Former Bolivian VP Álvaro García Linera on How Socialists Can Win

Álvaro García Linera
Nicolas Allen

Former vice president of Bolivia Álvaro García Linera sat down with Jacobin to discuss socialist strategy, how the Left can mobilize against antidemocratic forces like the right-wingers who recently executed a coup in Bolivia, and why democratic socialism means an "overflowing of democracy."

Álvaro García Linera, Buenos Aires, 2020. (Ariel Feldman)

Interview by
Martín Mosquera
Florencia Oroz

Former Bolivian vice president Álvaro García Linera is one of Latin America’s most distinguished intellectuals, and one of the region’s most experienced political actors. During his fourteen years at the helm of Bolivia’s plurinational government, he was responsible not only for designing much of Evo Morales’s political strategy but also for providing the theoretical foundations for the governing MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party.

During the 1980s, García Linera and others led the Marxist Túpac Katari Guerrilla Army; due to his political activity, he would spend much of his formative intellectual years behind bars, serving a five-year sentence for alleged involvement in an armed insurrection against the government of Jaime Paz Zamora. While serving time, García Linera dedicated himself to the study of Marx and Marxism and wrote his now classic Forma Valor Y Forma Comunidad.

García Linera’s intellectual influences are varied and eclectic: Marxism and indigenismo, the autonomist thought of Toni Negri and the democratic socialism of Nicos Poulantzas. By many accounts, García Linera is one of the Left’s most original thinkers — Latin American or otherwise.

Before returning to Bolivia where he would join Luis Arce at his presidential inauguration, García Linera sat down with the editors of Jacobin América Latina in Buenos Aires for a wide-ranging discussion, taking in the lessons learned from the recent coup in Bolivia, the state of the progressive governments in Latin America, and the broader political strategy of how best to pave a path toward a socialist future.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

We’d like to begin by talking about recent events in Bolivia. In your analysis of the 2019 coup, you have tended to focus on the role played by what you call “the traditional middle class” (as opposed to the new middle class formed under the MAS government). To what extent did Luis Arce’s victory in 2020 confirm or alter your original reading of the coup?

Álvaro García Linera

First of all, although coup d’états are always the machinations of small groups, their ultimate viability depends on other factors. They rely on broader social groups to enable the coup — a sector that can create a general willingness to break with constitutional order and democracy.

Within the conspiratorial group responsible for the 2019 coup, there was a distinct set of interests: military generals, a group of businessmen that bribed officers and troop commanders, Luis Almagro [of the Organization of American States — OAS], the State Department, members of the Catholic Church, and several former presidents. This core group orchestrated and united the forces necessary to carry out the act.

But the coup didn’t come out of nowhere: over the last four years, we have seen the growth of a social sector that is increasingly opposed to democracy. This group is, as you say, the traditional middle class in Bolivia. By spreading racialized language, on social media and other outlets, the traditional middle class created a climate favorable to what ended up being an armed, authoritarian overthrow.

This same social bloc is still present in Bolivia. They were out in front of the military barracks calling for another coup. They alleged fraud after the 2020 election results came in — for them, despite the absence of any evidence, if the Indians win it’s because voter fraud was committed. Of course, they were defeated and will continue to be defeated, because they are a minority, and a decadent one at that.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

Many people were surprised that the coup was not met with more resistance by popular forces and the MAS government. Is this not a repeat of Salvador Allende’s dilemma, namely, an excessive confidence in the “neutrality of the armed forces”? Put differently, since there will always be right-wing, imperialist coup attempts against popular governments, how should we confront conspiratorial actions like what took place in November 2019?

Álvaro García Linera

What happened in November 2019 was the military defeat of a national popular project. Conservative forces were mobilized to occupy cities and territories. The MAS government confronted that attempt in a noncoercive manner; it tried to encourage collective action that would act as a breakwater against the Right’s demonstrations. Our hope was that they would run out of steam.

