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The Life of José Carlos Mariátegui

Marc Becker is a professor of Latin American history at Truman State University. He has published numerous books and articles on José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin America, and indigenous history, including José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (Monthly Review Press, 2011) and Twentieth-Century Latin American Revolutions (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), 248 pages, $19, paperback.

In 1930, the writer Waldo Frank noted in the pages of the Nation that José Carlos Mariátegui had died in Lima, Peru. “These words sufficed to plunge the intelligentsia of all of Hispano-America into sorrow,” Frank stated, “and nothing could be more eloquent of the cultural separation between the two halves of the new world than the fact that to most of us these words convey no meaning.”1

Almost a century later, this separation still persists despite repeated claims that Mariátegui is on the verge of being rediscovered. Waldo’s statement is doubly ironic because, barely a year earlier, the Nation had published an essay in which Mariátegui succinctly and convincingly laid out a Marxist analysis of Latin American underdevelopment. This essay, “The New Peru,” was Mariátegui’s only text published in English during his life, but it is one of his most popular and has been republished in a variety of languages in different publications.2

Mike Gonzalez’s new biography is the most recent of these so-called discoveries (or rediscoveries) of Mariátegui and the significance of his thought. Mariátegui famously proclaimed that a Latin American revolution could not “be a copy or imitation.” Rather, it must be a “heroic creation.”3 A standard narrative is that when he died in 1930, an increasingly Stalinized international Communist movement intentionally suppressed and denigrated his intellectual contributions only to have them resurface in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Numerous Latin American activists found his creative and open approach to theory inspiring and compelling. Gonzalez presents the purpose of his book as illustrating the “original and creative” thinker that Mariátegui was, which, ironically, is not an original or creative argument but very much the standard way people have understood his contributions for the past century.4

In 1971, the University of Texas published an English translation of Mariátegui’s most famous and significant book, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality.5 That same year, Gonzalez translated one of Mariátegui’s most polemical essays on anti-imperialism for the New Left Review.6 Even those publications were not entirely novel, as several years earlier Luis Aguilar had included Mariátegui in his anthology of Latin American Marxist writings.7

Over the next fifty years, a slow but steady flow of writings about Mariátegui and translations of his writings appeared in English as well as in many other languages. The most significant of these in English is a lengthy anthology published by Monthly Review Press in 2011.8 The level of production in the English-speaking world will never match that of Mariátegui’s Peru, where his family assured a virtual cottage industry of publications by and about the person who came to be known as the Amauta, wise teacher in Quechua. But it is also an exaggeration to say that he had disappeared or that a need exists to rediscover his thought. He has always been there and available for anyone with the desire to read and ponder his theories.

To be sure, few people in the English-speaking world are aware of Mariátegui or his contributions. I am reminded of this every time I talk about him. It is only a rare outlier who will know about the Amauta and, if anything, over the past generation, fewer rather than more students will have encountered him in their university studies. In fact, during my first year in graduate school in 1987, I first heard about Mariátegui not from a Latin American comrade but from a friend—Tim Block—who had read him in a philosophy class at Earlham College. That type of exposure has seemingly lessened over the past thirty years. Viewed in this way, Gonzalez’s biography is an important attempt to introduce Mariátegui to an English-speaking audience. Nevertheless, it constitutes not so much a rediscovery, but is itself part of a slow but steady embrace of a novel and innovative thinker broadly credited with the creation of a Latin American Marxism.

José Carlos Mariátegui

In many ways, Mariátegui was an unlikely innovator of Latin American Marxist thought. He was born in a small provincial town on the southern Peruvian coast and raised by an impoverished and religious single mother. Mariátegui did not emerge from an intellectual environment, nor did he have the advantage of an elite education. He only completed the eighth grade, but even that was an accomplishment in early twentieth-century rural South America where illiteracy rates were in the range of 97 percent. Lacking access to a university education, Mariátegui later commented that he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

Because of his family’s precarious financial situation, rather than furthering his formal education, at the age of fifteen Mariátegui was forced to find a job. He began as a copy boy at a newspaper in Peru’s capital city of Lima. With his curious and capable mind, Mariátegui quickly advanced to editing and writing for the newspaper and then launched his own. He hung out with other bohemians in Lima and soon became radicalized, which eventually led him to problems with the Peruvian government. Mariátegui was always dismissive of his early writings as part of what he labeled his “stone age.” As a result, as Gonzalez notes, his early literary production has never received its due attention or consideration.

