Mariátegui: Marxism, Anti-imperialism, and Socialism

  • Juan Dal Maso | 
  • July 25, 2021

The political crisis in Peru has led to a renewed interest in José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin America’s greatest Marxist.

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The political crisis in Peru, with the victory of Pedro Castillo in the presidential elections, has led to a new interest in José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui (1894—1930), the founder of the Communist Party of Peru, was known as the “Amauta,” Quetchua for “wise one.” Today, different political tendencies claim that Mariátegui was a populist focusing on national liberation. A study of his work, however, reveals a revolutionary Marxist and fighting for international socialist revolution. These aspects of Mariátegui’s thought are particularly relevant for Latin America today.

Mariátegui as a Marxist

The work of José Carlos Mariátegui has been subject to a long series of interpretations that are impossible to summarize in an article. We will say here only that very dissimilar political groups support his ideas, and he is mostly recognized for his analyses of the reality of Latin America. Amid the current decolonial and “populist” academic tendencies (the latter being a basic adaptation of Ernesto Laclau’s theories), the fact that Mariátegui was a Marxist author is often forgotten.

What I mean by this is that, given the breadth of his concerns and reflections, Mariátegui’s ideas are relevant to groups on different sides of the ideological spectrum, from indigenists to those focused on “intersectionality,” including postcolonial and (to a lesser degree) decolonial theorists and those putting forth different theories on how to develop a specifically Latin American Marxism.

The reason for this is that, in his reflections on the revolution in Peru and Latin America, Mariátegui identified problems that did not exist in the same way in different parts of the world. He especially highlighted the importance of the struggles of indigenous people, as well as the customs of their communities, as a foothold for socialist struggles (which had previously been confirmed in the Morelos Commune during the Mexican Revolution, although Mariátegui apparently had no knowledge of the experience). In addition to this, Mariátegui’s class analysis addresses the role played by social groups in relations of production, but it is also permeated by the question of identity. From his point of view, the indigenous problem and the question of class are closely related, because the working masses of Peru are mostly indigenous. This is why Mariátegui’s work is taken into account by those who are more interested in the question of “race” than those of “class” or by those who opt for “intersectional” approaches. There is no doubt that Mariátegui developed a non-economistic approach to these questions, because in his eyes race and class were concretely hybridized in Peru. His way of approaching the problem of the subject was linked to his understanding of the problems of the concrete ways that capitalism developed in Peru. As a result, the indigenous question in all its dimensions could not be disregarded.

Many contemporary theorists emphasize these aspects of Mariátegui’s thought in terms that are more consistent with the positions that are taken more seriously in academic circles. In doing so, these theorists lose sight of an issue that is ultimately a basic foundation of Mariátegui’s Marxism: the centrality of economic changes as a necessary condition for any project of emancipation. By recognizing the indigenous problem, Mariátegui could also think about the class question in non-workerist terms or in a way that transcended economism. Mariátegui, however, simultaneously emphasized the centrality of the economic question in resolving the indigenous question, asserting that “The Problem of the Indian” was “the problem of the land” and that the programmatic consequence of this was the expropriation of large estates, as part of a revolution that had to take up the tasks of national emancipation and agrarian revolution with a socialist perspective.

If you think about it, it is curious that ideas of radical economic change have so little acceptance in academic fields, especially in those considered critical. They are dismissed as “essentialist” or “economistic,” while the focus is increasingly placed on performative discourses or “cultural battles.” One of the essential aspects of Mariátegui’s Marxism has to do with this ability to “intersect” the dimensions of race and class (and, to a certain extent, gender, because he also focused on the feminist movement of his time), as well as the cultural and social aspects, but without denying the centrality of the revolutionary transformation of the economic structure of society. This shouldn’t be forgotten.

Populism and Popular Front

It has been 80 years since the Soviet historian Miroshevski referred to Mariátegui as a “populist” (in the sense of the Russian Narodniki, who considered the peasantry to be the subject of the revolution), and the terms of the debate have changed significantly. The indiscriminate proliferation of the term “populism” that we see today does not help to clarify this issue. Let’s begin with those who associate Mariátegui with the ideas of Russian populism.

It is an interesting comparison, but the interpretation of Mariátegui as a populist poses certain problems. If Mariátegui is a populist Marxist for reflecting on the socialist potential of indigenous communities, the same should be said of Marx, who used very similar arguments in his letter to Vera Zasulich about the Russian rural commune. Furthermore, in Marx’s later writings, he was considerably sympathetic to the Russian populists. But it would be inaccurate to define Marx as a populist, and the same applies to Mariátegui. Mariátegui’s main difference with Russian populism is that he highlighted both the rural community’s socialist potential and the centrality of the urban and rural proletariat (which was also indigenous, as mentioned above). This was not the case among Russian populists. The same is true for Marx, despite the obvious differences.

