José Carlos Mariátegui Was the Great Pioneer of Latin American Marxism

The Peruvian thinker José Carlos Mariátegui recognized the need to adapt Marxism for Latin American conditions instead of merely copying Europe.

José Carlos Mariátegui photographed in 1928. (Wikimedia Commons)

José Carlos Mariátegui was one of the most creative and original Marxist thinkers of his time. Although he died in 1930 at the age of just thirty-five, he reinterpreted Marxism for Latin America, helped build Peru’s first working-class organizations, and challenged both reformism and the sectarianism of the Communist International.

Surprisingly, Mariátegui’s contribution was not widely recognized in the socialist movement or beyond his native Peru for a generation. However, the growing popular resistance to neoliberalism in Latin America with the “pink tide” of the early-twenty-first century and the uprisings of the last five years has prompted a rediscovery of his political ideas.

Mariátegui’s relevance, both during his brief lifetime and as a reference point for the new social movements of our own era, arises partly from his insistence on the central role of Latin America’s indigenous communities in the class struggle. He was a key figure in the construction of the Peruvian labor movement and a Marxist thinker and writer whose influence extended beyond his native Peru. This was especially thanks to the impact of the extraordinary journal Amauta, which he founded and edited between 1926 and 1930.

The journal’s title was significant. The amauta was the intellectual authority in the Inca world, and the written and visual content of the magazine reflected the centrality of the Inca world to its vision. However, the world being depicted was not that of indigenous people as the victims of historic colonialism, but rather that of communities with a history of resistance.

Mariátegui and Peru

Mariátegui was born in Moquegua in the south of Peru in 1894. His mother was a seamstress of humble origins, while his mainly absent father came from an aristocratic Spanish background. A childhood incident in the school playground at the age of eight left him badly disabled and robbed him of the first four years of schooling. Illness was to dog Mariátegui throughout his life and was the cause of his early death.

Confined to bed for four years, he used the time to read. By the age of fifteen, he had found work in the printshop of Lima’s main newspaper, La Prensa, where his job was to read and report on the international news arriving by cable. Within a year, he was writing for the paper as a columnist and a parliamentary reporter.

He was also an aspiring poet and joined the avant-garde literary circles that met in the cafés of the city’s main boulevard, the Jirón de la Unión. This was in spite of the gulf between the generally bourgeois background of writers in this milieu and his own impoverished origins.

The Peruvian economy had boomed in the early nineteenth century, based on resources like guano and nitrates that were exploited by foreign and especially British enterprises. However, the Pacific war with Chile of 1879–83 ended Peru’s brief era of prosperity. Foreign capital financed a subsequent economic recovery and took control of the country’s mineral and agricultural exports.

During World War I, demand for those exports increased, and a burgeoning textile industry in the capital produced a new working class and the first trade unions. The products of Peru’s agriculture and industrial sectors were exported during the war years while the price of imports, including food, rose.

By 1919, there was a protest movement calling for a reduction in the price of basic goods and an eight-hour working day that launched a national strike on May 1 of that year. It won its demands with the support of a newspaper newly founded by Mariátegui, La Razón. Workers carried Mariátegui through the streets on their shoulders at the victory parade.

At this point, the Peruvian workers’ movement was dominated by anarchist ideas. However, Mariategui had already declared himself a socialist.

Journey to Europe

The new president of Peru, Augusto B. Leguía, promised a program of modernization including trade union recognition, but did not deliver on his pledges. In 1920, Leguía sent Mariátegui and his fellow newspaper editor to Europe. This was ostensibly a “fact-finding” mission, but we can see it more realistically as a bid by the president to rid himself of a troublesome agitator.

Mariátegui arrived in a Europe that was immersed in the fervor of revolution and riven by the aftermath of World War I. His regular dispatches to the Peruvian press described the vacillations of the social democratic parties and the revolutionary events in Russia. His articles, collected as Letters from Italy, describe both the impact of the October Revolution on the socialist movement and the weakness of bourgeois reformism.

