Latin America appears to have long been in the thrall of ‘barbaric’ Marxism: the stale Stalinism of the official Communist Parties, the populist Stalinism of the Castro current, the national reformism of the Sandinistas and more recently the Bonapartism of Chavistas. But there is a rich and authentic tendency of Latin American Marxism, in which Jose Carlos Mariátegui is probably the brightest star. His contribution during the third decade of the twentieth century has rightly earned him the epitaph of Latin America’s Gramsci.
The publication of “José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology”, edited and translated by Harry Vanden and Marc Becker (henceforth V&B, 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 silences detract somewhat from its value. Ultimately, it is impossible to read Mariátegui without sloughing off the excrescences foisted onto him by Stalinists.
1) Who was Jose Carlos Mariátegui?
José Carlos Mariátegui was born in Peru on 14 June 1894. Aged eight, he had an accident at school, which left his left leg fragile and restricted his studies. For a decade from 1909 he began working for daily newspapers, firstly as an assistant but rising to an 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 for Europe. He travelled through France and Italy, witnessing the Turin strike movement 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 on the international situation. In 1924, he suffered a lifesaving amputation of his right leg, which confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In 1925, he published his first book, The Contemporary Scene. The following year, he agreed to participate in the APRA nationalist alliance and founded Amauta (“Wise Teacher”) magazine. In 1927, the government denounced a supposed "Communist plot" and repressed worker activists and intellectuals. Mariátegui was interned.
In 1928, Mariátegui broke with the APRA. He made contact with the Trade Union Secretariat of the Third International and 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 published he second book, Seven Interpretive 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.
This book is the most comprehensive selection of Mariátegui’s writings in English published so far, although with twenty volumes in his Obras Completas, English readers are still a long way from being able to enjoy the full range of his works. Sadly there are some serious gripes with this new selection of texts. For example Mariátegui’s book Defence of Marxism is chopped up, with some interesting chapters and sections omitted. Less than half his essay on “The Problem of Race in Latin America” is translated. More than a dozen texts are already available in English translation in Michael Pearlman’s selection of Mariátegui’s work (1996). Whilst the editors might argue their translations are superior, surely the point is to make as much of his work available to those who can’t read Spanish. Actually, the editors’ choices are heavily conditioned by their political sympathies, which seem to include Maoism, Guevaraism and the Sandinistas.
1. Conception of Marxism
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.
Mariátegui’s Marxism was principally about developing a working class world view. He argued that “revolutionary ideas must dislodge conservative ideas not only from the institutions, but also from the mind and the spirit of humanity. The revolution undertakes the conquest of thought at the same time as the conquest of power” (The Clarté group 1925, Pearlman p.181). Marxists he believed, “are not content with mediocrity, let alone do we settle for injustice. We are often described as pessimistic, but, in truth, pessimism dominates our spirit much less than optimism. We do not believe that the world should be fatally and eternally as it is. We believe that it can and should be better. The optimism we reject is easy and lazy Panglossian optimism of those who think we live in the best of all possible worlds” (Pessimism of the reality, optimism of the ideal 1925, V&B p.396).
Mariátegui’s Marxism was self-consciously methodological. He argued that Marxism “is a fundamentally dialectic method. It 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” (Message to the workers’ congress 1927, V&B p.182). He rejected the “bankruptcy of positivism and scientism”, arguing that Marx’s theory and politics was “invariably cemented to science, not scientism” (Defence of Marxism 1928-29, V&B p.198).
Marxism had “never obeyed a passive and rigid determinism”. Marx could “only conceive or propose realistic politics” and demonstrated how the processes of the capitalist economy lead to socialism. He always understood “the spiritual and intellectual capacity of the proletariat to create a new order through class struggle as a necessary condition”. 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” (Defence of Marxism 1928-29, V&B p.208-210).
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.
