Between Pro-Fascism and Left-Populism: Reading Loren Goldner on the Bolivian MNR

Three Way Fight


I recently read Loren Goldner’s 2011 article on Bolivia’s Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) and I think it has a lot to offer for ThreeWayFight readers. The title is a mouthful: “Anti-Capitalism or Anti-Imperialism? Interwar Authoritarian and Fascist Sources of a Reactionary Ideology: The Case of the Bolivian MNR.” Since the article is over 27,000 words (plus footnotes), I will try to summarize some of its main points here, but I encourage people to read the original. (The article appeared in Insurgent Notes #3 but is available in more readable format as a PDF from Goldner’s website, Break Their Haughty Power. All page numbers below refer to the PDF version.)

1. The MNR was formed in 1941/42 and took power in the 1952 Revolution. Although few North Americans remember that event today, it was one of the most important political upheavals in 20th century Latin American history. The armed working class dissolved the army and installed a new MNR government, which quickly nationalized the holdings of the big tin producers (Bolivia’s main export), established universal suffrage, broke up big land holdings, and abolished peonage labor in the countryside. But as Goldner shows, the MNR was founded by Nazi sympathizers and was originally an antisemitic, pro-Axis party. Its path from there to the 1952 Revolution was “a prime example of the recycling of proto-fascist and fascist ideologies of the interwar period in ‘progressive’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ form after 1945” (12).

2. The MNR didn’t simply move from the right to the left — it combined fascistic and left-populist politics in ways that shifted and changed. Its 1942 program, written when Hitler’s power was at its height, denounced “the maneuvers of Judaism” as “anti-national” and called for an “absolute prohibition of Jewish immigration, as well as any other immigration not having productive efficacy.” Yet that same year MNR head Víctor Paz Estenssoro strongly supported the Catavi miners’ strike and condemned a government massacre of miners and their families. By the early 1950s, the MNR had long abandoned its anti-Jewish language and pro-Axis stance, largely due to U.S. pressure. But a 1953 book by one of the party’s leading intellectuals, Carlos Montenegro, offered a vision of all “national” classes unified against the “foreign” elite, in terms that borrowed directly from Oswald Spengler’s racial theory.

3. Goldner (who is a friend) has long been critical of populist anti-imperialism and of leftists who embrace it. He writes here, “contrary to what contemporary complacent leftist opinion in the West thinks, there is a largely forgotten history of reactionary populist and ‘anti-imperialist’ movements in the underdeveloped world that do not shrink from mobilizing the working class to achieve their goals. This little-remembered background is all the more important for understanding the dynamics of the left-populist governments which have emerged in Latin America since the 1990’s” (1-2).

4. The Great Depression and rise of radical workers movements spurred many Latin American ruling classes to remake their political systems, away from traditional oligarchic regimes based on classical liberalism and limited suffrage, toward various forms of state-corporatism based on mass politics. Cardenas’s Mexico, Peron’s Argentina, and Vargas’s Brazil are all examples of this. (Corporatism refers to a formalized system of “social partnership” between representatives of different classes and economic sectors that is sanctioned or imposed by the state.)

5. The MNR emerged from a broader Bolivian nationalist-populist current that advocated a cross-class alliance of all true Bolivians against foreign influence and control. This current blended influences from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship in Spain, and Italian and German fascism. In a context where “democracy” was identified with brutal capitalist rule and subservience to Angle-American imperialism, many middle-class Bolivians – including left-leaning ones – liked the idea of an anti-liberal alternative that emphasized national unity and strength. The fact that one of Bolivia’s three major tin barons, Mauricio Hochschild, was Jewish meant that populist anti-elitism could easily be channeled into Jew hatred.

6. Germany’s influence on Bolivian populism was especially strong. In Bolivia as in much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, many members of the local elite admired Germany as a model of national development that challenged the dominant imperialist powers economically, militarily, and culturally. Goldner traces Bolivian populist nationalism back to the writer and politician Franz Tamayo (1878-1956), who developed a paternalistic celebration of indigenous Bolivian culture — based on German romantic race theory. In the decades before World War II, many Bolivian students studied at German universities and often absorbed German rightist ideas. Right-wing German officers also came to Bolivia as military advisers – most notably Ernst Roehm, founder and leader of Hitler’s stormtroopers, who served in Bolivia from 1928 to 1930 and briefly joined the Bolivian General Staff.

7. Bolivia’s traumatic defeat in the Chaco War against Paraguay (1932-1935), like Germany’s defeat in World War I, created a protracted crisis that fueled the growth of fascist-influenced political forces. These included Razon de Patria (RADEPA), a secret organization formed by junior army officers released from Paraguayan POW camps, and the newspaper La Calle, founded in 1936, which “became an organ for German fascist propaganda and virulent anti-Semitism” (43) and included several future leaders and intellectuals of the MNR.