In Italy, factory councils in the car plants of Turin expressed the possibilities of a new workers’ power, akin to the Soviets that had emerged from the October Revolution. At the same time, Mariátegui saw an Italian Socialist Party that drew back from the possibility of revolution. He also described with great foresight the dangers of a fascist movement then taking shape under the leadership of Benito Mussolini.

He was present when Italian socialism split at its 1921 Congress at Livorno, with a minority of left-wing delegates forming a Communist Party whose leadership included Antonio Gramsci. Mariátegui would later underline, with Peru in mind, the risk of separating the most advanced revolutionaries from the workers’ movement in general.

As he explained on his return to Peru in 1923, Mariátegui had found in Europe “a wife and some ideas” and become a “convinced and committed Marxist” in the process. What conclusions did he draw from his European experience?

Adapting Marxism

As a Marxist, Mariátegui clearly identified the working class as the protagonists — the subject — of socialist revolution. But he came from a society in which the working class was a nascent social force and still deeply rooted in other traditions.

The workers in the foreign-owned mines of the Central Valley were mainly indigenous farmers still connected to their highland farming community. Foreign corporations owned the coastal plantations producing rice and coffee with a virtually enslaved workforce taken from indigenous communities by labor contractors. Industry was largely limited to Lima and the neighboring port of Callao.

Forty percent of the Peruvian population belonged to the indigenous communities of the Andean highlands. Their conditions of work and life, as Mariátegui described them, were virtually feudal in a society dominated by landowners (gamonales) whose violent regime was beyond the control of the Peruvian state. Yet they, too, were integrated into a global capitalist system that consumed the products of their labor.

Mariátegui’s experience of postwar Europe exposed the weakness and ambivalence of bourgeois reformism. He saw those tendencies echoed in the ruling class of his own country, who lacked any independent project and accepted without question a slavish subordination to international capital.

This dependence was cultural as well as economic. For Mariátegui, the disillusionment expressed by his friends in the artistic circles of Lima was a negative critique that evaded reality.

Mariátegui was clear from the outset that Peru’s ruling class would not and could not create an inclusive nation-state. The task of doing so would fall to a broad socialist movement. These were the conclusions he presented to his largely working-class audience at the Popular University in Lima where he was asked to give a series of lectures on the world crisis in 1923–24.

His perspective was internationalist. This was in contrast to other currents in Peru, especially the nationalist party APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), which echoed the populist nationalism of movements like the Chinese Kuomintang. As Mariátegui put it:

Internationalism exists as an ideal because it is the new, emerging reality. . . . The masses are moved and inspired by that theory which offers an imminent objective, a credible end . . . a new reality in process of becoming.

The United Front

However, Mariátegui deemed it critical that his Marxism, while inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, should not be “an imitation or a copy” of the European model. Revolutionary movements arose in particular historical and social circumstances. As Lenin remarked, the truth is always concrete.

Marxism was for Mariátegui a “philosophy of praxis,” in the term used by Gramsci. In his prison notebooks, Gramsci noted that a Marxism of this kind would be “necessarily connected with the critical exploration of the forms of activity, organization, and ideas that emerge and are contested within the politics of everyday life.”

Mariátegui had met Gramsci during his time in Italy and was impressed by him, although he did not live long enough to read the Italian thinker’s most influential work, which was composed in one of Mussolini’s prisons.

In his 1924 manifesto, “May Day and the United Front” (1924), Mariátegui argued that the key instrument of such praxis would be the united front. Such a front would bring together the exploited and the oppressed in a united organization. It would acknowledge that divisions within the working class ultimately derived from the capitalist economy itself and the uneven social structure it produced.

He developed these ideas in his Seven Interpretative Essays On Peruvian Reality (1928). This was a brilliant and original Marxist analysis of the Peruvian economy, its historical evolution, and the role of indigenous peoples within it. The central role Mariátegui gives to culture in his essays placed him firmly within the current of creative Marxism of Gramsci, György Lukács, and Walter Benjamin, though he could not have been familiar with their writings.

