Introduction: A Bolivian Marxist Seduced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

1. Stathis Kouvelakis, “Greece: Phase One,” interview by Sebastian Budgen, January 22, 2015.
2. Pablo Iglesias, interview by Matteo Pucciarelli, Verso Books, trans. David Broder, December 23, 2014; Dan Hancox, “Why Ernesto Laclau is the Intellectual Figurehead for Syriza and Podemos,” The Guardian, February 9, 2014. Laclau and Anderson – a curious cocktail.
3. Biografía,” Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional, accessed February 14, 2015.
4. Sven Harten, “Towards a ‘Traditional Party’? Internal Organization and Change in the MAS in Bolivia,” in Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia: The First Term in Context, 2006-2010, ed. Adrian J. Pearce (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2011): 78-80. Álvaro García Linera joined the party in 2005 at the request of Morales in order to become his running mate. He was only one of a large cohort of urban mestizo intellectuals (not identifying as indigenous per se) to join during the 2004-5 period after MAS decentralized its candidate rolls and opened them to those outside the Cocalero syndical movement. This influx of urban intellectuals likewise permitted the entry into the party of candidates who had only recently ran on other party lines, in effect latching onto MAS’s rising fortunes with little or no sympathy for their platform.
5. For the general theoretical underpinning of this claim, see James Clifford, “Indigenous Articulations,” The Contemporary Pacific 13, no. 2 (2001): 467–90. For various indigenous political articulations in Bolivia, see Xavier Albó, “From MNRista to Katarista to Katari”, in Resistance, Rebellions, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World: 18th to 20th Centuries, ed. Steve J. Stern. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987): 379-419.
6. Robert Albro, “The Indigenous in the Plural in Bolivian Oppositional Politics,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 24, no. 4 (October 1, 2005): 436.
7. Robert Cavooris, “From Subaltern to State: Toward a Left Critique of the Pink Tide,” Viewpoint 4 (October 2014).
8. In part as a result of his vice-presidential position, Linera has already received some attention from the Left in other parts of the world. Connections to the likes of Antonio Negri and Slavoj Žižek have lent him some notoriety, and he has somewhat regularly travelled the world to attend conferences such as New York’s Left Forum, and more recently, a French conference on the work of Nicos Poulantzas. Even so, without translation, García Linera’s theoretical universe and potential contributions were largely unknown. A single translation of a short 2005 article in New Left Review has been the primary work circulated in English. See Álvaro García Linera, “State Crisis and Popular Power,” New Left Review vol. 37. January and February 2006.
9. Álvaro García Linera, Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class, and Popular Identities in Bolivia, ed. Pablo Stefanoni, trans. Shana Yael Shubs et. al., (Boston: Brill, 2014).
10. Already, Stacey Alba D. Skar has published a translation of Raquel Gutiérrez’s Rhythms of Pachakuti – which offers a very different and very critical account of the MAS “process of change”: Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Indigenous Uprising and State Power in Bolivia, trans. Stacey Alba D. Skar (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014). Also, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui’s landmark work has been available in English for some time: Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900-1980 (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1987).
11. As part of the Historical Materialism book series, the paperback edition has different bibliographic information: Álvaro García Linera, Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class, and Popular Identities in Bolivia, ed. Pablo Stefanoni, trans. Shana Yael Shubs et al (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014).

Author of the article

is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective and a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.