2. Assessment of Peruvian reality
Mariátegui’s starting point for analysing Peru was the way “capitalist society has internationalised humanity’s life” and forged “material bonds between all the peoples which establish between them an inevitable solidarity” (The world crisis and the Peruvian proletariat 1924, V&B p.296). Marx discovered and taught that “one had to begin by understand 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...” (Defence of Marxism 1928-29, V&B p.212).
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” (V&B p.237, p.238-239).
Within Mariátegui’s writings it is possible to discern a sense of both the combined and uneven development of the world economy. 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” (Is there such a thing as Hispanic-American thought? 1925, Pearlman p.118). 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” (The destiny of North America 1927, V&B p.287, p.288, p.290).
Mariátegui understood the place of Latin America within the international order, remarking that “Spanish-speaking America finds itself divided, split and Balkanised” (The unity of Indo-Hispanic America 1924, V&B p.448). However he was far from conceiving of Latin American opposition to the United States simply in nationalist terms. In particular it is possible to locate sharp criticisms of Latin American governments and even the germ of a theory of Bonapartism in his writings. In an article, Portes Gil against the CROM (1929) discussing the attack on the trade unions by the Mexican government, he wrote: “During the Obregon and Calles’s governments, the stabilisation of the revolutionary regime had been obtained by virtue of a tacit pact between the insurgent petite bourgeoisie and the worker and peasant organisations to collaborate on a strictly reformist basis... Under this regime, not only have the workers’ forces developed, channelled in a reformist direction, but also the forces of capital and the bourgeoisie... The wisest operated inside the revolution, waiting for the hour of Thermidorian reaction to sound”. He was absolutely clear that the Mexican state was “not a socialist state in theory or in practice” (V&B p.456).
However it is Mariátegui’s Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) that his first truly original contribution was developed. The text was first translated into English in 1971 and is now available online on the Marxist Internet Archive. For reasons that will become clear, Vanden and Becker included their own translation of the third essay on the problem of land in this volume.
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 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, in their previous books on Mariátegui and in their introduction to this one, argue that he anticipated much of what later became the dependency school, which is still very influential in left politics (2011 p.41). 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. Mariátegui wrote in the third essay that “The Peruvian economy is a colonial economy. Its movement, its development is subordinated to the interests and necessities of the London and New York markets... Our latifundistas, our landowners – whatever their illusions about their independence – in reality only act as intermediaries or agents of foreign capitalism” (V&B p.111).
Similarly, he had written in Colonial economy, (1926) that “Peru’s economic dependency is felt throughout the nation... The profits from mining, commerce, transportation and such do not stay in Peru”. In the Programmatic principles of the Socialist Party (1928) he wrote that “capitalism has emerged in a semi-feudal context such as ours... Imperialism does not allow any of these semicolonial peoples, whom it exploits as a market for capital and goods and as a source of raw materials, to have an economic programme of nationalisation and industrialisation” (V&B p.134, p.238). These and similar formulations appear to have carried over from the Comintern literature of the time, evident for example at the Sixth Congress where Bukharin’s and Kuusinen’s writing at that Stalinist gathering.
Another reading might be to identify elements of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in Mariátegui’s writing. In Seven Essays he regarded capitalism as “weak, incipient, and rudimentary in Peru”, while “the professional and business bourgeoisie was too weak to govern” (V&B p.85). In one of his last articles, On the character of Peruvian society (1929) suggests Mariátegui remained distant from what became the Stalinist orthodoxy. He argued that “formally, Peru is a republican and democratic-bourgeois state”, while acknowledging feudal and semi-feudal survivals. In relations of production and work, “a paid salary indicates the transition to capitalism” and “salaried labour prevails on the coastal haciendas” (V&B p.244, p.245).
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” (V&B p.246, p.249, p.250, p.251).
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.