Others associate Mariátegui’s ideas with the Popular Front strategy adopted by the Stalinists of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. This interpretation was first developed by Stalinists themselves in some of their ideological zigzags and was adopted by the Argentinean thinker José Aricó, based on his own arguments. The supposed basis of this position was Mariátegui’s participation in the APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) before he broke with Victor Haya de la Torre, a bourgeois anti-imperialist politician. the Moreover, throughout the first four congresses of the Communist International, Marxists maintained ties with progressive national movements. Yet the difference between this and Stalinists’ political views could not be greater. As Mariátegui himself explained at the time of the split with Haya de la Torre, the APRA was a movement that contained various tendencies that were part of the vanguard and underwent a process of clarification of political positions and ideological and strategic divisions. The split became final precisely when Haya de la Torre wanted to turn the APRA into a bourgeois nationalist party. The Popular Front consists of the rehabilitation of the Menshevik doctrine of alliance with the supposedly progressive bourgeoisie (or national bourgeoisie in the periphery), based on the idea that a revolution needs to be carried out in stages. What does this have to do with Mariátegui’s position?

In addition, it is also important to emphasize that Mariátegui’s Marxism is distinctly internationalist. He never considered himself a particularist or thought it was possible to separate the revolution in Peru and Latin America from the struggle for international revolution. His ideas in this respect are contrary to those of all populist variants.

For Mariátegui, World War I had shown that capitalism had reached an international scale, and therefore no country could escape its grasp. In this context, the Russian Revolution had led to a rise in the struggle of the working class and the oppressed. Internationalism was based on the global character of the capitalist economy, on the international scope of the crisis, and on the international extent of class struggle. In his 1923 conference on the world crisis and the Peruvian proletariat, he pointed out that internationalism “is not just an ideal; it is a historical reality.” The development of the capitalist economy on an international scale, he asserted, also internationalized class struggle and ideological struggles. As a result, “the most advanced ideals of Europe” had gained a place in Peruvian political life.

Incidentally, interpretations of Mariátegui as a thinker have several limitations when they try to pigeonhole him as someone who focused exclusively on the problem of the nation or who prioritized the “national” approach over the “socialist” one. His reflections on this issue are undoubtedly important, because he questions the idea of a nation based on colonial heritage and links it to the concrete reality of the masses. But the latter are also presented in terms of in internationalist revolutionary project.

Anti-imperialism and Socialism: In Search of the Latin American Revolution

Mariátegui died in 1930 and, thus, all of his activity took place before the development of the big mass-based bourgeois nationalisms of Latin America. But his debate with Haya de la Torre, when the latter proclaimed that the APRA should stop being an ambiguous movement and become a bourgeois party, contained the seeds of many subsequent Marxist critiques of movements like Peronism, the Mexican PRM, the MNR of Bolivia, or the APRA itself in its later form.

José Aricó suggests that Mariátegui’s split with Haya de la Torre in 1928 was premature and more or less imposed by the Comintern. This circumstance, in his view, had led to the division between Marxism and populism in Latin America. His split with Haya, however, seems to have been a carefully considered process. To understand this, we have to consider the specific debate that Mariátegui had with the APRA leader over the problem of the anti-imperialist struggle and its relationship with Marxism.

Mariátegui focused considerably on the “national problem” even as an international phenomenon, applying the strategic approach adopted by the Third International in its first four congresses, according to which the class struggle of the proletariat of the metropolis and the struggle for the liberation of the peoples of the East were the two main driving forces of the world revolution. Mariátegui also underscored an aspect that perhaps was not taken into account to the same degree by other Marxists: Wilsonian propaganda had created expectations of progress and democracy among the peoples colonized by the old European empires. As a result of the combined effects of the war and the Russian Revolution, the peoples of the East had begun their journey toward “modernity,” assimilating in their own way the gains of the West while fighting to overthrow their subordination and oppression.

This can be seen in articles like “The Turkish Revolution and Islam” and his articles on the development of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s. Particularly in “The Civil War in China,” published on December 13, 1929, Mariátegui concluded that the potential of “revolutionary nationalism” represented by the Kuomintang had been exhausted, because the party was subordinated to imperialism and because it opposed the workers and peasants’ uprising. From his point of view, the working class and communism were the true heirs of Sun Yat-sen’s anti-imperialist program.

While he was rethinking the relationship between Marxism, anti-imperialism, and “revolutionary nationalism,” he was simultaneously distancing himself from Haya de la Torre, whom he criticized precisely for his proposal to turn the APRA in a “Latin American Kuomintang” in an attempt to separate anti-imperialism from the struggle for socialism. He thus underlined the importance of fighting for the socialist revolution for our subcontinent due to the impossibility of achieving long-term anti-imperialist development in the framework of a national capitalist system. In doing this, he did not deny the importance of national demands or of the agrarian revolution, as specific to the reality of Latin America.

But for Mariátegui, these demands are included in the socialist revolution and not the other way around. With regard to Peru and Latin America, Mariátegui maintained that the revolutions of independence and the limits of the liberal republic had sufficiently demonstrated the impossibility of independent bourgeois development in the imperialist era, when the economy is globally interconnected , while indigenous community traditions contained elements of “practical socialism.” He thus pointed out the impossibility of a “bourgeois-democratic revolution” led by the national bourgeoisie and viewed the proletariat and the indigenous masses as the subject of the revolution that would address unresolved national issues while advancing toward a process of socialist revolution.

