, and in fact it is ABC for Marxists. But even the most right wing trade union leaders, under the pressure of the working class, can begin to lead, and even go further than they intended. It is necessary to analyse the movement concretely, following it through every stage, and not confine oneself to abstract generalities about the role of reformism and so on. Wherever the trade union leaders take even half a step forward, it is necessary to step up the pressure to go further. As Marx and Engels explained so well, the Marxists must be in the first ranks of those fighting for the betterment of the working class, while at the same time patiently explaining to the workers the need for a total revolutionary overturn. That is the task of the Marxists in the unions. It is a task that demands a combination of firmness on all principled questions with the necessary flexibility in tactics. Without one thing or the other, we would get nowhere.
Having set out his basic (and false) thesis concerning our alleged "dissolution" into the mass organizations, Luis Oviedo continues to misinform his readers: "In Bolivia - and it could not be otherwise - they are fervent defenders of the bureaucracy of the COB." Since Luis Oviedo has either not read our articles, or else has not the slightest intention of informing his readers about the real positions of our tendency, this latest misrepresentation also "could not be otherwise".
But wait! "There is more " whispers Luis, with a grand air of mystery, like someone about to unveil a terrible conspiracy. What is this conspiracy? Luis explains:
"Referring to the new government, Woods writes that 'there is a deep undercurrent of mistrust and anger among the masses that is reflected in the intransigence of their natural leaders.' On the supposed 'intransigence' of the COB, the Peasant Federation of Quispe* or the MAS of Evo Morales*, it is sufficient to mention that all suspended the measures of struggle and made a truce with the new government. But the most important thing is the reverential respect Woods has for the bureaucracies of the movement, whom he qualifies as their 'natural leaders.' It is an original category. The leaders who find themselves at the head of a class at any given moment of their history are not a consequence of nature but rather of the political struggle arising between the different tendencies within that class (which includes the agents of the enemy classes, such as the bureaucracy). Upon qualifying Quispe and Solares as 'natural leaders' of the peasants and the workers, Woods declares in advance that he resigns from the struggle for an alternative revolutionary leadership in the organizations of the masses."
[* note: Quispe is a peasant leader, and Morales is a reformist politician at the head of the MAS which is a party voted by peasants and workers and roughly occupies the space of a reformist workers' party]
Firstly, when Oviedo criticises the formulation on the "natural leaders of the working class", he misquotes what we wrote. What our article really says is the following:
"Below the leaders of the COB are a numerous layer of what one can call the natural leaders of the working class. They are the local leaders who have won the confidence of the workers and peasants by their honesty, courage and militancy. They will play a crucial role in the revolution. They stand close to the masses and therefore reflect their revolutionary spirit. If they were united in a revolutionary party, the future of the revolution would be guaranteed."
Isn't that clear? We are not referring to the leaders of the COB, or to Quispe and Solares, but to the layer of worker activists below the leading layer of the COB.
But even when he writes of the COB leaders, Oviedo shows that he understands nothing. He alleges that we advocate an "unconditional backing for the leadership of the COB." And for Luis Oviedo, the leaders of the COB are the same as Quipse and Evo Morales - they are all one reactionary bloc. This is a typically sectarian attitude. It leaves out of account all the concrete elements in the equation, and lumps everything together. This makes it far easier for the PO to present itself, and itself only, as the leadership. All that is necessary is to proclaim themselves as such. Then the workers will put aside their existing leaders and flock to the PO, and all will be well.
The method is simplicity itself: we simply denounce the existing leaderships as traitors and put ourselves forward as the alternative, and appeal to the masses to join us. Problem solved! Or is it? If, in order to build the revolutionary party, all that was needed was to proclaim it, then every petty sectarian in history would be as great as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky put together. Unfortunately, it is not so simple.
It is necessary not to speak in generalities but to see the living movement of the working class as it develops. Of course in general, the role of the reformist labour and trade union leaders is to hold the masses in check. But it is not sufficient to speak about the workers' movement and its leadership "in general". It is necessary to take into account the concrete conditions of each particular case. The mass organizations, especially the unions, are under the pressure of the working class. In periods when the masses move into action, they can be pushed into opposition and can even go further than the leaders intend.
The Marxists in Bolivia would be rendered completely impotent if they were not capable of conducting serious work in the COB and winning over its rank and file. For this, it is necessary to adopt a patient and friendly attitude, as did Lenin in 1917 when he advised the Bolsheviks to "patiently explain" to the Russian workers, who, in their overwhelming majority, were still following the Menshevik and SR leaders in the Soviets and the trade unions. It is worse than useless to imagine that the way to win the workers is by shouting and bawling about "betrayal" from the sidelines. This kind of behaviour is even more lunatic in a situation where the trade union leaders are involved in struggle.
In this particular case, the leaders of the COB, for all their faults and deficiencies, called for a general strike. Solares even called for the formation of workers' militias and in an interview after being elected leader of the COB he said: "The first statement is a call to all workers and the Bolivian people to unite, get organised and to struggle until the liquidation of the neo-liberal model and the exploitative capitalist system, and to put in place a worker-peasant government together with all oppressed and exploited sections" (El Deber, August 18, 2003). In an interview after the October insurrection, Solares stated: "we hope that soon we will have a worker-peasant government with a socialist programme" (La Razón, November 3).
Luis Oviedo will say: But these are just words. Yes, of course, but how will the mass of workers and peasants see these words? They will say: Yes, that is just what we want! And what will Luis Oviedo tell the Bolivian workers and peasants? "Don't believe the COB leaders! They are liars! They have no intention of leading a revolution. They will betray you!" And how will the Bolivian workers respond? They will say: What are you talking about? Our leaders called for a general strike. They are against the regime of capitalist exploitation. And you people are just splitters and wreckers."
After the recent events, the authority of the COB leaders with the mass of ordinary workers and poor peasants will be high. That is quite clear. Our task is to reach these workers and peasants. How is this to be done? Certainly not with insults and denunciations of the leaders, where the latter are responding to the pressure of the masses and giving a lead. What we must say is: Very good so far, but we must go further! Our movement has shown the enormous power of the working class, once it is mobilised to change society. But we have not finished the job. The oligarchy is still in power. We must organize another general strike and set up action committees all over the country. To the COB leaders we say, what we need is action, not words! You must do what you say!" That is the only correct way to pose the question. And it is exactly the way we posed it in our article. Only a died-in-the-wool sectarian who is not capable of thinking could object to this.
Class, party and leadership
"In Bolivia," continues Oviedo, "they are fervent defenders of the bureaucracy of the COB (Central Obrera Bolivia - Workers Central Confederation of Bolivia)."
