José Carlos Mariátegui: Latin America’s forgotten Marxist

Issue: 115

Mike Gonzalez

José Carlos Mariátegui was born into a society in crisis, a Peru deeply divided between a coastal sector where most of Peru’s capitalist class was concentrated, an emerging mining industry in the central valley between Lima and Huancavelica, and a mountain region which Mariátegui described as “semi-feudal”. Here 40 percent of the population lived in small, isolated communities, eking a precarious living on the high Andean slopes. They were forced to give their labour to the powerful local landowning class which administered the region without any real influence from Lima, the capital of a weak state.

A brief period of prosperity in the mid-19th century was based on the export of the natural fertiliser guano and the extraction of nitrates, with British capital entirely controlling trade in both commodities. During the 300 years of colonial rule mining had been the central source of wealth in the region. With the rise of guano and nitrates the focus of the economy shifted towards the coast and foreign trade. Peru’s small, emerging bourgeoisie grew in the shadow of the foreign capital on which it was wholly dependent. In the sierra the century saw an expansion of often huge landholdings (or latifundia) into what had been communal, indigenously owned lands.

The emerging state, therefore, was an expression of the symbiosis of the interests of these large and medium landowners, for whom the institutions of the state served the principal function of legitimising the pillage of the small producers and the definition of the peasant masses as a source of labour, taxes and cannon fodder.1

The growing costs of public administration were met by borrowing from European banks, while imports grew to four times the value of exports. At the same time, foreign capital was also sustaining the growth of coastal export agriculture, particularly sugar and later cotton. In the sierra the latifundios’ expansion occurred in order to cover local demand as well as to provide a steady stream of cheap and exploited indigenous labour. As the century advanced Peru was entering into a relationship with the global economy, which only emphasised and deepened the already enormous gulf between the modern coast and a mountain world of non-Spanish speaking and racially oppressed indigenous peoples. Where they fought back, they were repressed with exemplary brutality.2

The so-called Pacific War of 1879-84 was catastrophic for the Peruvian bourgeoisie. It lost the port of Tacna and most of the nitrate-producing areas to Chile, and the resulting economic collapse left it, as Mariátegui put it, “bleeding and mutilated”, and with no resources with which to resist the effective transfer of the economy into foreign hands. The contract for the Central Valley Railway, for example, went to the British based Grace Corporation, and mining came under the direct control of the Peruvian Corporation and the Cerro del Paso Corporation. The main banks were British owned, and foreign interests like the Gildemeisters or Peruvian capital working in combination with external investors such as the Larcos assumed control over agriculture. In the cities, and in particular in Lima and Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, new industries were emerging as a result of this new economic activity—in particular textiles.

Yet the original inhabitants of Peru experienced increasingly exploitative conditions, which were unmitigated by the developments taking place on the coast. On the contrary, their exploitation intensified as the modern sector of the Peruvian economy developed. It was one of Mariátegui’s important insights that these two phenomena were interdependent: that modernisation not only could, but actually needed to, maintain the backwardness of the sierra and the forms of servile labour that persisted there—like the enganche, obligatory labour, and yanaconazgo, a form of debt peonage.

There was resistance, of course. Indigenous rebellions and anarchist led trade unions were two forms of it. There was also a middle class movement, directed against the old landed aristocracy and their control and manipulation of the state, which found political expression in civilismo, founded in the mid-1870s by Manuel Pardo. This was a movement seeking to create a strong state committed to modernisation. But by the beginning of the 20th century it had split into two wings, one compromised with the old elite and committed to the continuation of economic growth based on foreign investment, the other more committed to modernisation, an end to corruption and a strategy of national growth. The individual who came to represent this more radical wing was Augusto Bernardino Leguía y Salcedo, though Leguía never questioned the central role of foreign capital in the process.3 He was elected to the presidency for the first time in 1908 and would return to power again in the momentous year of 1919.

In fact the most trenchant critique of the old order came from the poet Manuel González Prada. He exposed the moral degeneration of the old ruling class and set it against a picture of “Indian Peru”, which was both romantic and idealised. Yet for a new generation his work turned their attention to the hitherto silent and invisible native Peruvian peoples—and laid the groundwork for Mariátegui and his generation. Despite his reputation as a defender of the indigenous population, however, González Prada clearly saw the decay of Peruvian society as corrupting both rulers and ruled; though he laid the responsibility firmly with the powerful, he never saw the indigenous people as potential subjects of history, capable of bringing about change through their own actions.