Our response was political, and if the events leading up to the coup had remained at the political level, we would have been victorious. What we hadn’t taken into account — and this was our big political mistake — was that ultraconservative political forces would find support among the military. That was the true novelty of 2019. When they attempted to launch a coup in 2008, we deployed two tactics: first, political containment, attempting to isolate these forces until they were finally worn down; and second, we called on mass social mobilization to overwhelm them.

But before conservative forces could be weakened, they had reached out to the military and the police. And that did not figure into our calculations — that they would bribe the armed forces.

When they opted for the military option, we were given two choices: to call for mobilizations to confront the police and military, or not. That decision rests with the president. In those first days, on November 9 and 10, the president thought: “I’m not going to send my comrades to their death.” There was a conscious decision based on what was essentially a moral view. Hypothetically, we could have engaged in open confrontation, but there would have been heavy losses, including many deaths. So we decided not to mobilize and the president instead chose to resign.

The first lesson is precisely this: You have to politically neutralize these cells of operation. You have to try to defuse the underlying causes leading to the fascistic drift of these groups while still maintaining policies that favor equality. If you start to retreat on efforts that promote social equality and indigenous rights, you can no longer call yourself a progressive government. What you can do, though, is maintain policies of social mobility for the plebian and popular classes while simultaneously promoting mobility and rotation for the traditional middle class, thus offsetting their drift toward ultraconservatism.

The question of the police and military is a more complicated one. You can never stop a rich businessman from bribing them with millions of dollars. The military is there to stay and their power is guaranteed by the state. It has its own dynamics, but there should be policies in place to contain that — policies that respect the military’s institutional status while also creating an esprit de corps that is less susceptible to bribery and so is more in solidarity with the people’s interests. In a word, the class composition of the armed forces has to be altered.

In part, the military threw their weight behind the coup because, as the days passed, there was no social mobilization. It didn’t seem like a big issue to us at the time — we had seen plenty of similar attempts over the years. But the point is just that: don’t trust yourself or past experience. When the business class starts to conspire with military generals and begins to connect up with the more conservative traditional middle class, they need to be met with mass social mobilization.

I’m talking about a deeper social moral: we have to mobilize to defend what we have. We saw that reality put into practice in August 2020 [when MAS supporters carried out protests and road blockades to prevent the postponement of elections]. MAS called on social organizations and individuals to confront the military and police by exercising territorial control, just as happened in 2000.

The people — not the political leaders or the party — had grasped that a new wave of repression could only be combatted if we held territory. That was the source of our strength in August 2020: there was a practical and tactical knowledge deployed by society to prevent another massacre or bloody military operation by the coup instigators.

This type of collective knowledge needs to be reinforced and strengthened. It’s not so much a military matter, but rather how you create the tactical lessons for collective action against the threat of an armed conflict. In a country like Bolivia — with a large rural population, “impoverished urban sectors,” and only a sparsely organized working class in the industrial centers — it’s through collective organization that people have found a way to defend themselves. In the future, we must expand upon and improve this type of action to defuse military and police-led coups.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

How would you characterize the current political situation in Latin America? Although there appears to be a “new progressive cycle” underway, it also seems to be markedly more moderate and conciliatory than the previous one. Do you agree with that view?

Álvaro García Linera

I prefer to speak of waves rather than cycles, because “cycles” suggests determinism, whereas “waves” is more fluid and dynamic. Marx used the concept of waves in 1848 show that within a revolution there are movements, and that these come in waves.

We can’t expect this new wave to be a repetition of the first, for multiple reasons. For one, the resource boom is over and the last several years have seen an unprecedented economic recession. In addition to that, we are now dealing with a different cast of people, including new leaders.

But there is an even deeper issue in play: unlike the period from 2005 to 2015, when the Right was overwhelmed by the progressive wave, it is now starting to find a foothold —improvised and shortsighted, perhaps, but a foothold all the same. Its response is an antidemocratic one, a kind of violent, misogynistic, racist, and conservative neoliberalism.