There is not an atom of truth in this assertion. What is it based upon? Luis Oviedo fishes around for some isolated quotes: "Their balance sheet of the events in Bolivia ("The key to the Andean revolution", by Alan Woods and Jorge Martín), gives unconditional support to the leadership of the COB." What does he mean by this?
'The COB leadership displayed great courage and determination in the general strike. (...)The leaders of the COB have played a very positive role. They have shown great personal integrity and courage in leading the struggle against Lozada.'
And he concludes triumphantly: "Better defenders of Jaime Solares would be hard to find even among the rank-and-file of the COB bureaucracy."
Oviedo is uncomfortably aware that he is telling lies and therefore is obliged to cover his bare backside in the very next sentence: "In order to dissimulate, Alan Woods adds that 'now something more than integrity and courage is required: what is needed is a clear perspective for taking power and a programme and tactics adequate to this perspective.' That is, a 'perspective of power' is recommended after having allowed the moment for the struggle for power to pass, the insurrection of last October 17."
Luis Oviedo only tells the members of the PO as much about our position as he considers good for their health - that is to say, not much. He conveniently forgets to quote what follows:
"The COB leadership displayed great courage and determination in the general strike. But what is needed is a clear plan, strategy and policy. What is needed is a perspective for the taking of power. This is what seems to be lacking, and the lack of it can shipwreck the revolution. COB general secretary Solares has paid a visit to the new president. And apparently adopted the position of conditional support, that is, we will support him as long as he fights against corruption, creates more jobs and gives workers decent wages, etc. This is a bad mistake. The bourgeois government of Mesa will be just as corrupt as the Lozada government. It cannot provide jobs and decent wages, because its hands are tied by the IMF and the World Bank. It is the government of the oligarchy and must represent its interests. To demand of such a government that it defends the interests of the workers and peasants is like asking pears from an elm tree.
"It is said that the new President showed interest in the points raised by Solares and that the doors of the Presidential palace are open to the COB leaders. But this is a case of 'come into my parlour said the spider to the fly'. Today the President shows interest (how could he not be interested in the people who have just overthrown his predecessor?) but tomorrow he will show his teeth. The idea that it is all a question of 'good will' is mistaken. What decides is not the good or bad will of individuals, but the interests of classes. And the interests of the Bolivian workers and peasants cannot be squared with those of the oligarchy and imperialism. The sooner this fact is understood the better. The reason for Mesa's 'reasonableness' is not hard to see. The bourgeoisie has just suffered a serious defeat. They cannot use force, and are compelled to stage a tactical retreat, to appear conciliatory, to make promises, in the hope of pacifying the masses, until such time as they are ready to launch a counter-offensive." (Bolivia - The key to the Andean revolution)
Now, then, friend Luis, let us be serious for a moment. Does this sound like the words of "fervent defenders of the bureaucracy of the COB?"
Our tendency has consistently put forward a perspective of workers' power for Bolivia. That is our position, and Oviedo is reluctantly obliged to admit it. In the article, which he quotes so selectively, we not only advance a perspective of power but show concretely how that is to be achieved. But Oviedo then continues with his misrepresentation when he cites, as usual out of context, the phrase: "The workers... succeeded in overthrowing the President, but then they allowed the power to slip through their fingers." This sends Luis into a paroxysm of righteous indignation:
"But those who allowed Mesa to reach office were not the workers but instead their leaders, among them the bureaucracy of the COB, who sealed the presidential changeover with a pact with the Church, the parties of the regime, the businessmen and the Brazilian-Argentine diplomats. In order to whitewash the politics of the bureaucracy of the COB, Socialist Appeal blames the masses." (our emphasis) Here we enter into the realm of pure surrealism. Is it true that we blame the workers for not taking power? No, it is not true, and Luis Oviedo knows this very well. But let us return to Lenin's position in 1917. At one point in the April Conference, Lenin deals with the February Revolution and asks why the workers did not take power:
"Why don't they take power? Steklov says: for this reason and that. This is nonsense. The fact is that the proletariat is not organised and class conscious enough. This must be admitted: material strength is in the hands of the proletariat but the bourgeoisie turned out to be prepared and class conscious. This is a monstrous fact, and it should be frankly and openly admitted and the people should be told that they did not take power because they were unorganised and not conscious enough." (Lenin, Works, vol. 36, page 437, our emphasis.)
Did that mean that Lenin was putting the blame on the Russian workers for not taking power? Such a conclusion would be a monstrous distortion - like the monstrous distortion of our article perpetrated by Luis Oviedo. These lines of Lenin are also applicable to the recent movement in Bolivia. Anyone who reads our article could not possibly draw the conclusion that we blamed the masses for what happened, any more than Lenin blamed the Russian proletariat for the abortion of dual power. But what we see here is the fearless honesty with which Lenin always approached the workers' movement. He always called things by their right name.
We would like to be charitable. Maybe these distortions are not deliberate. Maybe Luis needs new glasses, or maybe he is just incapable of understanding what he reads. But in any case, we invite every member of the PO to read what we wrote and draw his or her own conclusions. In the meantime, let us quote one of innumerable passages in our article that demonstrates this, and which Luis Oviedo's poor eyesight or defective understanding prevented him from seeing:
"The magnificent Bolivian working class has placed itself at the head of the nation as the leader and spokesman of the peasantry, the Indians and all other exploited and oppressed layers of the population. This is a most important fact, and one that is fundamental for the outcome of the Bolivian revolution!" (emphasis in the original)
The whole content and tone of the article is impregnated with confidence in the workers and its main message is that the workers of Bolivia can and must take power, and for that a revolutionary party and leadership is necessary. We point out that such a leadership is absent and that, if the moment has been temporarily lost, this is entirely due to a problem of leadership. The working class cannot immediately arrive at revolutionary conclusions. The masses only learn through experience, and they must pass through a series of painful experiences before they finally turn to the revolutionary tendency. That was the case in 1917, and it will be the case in Bolivia. It is quite natural that the Bolivian workers and peasants should trust their traditional organizations and leaderships. They will test these organizations and leaders many times in action, before looking for alternatives. And when they do, they will first try to transform them.
At the present time the workers of Bolivia are following the leaders of the COB and the peasants are following people like Quispe. The peasant leader Felipe Quispe gave the government a 90 day ultimatum to solve the peasant demands, otherwise he would "call an uprising to take power" (bolpress.com, October 18) He also said in an interview that their ultimate goal was.... "for the majority of the population, Indians and aboriginal, to take power and rule together with the working class" (La Razon, November 3). He has also called for new elections. Will Quispe maintain this position? We do not know. But we do know that these demands are correct and reflect the pressure of the poor peasants. What attitude should we take to this? Inform the peasants that Quispe is a traitor, and that there is no difference between him and Mesa? That is what the PO presumably says. It is hardly the way to find an avenue to the poor peasants who have illusions in Quispe.