3. Who is the revolutionary class
The political implications of Vanden and Becker’s view of Mariátegui are also clear from their previous writings, where they cite peasants as the locum revolutionary class. Vanden wrote: “By the late 1920s Mariátegui, like Mao, became convinced that the peasants had the potential for revolutionary action in agrarian society... Such change was, however, to be accomplished not by an urban vanguard, but by the Indian peasants themselves. Thus, the mostly Indian peasants emerge as the strong revolutionary class in Peru” (1978 p.198). More recently, Becker wrote: “Unlike orthodox Marxists... Mariátegui looked to the peasant and indigenous masses rather than an industrialised urban working class to lead a nationalistic social revolution which he believed would sweep across Latin America” (1993 p.xiii).
However even their selections in this book do not support this thesis. In his lectures on the history of the world crisis (1925), Mariátegui argued that, “In this great contemporary crisis, the proletariat is not a spectator, but an actor” and he dedicated “my dissertations, above all, to this vanguard of the Peruvian proletariat” (V&B p.296, p.298). Mariátegui understood that the Russian revolution was “the work of the urban working class and a socialist ideology that is essentially urban. The peasant supported the revolution because it gave them land... The city is the centre, the home, of civilisation and its creations. The city is civilisation itself” (Maxim Gorky and Russia 1925, V&B p.411).
In the Programmatic principles of the Socialist Party (1928), he did write that “the working masses of the city, the countryside, the mining camps, and indigenous peasants, whose interests and aspirations we represent in the political struggle, will embrace these claims and ideas, will fight persistently and vigorously for them, and will find, through each struggle, the road that leads to the final victory of socialism” (V&B p.242). This could be interpreted as a concession to the idea of “workers’ and peasants’ parties” promoted by the fifth congress of the Comintern (1924). But it might equally be understood merely as the demand for an alliance between workers and peasants, which was essential in twentieth century Peru.
Other statements make it clear that Mariátegui saw the working class as the principal revolutionary class. He wrote in Defence of Marxism (1928-29): “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 (V&B p.212-213, p.214). In one of his last writings he upheld working class independence: “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. We therefore repudiate the APRA tendency” (Sobre un tópico superado 1930, in Löwy 1992 p.xx).
4. Assessment of indigenous question
Although it would be a mistake to believe that Mariátegui elevated Indian peasants to the level of a revolutionary class substituting for the workers, there is no doubt that he brought a fresh perspective to the question of indigenous exploitation and oppression. 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 rejected racist formulations of the question. He wrote that “the assumption that the Indian problem is ethnic is sustained by the most outmoded repertory of imperialist ideas. The concept of inferior races was useful to the white man’s West for purposes of expansion and conquest. To expect that the Indian will be emancipated through a steady crossing of the aboriginal race with white immigrants is an anti-sociological naiveté that could only occur to the primitive mentality of an importer of merino sheep”. Similarly, it would not simply be solved by education, which was opposed by the landowners. Rather “the new approach locates the problem of the Indian in the land tenure system”.
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 in June 1929. He reiterated his earlier assessment of the social and economic roots of the problem. Mariátegui 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” (V&B p.308, p.314).
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” (V&B p.325). But he was not a backward-facing romantic, glorifying a mythical Inca past. He wrote “indigenismo does not indulge in fantasies of utopian restorations” (Nationalism and vanguardism 1925, Pearlman p.71).
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” (2006 p.466).
Becker believed that Mariátegui’s ideas on race were far more advanced and complex than those of Moscow. 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” (Peru’s principal problem 1924; Aspects of the indigenous problem 1926; On the indigenous problem 1929 (V&B p.142, p.152, p.149). 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.
Mariátegui’s reductionism assumed that assimilation into the Peruvian nation was desirable for the indigenous people. He also fetishised the existing territorial boundaries of Latin American states rather than asking what the indigenous wanted in terms of their own self-rule. Therefore whilst his discussion of the indigenous question was a significant improvement on previous formulations, it did not develop the fully the advances made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the national question.
If Mariátegui made an innovative contribution on the indigenous question, then on the matters of wider anti-imperialism he was reassuringly orthodox. On his return to Peru from Europe, he worked with Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre at the Popular University in 1923. Haya de la Torre was deported in 1924, forming the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) in Mexico. Initially the APRA was a loose, nationalist, anti-imperialist alliance and was supported by Mariátegui (V&B p.99). However when 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” (Class action in Peru 1929, V&B p.167-168). 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” (Anniversary and balance sheet 1928, V&B p.128).
