The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui

Submitted by Matthew on 7 March, 2012 - 10:01

There is a rich and authentic tendency of Latin American Marxism, in which José Carlos Mariátegui is probably the brightest star. His contribution during the 1920s has rightly earned him the epitaph of Latin America’s Gramsci.

The publication of José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, edited by Harry Vanden and Marc Becker (Monthly Review, 2011) is therefore welcome. This is the most comprehensive selection of his works so far to appear in English. The texts in the book are well worth reading, but the choice of selections and the editorial interpretation detract somewhat from its value. Ultimately, it is impossible to read the true Mariátegui without sloughing off the excrescences foisted onto him by Stalinists.

José Carlos Mariátegui was born in Peru on 14 June 1894. When he was eight, a serious injury to his left leg restricted his studies.

From 1909 he began working for daily newspapers, rising from assistant to editor. He promoted the university reform movement and from 1918 turned towards socialism. In October 1919 Mariátegui was given a government allowance to leave Peru. He travelled through France and Italy, witnessing the Turin strikes and the factory council movement. In 1921 he attended the Livorno Congress of the Italian Socialist Party, where the left split to form the Italian Communist Party.

Mariátegui returned to Peru in 1923, where he wrote for newspapers and lectured at the Popular University. In 1924, he suffered a lifesaving amputation of his right leg, which confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In 1926 he founded Amauta (“Wise Teacher”) magazine. In 1927, Mariátegui was interned during a government crackdown on a supposed “Communist plot”.

In 1928, Mariátegui broke with the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA). He sent Julio Portocarrero and Armando Bazan to the USSR as delegates to the Fourth Congress of the Profintern (Red International of Trade Unions) and the Congress of the Peoples of the East. Mariátegui defined his socialist orientation in Amauta and became general secretary when the Socialist Party of Peru was formally constituted. He produced his second book, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality and began publishing the biweekly newspaper Labor.

In 1929 Mariátegui helped found the trade union central, the Organising Committee for a General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP). He sent Portocarrero to Montevideo as a delegate to the Constituent Congress of the Latin American Trade Union Conference. The following month, Hugo Pesce and Portocarrero were delegated to the First Latin American Communist Conference in Buenos Aires. Mariátegui became a member of the General Council of the Communist-led Anti-Imperialist League. He faced further harassment in Peru and died on 16 April 1930.

Mariátegui developed a very fluid and open Marxism, uncluttered by much of the burgeoning Stalinist orthodoxy of his day.

He applied this method to Peruvian reality with stimulating results. He was arguably the first Marxist to really engage with the indigenous question in Latin America and made a useful contribution on the strengths and limits of “anti-imperialism” in politics. He argued that Marxism “is a method that is completely based on reality, on the facts. It is not, as some erroneously suppose, a body of principles of rigid consequences, the same for all historical climates and all social latitudes”. Every Marxist act he said, “resounds with faith, of voluntarism, of heroic and creative conviction; whose impulse it would be absurd to seek in a mediocre and passive determinist sentiment”.

Mariátegui understood the basic Marxist conceptions that had been hammered out in the early Comintern: the need to form Marxist parties, the importance of the united front for Communists intervening in the workers’ movement and the link between everyday struggles and the fight for working class power. However his originality lies principally in his efforts to apply these principles while firmly rooted in the reality of Peru and Latin America.

Marx discovered and taught that “one had to begin by understanding the necessity and, especially, the value of the capitalist stage. Socialism, beginning with Marx, appeared as the conception of a new class... The proletariat succeeded the bourgeoisie in the work of civilisation. And it assumed this mission, conscious of its responsibility and capacity...”

In the Programmatic principles of the Socialist Party (1928), he assumed the international character of the contemporary economy and the international character of the revolutionary proletarian movement, arguing that the party “adapts its practice to the country’s specific circumstances, but it follows a broad class vision and its national context is subordinated to the rhythm of world history”. The emancipation of the country’s economy “is possible only by the action of the proletarian masses in solidarity with the global anti-imperialist struggle. Only proletarian action can stimulate and then perform the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution that the bourgeois regime is incapable of developing and delivering”.