Of course, one can say that there is no difference between reformist politicians and the bourgeoisie, and in a sense that is true. In the same way, one can say that there is no fundamental difference between left reformism and right reformism. In general, betrayal is inherent in all kinds of reformism. But such generalizations do not help us to understand the concrete situation of the workers' movement or to intervene in it. They are abstract statements and lack concreteness. But as Hegel said and Lenin often repeated, the truth is always concrete.
The reformists - even the most sincere and left wing reformists - always tend to betray in the end because they accept the premise of capitalism, and because at bottom their fear of the masses is greater than their hatred of the ruling class. That is correct, as a general proposition. But this by no means rules out the possibility that in a given moment the reformists can be pushed by the masses to adopt a radical or even semi-revolutionary stance.
Let us take the case of Largo Caballero, the Socialist trade union leader who participated in the government of the Bonapartist dictator Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. Later, under the pressure of the working class, Largo Caballero in the 1930s moved very far to the left and was even talking about the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat and was known as the Spanish Lenin. In October 1934 he went as far as to call for a revolutionary general strike which resulted in the Asturian Commune. Of course, Caballero was not a real Marxist but a centrist, who vacillated between left reformism and Marxism. But centrism is an inevitable stage that emerges in the mass movement when the workers are breaking away from reformism and moving towards revolutionary conclusions. How the revolutionary wing relates to this phenomenon is a question of decisive importance, as Trotsky explained many times.
An even clearer case was the Spanish Young Socialists, who, after the experience of the Commune, moved towards revolutionary positions. They advocated a break with the Social Democracy and Stalinism and came out in favour of a new (Fourth) International. But Andres Nin and the so-called Spanish Trotskyists adopted a sectarian position with regard to the Young Socialists, and the opportunity was lost. As a result, the Stalinists took over the Young Socialists and got a mass base. That led directly to the defeat of the Spanish revolution. Trotsky broke off all relations with Nin, whose actions he described as a betrayal. What would he say about the PO, which repeats the same sectarian and ultra-left arguments of Nin?
Similar developments are entirely possible in the present epoch. The crisis of capitalism means a crisis of reformism. Reformism without reforms makes no sense. We will see the emergence of mass left reformist or even centrist tendencies. What attitude should we take to such tendencies? The PO's attitude can be predicted in advance. But what advice did Trotsky give to his followers on this subject in the 1930s? Trotsky, who understood well both the mass organisations and the psychology of the workers, recommended the Trotskyists to adopt a patient, positive and friendly attitude, as we see in his letter to Cannon (March 1936) on "How to work in the SP" when he says the following:
"So far as the criticism of the centrist leadership is concerned, it is very important to pay attention to this: that this criticism should not lose itself on side issues which can only irritate the Socialist following, but should be concentrated upon well chosen and important questions. There is a certain danger that our comrades will react in meetings with mockery and contempt to the centrist superficialities and platitudes. From the very beginning this may create an unfavourable atmosphere for us. For the simple member who does not have the necessary political training, it is difficult to raise himself to the level of our criticism, and therefore irony (even the most deserved) can have a disturbing, suspicion-arousing, and exasperating effect upon the rank and file. This gives the centrist leaders the opportunity to mobilise these sentiments against us. Therefore, the greatest patience, a calm, friendly tone is indispensable." (Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p.268.)
From the same letter, it is clear that Trotsky was unhappy with the way the French Trotskyists had carried out work in the SP: "Besides in France, also, far too much energy was expended upon the frequently purely phraseological 'exposure' of the leaders, and too little for a more deep-going work at the base, especially among the youth." (ibid, p. 267.)
All these criticisms can be levelled at the PO and the other ultra-left groups. They have not understood a single line that Trotsky and Lenin wrote. Luis Oviedo does not like our article. Why does he not like it? Because it criticises the leaders of the COB in a constructive way - in a way that could actually find an echo in the rank and file of the union. It does not call them traitors or inform the rank and file that their leaders are the same as the bourgeoisie! It says to the leaders: very good, so far, but now you must take power! That is to say, it adopts the same method used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, the same methods that Trotsky urged his French supporters to follow.
'An original category'?
In the section headed The problem of leadership, we wrote the following:
"The Bolivian revolution appears to have a purely spontaneous character. But this is not quite true. Firstly, it did not fall like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky, but was rooted in the previous period. Secondly, it was led by the natural leaders of the working class, the class-conscious militants of the COB. Thirdly, these militants did not drop from the clouds, but were trained on the basis of ideas that have circulated in the Bolivian trade union and workers movement for decades - the ideas of Trotskyism.
"In Russia before 1917, tens of thousands of worker activists had been educated for two decades in the spirit of Bolshevik propaganda. In Bolivia the ideas and programme of Trotskyism have been familiar to worker activists for even longer. The Pulacayo Theses of 1946, adopted by the miners' federation, are nothing more than Trotsky's Transitional Programme translated into the concrete conditions of Bolivia. They basically point out the need for the workers to take power in an alliance with the peasants and then proceed towards socialism. They must form the basis on which the movement can now advance to its natural goal: the goal of workers' power." (Bolivia - The key to the Andean revolution)
Luis Oviedo has a good laugh over our use of the phrase "natural leaders of the working class" ("It is an original category"). But his humour is entirely misplaced. It shows he has not the slightest idea of how the working class develops or the dialectical relationship between the class, the party and the leadership. This was explained many times by Trotsky, notably in the History of the Russian Revolution. Naturally, the ultra-left groups have never understood this, as they have never understood anything else.
Who led the February Revolution in Russia? Was it the Bolshevik Party? No. The Bolshevik Party only had about 8,000 members in a country of 150 million people. The movement in the factories and the barracks was led precisely by the natural leaders of the proletariat, about whom our friend Luis speaks so scornfully. Such leaders are always present among the workers and they come to the fore in every strike. They are the layer of militant, class conscious proletarians who are known and trusted by their fellow workers. Some are organized in political parties, most are not and only become organized in the course of the struggle. To win over this stratum is the key task of the revolutionary party. But this can never be achieved by a haughty and arrogant attitude that presents the workers with an ultimatum, which is, regrettably, the habitual method of the PO leadership.