8. Between 1936 and 1952, control of Bolivia’s government shifted back and forth between populist nationalists and traditional forces representing the mine owners (known as “La Rosca”). David Toro and German Busch’s “military socialism” (1936-1939) borrowed elements from Italian fascism (such as “a corporate type of regime in parliament, mandatory worker savings plans, a social security system, and state-subsidized food stores” [42]) and was friendly with Nazi Germany. So was the government of Gualberto Villarroel (1943-1946), which included RADEPA and the MNR, until Washington forced Villarroel to declare war on the Axis and fire MNR cabinet members in mid 1944. Yet these pro-Axis governments also endorsed labor unionization and took at least formal steps to address indigenous rights and problems facing peasants. During the years when the pro-U.S. forces of La Rosca were in control, repression against workers and peasants was much harsher.

9. During the 1940s, Bolivia’s main Stalinist party, the Party of the Revolutionary Left (PIR), developed a close alliance with the mine owners under the banner of anti-fascist unity – to the point where PIR militants took part in murderous repression of workers. Partly for this reason, Bolivia was one of the few countries in the world where Trotskyism (centered in the Revolutionary Workers Party, or POR) became the dominant current in the working class. The head of the mineworkers’ federation, Juan Lechin, developed close ties with both the POR and the MNR in the 1940s, and held an important cabinet post in the 1952 revolutionary government. Goldner argues that both Lechin and the POR provided far-left cover to the MNR during the 1952 Revolution, restraining the working class from more radical action and enabling the MNR to consolidate a new state apparatus. (The MNR responded with large-scale arrests of POR members within two years.)

10. The 1952 Revolution modernized Bolivian capitalism but did not transform social relations for the mass of Bolivians in any fundamental way. The workers and peasants who took up arms to bring about change ended up disempowered by new bureaucratic structures, such as the new government-owned mining corporation, COMIBOL. The United States could not use a military coup to overthrow the MNR because the army had disintegrated, so instead it pumped in lots of aid, and the new government willingly let itself be co-opted. Within a few years, the Bolivian revolution’s radical momentum – and any larger threat to U.S. power in the region – had been neutralized.

11. The MNR transformed itself from an openly racist, pro-fascist organization to a left-nationalist party that received substantial U.S. aid. But, Goldner argues, its core ideology and program did not change. Before and after, it promoted an “irreducible, anti-universalist ‘Bolivianness,’ counterposed to everything ‘foreign'” (78), in order to rally all classes behind its project to modernize the capitalist nation-state. The leftists who hoped to push it in a more radical, socialist direction fell into a mistake that “has been employed again and again, from Bolivia under the MNR to Algeria under the FLN to Mitterand’s France to the Iranian mullahs after 1979. The far-left groups in question see themselves in the role of Lenin’s Bolsheviks to Kerensky’s Provisional Government, when in fact their role is to enlist some of the more radical elements in supporting or tolerating an alien project which sooner or later co-opts or, even worse, represses and sometimes annihilates them” (99).

* * *

This account of the MNR highlights the continuities between fascism and other forms of populism. It belies simplistic conceptions of the political spectrum where fascism, imperialism, and ruling-class repression are lumped together on the right; while working-class militancy, anti-imperialism, and popular movements converge neatly on the left.

The early MNR (in both its pro-Axis phase and during the 1952 Revolution) shared with classical fascism a belief that national unity transcended all other loyalties, and that the nation must be reborn out of a deep crisis by purging “foreign” influences. Like fascism, the MNR spoke to real popular grievances, offering a twisted anti-elitism that defined the oppressors not as an integral part of the existing social order but as an alien intrusion. This could include scapegoating Jews (as in the original MNR program) but did not require it. Like fascists (despite standard leftist claims to the contrary), the MNR challenged direct capitalist control of the state and advanced policies that clashed with big business’s immediate interests, yet remained committed to an exploitative economic system.

On the other hand, the early MNR’s close relationship with organized labor and progressive measures such as land reform set it apart from classical fascism. Above all the MNR apparently did not share classical fascism’s drive to establish a totalitarian state, in which all spheres of society would be forcibly subordinated to one ideological vision. In this sense, the MNR’s challenge to the established social order was much more limited than fascism’s.

Goldner’s portrayal of the MNR fits with the idea of fascism as one of various strategies for modernizing capitalist nation-states. This is a useful piece of the picture to explore, although fascism is never just this, and arguably has the potential to break with capitalism more fundamentally.

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