It was into this society that Mariátegui was born, in Moquegua in 1894. Growing up in Lima, Mariátegui found himself drawn to artistic and cultural forms of dissent. In 1909, at the age of 15, he became a printer’s apprentice; within five years he was writing regular columns of social commentary in the newspaper La Prensa under the pseudonym Juan Croniqueur. He was also associated with the group of artists around Abraham Valdelomar and the magazine Colónida, whose influence was far greater than its four issues would suggest. There is no sign yet that Mariátegui’s radicalism was political. He did not associate himself, for example, with the anarchist organisations that led the nascent urban working class movement.

It was essentially an artistic dissidence that drew Mariátegui towards the Bohemians who “strolled” along Lima’s avenue of artists, the Jirón de la Unión, just as Baudelaire had strolled along the streets of Paris—”flaneurs” without direction driven by a world weariness that the great French poet had called “spleen”. Mariátegui’s writings on artistic modernism found there the scepticism of an avant_garde pressing against received wisdoms. But while many of his Bohemian colleagues remained buried in an aesthetic twilight, Mariátegui began to seek out the links between the artistic and the political vanguard.

By 1916 Peru was changing. In Lima the new factories, most importantly in textiles, were creating a permanent labour force, which was forging trade unions under the influence of anarchism.4 The first general strike, in support of the workers of the important Vitarte textile plant, took place in April 1911. Although it failed, a new law relating to accidents at work was passed in the same year, the right to strike (though under limited circumstances) conceded in 1913 and the eight-hour day won by the workers of the port of Callao a year later. Attacks on living standards in 1915 and 1916, as raw materials were exported rather than finished goods and profits fell, produced new waves of strikes and demands for a shorter working day.

At the same time new struggles were developing in the countryside. The expansion of the export sector in agriculture displaced the peasantry and increased the rapacious search for labour.5 The risings that culminated in Puno (the Rumi Maqui revolt) in 1915-6 showed a different aspect of the indigenous communities—as collective fighters against the brutal mode of production prevailing in the Andean mountains. And Puno was not the only rising. In the central Mantaro valley there were repeated confrontations, drawing Mariátegui and one of his colleagues to the area in 1918.

That year Mariátegui founded a new journal, Nuestra Epoca, which expressed his movement from the artistic avant-garde towards a growing political radicalism. The name of the journal, “Our Times”, referred to more than a spirit of the age; it was a historical moment of change and struggle. “Nuestra Epoca did not have a socialist programme, but it must be seen as a move in that direction, both ideologically and in propaganda terms”.6

Significantly, it lasted only two issues; it was banned after publishing an article by Mariátegui criticising the armed forces. Early the following year Mariátegui set up La Razón, a newspaper whose unambiguous purpose was to support people in struggle. It was the first major watershed in his development as a Marxist and a working class leader.

The year 1919 was a turning point. The cost of living for workers had almost doubled since 1913, and the previous two years had seen a series of strikes in Lima and elsewhere for wage rises and a shorter working day. The first general union, the Federación Local Obrera de Lima, was formed in 1918, and the premature creation of an organising committee for a Socialist Party reflected the generally militant atmosphere rather than any serious political advance. The year began with a strike of bakers, which rapidly became general, under the leadership of anarcho_syndicalists. The government conceded the eight-hour day, but refused wage rises. The Comité Pro-Abaratamiento (for a lowering of prices of basic goods) formed in April, bringing together a wide range of organisations in a series of protests, and in May new strikes paralysed the city, leading to the arrest of three union leaders. The declaration of a state of emergency and the arrest of the movement’s leaders did nothing to lessen the level of popular protest, which now coalesced around support for the return of former president Leguía, in the belief that he would challenge the old ruling class and introduce measures to modernise the Peruvian state.

Leguía took power on 4 July and immediately released the imprisoned workers’ leaders. The triumphant demonstration that paraded them through the streets stopped outside the offices of Mariátegui’s La Razón and invited him to join the head of the march. The Leguía honeymoon, however, was brief. By August Leguía was already repressing working class action. La Razón was suppressed, and Mariátegui and his co-editor, César Falcón, were “invited to leave the country” with a grant to study abroad. In October they left for Europe. Later Mariátegui would be accused of taking the king’s shilling, of surrendering to Leguía. His own explanation is that his activity was restricted as Leguía assumed increasingly dictatorial powers, and that the working class movement was still too weak and disoriented for him to operate successfully within Peru. Leguía offered him the alternative of exile and Mariátegui accepted.