In Russia, a small number of these worker activists were members of the Bolshevik Party in February, and a far greater number had been touched by the ideas and propaganda of the Bolsheviks during the previous decade or so. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Revolution, the big majority of the workers and soldiers supported, not the Bolsheviks but the Mensheviks and SRs. We see a similar process in every revolution. The masses always at first try to take the line of least resistance. They follow the well-known leaders and the parties with the big apparatus. This is a law we see repeated time and time again.
Lenin was well aware that the Bolshevik Party was a small minority and that the task was to win over the mass of workers and soldiers who supported the reformist leaders. He understood the need for patience and flexible tactics. His advice to the Bolsheviks was "Patiently explain!" That is what the leaders the PO seem organically incapable of understanding, and that is what in the end will doom them to impotence.
What Lenin's slogan meant
It is strange that the leaders of the PO, who have read just about enough about the Russian revolution to have remembered something about the Constituent Assembly, have completely forgotten about another fairly well known slogan of the Bolsheviks: All Power to the Soviets! They have not the slightest idea of the real transitional content of this slogan. And they have even less understanding of the method employed by Lenin and Trotsky in defending it.
This was the central slogan of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. Everybody knows this. But as Hegel pointed out, what is known is not necessarily understood. And the leaders of the PO, have not understood the real meaning and content of Lenin's tactics in 1917. He launched the slogan All Power to the Soviets at a time when the Soviet leadership was made up of the reformist parties - the Mensheviks and SRs. He was saying to the reformist leaders: Why don't you take the power? He repeated this a thousand times, verbally and in writing. He even said that if the Menshevik and SR leaders agreed to take power - which they could have done peacefully after February, since the old state power has been destroyed - the Bolsheviks would guarantee that the struggle for power would be reduced to a peaceful debate in the Soviets.
We can just imagine how Luis Oviedo would have fulminated against such revisionism, if he had been around at the time. How dare Lenin make demands on the reformist leaders! How dare he say that power should pass to the traitors! Lenin obviously has no confidence in the revolutionary party or the proletariat! He has abandoned the fight for a new leadership and is "slavishly following the existing leaderships". As a matter of fact, there were some ultra left Bolsheviks (the ultra lefts, like the poor, are always with us!) who used such arguments. Lenin merely shrugged his shoulders, and our reaction is the same. We have understood and are applying the method of Trotsky and Lenin, and are not terribly impressed by the childishness of ultra lefts who imagine themselves great geniuses, when they have not understood the ABCs of Marxism.
"Against what Alan Woods affirms," Oviedo continues, "the leadership of the COB (the same as Quispe and Evo Morales) had an extremely clear position regarding the question of power: it was on the side of the 'constitutional solution', that is, of replacing Sánchez de Lozada with Mesa, in other words, openly hostile to the taking of power by the exploited. That is, that it had a policy that was very far from the 'positive role' assigned to them by Woods. Of course in order to play that counterrevolutionary role, the COB leadership should have been at the head of the general strike." (Our emphasis.)
Comrade Luis has a very peculiar view of the revolutionary process in Bolivia. What are the facts? In the recent events in Bolivia, the COB played a decisive role. Not even comrade Oviedo would dare to deny this. Moreover, the leaders of the COB, within the limits of their abilities and perspectives, placed themselves at the head of this movement. That they were not able to carry the movement forward to the conquest of power, and that therefore a golden opportunity was missed, is self-evident, and shows us what we already knew - that the leaders of the COB are not revolutionary Marxists and therefore, in the moment of truth, did not know what to do.
Yes, the leadership of the movement was completely inadequate and a golden opportunity was lost. Yes, we must work to build a genuinely revolutionary tendency in Bolivia. But the first condition for this work is to understand reality, as Lenin understood the reality of the balance of forces in Russia in April 1917. The reality is that the revolutionary tendency in Bolivia is weak, because of the false policies of Lora and the POR. It is necessary to start from small beginnings and to show the workers of Bolivia, starting with the active layer in the COB that we are serious people, not sectarian lunatics.
Whether comrade Oviedo likes it or not (and he clearly does not like it), the overwhelming majority of the Bolivian workers support the COB - and its present leadership. The fact that the leaders of the COB called the indefinite general strike and are even talking about the need for a workers' and peasants' government with a socialist programme will have enormously enhanced their authority in the eyes of the workers of Bolivia. Not to acknowledge this fact would be childish in the extreme.
Therefore, in approaching the Bolivian workers it is necessary, not only to put forward a correct policy but to do so in a way that would get an echo, not alienate the workers. We say to the COB activists: "What you have done so far is very good. But the job is not finished. It is necessary to carry the struggle to the end. It is necessary to take the power and overthrow the oligarchy."
But all this is irrelevant to our friend Luis. He has another interpretation of the events in Bolivia. Why did the union leaders place themselves at the head of the revolutionary general strike that overthrew Goni? They did this, he says, only in order more efficiently to betray the workers. Here the sectarian mentality of the PO leaders stands out in all its glory. These people are incapable of understanding the way the workers' movement develops in Argentina, Bolivia or anywhere else.
All power to the COB?
Our articles on Bolivia, which do not contain one atom of "slavishly following the existing leaderships", were not written for the benefit of Luis Oviedo, but for the Bolivian workers, and especially the active layer organized in the COB. Unlike Luis Oviedo, it is necessary to convince them of the need to go further in order to achieve their demands. The purpose of our articles (which were widely read in Bolivia) was to explain two things: 1) the need to overthrow capitalism and 2) the need for a revolutionary party. The main programmatic demand was to extend and develop the workers' committees - the embryonic soviets - and through them to take power. That is what we wrote, and anyone is free to check this. So how does comrade Oviedo conclude that we advocate "all power to the COB"? It is an invention on his part that has no relation to the truth.
"What's this!" Luis protests. "Alan Woods is recommending a perspective of power to the bureaucrats of the COB! And moreover, when the moment for the seizure of power on 17th October had already passed! Who has ever heard of a Marxist doing such a thing?" As a matter of fact, if the COB would take power, that would be a very good thing from our point of view. The slogan of "all power to the COB" is certainly a million light years preferable to the bourgeois reformist slogan of the Constituent Assembly put forward so insistently by the PO. However, we regret to inform comrade Luis that we did not put forward such a slogan, which, like all the rest of his article, is a figment of his over-active imagination.