In order to rid itself of a potential troublemaker, the Peruvian government exiled Mariátegui to Europe in 1919. It was a propitious time for an intellectually curious and politically astute person to spend time in France and Italy. Mariátegui ran in the same circles as revolutionary thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci. Scholars have subsequently debated what level of direct influence Gramsci had on Mariátegui, but what is apparent is that both embraced an open and voluntarist interpretation of Marxism that rejected an economistic and determinist approach to politics in favor of considering subjective factors in moving a society toward a revolutionary situation.

Mariátegui returned to his native Peru in 1923, and the next seven years of his life were intensely productive, both intellectually and politically. In 1926, he launched a vanguard journal called Amauta, a publication that quickly gained hemispheric circulation and became an important voice for new political developments while also addressing a broad range of topics in philosophy, art, literature, and science. Two years later, he published his landmark Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, which has since been embraced as the one book everyone should read to understand Latin American realities. The essays addressed economic development, the exclusion of indigenous peoples, land distribution, the education system, religion, and literature—all from a brilliant Marxist perspective.

But Mariátegui was not content to leave his contributions on a purely theoretical level. He was also politically engaged, particularly focused on the exploitative conditions at the United States-owned copper mine at Cerro de Pasco that extracted resources from Peru and left the country even more underdeveloped. To address these structural issues, Mariátegui founded Peru’s first socialist party in 1928, followed by a trade union federation the following year. Both retained an outsized presence in Peru’s political landscape for the remainder of the twentieth century.

In less than a decade, Mariátegui accomplished more than most of us can hope to achieve in a long lifetime. His health was never good and he died when he was only thirty-five years old. His funeral in 1930 turned into one of the largest processions of workers ever seen in Lima. As Gonzalez notes, Mariátegui realized his prolific production despite—or maybe because of—his looming early death.

Intellectual Contributions

It is significant that Mariátegui died before Joseph Stalin consolidated his control over the Communist International (Comintern). The 1930s were a time of dramatic alterations in policy, from the post-1928 Sixth Comintern Congress’ emphasis on a class-against-class line, to the switch to an embrace of popular fronts at the 1935 Seventh Congress, to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. It is generally agreed that if he had lived through that period, Mariátegui—as with Gramsci in Italy—would have had to make very difficult choices that inevitably would have sullied his positive image. But he died young and we lost the potential guiding light of a brilliant and original mind that might have shone through during a time of difficult and undesirable trade-offs.

A peculiar consequence of not having lived through this difficult period is that the Amauta—as with other martyrs—became a blank slate onto which potential followers could project their own hopes and dreams. In Mariátegui’s case, pretty much all tendencies on the left (and, really, beyond) look to him as their intellectual forebearer. The most extreme example that most point to is a Maoist branch of the Peruvian Communist Party, the guerrilla group that in the 1980s gained the moniker “Shining Path” because of their assertion that they followed “in the shining path of José Carlos Mariátegui,” itself a play on the Mariátegui quote that “Marxism-Leninism will open the shining path to the revolution.” Arguably, the declarations of an extremely militant and radical group are no more objectionable than those of far more moderate armchair revolutionaries who claim to be Mariateguistas despite rejecting their mentor and namesake’s open embrace of a much more dynamic Marxism-Leninism.