Mariátegui criticism was crystallised in his document to the Comintern’s Latin American conference, Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint (1929). He argued that “the fundamental difference between us in Peru who originally accepted the APRA (as a project for a united front, never as a party or even as an effective organiser of struggle), and those outside Peru who later defined it as a Latin American Kuomintang, is that the former remain faithful to the revolutionary, socioeconomic conception of anti-imperialism; the latter, meanwhile, explain their position by saying: ‘We are leftists (or socialists) because we are anti-imperialists’".
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” (V&B p.268).
In a tone that resonates to this day and 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” (V&B p.268).
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” (V&B p.269).
Mariátegui concluded by explaining the extent of working class anti-imperialism: “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” (V&B p.272).
6. Relationship with Stalinism and Trotskyism
Mariátegui’s relationship to Stalinism and to Trotskyism has been the subject of much discussion. The Peruvian historian Jorge Basadre was right in his introduction to the Seven Essays that whether or not Mariátegui was the founder of the Communist party “is a pointless controversy”. Mariátegui was “not basically in disagreement with the leaders of the Communist International; the nature of his objections was tactical, immediate, and incidental”. Subsequently, the Stalinist historian Miroshevsky (1942) criticised him for populism, while others such as Simionov and Shulgovski (1960) were more sympathetic.
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” (1992 p.xx). It is clear that Mariátegui was familiar with a range of Trotsky’s writings and utilised them for his own analyses. There are explicit references to Trotsky’s books: From the October Revolution to the Brest-Litovsk Peace (The Russian Revolution 1923); the Decline of England (The decline of England 1924); Europe and America (Yankeeland and socialism 1927); and Literature and Revolution (Defence of Marxism 1928-29).
After Trotsky’s initial defeat at the hands of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, 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 during the civil war (Trotsky 1924, Pearlman p.13, p.15).
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” (Pearlman p.16-17).
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”. The Trotskyist proposals and solutions, he believed, did not have “the same solidity. In most of what relates to agrarian and industrial policies and the struggle against bureaucratism and the NEP spirit, Trotskyism tastes of a theoretical radicalism that has not been condensed into concrete and precise formulas. On this terrain, Stalin and the majority, along with having the responsibility for administration, have a more real sense of the possibilities” (Pearlman p.17).
Trotsky had “an international sense of the socialist revolution”. Mariátegui praised “his 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”. Trotsky was to his mind “an excessive figure on the stage of national achievement”. Mariátegui felt it was not easy to conceive him “filling the modest role of minister in normal times. The NEP condemns him to return to his belligerent position as polemicist” (Pearlman p.18, p.19).
According to Pierre Naville, there was correspondence between Mariátegui and the European Left Opposition (Löwy 1992 p.lx, N.19). Gary Tennant argued that at the Fourth Congress of the Profintern held in Moscow in March-April 1928, Victorio Codovilla circulating a document demanding the expulsion of Left Oppositionists and asked delegates to sign it. The Cuban Marxist Julio Antonio Mella and the two delegates from the Peruvian Socialist Party “either avoided signing it, or refused to do so” (Revolutionary History, 7, 3, 2000 p.45). In the less reliable account by Baines, “Moscow attacked Mariátegui as a petty-bourgeois reformer; and it further sought to discredit him by accusing him of the high crime of ‘Trotskyism’”. Mariátegui was finally rebuked by the 1929 Comintern Latin American conference for his nationalist and ‘Trotskyite’ views (1972 p.134, p.136).
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 derives its policy from the postulates of its doctrine” (Prologue to the Tempest in the Andes 1927, Pearlman p.83). Similarly, the Programmatic principles of the Socialist Party stated that in the absence of a strong bourgeois class... 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” (V&B p.238-239).
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” (1992 p.xix, p.xx). 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” (Chavarría, 1979 p.162). 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.