José Antonio Arze

Jose Antonio Arze. Art: Marcelo Guimarães Lima


Entry from the “Dictionary of Marxism in America"

Life and political praxis

José Antonio Arze y Arze (1904-1955) was born at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, the son of José Tristán Arze, a small businessman and land tenant, into a middle-class family without a fortune. He studied law and political science at Major University of San Simón (UMSS, Cochabamba), graduating in 1926. He was director of the library and professor of Public Law at this university; and later Professor of Sociology and Indianist Law at the University of San Andres (UMSA, La Paz).

Still very young, in 1921, he founded the Higher Institute of Craftsmen ( Inst. Municipal Nocturne de Obreros), an educational establishment designed to bring socialist culture and ideas to the proletariat. Later that year, he ascended to the board of directors of the magazine art and work, an important journal founded by Cesáreo Capriles, a figure in the nascent Bolivian radical movement. This magazine, in which José Antonio Arze y Arze wrote under the pseudonym León Martel, played a central role in publicizing students who would come to play a relevant role in Bolivian politics. Soon he began editing his own literary magazine, The Paladin, which had three numbers.

In 1923, José Antonio Arze y Arze traveled to Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, on behalf of the Municipal Council of Cochabamba, to study professional training institutes for workers. In Argentina, he had the opportunity to experience the climate of the University Reform of 1918, a topic that he would be interested in throughout his life. Later that year, he led a group of students at the Faculty of Law, coming to control the student federation (his group was known as the “Sovietists”).

In 1928, during the I National Congress of University Students, was created to Bolivian University Federation (FUB), whose mission was to promote university reform. On that occasion, José Antonio Arze y Arze and Ricardo Anaya jointly signed a document considered the first attempt at a Marxist interpretation of Bolivian reality.

Around 1928, there was an attempt for the first time to found a communist party in Bolivia. In this endeavor were two other fundamental characters of the future Bolivian history: José Aguirre Gainsborg and Walter Guevara Arze. This party became known in historiography under the name of Underground Communist Party (acronym PCc). However, the delegates of the Communist International (CI) rejected this organization, dissolved the PCc and imposed the format of Communist Group (by changing its status to that of a group rather than a party). In June 1929, Arze was in Buenos Aires participating in the I Conference of Latin American Communist Parties, which took place almost immediately after the founding of the Latin American Trade Union Confederation (CSLA) and the VI Congress of the Communist International.

The coming to power of Hernando Siles (1925-1930) carried with it the hope of advancing reform agendas. In the composition of the government, Hernando Siles tried to include young university radicals. Arze was one of those who accepted the invitation, being assigned to the Commission for University Reform and the Ministry of Development (1929-1930). This would be the first of his many approaches to government sectors.

At the time, there was pessimism about the possibility of workers in cities and countryside organizing autonomously. For the author, the Bolivian working class was still in the process of formation and, therefore, would not be ready to become a relevant political actor. This perception of the national reality did not change over the years, which served to endow their political organization projects with a polyclassist character. In this line, some achievements were achieved. The 1930 Revolution, in which FUB leaders even participated militarily, instituted university autonomy, a flag raised by Arze. Still in 1931, the author tried to create a singular political organization: the Confederation of Working Republics of the Pacific (CROP) – something like a trinational communist party, incorporating organizations from Bolivia, Chile and Peru, which he envisioned as a propagating nucleus of proletarian internationalism for the entire continent. But the proposal did not come to fruition.

 In October 1931, Arze traveled to Montevideo to visit the South American Secretariat of the Communist International, trying to facilitate the transformation of CROP into a Bolivian section of the Communist International. This attempt was unsuccessful, as the Communist International saw in this organization an attempt to found a new Latin American Revolutionary Popular Alliance (APRA, party created by the Peruvian Haya de la Torre), that is, a reformist project with a petty-bourgeois bias. In December 1931 the croppers yielded to the Secretariat's criticisms, disbanded the group and renewed their attention to the creation of the Bolivian PC.

With the support of the CSLA, they even created a Provisional Central Committee – to compose a Communist Party in the country. However, like the previous attempts, this one also became a dead letter. Arze's intentions always collided with the IC, even though he tried hard to be accepted by the organization; several times he tried to create a Communist Party in his country, even traveling to Moscow, but in vain – he was always treated as a petty-bourgeois intellectual and his participation in the communist movement was never well accepted.