Mariátegui’s Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) was his first truly original contribution. The text was first translated into English in 1971 and is now available online on the Marxist Internet Archive. Mariátegui summarised the recent history of Peru. The Spanish conquistadors had destroyed Inca society, “this impressive productive machine without being able to replace it. The indigenous society and the Inca economy were wholly disrupted and annihilated by the shock of the conquest”. But Spain did not send to Peru, nor for that matter to any of its other possessions, throngs of colonisers. “The weakness of the Spanish Empire lay precisely in its character and structure as a military and ecclesiastic rather than a political and economic power. No large bands of pioneers, like those who disembarked on the shores of New England, arrived in the Spanish colonies. Viceroys, courtesans, adventurers, priests, lawyers, and soldiers were almost the only ones to come to Spanish America. Therefore, no real colonising force developed in Peru”.

But if the historical origins of the modern Peruvian economy were colonial, Mariátegui discerned a second stage “in which a feudal economy gradually became a bourgeois economy, but without losing its colonial character within the world picture”. Spain’s policy “totally obstructed and thwarted the economic development of its colonies by not permitting them to trade with any other nation and by reserving to itself the privileges of the mother country to monopolise all commerce and business carried on in its dominions”. However, with independence (1824) came a degree of capitalist development. In Peru, the profits earned from the export of guano and nitrates created the “first solid elements of commercial and banking capital. Those who profited directly and indirectly from the wealth on the coast began to constitute a capitalist class. The bourgeoisie that developed in Peru was related in its origin and structure to the aristocracy, which, though composed chiefly of the descendants of colonial landholders, had been obliged by its role to adopt the basic principles of liberal economics and politics”. This was not completely negated after Peru lost the sources of guano and nitrates to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-84).

By the 1920s, Mariátegui characterised Peru’s economy by a number of interlocking contradictions. First, the appearance of modern industry meant “the establishment of factories, plants, transport, et cetera, which has transformed life on the coast” as well as the formation of an industrial proletariat. Second, “the emergence of national banks which finance various industrial and commercial enterprises but which are very limited in scope because of their subservience to foreign capital and large agricultural properties”. Third, as a result of the Panama Canal, Peru’s trade with Europe and North America had grown. Fourth, the gradual substitution of North American for British ascendancy, evident from “the participation of North American capital in the exploitation of Peru’s copper and petroleum”. Fifth, the Peruvian capitalist class was “no longer dominated by the old aristocracy” and the bourgeoisie had grown stronger. The boom in Peruvian products caused a rapid increase in domestic private wealth and “the hegemony of the coast in the Peruvian economy was reinforced”.

Mariátegui summed up the economic evolution of Peru during the post war period: “the elements of three different economies coexist in Peru today. Underneath the feudal economy inherited from the colonial period, vestiges of the indigenous communal economy can still be found in the sierra. On the coast, a bourgeois economy is growing in feudal soil; it gives every indication of being backward, at least in its mental outlook”. He reminded his readers that “Peru, despite its expanded mining industry, remains an agricultural country. The great majority of the population is rural, with the Indian, who is usually and by tradition a farmer, making up four-fifths of the population”. Nevertheless a force was growing which could challenge this. He pointed to the 28,000 miners, workers in manufacturing industry, as well as the 22,000 sugar workers, 40,000 cotton workers and 11,000 rice workers.

Vanden and Becker argue that Mariátegui anticipated much of what later became the dependency school, which is still very influential in left politics. It is possible to read some passages in the Seven Essays in this way — although of course Mariátegui was writing in the 1920s rather than the 1960s and 1970s when dependency theorists were most prominent.

The dominant mode of production in Peru was capitalism and the country subject to market imperatives. A “formal capitalism is already established... Peru is in a period of capitalist growth”. Industry was still very small in Peru. “Its possibilities for development are limited by the condition, structure, and character of the national economy, but it is even more limited by the dependency of economic life on the interests of foreign capitalism”. However, “to the extent that it is capitalist, the economy of the coast creates the conditions for socialist production”. The urban, industrial proletariat was crucial, although it would have to “realise its obligations of solidarity with the peasantry of the haciendas”.