Let us quote exactly what we wrote in the article:
"The revolution has enormous reserves in the population, both in the towns and the villages. The Bolivian proletariat has a tremendous revolutionary tradition, and has shown by its actions that it has not forgotten them. Moreover, the cadres of the movement have assimilated some of the most important elements of Marxism and Leninism - that is to say, Trotskyism - as contained in the Pulacayo Theses. The idea of workers' power is not strange to them. We must build on this basis! The central question must be posed clearly and without ambiguity: In order to begin to solve the problems of society, power must pass to the working class, to the COB, the juntas vecinales and other organs of workers' power." (our emphasis)
So there we have it. The assertion that we call for power to pass to the hands of the COB bureaucracy is simply a crude invention of Luis Oviedo. The question of power is a concrete question and must be posed in a concrete way. We set out from the really existing organizations of the workers and peasants - not from abstractions. The organizations that actually exist in Bolivia, that have led the struggle, and to which millions of workers and peasants are looking, are the ones named above.
The PO does not like this. It wants something else. What does it want? That the workers of Bolivia should forget about their organizations and accept the leadership of the PO? That would be very nice, but there is unfortunately no sign of them doing it. So we are regrettably compelled to follow the method of Lenin and Trotsky and put forward transitional slogans that take into account the real situation in Bolivia.
This was always the method of the great Marxists of the past, starting with Marx and Engels. Only by combining firmness on principles with great tactical flexibility, gradually Marx and Engels won over the majority of the International Workers' Association. In a letter to Engels, Marx explained that he had to use extreme tactfulness, especially when combating the prejudices of the British trade unionists. In a marvellously appropriate phrase, Marx said that he was always "mild in manner, but bold in content." That sums up the approach of Marxists when working in reformist workers' organizations. How different to the shouting and bawling of the ultra-left groups who imagine that their arguments are more convincing if they are always expressed at full volume.
Lula, Chavez, the piqueteros and other matters…
With the kind of insistence we associate with a chimpanzee searching for fleas, Luis goes to extraordinary lengths to find fault with our article. With a final cry of triumph, he draws our attention to the fact that "in their long analysis of the Bolivian events, Alan Woods fails to say a single word about the role played by Lula."
Very true. Nor do we mention the role played by George Bush, Tony Blair, Chavez, Nelson Mandela, or the Pope. This may be regrettable, but, as they say, "every vegetable has its season". We have dealt with Lula before and will deal with Lula again. And when we do so, we will make the same criticisms of Lula's reformist policies, his capitulation to the bourgeoisie and the IMF that we have made many times before, as part of our general tendency towards "slavishly following the existing leaderships" and "reverential respect for the bureaucratic leaderships."
But Luis Oviedo really plums the depths when he writes: "apart from maintaining reverential respect for bureaucracy tops: they are pro-Chavez in Venezuela, partisans of Lula in Brazil, they are with the CTA (and against the piqueteros) in Argentina."
The argument that we are "pro-Chavez" and "partisans of Lula" is equally false. We are for the Venezuelan revolution, but have repeatedly pointed out the limitations of Chavez's policy. We stand for socialist revolution in both Brazil and Venezuela. Anyone who takes the trouble to read our web site can easily see where we stand. Luis Oviedo does in fact read it, but apparently has not understood a single word of what he has read.
The case is even clearer in regard to the piqueteros. In every article we have written since the beginning of the Argentine revolution we have expressed our unreserved support for the piqueteros movement. That is why Oviedo does not produce a single quote to justify this absurd accusation, which, like all the rest, he has simply invented. What is true, however, is that we have criticized the tactics of the PO in relation to the piqueteros. The two things are not at all the same, unless Luis Oviedo considers the piqueteros movement to be the private property of the PO.
Every sectarian group wishes to create the illusion of its own mass movement. We see this in the case of the Piqueteros movement. Although the PO has done good work in building the movement, it plays a negative role in refusing to unite the piqueteros in one common organization. Objectively, the interests of the piqueteros is to unite; division is harmful to their interests and only serves the interests of the ruling class. The only reason why they remain divided is because the different political groups (not only the PO) insist on maintaining control of "their" piqueteros. This conduct is frankly lamentable. We said so and we repeat it. If this is construed as being "against the piqueteros" we can only shrug our shoulders. What is really against the piqueteros is the kind of tactic that subordinates the interests of the class to the prestige of this or that clique.
Of course, the PO is not exclusively to blame for this bad situation. The others act in just the same way, that is, bureaucratically, not as a genuinely revolutionary tendency would act. As a result, the movement now finds itself in an impasse. This is partly a result of the tiredness of the masses, who see no way out. But it is also a result of the false policies and tactics of the leadership, who have been incapable of putting forward a serious perspective and have pursued incorrect slogans and tactics. These same incorrect tactics, slogans and methods they now seek to export to other countries in Latin America.
What the PO really objects to
What the PO really objects to is the criticism we make in our article of the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. Yet Luis Oviedo does not even mention this. Why is that? Could it be that there are members of the PO who are beginning to understand that this slogan is incorrect, that it has no relevance to the situation in Argentina today, never mind Bolivia? Could it also be that the members of the PO are reading In Defence of Marxism and can see that the criticisms we have made of this false and dangerous slogan have been shown to be correct? And could it also be that the PO leaders, who are clearly not capable of engaging in an honest political discussion, are trying to drive a wedge between their rank and file and ourselves by a campaign of lies and slanders?
Since comrade Luis has forgotten to quote what we wrote on this subject, let us remind him by reproducing it in full:
"The old state power, undermined, shaken and bruised, still remains in control. The revolution can only succeed by overthrowing it and replacing it with a new, proletarian power. The fall of Lozada will be followed in the not-too-distant future by the fall of Mesa. Already the bourgeoisie will be looking for an alternative candidate, who will have to come, not from the right but the left. In its dealings with the masses, the ruling class only has two weapons: violence or deceit. But violence has already shown itself to be inadequate to deal with a movement of such dimensions. The use of the army, far from intimidating the people, had the opposite effect - provoking the masses to move with even greater determination and energy.
"The stage is therefore set for deception. But in order to deceive the people, to get them to leave the streets, mines and factories and leave the initiative in the hands of the professional politicians, it is necessary to offer them something they can believe in. The old, discredited bourgeois politicians are useless for this purpose. New faces must be put forward, and a new script written. In order to ensure that the masses do not lay their hands on the real power, they must be offered the semblance of power - a shadow instead of the substance.
"Conscious of their weakness, the bourgeoisie will try to lean on the leaders of the working class in order to regain control of the situation and pacify the working class. Mesa - clearly not the stupidest of the bourgeois leaders, has addressed meetings of peasants together with leaders of the peasant unions and the COB. This fact is, in itself, a tacit recognition of the real class balance of forces. The workers should draw the conclusion and take power into their own hands. Given the present position, there is every possibility that the transfer of power could be achieved peacefully, or with a minimum of violence. But vacillations will give time for the reaction to regroup and reorganise, making future bloodshed inevitable.