In the case of Gonzalez, the primary limitation of his book is its extreme anti-communism and attempt to remold and shape the Amauta to fit particular ideological assumptions. It is not so much that I oppose Gonzalez’s Trotskyist position. As with Che Guevara, I find much to embrace and applaud in that ideological tradition. Rather, it is a matter of intellectual and historical honesty. If Mariátegui is truly going to speak to a twenty-first-century audience, we need to take him on his own terms. Only then can we begin to understand how he confronted the looming issues of his time and, hopefully, also how to better confront ours today.

In this light, Gonzalez knocks down those who present Mariátegui as a “national Marxist,” citing this as a “regular accusation” but never naming who exactly he is denouncing.9 The single best treatment of Mariátegui’s thought in English is Harry Vanden’s penetrating study National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics, which Gonzalez does not reference.10 Vanden is the most important and prolific scholar in English on Mariátegui and has published other equally significant treatises on a variety of topics, including peasant modes of production as they relate to Mariátegui’s Marxist theories.11 Gonzalez does not engage with any of this work, even though it is directly relevant to the themes developed in the book. In fact, the only work of Vanden that he does cite is his first book, published in Peru in Spanish in 1975, which looks at influences on Mariátegui’s intellectual formation.12 While an important contribution to the field of Mariátegui studies, it is by no means his only or most significant one.

Nor does Gonzalez cite an equally critical earlier work, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890–1930 by Jesús Chavarría, published in 1979 but originally defended as a doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1967.13 Similar to Vanden and influential on his work, Chavarría (as well as Vanden) interprets Mariátegui’s thought in the context of Peruvian history. Presumably, Gonzalez is aware of these works and it would be a valuable exercise to go back and read them again (or read them for the first time). Understandably, this book is written as a biography targeted at a popular English-speaking audience (and is the first English-language biography of Mariátegui) rather than an academic treatise concerned with historiographic debates, but his often superficial presentation of a thinker who operated internationally while rooted in a local environment (what a generation ago Alison Brysk termed thinking globally and acting locally) does a disservice to current readers as we face the challenges of a rising fascist threat on both local and global levels.14

Curiously, and somewhat counterintuitively, Gonzalez does reference the first book published on Mariátegui in English. John Baines’s Revolution in Peru: Mariátegui and the Myth appeared in 1972, based on his 1968 dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.15 The book was not well received at the time—one reviewer remarked that it reflected a downside of the pressure to publish: dissertations were too quickly rushed to print without proper revision and development. The field of Mariateguista studies has since developed significantly—both in the English-speaking world and globally—and this book has subsequently been surpassed by other publications and at best would now be understood as suggested reading.

Perhaps the reason that Gonzalez includes Baines is because of the latter’s reference to Sorelian ideas of a myth that moves humans to action.16 And this is an important theme in Mariátegui’s work that Gonzalez highlights. Unlike the dangerous and perhaps inaccurate stereotype of an antireligious thrust in Marxist thought, Mariátegui viewed anticlericalism as a liberal bourgeois distraction that dodged much more fundamental structural issues of the exploitative and extractive nature of a capitalist mode of production. Gonzalez, like other biographers, notes that Mariátegui’s religious mother influenced his reticence to disregard religion carte blanche. Subsequently and significantly, this tendency in Marxist thought shaped the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez’s praxis that became known as liberation theology.17 His synthesis of biblical exegesis and Marxist class struggle inspired a Central American revolutionary tradition in the 1970s and ’80s.

Gonzalez contends that Mariátegui had no relationship with the Comintern nor did he desire any, but I do not find his depiction convincing. Mariátegui famously commented on the Russian Revolution: “The Second International was an organizational machine, the Third International is a combat machine.”18 Gonzalez does not include this quotation. Mariátegui was a strong internationalist and, as with others of his time, his thoughts on political strategy were influenced by the Bolsheviks. Rather than seeking to distance himself from Stalin and the Comintern, as Gonzalez contends, Mariátegui actively sought them out. We cannot know how he would have reacted to reversals in Comintern policies had he lived, but I suspect that he would have responded as some other dissident Communists did in the face of Earl Browder’s reactionary position. Dorothy Healey, for example, noted that diplomatic positions that held a certain amount of rationale for a sovereign government (the Soviet Union) lost political effectiveness if converted into a political line for a domestic party, maintaining that critical thought and reflection was key to building a revolutionary organization.19 Mariátegui likely would have made a similar distinction and followed a similar political line.