The protests that returned Leguía to power were joined by a growing student movement based mainly in the southern city of Cuzco. This was a pale reflection of the hugely important university reform movement that had begun in Córdoba, Argentina, in 1918. While Mariátegui’s activities were restricted to the workers’ movement in Lima, his contemporary Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre was emerging as the leader of the student movement. Haya would come to represent an alternative political direction in Peru, and indeed throughout Latin America, enshrined in Apra, the organisation he later founded.7 While at this stage Haya claimed to be a Marxist, and criticised Mariátegui for leaving Peru, it would become clear that his project for modernisation involved an alliance with “progressive” sections of both the national and the international bourgeoisie, led by the middle class. Thus there was no contradiction for him in working with Leguía in setting up the Universidades Populares, a programme for the education of workers, in 1920. Three years later, however, Haya too would be sent into exile by the increasingly dictatorial Peruvian president. While today Apra is identified with corrupt regimes pressing for neoliberal strategies, in the 1920s Haya’s claim that it was a new revolutionary creed did win him some adherents, though its philosophy, with its mix of Marxism, indigenism and an intense personalism around the figure of Haya, in fact made its programme very difficult to follow. Yet at this early stage Mariátegui continued to work with Haya’s supporters in common projects, and continued to do so until Haya, from Mexico, announced the formation of his Peruvian Nationalist Party, which later became Apra.

The road to Europe and back

Mariátegui had left Peru with an established reputation within the country’s working class movement, an important body of journalistic work and some knowledge of Marxism.8 His trip to Europe clearly had as one purpose the development and deepening of that understanding. Having spent a little time in France, he went to Italy where, as he later put it, he “acquired a wife and some ideas”.9 He was present at the founding conference of the Italian Communist Party at Livorno in 1921 and learned much of his Marxism during this period.10 Arriving after the Italian factory occupations, his articles and essays reflect his immersion in the debates around the issue of hegemony. More importantly, Mariátegui saw at first hand how the political weakness of the bourgeoisie and the vacillations of reformism could permit the emergence of fascism—and these would be the central themes in his lectures and classes on the world situation which he gave at the Universidad Populares after his return to Peru,11 and in a subsequent series of articles in various newspapers in 1923-4, published later under the title “Figures and Aspects of International Life”.12

A great deal has been written about the various influences on Mariátegui’s Marxism, and his voracious reading and reviewing of a wide range of European writers has encouraged that. The key point, however, is that his contemporary writings show a very clear recognition of the world_historical significance of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and a consistent admiration for Lenin; a dedicated reading of current Marxist debates; and at the same time a consistent reflection on his own reality from the perspective not so much of Europe as of the international situation:

Mariátegui’s insistence on the need for an internationalist perspective is not the negation of nationalism so much as its supersession… It is a dialectical negation but not in the sense that he condemns or disqualifies nationalism as a historical necessity at a given moment in time.13

He returned from Europe in 1923 a “convinced and committed Marxist” (“Marxista convicto y confeso”) with a developed critique of the Second International’s version of Marxism, which waited passively for the development of capitalism automatically to open the way to socialism.14 What this meant for him was demonstrated in the activities that would absorb the remaining six and half years of his life. First, the publication of Amauta, a magazine that would provide a platform for political debate between all the currents of thought within the socialist movement in Peru and beyond, and second the working out of the key ideas that would inform his work as a trade union and party organiser in the late 1920s.

Seven Essays

Published in several stages in his magazine Amauta, Mariátegui’s key work is his Seven Essays.15 The central themes of his analysis of Peruvian history and society are developed in a pathbreaking materialist account that goes beyond any previous historical work, while setting out the framework of his activism and the political work that would absorb the last two years of his life. It is a book drawing on the work of several years, which confirms that economics must provide the foundation of a Marxist understanding, but also develops the concerns and questions that Mariátegui has identified as central to understanding the specificities of Peruvian history. These will shape his organisational methods, his exploration of the class struggle and his definition of the national reality. For some commentators, hostile in principle to his dialectical method, this definition consigns Mariátegui to the camp of revolutionary nationalism at best. For others, he remains locked in a kind of irrationalism which belies his insistence on locating the development of class consciousness in particular material circumstances. And for the functionaries of the late 1920s Comintern pursuing Stalin’s ultra_left “class against class strategy”, it suggested that Mariátegui was guilty of heterodoxy and indiscipline. Yet none of these judgments are justified by his work, either his theoretical writing or his practical engagement with the organs of class struggle.

