National Peasants: The Revolutionary Politics of Identity in MNR’s Bolivia

By Elena McGrath

The revolutionaries who took power in Bolivia after arming workers and peasants in April of 1952 believed that they would be the first to bring Bolivia into the modern world. The Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, MNR) expanded citizenship so that all adults, regardless of gender, education, or property could vote. By nationalizing Bolivia’s mineral wealth and turning its profits toward the national good, the MNR hoped to bring wealth and health to Bolivia’s people. By enacting an agrarian reform, the MNR hoped to abolish feudal landholding practices and turn tenants and dispossessed agrarians into small property owners and farmers. Most of all, however, this party of middle-class mestizos wanted to abolish the legacies of colonialism by abolishing race itself, turning Bolivia’s indigenous majority into workers and peasants.

By the 1940s, Bolivia’s urban revolutionary and reformist intellectuals come to agree on one thing: Bolivia had an Indian problem.[1] The problem might be, as the socialists claimed, essentially economic. Centuries of oppression had left the indigenous community in such a state of abjection that the majority of the population was unable to participate in the modern world. Or, as some groups claimed, the community of Indians was a community of the past living in the present, destined to decline. In either case, the problem of the Indian was not just one of their own oppression, but reflected on the very soul of Bolivian nationhood and prevented the country from entering the modern world.[2] 

The MNR believed it had a novel solution. By returning the land to the workers and the mines to the state, the MNR could strengthen Bolivia’s national control over its human as well as natural resources. Through labor, education, and sanitation campaigns, the partisans of the MNR also believed they could change the structures that defined ethnic and cultural identity and replace indigenous difference with national belonging.[3] To this end, the Bolivian government in 1952 replaced language concerning indigenous Bolivians with the class-based term “campesino.”[4] While this project was intended to be inclusive and provide indigenous Bolivians a real stake in belonging to the nation, indigenous activists who negotiated with the MNR were under no illusions about the assimilationist bent of such policies.

As a corollary to this process, cultural production in the revolution was keen to highlight Bolivia’s distinctive cultural heritage as an integral part of national identity. Murals and sculptures incorporated indigenous figures from history alongside workers and peasants struggling towards progress while MNR newspapers highlighted stories of indigenous leaders traveling to La Paz to meet with government officials.[5] Workers in Bolivia’s mining camps argued that the physical process of their labor had transformed an innate indigenous tendency towards rebellion into the disciplined militancy of a revolutionary vanguard.[6] In all these images, the indigenous Bolivian was a crucial component, a natural resource crucial to the process of forging a modern nation. This was, for all the MNR’s reluctance to commit to its revolutionary principles, a profound shift in imagining the modern world.

In the years since 1952, the MNR’s quick retreat from labor politics and agrarian radicalism, and eventual shift towards authoritarian corruption has obscured this legacy of cultural change. However, the revolution of 1952 began a process of opening up concepts like “modernity” and “future” to the majority of the Bolivian population even though most of the “modern” world saw Bolivia’s majority as belonging to the past. The MNR tried, and often failed, to envision an explicitly Andean path towards modernity, but successive generations have had more luck. Since that time, Bolivia’s most innovative and generative political movements have engaged with racial and cultural difference as a revolutionary resource rather than a hindrance to progress and prosperity.[7]

Elena McGrath is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin American History at the University of Virginia. A scholar of gender, race, and revolution, she is working on a manuscript about the politics of identity and social reform in a Bolivian mining camp over the course of the 20th Century.

Title imagePhoto Credit, Elena McGrath Potosí 2013.

Further Reading:

Ari, Waskar. Earth Politics: Religion, Decolonization, and Bolivia’s Indigenous Intellectuals. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014.

Gotkowitz, Laura. A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880-1952. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007.

Soliz, Carmen. “‘Land to the Original Owners’: Rethinking the Indigenous Politics of the Bolivian Agrarian Reform.” Hispanic American Historical Review 97, no. 2 (May 1, 2017): 259–96.

Young, Kevin. Blood of the Earth: Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.