The Indigenous Tradition

The indigenista literature of the late nineteenth century had begun to represent Peru’s indigenous community, but in the form of a moral protest against their oppression. For Mariátegui, by contrast, indigenous history connected directly with the socialist tradition. It was a history of resistance and struggle against exploitation rooted in a concept of the collective that he believed had clear affinities with socialist thought.

Inca society was founded on an idea of community and collaboration expressed in its basic unit of organization, the ayllu. It was, of course, an autocratic society. But the colonial destruction of the Inca hierarchy left the ayllu as the basic structure of social life.

Some of Mariátegui’s contemporaries advocated a straightforward return to the Inca past. Mariátegui, on the other hand, located these communities within the modern relations of capitalist exploitation that had deprived the indigenous peoples of their land and subjected them to modern forms of slavery.

Inca tradition and contemporary socialism shared, in his view, a common view of collective responsibility embedded in popular tradition, drawing on the myths and symbolic representations that expressed an emancipatory vision of the future. That vision — what he called the myth — anticipated a liberated society that would embrace workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples in a united front of struggle.

For Mariátegui, it was crucial that the divisions in Latin American society produced by colonialism, racism, and oppression should first be overcome in the building of a socialist movement. This was the task to which he devoted his remaining years. He repeated the ideas set out in his 1924 manifesto in a call for a Workers’ Congress in 1926 and in the founding program of the Peruvian Socialist Party.

Mariátegui’s ideas faced two hostile interlocutors. On the one hand, there was the emergence of APRA, a bourgeois nationalist alternative to his socialist project, which offered a version of a renewed bourgeois state although it laid claim to the language of Marxism. Mariátegui clashed with APRA’s leader, Víctor Haya de la Torre, and argued that the Peruvian bourgeoisie was incapable of realizing a project for national development.

That task, he insisted, perhaps echoing Leon Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution, must be the work of the socialist movement:

There are those shallow theorists whose opposition to socialism is that capitalism hasn’t completed its mission in Peru. How surprised they must be when they realize that the function of socialist government will be largely to carry through capitalism, at least those historically necessary possibilities still . . . required by social progress.

On the other hand, officials of the Soviet-led Communist International (Comintern) were increasingly suspicious of Mariátegui and his united front strategy. This contradicted the prevailing Comintern line of the late 1920s and early 1930s, which opposed cooperation with other left-wing forces in the name of “class against class.” They also saw Mariátegui’s emphasis on the active role of the indigenous communities in the socialist movement as a way of undermining the central role of the working class.

Mariátegui answered the criticism in three papers sent to the Comintern’s only Latin American Congress, held in the Argentina capital Buenos Aires in 1929. Mariátegui was too ill to attend the meeting in person. His responses — in particular “The Anti-Imperialist Perspective” — once again exposed the false promises of reformist nationalism in Peru and Latin America. But Mariátegui’s positions were ultimately denounced and marginalized within the Comintern, which called for the separate development of indigenous movements.

Heroic Creation

In 1927, Mariátegui published Defense of Marxism. It was a reply to the revisionism of the Belgian socialist politician Henri de Man, who later became a Nazi collaborator during World War II. He located Marxism in the specific realities of Latin America:

The Latin American revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a phase of the world revolution. . . . We certainly do not want socialism in Latin America to be a copy or imitation. It should be heroic creation.

After Mariátegui’s premature death, his Seven Essays remained permanently in print, and some scholars and writers continued to recognize the importance of his contribution. However, the collapse of Stalinism and the rise of new social movements in Latin America created a newly favorable environment for an appreciation of Mariátegui.

His broad and diverse definition of a socialist movement and the creative way it should engage with the history of resistance in Latin America connected with the reality of the new movements. A new generation once again found inspiration in Mariátegui’s ideas and example, in indigenous struggles and their emancipatory promise. They also rediscovered the wider history of popular working-class resistance in the practice of the united front in struggle.