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Bolivia’s outstanding political theorist René Zavaleta Mercado (1937–84) passed through different intellectual stages, and one of his key theoretical concerns was to understand how knowledge reflected local historical processes and struggles. From the late 1950s to mid-1960s, revolutionary nationalism provided his ideological orientation, and he served as a diplomat (1958–62), congressman (1962–63), and minister of mines and petroleum (1964) for the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (mnr). In the late 1960s to early 1970s, he entered a more orthodox Marxist phase, in which he stressed the historical centrality of the working class in popular struggle. After the coup of General Hugo Banzer Suárez, in 1971, he left the country, and in Mexico he entered his final phase, which was characterized by a more creative and heterodox Marxist approach, influenced by the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Zavaleta cultivated an essayistic literary style that was highly distinctive, dense and abstract, suggestive and elusive.

Zavaleta wrote his essay “The Masses in November” (1983) in the wake of the powerful general strike called by the Bolivian Workers Central (cob) in November 1979. The mobilization brought together mineworkers and Aymara peasant unions, and their alliance overthrew the dictatorship of General Alberto Natusch Busch and opened the way for the restoration of democracy. Zavaleta saw this as an exceptional moment of political crisis which unified diverse social forces around a popular nationalist political project and consciousness. He conceived of Bolivia as a social formation comprising different modes of production (capitalism, feudalism, communalism) which were normally not unified economically or culturally. This social and economic fragmentation he referred to metaphorically as abigarramiento (literally, a motley array of colors). Only crises such as the Chaco War, the revolution of 1952, or the general strike of November 1979 were capable of generating such “intersubjective” national relations and sentiment, or as he put it, “the pathetic unity of diversity.” Such moments of breakthrough for popular sectors allowed for society to be revealed, despite its normal masking by state power, and to see itself. The general crisis was thus a method of self-knowledge for a normally fragmented society.

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