These ideas, presented in his Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality and later summarized in the proposed program for the Peruvian SP were equally rejected by the leadership of the already-bureaucratized Third International, which was focused on the dogmatic division between countries that were “ripe” and “not ripe” for socialism, and by the Apristas who opposed anti-imperialism and class struggle.

Capitalist Decline and the Defense of Marxism

Mariátegui’s concerns and reflections, as well as his theoretical and political writings, focused on the same topics as those addressed by the most prominent Marxists of the 20th century, like Trotsky and Gramsci. Mariátegui could argue with the same competence on the development of the German revolution as on Futurism. His strategic thought in relation to class struggle was developed in parallel with a constant exploration of the artistic avant-garde. Mariátegui believed that the crisis that had begun with World War I was a crisis of capitalism as an economic-social system, of liberal democracy as a political system and of “bourgeois civilization” from a cultural point of view. The “contemporary scenario” encompassed all levels, from the economic crisis to artistic expressions, including revolutions and philosophical and scientific debates. Mariátegui thus displayed what could be referred to as an “intelligent eclecticism.” While he maintained the direct relationship between the indigenous question and the land problem as a “materialist principle,” he believed it was essential to separate Marxism from mechanistic and positivist thought, and he understood Bolshevism as a movement correlated with the philosophical trends linked to the “anti-positivist reaction.” This led to the emergence of one of the most controversial and original aspects of Mariátegui’s thought: the “alliance” between “Sorelianism” and Marxism and the use of the figure of myth to think about how historical and social movements imagine their own practice. Without confusing the positions of Marx, Lenin, and Sorel, Mariátegui searched for points of convergence that would make it possible to recover all the components that made Marxism a “philosophy of action.” This did not, however, lead Mariátegui to embrace irrationalist ideologies, which he considered an expression of the bourgeoisie’s intellectual decline, as he argued with respect to Henri De Man’s book and his “revision” of Marxism.

In this context, while he confronted the notion that the crisis of positivism meant a crisis of Marxism, he claimed for Marxism the foundations of science (but not of scientism). Many of these ideas are highly relevant to the current debate, especially in discussions regarding mainstream academia’s distorted portrayals of Marxism as a combination of positivism, economism, and philosophy of history based in Europe.

Some Conclusions

When an author’s work is subject to a high level of controversy and different interpretations and reinterpretations, it is always important to debate with the predominant interpretations of his thought. But it is also true that, in most of these cases, tons of controversies are resolved in a relatively simple manner by relying not on different interpretations and counter-interpretations, but on what the author in question said in his own voice. In Mariátegui’s case, the advantage is that there are no enigmas in his writings. He writes very well, expresses himself in clear language, and always says what he wants to say openly. Before interpreting, citing, using and unusing Mariátegui, we have to read his work, and read it very carefully. During this global crisis of capitalism — in a context of new waves of class struggle, with unresolved ideological debates in which Marxists need to strengthen their position, in the current scenario in Latin America, which has seen enormous mass actions and polarization between the extreme Right and progressivisms in decline — Mariátegui’s thought provides essential elements that could help us navigate this situation: an international and multilevel perspective on the crisis and a profound reflection on the decline of capitalist society and the foundations of an independent strategy of the working class and the oppressed to fight for the revolution and socialism. Rereading Mariátegui is a necessary exercise, not to try to solve the pressing political problems of today by mechanically applying his ideas, but to draw inspiration from his way of addressing the problems of his time.

His friend Samuel Glusberg wrote the following on the 10th anniversary of his death in the Trotskyist magazine Clave:

It was mid-1935. We were back in Valparaíso after having been to Spain and New York, where the John Reed Club was still active, and we went down to El Callao, that is to say, the port of Lima. Naturally, we went to visit Mariátegui’s tomb. … And once in Buenos Aires, we decided to found a center for Friends of José Carlos Mariátegui, similar to the John Reed Club in New York. But then came the all-out war in Spain; the defense of abstract democracy against real fascism, all over the world; the isolation of those who continued to think for themselves what they had thought until the day before; systematic adulation as an element of propaganda; the recourse of unity at any price; the suicidal policy of holding out your hand to the enemy ... and, little by little, the corruption of the best of them, which is the worst kind.

Today, those of us who refuse to join the chorus of such hollow opportunism, to say the least, have the duty to build around the enlightened figure of Mariátegui small groups of free and selfless men, so that the clear voice of this Amauta [Quechua: “wise one”; the title of Mariátegui’s journal] can be heard once again.

What better tribute than to feel that we are part of a group of friends of José Carlos Mariátegui in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Havana and Mexico, not only on the tenth anniversary of his death, but always, as long as we preserve the example of his life and his work?

It sounds like good advice to me.

First published in Spanish on June 13 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation: Marisela Trevin

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