Álvaro García Linera, Buenos Aires, 2020. (Ariel Feldman)

The Right had no meaningful solutions to the political and economic crises facing the region. It spent a decade giving the same set of neoliberal prescriptions, which no one at the time wanted to take. Today, the Right hasn’t actually changed, but it has accepted that it is facing a different enemy: the Pink Tide.

What that means is that we have now entered a new period of waves and counterwaves. The Pink Tide is fragmented today, but so is the conservative tide. The two sides will be locked in battle for some time. In that sense, it would be a mistake to suppose that the previously established progressive consensus will simply be reinstated as it was before. This is an impossible expectation because, in politics, all victories are temporary.

There is another matter to consider, too. In my view, we are living in a kind of suspended time right now. When we lack any kind of horizon, as we do now, there is no timeline, no arrow pointing toward some endpoint. Why do we lack this orientation? Because today everyone feels uncertain about virtually everything — if they’ll have a job tomorrow, if there will be another pandemic, and so on.

The scenario I’m describing is one in which politics becomes tactically intense and strategically suspended. Tactically, what should have taken ten years in Bolivia took place in one. A conservative cycle that should have played out over fourteen years in Argentina was over in four [the one-term presidency of Mauricio Macri]. The same goes for the current progressive cycle: we don’t know if it will last beyond the next four years. The same can be said of Bolivia: who knows if it will last two, four, or six years?

This strategic uncertainty is a novel element for the new progressive wave to deal with. In 2005, absent any conservative response, the progressive cycle seemed like the definitive replacement of neoliberalism. But today it is not the only project on offer — there is also the ultraconservative movement.

In a certain sense, what happened with Trump in the United States reveals the limits of a hate-driven conservative political discourse. The conservative neoliberalism of Trump is a stopgap, but so are all the other political projects available today. In the midst of such chaos, it is important that progressive projects be self-questioning, try to overcome their weaknesses, and build on what they have been doing right.

So, in other words, it is a false debate to argue over whether this is a new cycle or whether the previous one could be revived. Here, I think Bolivia offers a powerful lesson. In the midst of such chaos, the prospects for a progressive, left-wing project will depend on two things, one of which we’ve already discussed: there has to be a stage of collective action in place before any progressive project can take hold. The second is that this project must be one of popular power — not a project for the popular classes but of the popular classes.

Bolivia has taught us this: there may be coups and temporary setbacks, but you’ll win in the end, so long as the indigenous, popular government is the project of the subaltern sectors. If you’ve achieved that, you have plenty of historical fuel to work with. If you always keep in mind that it’s their project, their organization, and their capacity to make decisions on their own future, your enemies can throw up all the obstacles they want, but you’ll be able to rebound.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

There’s a longstanding debate about how popular governments in Latin America should deal with the dominant classes when they go on the offensive. Does it inevitably come down to making concessions in order to broaden one’s base of political support? Or, to the contrary, is it a matter of radicalizing the conflict in order to create more favorable conditions for defeating reactionary forces?

Álvaro García Linera

The issue of how to deal with the oligarchy is a complicated one. Revolutions that were accomplished through military feats have never had to deal with the question — military victory settles matters by simply dissolving the oligarchy. On the other hand, where it is a matter of political transformation by democratic elections, this is a problem that will persist all throughout your time in government, because you have to coexist with the business class. We need to be clear about that much: you have to coexist with them because such are the conditions of the way you came to power, and you don’t have the capacity to dissolve an entire social class. This is, simply put, the backdrop against which social and political transformation takes place in Latin America (and will continue to do so).

The idea of democratic socialism has to be conceived along these same lines. As long as social transformation has to follow the democratic electoral path, progressive governments have to find practical methods to coexist with the business sector. This is the case not just because that class enjoys constitutionally recognized resources and properties — it also possesses the capacity to drive development, and the mere nationalization of industries doesn’t solve the issue of the economic system. Nationalizing the means of production just puts things in the hands of a monopoly. The state is a monopoly — the monopoly of monopolies — whereas socialization is about democratizing the means of production.