In short, Mariátegui held to a supple conception of Peruvian reality, as the interpenetration of three modes of production, but nevertheless one in which capital was dominant and where the working class remained the essential agent of change.

Within Mariátegui’s writings it is possible to discern a sense of both the combined and uneven development of the world economy and permanent revolution.

Mindful of theories of the West’s decline, he nevertheless asserted that “No one dismisses, no one excludes the possibility that Europe will renew and transform itself again. In the historical panorama which our viewpoint commands, Europe presents itself as the continent of the greatest rebirths”. Capitalism, “which in Europe displays a lack of faith in its own forces, remains endlessly optimistic about its fate in North America”. North America had shown from its beginning that “it was predestined for the highest achievement of capitalism”. In spite of its extraordinary power in England, “capitalist development has failed to remove all feudal remnants”. He discerned the pattern of history emerging in the 1920s: “’New York or Moscow’. The two poles of contemporary history were Russia and North America: capitalism and communism, both universalist although very different and distinct”.

Vanden and Becker also wrongly argue that Mariátegui believed peasants were the locum revolutionary class. However, even their selections in this book do not support this thesis. Mariátegui saw the working class as the principal revolutionary class. He wrote: “We Marxists do not believe that the job of creating a new social order, superior to the capitalist order, falls to an amorphous mass of oppressed pariahs guided by evangelical preachers of goodness... A new civilisation cannot arise from a sad and humiliated world of miserable helots with no greater merits than their servility and misery. The proletariat only enters history politically as a social class, at the moment it discovers its mission to build a superior social order with elements gathered by human effort, whether moral or amoral, just or unjust”. He added: “The exceptional merit of Marx consists, in this sense, in having discovered the proletariat”.

In one of his last writings he argued: “The vanguard of the proletariat and class-conscious workers, faithful to action on the terrain of the class struggle, repudiate any tendency that would mean a fusion with the forces or political bodies of other classes. We condemn as opportunist all politics that put forward even the momentary renunciation by the proletariat of its independence of programme and action, which must be fully maintained at all times.”

Vanden and Becker also suggest that Mariátegui elevated Indian peasants to the level of a revolutionary class.

Whilst they are wrong on this too, there is no doubt that he brought a fresh perspective to the indigenous question. Throughout the 1920s he grappled with the question from a Marxist perspective, shedding new insight on both the indigenous peoples and on Peruvian nationality itself.

In the Seven Essays (1928), Mariátegui argued that any treatment of the indigenous question that “fails or refuses to recognise it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited”. Previous treatments had “served merely to mask or distort the reality of the problem. The socialist critic exposes and defines the problem because he looks for its causes in the country’s economy and not in its administrative, legal, or ecclesiastic machinery, its racial dualism or pluralism, or its cultural or moral conditions. The problem of the Indian is rooted in the land tenure system of our economy”. Any attempt “to solve it with administrative or police measures, through education or by a road building program, is superficial and secondary as long as the feudalism of the gamonales [landowners] continues to exist”.

Mariátegui’s other major analysis of the indigenous question was the essay, ‘The Problem of Race in Latin America’, written for the Comintern’s Latin American conference (1929). He was scathing about the racism against indigenous peoples, arguing that “the colonisation of Latin America by the white race has only had a retarding and depressive effect on the lives of indigenous races” and that “Quechua or Aymara Indians view the mestizo, the white, as their oppressor”.

Mariátegui afforded indigenous peoples some agency in the struggle for socialism. He concluded: “Perhaps an indigenous revolutionary consciousness will form slowly, but once the Indians have made the socialist ideal their own, they will serve it with a discipline, tenacity, and strength that few proletarians from other milieus will be able to surpass”. But he was not a romantic, glorifying a mythical Inca past. He wrote “indigenismo does not indulge in fantasies of utopian restorations”.