The refusal of the Communist International to recognize and legitimize the efforts of José Antonio Arze y Arze, the most important figure in the interwar Bolivian communist movement, was one of the main reasons why it was not possible to create a Communist Party in Bolivia before the 1950s. Despite this, he remained faithful to the programmatic (and theoretical) lines of action determined by the Communist International, even without ever having been an official member of this organization. The fact that he often privileged the interests of the Soviet Union – to the detriment of the positions of local workers – would cost him later ostracism within the labor movement in his country.

Biographers tend to classify José Antonio Arze y Arze as a “Stalinist”, but this must be put into perspective. Certainly, he showed a fascination for the USSR, and even for Stalin, as expressed in the obituary of this Soviet leader, written by the Bolivian in 1953, in which he defined him as “the greatest character of humanity”. However, he never gave up reading authors who opposed Stalinism, nor did he stop criticizing the course of the communist movement in our continent. He read Trotsky and other opponents, recommended reading these authors to militants, and included such books in his courses and lectures. His independent stance was never accepted by the Communist International; on the other hand, the fact that he was not a cadre of the Communist International gave him the freedom that few communist militants in Latin America had.

With the outbreak of the Chaco War (1932-1935), between Bolivia and Paraguay, Arze, like other communists, refused to fight and sought exile in Chile, where he taught classes at the University of Chile and made contact with local socialist organizations. . With the end of the war and Bolivia's defeat, a political earthquake swept the country; a coup d'état would inaugurate the era of so-called “military socialism”, a period in which several former combatants of that war took power, waving for substantive socioeconomic reforms and approaching the various leftist groups of the time.

It was at this juncture that Arze, along with other prominent figures in the radical movement, rose to power for the second time. The coup put General David Toro (1936-1937) in power, with Arze allocated to the newly created Ministry of Labor and Social Security, presided over by his friend Waldo Alvarez, the first worker minister of Bolivia. Other important left-wing figures were part of the government, such as Ricardo Anaya and José Aguirre Gainsborg. From the rapid participation of these militants in the government, it is worth highlighting their project to institute mandatory unionization, which should be the basis for the transformation of representative democracy into a “functional democracy”, that is, a union democracy along the lines of the Russian soviets.

The governments of the so-called “military socialism” were reformist, but also anti-communist (since, being nationalist, they were averse to socialist internationalism); Arze and Aguirre Gainsborg had joined General Toro's Socialist Party, but that didn't stop the Marxist and his comrades from being arrested and deported by the same government that brought them to power. Arze then returned to Chile, where he soon joined the Socialist Party of Marmaduke Grove.

In 1939, along with Bolivian colleagues exiled in Chilean lands, Arze helped found the Front of Bolivian Izquierda (FIB), an attempt to reproduce the Chilean experience of a left front. The following year, the author was launched as a presidential candidate, apparently without his consent. Even without a party, his candidacy was supported by FUB students and local university federations, in addition to having the support of several socialist groupings and, officially, of the University of San Andres, where he worked (you could apply for support from a public or social institution). Even without campaigning, and with an exclusionary electoral regime, Arze was voted well, obtaining 10 votes (out of a total of 58), against the candidate of the oligarchies.

Finally, in July 1940, there was a congress in Oruro aimed at creating a party that would unify important groups of the Bolivian left – which was called Revolutionary Izquierda Party (PIR). The PIR defined itself as Marxist, and would seek to demarcate its difference with military and nationalist socialism. For Arze, these would be “pseudo-socialists”, since the only true socialism was that based on “the doctrines of Marx and Engels”. Thus, the PIR proposed a Marxist socialism suited to the conditions of semi-colonial and semi-feudal countries. The task in the short term was the realization of the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” that would have an anti-imperialist and agrarian character. The party would be polyclassist and would limit itself to acting within legal and democratic frameworks.

In parallel, Arze continued his career as an academic sociologist. In 1940, he created the Institute of Bolivian Sociology is on 1941, he edited the first sociological scientific journal in Bolivia, in which he sought to disseminate Marxist thought. Between 1941 and 1944 he was active in the United States (he was professor of Inter-American Relations at the Williams College); in 1948 he worked in Europe and in American countries.