The state can help to defend a process of social transformation and counteract certain business pressures, but these are just tactical, circumstantial measures. A progressive government can and should adopt these measures. And to do so — if it doesn’t want to be completely overwhelmed by existing economic powers — it will need a state that can control at least some part of GDP and can exercise certain measures: taxation, fiscal policy, investment, and, where necessary, nationalization.

The key moment for a progressive government is when it can assume enough economic strength to not be hemmed in by bigger economic powers. The state needs to control thirty percent of GDP. This allows one to engage with the business sector from a position of power rather than subordination. And should those sectors take to conspiratorial measures, they need to be met with countermeasures: you investigate their tax filings, property holdings, bank accounts, and so on.

Now, when can a progressive movement go beyond this kind of tactical coexistence? When society itself is capable of overrunning the business sector; when society at large — not a progressive government, not a party — seizes on the possibility of democratizing wealth. If society does not raise this demand, the government can only substitute one monopoly for another. The form will be different — not a private monopoly, but a monopoly of common resources. In fact, the state is this very duality: a monopoly of common goods.

If you nationalize sectors, those resources are common, but they belong to the state as a monopoly. You ultimately haven’t eliminated the distance between the worker and the means of production. The possibility of moving toward a different property regime depends on whether society can push for the social management of wealth. And that in turn depends on the workers of each sector (banking, industry, and so on) and on society as a whole. If they are willing to go in that direction, the role of a progressive government is to guide things and see that process through. So, to your question — should a progressive government move to destabilize the business class? — the answer is that they should, but only when society is headed in that direction.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

You’re emphasizing that social transformations ultimately emanate from civil society and not the state. This raises a thorny issue: if the radical scope of a progressive government’s project depends on a mobilized society, and if the state is in turn best left to deal exclusively with “affairs of the state,” isn’t society reduced in that vision to a sort of deus ex machina? According to this view, how can we expect civil society to remain mobilized and push for more radical transformations when the Left comes to power?

Álvaro García Linera

The state is a state of society: just as there is a liquid, a gas, and a solid state of matter, the state is a state of society. Thinking about the state in this way helps us to avoid instrumentalist, anti-statist, and certain naïve Marxist readings of the state. This goes hand-in-hand with Marx’s understanding of the state as an illusory community: it is a community, but it is illusory insofar as it is made up of monopolies — no matter how much that idea may seem like a paradox.

Anarchists and some Marxists will say that we shouldn’t take power, because power is already what a society possesses in common. But what do, say, the Argentine people really have in common? Everything they have in common is already in the state: a language, institutions, history, natural wealth, taxes, a health care system, rights, and so on. All of that is in the state, without being something that came from the state.

Now, the state centralizes all that is common, it appropriates it. The state is just that: the faculty for monopolizing and centralizing what comes from society. One cannot imagine the state beyond society because, as I said before, the state is a way of society’s being.

The strength as well as weakness of a state, materially speaking, is derived from society itself. In Latin America, resources were nationalized when society reached the conclusion that this is what was needed, because they belonged to Bolivians, Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, and so on. Before Evo, Correa, or Chávez, the people were already beginning to feel this way.

Eventually the government nationalizes industries and resources, and there is money to build schools and hospitals, to pay better wages, and so on. Things improve, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a monopoly running that improvement. There is no direct control of wealth except by a monopoly — one that the people may feel represented by, or can engage with, but a monopoly all the same. These are the margins that a progressive government must always work within.

True, there will always be a limited margin of autonomy for any government. A government that is rooted in the people will be more direct in its expansion of rights, the common good, nationalizations, and so on. But a progressive government of whatever stripe will always be riding the crest of a social wave.

This leads to a further question: Why can’t a progressive government push further? Why can’t they set out for the socialist horizon?