"In this context, the slogan of the 'Constituent Assembly' that has been advanced by some groups on the left is playing a negative and counterrevolutionary role. The bourgeoisie - in the person of its 'liberal' and 'democratic' wing - will try to deceive the people by an empty discussion of constitutional niceties, while the real issues of work, land and bread are postponed indefinitely.
"Instead of concentrating on the central question of power, the workers' and peasants' attention will be distracted by lawyers' tricks and demagogy. The energies of the revolution will be fruitlessly dissipated. No wonder the bourgeois parties have enthusiastically embraced this demand! The whole thing is a gigantic swindle. Worse still, it is dangerous. Behind the façade of the 'Constituent Assembly', the forces of reaction will be mobilising. Behind the scenes, the American imperialists will be carrying on their usual intrigues.
"It is necessary to educate the masses to believe only in themselves, their power and self-organisation. It must be explained that under capitalism parliament is only a hollow shell with no real power. The only power that exist is, on the one side, the power of the bankers, landowners and capitalists - the old reactionary power that must be overthrown - and on the other, the power of the working masses.
"The struggle for power will ultimately be settled outside parliament. The antagonisms in Bolivian society are too deep, the contradictions too sharp, to be settled by parliamentary arithmetic. If we lose the initiative, if we allow our strength to falter, if we demobilise, the forces of reaction will gather behind the façade of 'parliamentary democracy' and wait for a suitable moment to strike and crush the workers and peasants.
"The worst thing one can do in a revolution is to waste time. Throughout history many revolutions have been ruined by endless debates and speeches and the pursuit of phantoms and shadows instead of the substance of power. Marx pointed this out as early as 1848-49, and Lenin often repeated this warning in 1917.
"We will not repeat here the arguments we have already explained against the Constituent Assembly slogan in relation to Argentina. Suffice it to say that this slogan has been dragged by the hair out of the history of Russian Bolshevism without the slightest understanding of its real content. The Constituent Assembly slogan is not a socialist but a bourgeois-democratic slogan that is useful in the case of the struggle against an autocratic or dictatorial regime (like Russian Tsarism). But Bolivia (like Argentina) has a bourgeois parliamentary regime, of which the masses have had plenty of experience. The slogan therefore has no relevance to the present situation in Bolivia.
"Those who advocate the Constituent Assembly in the present situation in Bolivia have abandoned the standpoint of the proletariat and adopted that of vulgar petty bourgeois democrats and parliamentary cretinism.
"Parliamentary cretinism is a fatal disease of the revolution - playing at parliamentarism and constitutions - and this is just what the supporters of the Constituent Assembly slogan are inviting the Bolivian workers to do. This is not a serious revolutionary policy but a shameful diversion and a frivolous attempt to avoid the central question, which is not to fight for a new form of bourgeois democracy, but to fight for workers power!
"The first condition is: absolute independence of the workers' organisations from the bourgeoisie: no pacts, alliances, coalitions or any other entanglements with the so-called progressive wing of the Bolivian bourgeois.
"The elements of workers' power already exist in Bolivia: in the trade unions, the juntas vecinales, cabildos, and other organs of struggle. It is necessary to develop and extend these and link them up. Only in this way can an alternative power be created, ready to lead the nation."(Bolivia - The key to the Andean revolution)
Finally, so that there is no confusion possible concerning our position on Bolivia, we reproduce our demands with which we conclude the article:
Long live the Bolivian revolution! No trust in the bourgeoisie and its parties! For a Workers' and Peasants' Government! For a Socialist Bolivia in a Socialist United States of Latin America! Our position concerning the objective tasks of the Bolivian revolution are therefore clear and not open to any doubt. What about the position advocated by the PO?
Once again, on the slogan of the Constituent Assembly
A squid, when fleeing from an enemy, ejects a large quantity of ink in the hope that its pursuer will be confused and lose its way. But it takes more than a little ink to throw us off the track, and so we will now return to the central issue, which is the reason why the Constituent Assembly (CA) slogan, in the given context, is counterrevolutionary. Luis Oviedo has clearly adopted the celebrated dictum of Winston Churchill: The best form of defence is to attack. The leaders of the PO have been stung by our use of the word "counterrevolutionary" in relation to the slogan of the CA in Bolivia and have tried to throw it back in our faces - without much success.
Our position on Bolivia is not very different to our position on Argentina: we stand for socialist revolution and the transfer of power to the working class through the medium of committees of action (soviets). These committees exist in embryonic form. It is necessary to build them, unite them, strengthen them and broaden them, linking them up on a local, regional and national basis, to the point when they can constitute an alternative power to the capitalist regime. There is no doubt about this, since we have repeated it many times.
Our position is quite clear, despite the attempts of Luis Oviedo and the PO leadership to falsify it and present it to their members in a distorted manner. But what is the position of the PO? Do they advocate the conquest of power by the working class? In theory, yes, but in practice the situation is not so clear. The problem consists in the slogan that the PO has invented and foisted upon the movement in Argentina and now wishes to foist on the Bolivian working class also. That is the false and dangerous slogan of the Constituent Assembly.
This slogan did not emerge naturally from the movement, but has been artificially injected into it by groups, beginning with the PO, that have entirely misunderstood the lessons of the Russian revolution and the position of the Bolshevik Party in 1917-18. Now, for reasons of prestige, they find themselves unable to abandon this wretched slogan and are trying to present it as a panacea, valid for all cases. This is a complete disaster for the revolutionary movement, especially in Latin America. We repeat, in the given conditions in Latin America, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly is incorrect, misleading and objectively has a completely counterrevolutionary content.
The position of the PO on Bolivia is, to put it mildly, confused, and the origin of the confusion is the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. On the one hand, the PO has called for a "workers' and peasants' government for Bolivia". On the other hand they persist in dragging in the Constituent Assembly, which has nothing to do with the real problems posed before the workers movement in Bolivia. Trinchera is the paper of the Oposición Trotskyista, the PO group in Bolivia. In Trinchera, (La Paz, October 2003, Fuera Goni, el gringo asesino) we read the following: "We cannot remain in mere constitutionalism and opt for a "chavista" way out. Faced with the withdrawal of Goni we, the workers, must have our own perspective, a Free and Sovereign Constituent Assembly. Not called by any parliament, but on its ashes. With the dissolution of the repressive army."
Again, the PO leader Jorge Altamira writes in Prensa Obrera (PO 821, 16 October, 2003): "In order that there should be a sovereign constituent assembly, it is necessary that the masses should defeat the government and that their organizations take power." Here one confusion is heaped upon another. If the masses are strong enough to overthrow the government and their organizations are capable of taking power into their hands, why should they then use this power to convene a constituent assembly, which is a bourgeois parliament?