In July 1944, Arze suffered an attack, being shot by elements that, according to some historians, were linked to a nebulous military society called reason for homeland (Radepa); for others, they would have acted at the behest of President Gualberto Villarroel (1943-1946). He survived, but with sequelae that likely shortened his life. At this time, he was at the height of his parliamentary career, being elected senator in the 1940s, then deputy, becoming president of the Chamber of Deputies in 1947.

The PIR's political line was centered on the defense of the USSR and, therefore, followed Moscow's line of alliance with the United States and of primary combat against fascism. The difficulty of identifying the fascist enemy was current: the military government itself was seen by some political factions (even on the left) as fascist, although for others it was socialist. The PIR also identified the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) as fascist. The PIR itself, which even proposed a political front with President Villaroel, later identified him as a fascist and supported the coup that led to the end of his government.

Later, the PIR joined the coalition Antifascist Democratic Front and Bolivian Democratic Union, in addition to making an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party – coalitions in which he was together with representative sectors of the Bolivian conservative elite (known as the “Rosca”). In these alliances, he defended the need to consolidate democracy, guarantee social advances for workers and, above all, combat the advance of internal fascism. Here again, the PIR was in line with the policy advocated by the Communist International: alliances with “progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie”.

The Bolivian case was similar to what happened, in this period, with the CPs of Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, United States, Chile and many others. The end of this policy of alliances took place during the Enrique Hertzog government (1947-1949). The violent repression of workers' demonstrations by government forces produced a major trauma in the PIR; the alliance was broken, but the delay in this decision was not forgiven by the trade union movement which, from then on, transferred its loyalty to the MNR.

In 1950 there was a split within the PIR. Arze, Anaya and the party's veteran militants opposed the creation of the Communist Party of Bolivia (PCB). This decision had a certain amount of irony, because, after so many attempts to found a Communist Party in the country, now that the opportunity opened up it was Arze who created barriers. Finally, the PCB would be founded by the younger wing of the PIR.

Candidate for president again in 1951, Arze obtained about half the votes he had in 1940 (5.170 votes), placing only in 6th place. The election was won by Víctor Paz Estenssoro (with the support of the PCB), candidate of the MNR, with 54.049 votes.

In July 1952, Arze decided to dissolve the PIR. Most of its militants transferred to the MNR, which from then on became the largest working-class party. The protagonism of the Marxist declined, and the 1952 Revolution took place without him. Victorious the revolution, Arze collaborated with the new government. In his last participation in Bolivian politics, he was a member of the Educational Reform Commission (1953-1954) and was one of the main authors of the Bolivian Education Code.

As a sociologist, Arze organized the I Bolivian Congress of Sociology (1952) and was the first president of the Bolivian Society of Sociology, which was born in this event. He was also Secretary of the III Inter-American Indian Congress (1954)

Contributions to Marxism

Em Biography (1951), autobiographical writing, José Antonio Arze y Arze defined himself above all as an intellectual dedicated to defending the interests of the oppressed in his homeland. He was a thinker with broad interests, working in the areas of history, sociology, politics, pedagogy, law, linguistics, biography, bibliographic and literary criticism, and even futuristic political fiction. He was polyglot, taught and gave lectures in several countries in America and Europe.

His greatest frustration was not having carried out the main theoretical project of his life: making a broad and profound interpretation of Bolivian society. José Antonio Arze y Arze always regretted that the lack of money, the political conditions (his various prisons and exiles) and his own intense political activity prevented him from adequately devoting himself to studies and intellectual production.

Despite acknowledging the limits of his production, he believed that his greatest contribution was having “introduced Marxism to the study of Bolivian reality, and having developed it in an original way” (not simply “repeating” outside readings).

Let us return, then, to that Bolivia of the 1920s and 1930s, when José Antonio Arze y Arze's political, intellectual and professional activities began. The environment among young university students was one of revolt and the search for alternatives to the decadent political system in the country. Since the 1930s, the Marxist literature of Lenin, Bukharin and Plekhanov was regularly found in Bolivian bookstores, in popular editions printed in Argentina and Chile. Also in the universities of Bolivia, Marxist and socialist literature was often found in libraries and used in disciplines.