[1] The partisans of the MNR had emerged out of a generation stung by the great depression and the humiliating loss of the Chaco War as an ideologically heterogeneous party, with some members flirting with Mussolini-style fascism while others coordinated ideologically with Trostskyists. Most were influenced by a Marxist vision of historical progression and believed that if they could implement the conditions of economic modernity they could replace colonial groupings of people (the Republic of Indians and the Republic of Spaniards) with the modern nation of classes, made up of workers, peasants, soldiers, and middle class civilians. On the right, Carlos Montenegro, Nacionalismo y coloniaje, su expresión histórica en la prensa de Bolivia. (La Paz: Ediciones Autonomía, 1943). On the left, Tristán Marof built from the indigenist Marxism of Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui in his influential, Tristán Marof, La Tragedia Del Altiplano (Buenos Aires: Ed. Claridad, 1934).

[2] According to these intellectuals, the indigenous majority knew no nation while the wealthy white minority was more faithful to the forces of economic imperialism than its own nation.For their part, indigenous Bolivians have historically been active and committed participants in national movements for political change, although non-indigenous elites have been reluctant to reciprocate or acknowledge this. Laura Gotkowitz, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880-1952 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); E. Gabrielle Kuenzli, Acting Inca: National Belonging in Early Twentieth-Century Bolivia, 1 edition (Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

[3] For more on the health policies of the Revolution, see Nicole Pacino, “Constructing a New Bolivian Society: Public Health Reforms and the Consolidation of the Bolivian National Revolution,” The Latin Americanist 57, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 25–56.

[4] The MNR’s elision of race through class obscured some significant divisions among rural agrarian groups. Some of these groups spoke Quechua, some Aymara, and many spoke neither, or one of Bolivia’s 30 other indigenous languages. Many peasants were in fact landless laborers who worked for wealthy landowners who under the agrarian reform wanted to expropriate the land they worked. Others, however, were communities with ethnic and territorial bonds who wanted restitution of communal land rights stolen in past decades or centuries. Many of these communal claims now referred to land worked by peasants making claims under the agrarian reform law. The agrarian reform law saw them all as peasants, and provided no clear-cut solution to which kinds of claims should take precedence. The Agrarian Reform Law passed in 1953 gave provisions for the expropriation of large plots of land based on claims from laborers to inefficiency and abusive working conditions. Although in its preamble, the reform law lauded the pre-colonial Inca state, blamed indigenous insurgencies on Spanish abuses, and decried land theft against indigenous communities by colonial and republican landlords alike, it did not contain provisions for restitution. Those were included in a 1954 decree passed by the MNR under pressure from indigenous leaders. Victor Paz Estenssoro, Ley de La Reforma Agraria, Reglamentación Y Demás Resoluciones Complementarias (La Paz: Editorial Trabajo, 1953); Carmen Soliz, “‘Land to the Original Owners’: Rethinking the Indigenous Politics of the Bolivian Agrarian Reform,” Hispanic American Historical Review 97, no. 2 (May 1, 2017): 259–96,; Waskar Ari, Earth Politics: Religion, Decolonization, and Bolivia’s Indigenous Intellectuals (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014).

[5] These images very often cast indigenous activists as the grateful recipients of government generosity, and not as political partners in negotiation with the state. For example, Soliz, “‘Land to the Original Owners.’”

[6] Filemón Escóbar, Testimonio de Un Militante Obrero: La Frustracion de La Direccion Revolucionaria En Bolivia a Traves de La Crisis Del POR (La Paz , Bolivia: Hisbol, 1984).

[7] For histories of more recent political movements that explicitly engage with indigeneity, see, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Oprimidos pero no vencidos: luchas del campesinado aymara y qhechwa de Bolivia, 1900-1980 (Ginebra: Instituto de Investigaciones de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo Social, 1986); Xavier Albó, “From MNRistas to Kataristas to Katari,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World – 18th to 20th Centuries, ed. Steve J. Stern (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Nancy Postero, Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2006); Pedro Portugal Mollinedo and Carlos Macusaya Cruz, El Indianismo Katarista, Una Mirada Crítica (La Paz: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2016).

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