What does socialism even mean, in this case? Does it mean that we nationalize banking, companies, and industry? As it happens, that was never what socialism was about. When one looks back to 1917 or, further back, to the Paris Commune of 1871, we find the same Marxist idea: socialism is not nationalization. Socialism is not the democratization of access to goods but the democratization of control, ownership, use, and management of them.

So the question then becomes, How does one instill this community of goods? Through an executive decree? Obviously not, because a decree is something enforced by a bureaucracy or elite, even if that elite is popular, revolutionary, or what have you. But one thing we’ve learned from the social revolutions of the twentieth century is this: you can’t say, “I represent the working class.” I can’t attribute to myself the representation of the working class, or of women, or of the indigenous. The women’s movement will be carried forward by women, the indigenous movement by the indigenous, and the workers’ movement by the workers.

The twentieth century has shown you cannot supplant society with the state. So where does that leave us? A government can be pushed in a radical direction only when society itself rules that it needs to.

Will that break happen? We sure hope it will, because that’s the dream of democratic socialism. Democratic socialism isn’t a particular set of policies; it’s the possibility of a crescendo of social transformations coming together to achieve victory. It’s the idea of an overflowing of democracy: from the electoral realm to the state, from the state to the economy, to the factory, to the bank, money, property, and so on.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

Isn’t there a danger in overexaggerating the risks of a state-centric approach to politics? You seem to be suggesting that certain social forms — money, the market, value — cannot simply be changed by governmental decree or spontaneous nationalization, and that there needs to be a longer process of transformation.

But even if nationalization brings its own problems, aren’t these measures necessary in order to hold in check the kind of business pressures that can be used against the state? As Fred Block and others have put it, aren’t you left vulnerable to a “capital strike” if you don’t move decisively on capitalist monopolies? We’ve seen this problem arise with Allende in Chile and more recently in Venezuela, but also with much more moderate governments, where reform programs ultimately run up against the profit imperative. Doesn’t the stability of transformative processes ultimately depend on destabilizing the bourgeoisie as the dominant economic class?

Álvaro García Linera

Block’s focus is interesting because, unlike other Marxist interpretations, it considers a practical, real, concrete reality: when a progressive government comes to power, the capitalists as a class — without even talking among themselves — naturally tend to hide their money away.

But we’re supposing here that a left-wing or progressive government comes to power in a moment of capitalist stability, when the opposite is the case. They emerge during moments of crisis — that is, when capitalists are not spending or hiring, when the government and economy are not working.

When has a left-wing government ever come to power when there was already full employment? Progressive governments emerge precisely when capital has fled the country, when there’s no investment and speculation is rampant, when there’s mass unemployment and widespread social unrest. A left-wing government responds to the people’s demand to deal with the situation. It’s the source of its legitimacy.

If they don’t fulfill those demands, it’s not because they were constrained by the dominant classes; it’s because that government was unwilling to go the distance or was afraid of the fallout. In other words, the constraints lie within the government itself, in its worldview and self-belief.

In Bolivia, we took power in the middle of an economic crisis. If we had not nationalized key sectors, the crisis would have been prolonged for ten more years. Where were we going to find money? In telecommunications, electric energy, and hydrocarbons. With those energies under state control, you can establish public policies.

Salaries quickly become a sticking point. But, over fourteen years, we never once sat down with the bosses to negotiate salaries — we met with the COB (Bolivian Workers’ Center). Of course, you also have to calculate how sales are doing in a given sector, how profits are, how taxes are being collected, how the economy is growing. You may squeeze the business class on one end, but you have to return that money on the other end with subsidies for electric bills, transportation, gas, and so on. That way, when the business class starts to protest, you can say: “I’m giving you gas and water at subsidized prices. You say you won’t raise wages? Why don’t we take away your subsidies and make things even?”

One of the state’s monopolies is the power to fix prices, conversion rates for properties, currencies, and services. You need to use all these faculties because, as was our case, your horizon as a left-wing government is different.