La Trinchera says that the constituent assembly must "not be called by any parliament, but on its ashes", but a constituent assembly is itself a parliament - a democratic parliament based on free elections - neither more nor less. Under certain circumstances, this bourgeois-democratic slogan would be appropriate and revolutionary. But not in a situation where the working class is in a position to take power and initiate the socialist revolution - the only revolution that is conceivable for Bolivia - or Argentina. In such a situation, the slogan of the constituent assembly is a step back - not forward. It implies that there is another stage before us: a democratic stage. That is to say, it implies a new version of the old Stalinist-Menshevik theory of two stages that has led to one defeat after another.
But maybe all this is hair-splitting? Maybe what the comrades of the PO really mean by the constituent assembly is a national assembly of workers' councils (soviets)? To this we answer: it is unworthy of a Marxist tendency to adopt confused and ambiguous slogans at any time. But in the middle of a revolution it is a crime. If comrade Altamira means to speak of a national congress of soviets of workers and poor peasants, why does he not say so clearly? Why confuse two things that are not only different but fundamentally antagonistic and incompatible? The direct rule of the working class through the soviets is infinitely more democratic than any parliament.
Bourgeois parliamentarism - even in its most democratic guise - is incompatible with the rule of soviets (workers' power). The lesson of the German revolution of 1918 is very clear in that respect. Let us recall that it was not Lenin or Luxemburg but the revisionist Hilferding who tried to mix up the constituent assembly with the soviets, when it was clear that one thing or the other must triumph. In the end, thanks to the Social Democrats, bourgeois parliamentarism liquidated the workers' councils - and therefore also the revolution.
When we wrote that this slogan, in the context of the Bolivian revolution was counterrevolutionary, what did we mean? Only this - that in a situation where the bourgeoisie is threatened with losing everything, and where they are unable to resort immediately to a reactionary coup, (as is the case in Bolivia), they will attempt to defeat the revolution by other means. They will aim to achieve the counterrevolution by democratic means. That is why it is utterly impermissible for Marxists in Bolivia to adopt confused and ambiguous positions that blur the idea of the socialist revolution. Such ambiguities can destroy the revolution.
The slogan of the CA is not a socialist but a bourgeois democratic demand. It would be appropriate for a semi-feudal regime where bourgeois democracy was absent, like tsarist Russia or China in the 1930s. It would even have been appropriate for Argentina in the period of the fight against the Junta. But in a country where the institutions of bourgeois democracy already exist, and have existed for some time, it has no sense at all. It spreads the illusion that the masses can find a solution for their problems under capitalism, that there is another stage (a democratic stage) before the working class can take power into its hands, that what we must change is not the system but only the legal, parliamentary regime.
In effect, the PO says to the people of Argentina and Bolivia: the present parliamentary system is corrupt, so we must have another, different parliamentary system instead. Then all would be solved. But this is not the case. It is quite true that the parliamentary regimes in Argentina and Bolivia (and in the USA and Britain too) are corrupt and do not represent the interests of the people. But it is useless to speak of another type of bourgeois democratic regime that would be different to this. This is to approach democracy from the standpoint of idealism, not Marxism. As long as the bourgeoisie owns and controls the means of production, the parliamentary system, even in the most democratic capitalist regimes, will always be distorted, corrupt and under the control of the big banks and monopolies. That is what we must explain to the workers, beginning with the advanced elements.
Does this mean that Marxists are indifferent to democratic demands? By no means! We will always fight for the most advanced democratic demands insofar as they have the slightest revolutionary or progressive content. The fight for democracy - that is, for bourgeois democracy, is progressive as long as it is directed against an autocratic or dictatorial regime. It is in the interests of the working class to develop and extend democracy in order to establish the widest field of action for the class struggle. That is why in Spain in 1976 we advocated a revolutionary Constituent Assembly as an alternative to the Franco dictatorship and the reactionary monarchy of Juan Carlos.
Even in democratic capitalist countries like Britain certain democratic demands retain their validity, such as the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the struggle against the reactionary anti trade-union legislation that places severe restrictions on the right to strike. The British Marxists have always understood the need to make use of all democratic avenues open to us, including parliament, to the degree that this is possible. But we have never had any illusions that, in the last analysis, the ruling class will never give up power without a struggle, and that the question of power will be decided outside of parliament.
But Bolivia is not Britain. The contradictions in Bolivia have reached such an acute point that the question of power is posed point-blank. The workers and poor peasants have shown their determination to change society. The revolution rapidly acquired a sweep and an élan that recalled the heroic movement of the Spanish workers in the period 1930-37. There is no doubt that they had the power in their hands, but did not realise it. Therefore a most favourable opportunity was lost.
What is the reason for this setback? There was no objective reason why the workers of Bolivia could not have taken power. Let us go further: there was no objective reason why the COB itself could not have taken power into its own hands - despite the fact that such a development would for some reason not have been to the liking of the PO. The reason was not objective but subjective - the lack of a revolutionary party and a revolutionary leadership. This fact was even acknowledged by one of the leaders of the COB.
The central task is therefore to unite the best elements of the COB and the youth into a revolutionary party or tendency with clear ideas - a tendency that places the question of workers' power firmly in the centre, that convinces the workers that they have sufficient strength to conquer power and must not renounce this objective. The proletarian vanguard must be steeled and resolute and must not allow itself to be sidetracked by the "clever" arguments of the petty bourgeois elements who will try to divert its attention away from the question of power into all sorts of complicated lawyers' schemes and tricks.
The Bolivian ruling class first tried to crush the revolution by force, but this only had the effect of angering the workers and pushing them to even greater militancy. Feeling the power slip out of their hands the ruling class therefore decided to change course. They could not resort to violence and therefore decided to use trickery. The same process has been seen in every revolution in history. And woe betide the revolutionary party that allows itself to be fooled by such trickery at the decisive moment!
In 1848 Marx and Engels poured scorn on those "revolutionary democrats" who wasted time debating constitutions and laws and thus derailed and destroyed the revolution. It is sufficient to quote Marx on the Frankfurt Assembly to prove the point.
The Constituent Assembly slogan played a progressive role in Russia in the period up to November 1917, together with other transitional demands such as Peace, Bread and Land, the Right to Self-Determination, and, above all, All Power to the Soviets. But by treating this slogan as an absolute, appropriate for every country and situation, the PO leadership turns it into its opposite, in fact, into a complete nonsense. The CA slogan is not something outside time and space. As a matter of fact, even in Russia, where it was appropriate, it became counterproductive and counterrevolutionary after November 1917, which was why the Bolsheviks abolished it by force. Now, decades later, the PO has fished this slogan out of the dustbin of history, dusted it down, and are parading it proudly, like a little boy with new shoes. Not content with putting it forward in Argentina - and moreover making it their main slogan - they are now advancing it as a kind of cure-all for the whole of Latin America - and beyond!