Mariátegui’s most direct contact with the Comintern was at a 1929 meeting of South American Communist Parties. Mariátegui was too sick to travel, so he had his colleagues present his theses on anti-imperialism (the subject of Gonzalez’s translation for the New Left Review in 1971) and the “indigenous question.” Much has been made of the need of a “Europeanized” Comintern to turn to a marginal figure in “Indian” Peru, with which it had previously had little contact, to address this second question, but this ignores larger and more significant issues. Mariátegui—who famously is known for his embrace of the rights of indigenous peoples—contended that the solution to their marginalization and exploitation was not through the raising of an ethnic consciousness (nor with education or other such approaches), but through dramatic alterations in the means of production. At the height of his career, Mariátegui made clear and straightforward appeals to a class struggle that would directly challenge current economic structures. Hardly romantic or culturalist positions, his ideas were based on the objective economic situation faced by indigenous communities rather than an appeal to subjective conditions of moving the mind.20

Gonzalez presents Mariátegui as fending off competing forces closing in on him. On the one hand, the Comintern rejected his romanticism and, on the other, his opponents in Peru (in particular the Aprista Víctor Hugo Haya de la Torre) denounced him for his Eurocentrism. Instead, toward the end of his time on earth, Mariátegui seemingly saw a path forward in what we might understand as a rather orthodox understanding of Marxist theory. One way of reading Mariátegui is not that he rejected what critics would denounce as orthodoxy, but rather that he called us back to very key and central components of Marxist thought.

Notes

  1. Waldo Frank, “A Great American,” Nation, June 18, 1930, 704.
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, “The New Peru,” Nation, January 16, 1929, 78–79.
  3. José Carlos Mariátegui, “Aniversario y balance,” Amauta 3, no. 17 (September 1928): 3.
  4. Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019), 18.
  5. José Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, trans. Marjory Urquidi (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971).
  6. José Carlos Mariátegui, “The Anti-Imperialist Perspective,” New Left Review 70 (1971): 67–72.
  7. José Carlos Mariátegui, “Yankeeland and Marxism,” in Marxism in Latin America, ed. Luis E. Aguilar (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 94–99.
  8. José Carlos Mariátegui, José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, trans. and ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).
  9. Gonzalez, In the Red Corner, 45.
  10. Harry E. Vanden, National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1986).
  11. See, for example, Harry E. Vanden, “The Peasants as a Revolutionary Class: An Early Latin American View,” Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs 20, no. 2 (1978): 191–209, and Harry E. Vanden, “Marxism and the Peasantry in Latin America: Marginalization or Mobilization?,” Latin American Perspectives 9, no. 4 (1982): 74–98.
  12. Harry E. Vanden, Mariátegui: Influencias en su Formación Ideológica (Lima: Biblioteca Amauta, 1975).
  13. Jesús Chavarría, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890–1930 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).
  14. Alison Brysk, “Acting Globally: Indian Rights and International Politics in Latin America,” in Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America, ed. Donna Lee Van Cott (New York: St. Martin’s, Inter-American Dialogue, 1994), 29–51.
  15. John M. Baines, Revolution in Peru: Mariátegui and the Myth (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1972).
  16. Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: Collier, 1950).
  17. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973).
  18. José Carlos Mariátegui, La Escena Contemporánea: Obras Completas, 4th ed. (Lima: Biblioteca Amauta, 1970), 113.
  19. Dorothy Healey, California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 92.
  20. Marc Becker, “Mariátegui, the Comintern, and the Indigenous Question in Latin America,” Science & Society 70, no. 4 (2006): 450–79.
2020, Commentary, Volume 71, Issue 9 (February 2019)
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