However, the principal area of debate at the conference concerned whether indigenous oppression should be formulated as a national question. Mariátegui’s paper directly contradicted the Comintern’s proposal to establish an Indian Republic in the South American Andes, where a concentration of Quechua and Aymara peoples formed a majority of the population. Although Mariátegui conceded that the establishment of such autonomous republics might work elsewhere, in Peru the proposal was the result of not understanding the socioeconomic situation of the Indigenous peoples. He wrote: “The construction of an autonomous state from the Indian race would not lead to the dictatorship of the Indian proletariat, nor much less the formation of an Indian state without classes.” Instead, the result would be “an Indian bourgeois state with all of the internal and external contradictions of other bourgeois states”.

Mariátegui believed that the existing nation-states were too deeply entrenched in South America to warrant rethinking their configuration. As Becker put it previously, “the Comintern’s underestimation of the level of state formation, together with the misapplication of the “National Question,” led to a policy which Mariátegui rejected as “irrelevant and unworkable”.

There were undoubtedly problems with the Stalinised version of national question, which were criticised by Trotskyists at the time. However, the demand for “native republics”, originating with South African Communists, was also accepted by the left oppositionists in the US and by Trotsky himself as a legitimate self-determination slogan. Mariátegui was probably too hasty in dismissing its relevance to indigenous struggle.

Mariátegui did accept elements of the self-determination, repeatedly emphasising that the solution “must be worked out by the Indians themselves”. He was clear that the indigenous peoples should form part of Peruvian national identity, but he does not appear to have considered the possibility they might want to retain or develop their own separate national identity. Self-determination on the national question in Peru might have included the right not to be incorporated into the Peruvian nation, as well as the right to secede and form a separate state.

Therefore, whilst his discussion of the indigenous question was a significant improvement on previous formulations, it did not develop fully the advances made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the national question.

Mariátegui also made a sharp intervention against the “anti-imperialist” common sense of his day. Initially he worked with the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), when it was a loose, nationalist, anti-imperialist alliance. However, when its leader Haya de la Torre transformed it into a political party, Mariátegui broke with it.

Mariátegui criticised the APRA for seeking to become the Latin American Kuomintang, stating his “aversion to any form of demagogic and inconclusive populism, including personalistic caudillos”. He was not taken in by demagogy about “revolution”. He wrote: “In this America of small revolutions, the same word, revolution, frequently lends itself to misunderstanding. We have to reclaim it rigorously and intransigently. We have to restore its strict and exact meaning. The Latin American Revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a stage of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be the socialist revolution. Add all the adjectives you want to this word according to the particular case: ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘agrarian’, ‘national-revolutionary’. Socialism supposes, precedes, and includes all of them”.

Mariátegui criticism was crystallised in his document to the Comintern’s Latin American conference, ‘Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint’ (1929). He summed up the differences sharply: “Anti-imperialism thereby is raised to the level of a programme, a political attitude, a movement that is valid in and of itself and that leads spontaneously to socialism, to the social revolution (how, we have no idea). This idea inordinately overestimates the anti-imperialist movement, exaggerates the myth of the struggle for a ‘second independence,’ and romanticises that we are already living in the era of a new emancipation. This leads to the idea of replacing the anti-imperialist leagues with political parties. From an APRA initially conceived as a united front, a popular alliance, a bloc of oppressed classes, we pass to an APRA defined as the Latin American Kuomintang”. (‘Second Independence’ was still being touted by some in Latin America during the Falklands war in 1982.)

In a tone that should serve as a warning to today’s left, he argued: “For us, anti-imperialism does not and cannot constitute, by itself a political programme for a mass movement capable of conquering state power. Anti-imperialism, even if it could mobilise the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie on the side of the worker and peasant masses (and we have already definitively denied this possibility), does not annul class antagonisms nor suppress different class interests... Neither the bourgeoisie nor the petty bourgeoisie in power can carry out anti-imperialist politics. To demonstrate this we have the experience of Mexico, where the petty bourgeoisie has just allied with Yankee imperialism”.