In those years of “military socialism” (nationalist, petty-bourgeois and reformist), the currents that claimed a “Marxist socialism” had as their main concern to affirm the importance of Marx's ideas for understanding Bolivian society. His opponents, on the other hand, preached the need for an exclusively national elaboration, rejecting any theory elaborated from another reality.

For José Antonio Arze y Arze and his companions, it was necessary to restore the purity of the socialist doctrine in order to understand the Bolivian reality, which would only be possible through the use of Marxist categories. In short, Marxism would have valid formulas for understanding all human societies – and Bolivia and Latin America would be no exceptions. However, this would not mean denying the specificities of each national reality at each moment of its historical development. In the document of Front of Bolivian Izquierda, from 1939, proposes a Marxist socialism applied to the specific social conditions of semi-colonial and semi-feudal countries (such as Bolivia), which had the characteristic of being neither strictly “proletarian” nor “anti-national”. It was therefore necessary to set the goal of carrying out a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution that would be structured essentially by an anti-imperialist and agrarian character.

Arze launched a challenge to the members of his party: “to study Marxistically the sociological peculiarities of the Bolivian nation” (PIR program, 1940). The exemplary text, in this sense, was his intervention in the debate on the characterization of Incan society (Sociography of inkario, 1952), his most ambitious essay, the product of years of intellectual maturation on the specificities of Bolivian reality.

The drafting of his main theses dates back to 1933, when Arze had sent a letter to the Communist International contesting the “indigenist” interpretation advocated for countries with a Quechua and Aymara majority. The Communist International defended the creation of “indigenous republics”, based on the “primitive communism” typical of the so-called ayllus – original Inca communities (similar to chrism Russians). Hence the conclusion that modern communism could bear fruit in the Andean countries based on the experience of organizing the community life of the ayllus.

Arze, however, understood that in that way the South American communists would simply mechanically transfer the Russian debate on nationalities into the context of their nations (in particular the case of the muzhiks). Such theses, therefore, would have nothing Marxist, because they overestimated the role of the “race struggle”, to the detriment of the class struggle. Still in the letter, he defined Inca society as “semi-feudal”, as it was characterized by the dominance of a theocratic Inca nobility.

The Bolivian Marxist returned to the theme in 1936, in a prologue to the book by Georges Rouma, The civilization of the Incas and, soon after (1939), in another prologue to Louis Baudin's work, L'empire socialiste des Incas (both translated by Arze himself). In the prologue to Rouma's book, Arze defined Incan society as "communist" - having been, according to himself, greatly influenced by his reading of the seven essays by Mariátegui and also by Haya de la Torre. This interpretation would be abandoned already in the prologue to Baudin's book; here, Arze seeks theoretical references in the work of Engels, The origin of the family, private property and the state.

Starting from Engels' typology, Arze then went on to define the Inca Empire as being in the “middle stage” of “barbarism”. Thus, he identified the existence of an advanced class structure in the Empire. The aristocratic elite and the priestly caste had land partition privileges; inequality was installed directly in economic production; apparently, the distribution of land was made according to the interests of the State, but this was nothing more than the political expression of the economic interests of the dominant class.

Inequality was also reflected in the social division of labor; the highest functions of state administration (military, administrative and priestly) were reserved for the dominant elite; the oppressed masses could only carry out manual work or serve in the lower ranks of the army. In short, the Incan State was an apparatus of class domination, and through it the elite controlled the means of production.

Thus, Arze sought to incorporate into his analysis the manifestations of class inequality based on superstructural elements of that society, such as religion, education and even language. He sought to escape an economicist reading of Marxism, so typical of those years; citing the well-known letter from Engels to Bloch, he defended the need to analyze the superstructural elements of society, emphatically denying the reduction of Marxism to economic and material aspects. His conclusion would be that Inca society was “semi-socialist”. He arrived at this definition through the way he interpreted the planning role of the Inca State, and also through verifying a certain social vision there, expressed in the protection of the poor – who were guaranteed bread, clothes and a house –, despite the limited distribution of lands.

Comment on the work

From Arze's proposal to interpret the Bolivian reality through the Marxist method, we highlight Sociography of inkario (La Paz: Ed. Fenix, 1952), his main theoretical work, in which he seeks to make a Marxist analysis of the Inca Empire, criticizing the widespread belief that this empire was an indigenous version of socialism.