We raised real wages by 450 percent, from 50 to 306 dollars. Why not more, you might ask? If you keep raising wages you run the risk — as did happen — of affecting small businesses whose profit rates are much smaller. We wanted to go for a 400 dollar minimum wage, but we quickly saw that small companies with, say, four employees would be harmed. A popular government has to always be looking out for workers, but also those above them: the middle sectors, small business owners. In our society that sector is part of the popular bloc and has to be looked after.

It’s on the dominant sectors that you can use austerity. We nationalized foreign businesses and moved on the banks: we placed a 50 percent tax on their profits. Banking can also be a drag on profits, so you have to force them, as we did, to give loans for productive activity: 60 percent of all loans were for the productive sector, the rest for speculation, interest rates, and so on. This is the monopoly that the state has, to spur economic growth with private money ­­­­that you channel into certain sectors. In other words, where you see that there’s enough power for the capitalists to exercise the business veto, you go in and break them up and create state enterprises.

The central issue for progressive governments, however, is still whether there is enough social energy to push beyond these regulatory measures. It’s not up to the state. Some of my comrades on the Latin American left label the progressive cycle a “passive revolution,” as if there existed a powerful wave of collective action pushing for new property relations and radical democratization; in their view, progressive governments were somehow simply repressing their inevitable forward march.

But those comrades of mine have to be able to concretely show how society is pushing beyond the prevailing forms of property and management. For example: at one point in the last MAS government, some Huanini tin miners were pushing to break with the dominant forms of property and management, and so the government quickly joined their efforts. But the outcome was the exact opposite of what my comrades imagine: we ended up with five thousand miners self-managing a mine with public funds and enjoying all the profits for themselves. None of it returned to society. The type of worker self-management that took place from 2010 to 2011, and again in 2017 to 2018, ended in a form of private appropriation.

Martín Mosquera and Florencia Oroz

Is there not a risk of turning the government into a passive representative of society? Isn’t there an intermediate point, somewhere between a vanguardist vision of the state and that of simply accompanying society’s movement? If we imagine the government as an agent rather than a representative of the society, doesn’t it have a role to play in tipping the balance of social forces?

Álvaro García Linera

A progressive government can certainly push certain issues to the top of the agenda and in that way shed light on the things that society is itself experiencing. There are infinite things that a government can do besides simply governing. But socialism is an experience rooted in society.

I’m a Leninist on this question — not the Lenin of war communism, but the NEP Lenin. That was Lenin’s great confession: it doesn’t matter how radical the vanguard is, how many advanced measures it implements. You can only move beyond capitalism when society experiences that need.

Lenin has a great little text from 1923 “Better Fewer, But Better.” He evaluates war communism and draws up a balance sheet of those turbulent years when the thinking was that a set of completely audacious measures was enough to overcome capitalism. He looks back and basically says, “Well, actually, we ended up with state capitalism.” We can do all the nationalizations we want, but we won’t overcome capitalism unless there are people working in the economic sector to build a real community.

That’s what socialism is: building communities. It’s not building communities from above, it’s doing so in the only way possible, which is among people. The state is, by definition, the negation of the community, insofar as it is a monopoly. Of course, the state can collaborate toward that construction, pointing in the right direction, but we know what happens when you try to build community from above.

Debates in Cuba over the last ten years tend to circle around this question: how to implement measures that are more than the decisions of the state. Because, as Lenin would say, that’s state capitalism.

Here we find ourselves struggling with the question of how to encourage the growth of communities in society. The indigenous and peasant world has a legacy — damaged though it may be — of community. The urban world has its own communities at the local, neighborhood level. What we have are fragments of communities, and these fragments can serve as the point to launch a new collective society. The state can help in that process, but it can’t substitute for it, because there is only community insofar as there exists the free, associated creation of producers.

So, to your question, the answer is in Lenin. What Lenin was saying is that you need to always be one step and no more than one step ahead of the people. Not two, not four. One step from what the people are feeling and thinking. I like Lenin’s expression: never take more than one step beyond the workers and society.