He added: “The taking of power by anti-imperialism, if it were possible, would not represent the taking of power by the proletarian masses, by socialism. The socialist revolution will find its most bloody and dangerous enemy (dangerous because of their confusionism and demagogy) in those petty bourgeois placed in power by the voices of order... Without ruling out the use of any type of anti-imperialist agitation or any action to mobilise those social sectors that might eventually join the struggle, our mission is to explain to and show the masses that only the socialist revolution can stand as a definitive and real barrier to the advance of imperialism”.

Mariátegui concluded: “We are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because we oppose capitalism with socialism, an antagonistic system called upon to transcend it, and because in our struggle against foreign imperialism we are fulfilling our duty of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe”.

The Mandelite Michel Löwy has argued that Mariátegui “did not take sides in the conflict between Stalin and the Left Opposition, but his articles on the issue barely hide his regret over the defeat of Trotsky”. It is clear that Mariátegui was familiar with a range of Trotsky’s writings and utilised them for his own analyses.

After Trotsky’s initial defeat at the hands of Stalin (1924), Mariátegui described him as “not only a protagonist, but also a philosopher, historian, and critic of the revolution”. Mariátegui rejected “the fiction of the martial Trotsky, the Napoleonic Trotsky” — i.e. the idea that he was the likely Bonaparte of the Russian revolution. Rather he praised Trotsky’s organisation of the Red Army.

As late as February 1929, Mariátegui described Trotsky’s exile as “an event to which international revolutionary opinion cannot become easily accustomed. Revolutionary optimism never admitted the possibility that this revolution would end, like the French, condemning its heroes”. He stated that “Trotskyist opinion has a useful role in Soviet politics” because it represented “Marxist orthodoxy, confronting the overflowing and unruly current of Russian reality. It exemplifies the working-class, urban, industrial sense of the socialist revolution. The Russian revolution owes its international, ecumenical value, its character as a precursor of the rise of a new civilisation, to the ideas that Trotsky and his comrades insist upon in their full strength and import”. Mariátegui warned that “without vigilant criticism, which is the best proof of the vitality of the Bolshevik Party, the Soviet government would probably run the risk of falling into a formalist, mechanical bureaucratism”.

Although he opined that “events have not proven Trotskyism correct”, he felt that “neither Stalin nor Bukharin is very far from subscribing to most of the fundamental concepts of Trotsky and his adepts”. Mariátegui praised Trotsky’s “notable writings on the transitory stabilisation of capitalism are among the most alert and sagacious criticisms of the era. But this very international sense of the revolution, which gives him such prestige on the world scene, momentarily robs him of his power in the practice of Russian politics”. According to Pierre Naville, there was correspondence between Mariátegui and the European Left Opposition.

More importantly, there is much in common between Trotsky’s conceptions of uneven and combined development and Mariátegui’s assessment of Peru in terms of three modes of production, dominated by capitalism. There is more than just a hint of permanent revolution in Mariátegui, when he wrote that “this is a moment in our history when it is impossible to be really nationalist and revolutionary without being Socialist”. He argued that “there does not exist and never has existed in Peru a progressive bourgeoisie, endowed with national feelings, that claims to be liberal and democratic” and that “only proletarian action can stimulate and then perform the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution that the bourgeois regime is incapable of developing and delivering”.

Löwy’s verdict on Mariátegui is generous, but I think accurate. He was “undoubtedly the most vigorous and original thinker that Latin America has yet known”. His Seven Essays were “the first attempt at a Marxist analysis of a concrete Latin American social formation”. Zinoviev summed it up pithily: “Mariátegui has a brilliant mind; he is a true creator. He does not seem like a Latin American; he does not plagiarise, he does not copy, he does not parrot what the Europeans say. What he creates is his own”.

Mariátegui deserves to be read, translated and discussed. His contribution to Marxism was wide ranging and unlike so many of his epigones, he deserves to be included in our great tradition of working-class socialism.

• Longer version of this article here

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.