It is quite astonishing that the leaders of the PO should get themselves in such a mess, when it is perfectly clear that the slogan of the CA is a bourgeois democratic slogan that is quite inappropriate for a country where a regime of bourgeois parliamentarianism already exists. They have dragged in this slogan by the hair, and tried to impose it in a situation where it has not the slightest meaning or relevance. It is therefore only a diversion from the real tasks of the revolution. In this sense it plays a negative and counterrevolutionary role.
The counterrevolution can take place in more than one way. It does not necessarily mean the implantation of a military dictatorship. History knows many examples where the counterrevolution has been carried out in a democratic form. That is what the bourgeoisie and US imperialism are now aiming for in Bolivia. In these calculations the idea of a Constituent Assembly acts as a diversion that plays into the hands of the reactionaries and diverts the attention of the masses from the real tasks of the revolution. It is the perfect vehicle for bringing about the counterrevolution in a democratic guise, as happened with the Weimer Republic in Germany after the Revolution of 1918.
Here we ask a very direct question to the PO: if the CA slogan is so revolutionary, why has it been adopted by bourgeois politicians in Bolivia? That is a fact. Moreover, it has even been accepted by the representative of the IMF in the country. Why? The answer is clear: because it is harmless and it poses no threat to the established order or to imperialism. The bourgeoisie, faced with the revolutionary movement of the workers and poor peasants, tried to resort to violence, and failed. The masses brushed aside the forces of the state and moved to take power. By accepting this slogan, the bourgeoisie can gain time, allowing the movement of the masses to run out of steam and cool off, while wasting its energies in the kind of legalistic and constitutional discussions that Marx criticised so bitterly in 1848. It is really incredible that the PO have not understood this.
It is very easy to slander and falsify ideas in a few lines, but not so easy to provide serious answers to serious questions. We have answered the accusations of Luis Oviedo at some length because we want to put the record straight before the members of the PO and the entire Left of Latin America. A mistaken method and policy will sooner or later catch up with you. All of the gains of the PO will quickly be reduced to nothing if the party leadership is not willing to accept that it has made mistakes. Such behaviour is a recipe for internal crises and splits in the future.
The overriding consideration here is not political clarification but only considerations of prestige and the desire to maintain at all costs the impression of the infallibility of the leadership. This is very bad and can undo all the good work that the PO members have done in the past period unless it is corrected. The leaders of the PO seem to be organically incapable of admitting their mistakes. Instead, they try to cover up the tracks by attacking others. This would not perhaps be so bad if they used honest methods in their polemics, but unfortunately this is not the case.
The method used by Luis Oviedo in replying to our article is alien to the democratic and honest methods of Marxism and Bolshevism. It consists of throwing out a whole series of isolated quotations, torn from their context and arbitrarily selected to mislead and falsify. With such methods, it is impossible to educate the members of the PO. Rather they will be systematically miseducated in a sectarian sense. Mistakes in theory will inevitably be reflected in practice. We can already see this in Argentina. The Left in Argentina (not only the PO) was soundly defeated in the presidential elections because they failed to unite in a common campaign. The working class did not have a common Left candidate to vote for. They therefore concluded that the Left was not serious, and acted accordingly. They said to themselves: these people talk about the need for socialist revolution, but they are not even capable of agreeing on a joint candidate or programme to fight the bourgeois parties in an election. And this criticism is quite justified.
The attitude of Marxists to parliament will depend upon objective circumstances. In a period when the masses look towards parliament it is necessary to participate in the electoral struggle as one more field of the class struggle. The boycotting of elections in such a situation is childish ultra-leftism. It would mean, in effect, boycotting ourselves. The vacillations of the PO on the question of participating in the elections in Argentina were one of the reasons - in addition to its mistaken tactics and perspectives for the movement - for its losses in the recent period. A mistaken policy must be paid for.
The inability to answer criticisms and differences in a democratic and comradely way will undermine the party and prevent it developing beyond a certain limit. All internal differences and criticisms will be stifled and silenced. This means that all the good work done by the members will be undone sooner or later. A serious revolutionary party will always be prepared to honestly admit its mistakes and rectify them. A party that is never willing to admit its mistakes will go from one defeat to another. This is not a little detail!
The task of building a serious mass revolutionary party in Argentina is still in its early stages. The majority of the Argentine workers, insofar as they are organized at all, are still under the leadership of reformist or Peronist elements in the CTA or the CGT. By exaggerating their own strength, the PO loses sight of the enormity of the tasks that lie ahead. In this way, they miseducate their members and end up pursuing a false policy. Already the electoral defeat has caused demoralization and confusion among many activists on the Left. An open and democratic debate is necessary to correct the mistakes and prevent them from being repeated. The leadership should not fear such a debate, but welcome it. A leadership that fears debate is a bankrupt leadership that will never build a mass revolutionary party in a thousand years.
The International is the world party of the working class. For Marxists the party is first and foremost programme, methods, ideas and traditions. The party (and therefore the International) must be built on strong foundations. It must be based on a clear and unambiguous acceptance of the ideas, method and traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Otherwise, you will be building on sand. Those, like the PO, who imagine they have found a short cut to success by ignoring principles, ideas and theory, will soon find that they are in a mess. Unwillingness to correct mistakes or listen to criticism will only hasten the inevitable crisis. The more the organization grows, the bigger the crisis will be when it arrives.
Despite its earlier successes, the PO is clearly experiencing difficulties. Its perspectives for the revolution in Argentina have been falsified. It received a severe rebuff in the elections as a reward for its vacillating policy and sectarian tactics that split the left vote. All this has created a growing discontent and criticism within the PO itself. It is not difficult to see that a layer of the organization is becoming aware of the inadequacies and mistakes of the party leadership on a number of questions - including its mistake on the slogan of the Constituent Assembly - and is reading the material of our tendency that is published daily on Marxist.com and the website of El Militante. This explains the desperate efforts of comrade Oviedo to attack our tendency.
As our tendency becomes better known, all the attempts to slander us and falsify our ideas will backfire on their authors. The genuine cadres of Marxism in Latin America will find their way to the real inheritors of the mantle of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International.
We invite all members of the PO, and all others who wish to fight for the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, to enter into a comradely dialogue with us. Do not depend on the false interpretations of your leaders! If you wish to know the truth, contact us and find out for yourself!