In the introduction of Organic and political documents of the PIR (La Paz: Trabajo, 1941), proposes to make the first characterization of Bolivian society using historical materialism.

Em Sociodialectical forest of the history of Bolivia (Sucre: Revista de la Fac. de Derecho y Ciencias Sociales de la Univ. de Chuquisaca, 1940) sought to make a Marxist history of Bolivia, outlining a panorama of Bolivian sociology.

Towards the unity of the Bolivian leftovers (Santiago de Chile: Taller Graf. Gutemberg, 1939) is a text that formed the basis for the creation of the PIR guidelines (here appears the first version of the aforementioned 1941 introduction).

He wrote many texts analyzing the Bolivian political situation, such as Bolivia under Nazi-fascist terrorism (Lima: Empr. Ed. Peruana, 1945), where he denounces the fascist character of Gualberto Villarroel's government, defending the broad democratic and polyclassist front represented by the constitution of the Bolivian Democratic Union. And also Pyrist Outcasts: Bolivia, a degollada democracy (Gutemberg Impresores, Feb. 1951), an open letter addressed to the UN, denouncing the dictatorship of Mamerto Urriolagoitia, who had banished Arze and his companions from the PIR. This year he also wrote a draft autobiography: Biography of José Antonio Arze (La Paz: Author's edition, 1951).

Arze identified himself as a sociologist and directed many of his efforts to build the institutional foundations for Bolivian sociology; like this, em To create a Sociographic Institute of Latin America [ISAL] (La Paz: Ed. Fenix, 1953) gathered documents, projects and also a proposal for a course in Latin American sociology.

“Polemics about Marxism” (Legal Magazine, Cochabamba, 1952) is the collection of several articles in defense of Marxism published in the press in response to the philosopher M. Kempff.

The Marxist was also an educator – he was present at various moments of the educational reform process in Bolivia. The following texts present their contributions to the reform of the Bolivian educational system: “University autonomy” (university magazine, Santiago, Sept. 1939), later published along with other articles in the book titled University autonomy and other related writings (La Paz: UMSA, 1989), available on the net (; and Bolivian education process (La Paz: Ed. Universo, 1947).

The book marxist sociology (Oruro: Ed. Universitaria, 1963), published posthumously, brings together didactic texts for his classes at the School of Economic Sciences from UMSA (La Paz), around the 1940s. In it, the author seeks the bases to formulate a Marxist sociology and also a general classification of sciences from the materialist conception of history.

Arze was an intellectual of great erudition and broad interests. In literary writings (La Paz: Ed. Roalva, 1981), publication also posthumous, presents texts that exemplify his literary passion.

It is also worth mentioning other works that he never published during his lifetime: science fiction Melsurbo: essay of a Marxist-futurgraphic novel, set in a distant future – that takes place in a future socialist society, with “Melsurbo” (a name that combines the initials of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin) a city located somewhere in the USSR, belonging to the only homeland of this future world, “Panlandia”; and the political essay: “Hacia la URSAL (Unión de las Repúblicas Socialistas de América Latina)”.

Arze wrote several pamphlets, articles in magazines and newspapers of the time, as well as conferences, speeches, course programs. His bibliography can be found in the book by his nephew, José Roberto Arze, Essay on a bibliography by Doctor José Antonio Arze (Cochabamba: Ed. UMSS, 1968).

* Marcos Vinicius Pansardi is professor of social sciences at the Federal Institute of Paraná. Author, among other books, of Reinterpreting Brazil: from the bourgeois revolution to conservative modernization (swear).

Originally published on the Praxis Nucleus-USP.


FRANCOVICH, G. The Bolivian thought in the XX siglo. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1956.

GARCIA, H. et al. The left parties before the indigenous question (1920-1977). La Paz: Vice Presidency of the Plurinational State, 2017.

KLEIN, H. Origins of the Bolivian National Revolution. Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1993.

LORRA, G. History of the Bolivian Worker Movement. La Paz: Editorial Los Amigos del Libro, 1967.

SCHELCHKOV, A.; STEFANONI, P. History of the Bolivian leftovers. La Paz: Vice Presidency of the Plurinational State, 2016.

STEFANONI, P. Los nonconformistas del Centenario. Intellectuals, socialism and nation in a Bolivia in crisis (1925-1939). Doctoral thesis, UBA, Buenos Aires, 2014.

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