The seven essays of the title cover religion, education, regionalism and (the longest essay) the development of Peruvian literature. The three key pieces, however, which open the work, provide a historical narrative that informs and explains his political strategy. For Mariátegui was always, first and foremost, a strategist of revolution—and his writings the foundation and explanation of that strategy. Analysing the Peruvian economy, he contrasts the colonial economic system with what went before. Under Spanish imperial rule Peru was a source of mineral wealth, its population locked in a system of ruthless exploitation within a structure of authoritarian control centred on the dominant colonial class. Its religious and secular institutions were informed and sustained by an ideology of racial superiority (“pura sangre”—pure blood) which legitimated that exploitation. It was central to Mariátegui’s vision that this contrasted dramatically with the pre-colonial, Inca, society structured around the ayllu system of kinship based collectives. Critics have been quick to point out that these communal organisations functioned within a centralised theocracy that was also highly repressive. Mariátegui acknowledges as much in an extensive footnote in the essay on “The Problem of the Indian”16—and he admits that those traditions have suffered disruptions and transformations through three centuries of colonial rule.

His argument, however, is that there is a cultural continuity and an ideological one which has ensured the maintenance of a collective consciousness in the indigenous communities of Peru. For Mariátegui that tradition of collective solidarity resonates with socialist ideas, and it is the task of socialists in that society to build on that synthesis. The importance of that “natural socialism” as Mariátegui himself described it, however, is not because of some romantic nativism, some sense on Mariátegui’s part that socialism was the result of cultural processes. He insisted over and over again that ethnic characteristics were inextricably interwoven with class—and that the indigenous community was defined by its economic relationships with the ruling class.

When Peru won its independence from Spain that structure was maintained—and indeed reinforced—as he describes in the opening essay, “The Structure and Evolution of the Economy”. The struggle for independence was led by a nascent bourgeoisie anxious to break the Spanish trading monopoly rather than challenge economic dependence on foreign trade altogether. The ruling class that emerged from the independence wars built the new economy around guano, the natural fertiliser deposited by seabirds on the coastal islands, which was exported exclusively to Britain. And the colonial system of exploitation, particularly in the mountain regions, far from being challenged by the new dispositions, was reinforced and later exploited as a source of cheap and pliant labour. This socio_economic structure is defined in the essays that follow—”The Problem of the Indian” and “The Problem of the land”—as gamonalismo:

[The term gamonalismo] designates a whole phenomenon. It encompasses a far-reaching hierarchy of officials, intermediaries, agents, parasites. Even the assimilated Indian is transformed into an exploiter of his own race when he places himself in its service. The central factor of the phenomenon is the hegemony of the large estate in the politics and mechanism of the state.17

It is based on forms of servitude and debt peonage, explained by racist stereotyping—a clear example of the interweaving of race and class. The critical consequence of this analysis was that the post-independence economy developed in subordination to external interests, and maintained the forms and structures of colonial exploitation. The Peruvian bourgeoisie, in the age of guano, and later when the dynamic sector of the economy moved to the mines and the coastal agricultural estates after the the Pacific War, remained dependent upon foreign capital. It had no independent national project of its own. And in his exploration of education, religion and culture Mariátegui found the same characteristic parasitism and lack of independence—though he also identified the points of resistance and struggle, whether in the history of indigenous rebellion or in the echoes in Peru (faint though they were) of the university reform movement that had begun in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1918.

Although the Seven Essays offered a fairly comprehensive analysis, each of them was clearly intended as the foundation for a deeper and more extensive exploration, which was precluded by Mariátegui’s early death. But they were part of a political project, rather than a theoretical one, in the sense that conclusions were drawn from them in revolutionary practice.

His call to the workers on 1 May 1924 is a key to understanding his strategy.18 Calling for a “united front” he emphasised that “we are still too few to split into different parts”. In the working class movement the influence of a declining anarchism was still significant, generating a suspicion of revolutionary parties; among the students and the social movements, the influence of Haya’s democratic nationalism was still considerable; and in the world of the sierra, where resistance was the stuff of everyday life, other, more local, traditions provided the points of reference. And yet, as Mariátegui would increasingly emphasise in his studies of Peruvian reality, and in particular in his Seven Essays, that ideological separation belied the role that each played in a unified economic structure integrated into the international market.

The working class movement in this country is still too young for us to contemplate dividing or splitting it. Before the time of division comes, and I suppose it is inevitable, we have a great deal of common work to do, in a spirit of solidarity. We have to awaken in the Peruvian proletariat a class consciousness and a feeling for their class; and that is a task for socialists and communists, communists and libertarians equally. It is up to all of us to win workers away from their “official representatives” and to struggle together against repression. It is up to all of us to defend the workers’ press and workers’ organisation. It is up to all of us to support the demands of the oppressed and enslaved indigenous race. And as we fulfil these historic responsibilities, we shall be doing our basic duty, our roads will merge and run together whatever our final objectives.19

Any socialist strategy must of necessity build a united front of forces, while within that unity political debate should continue to develop and advance the centrality of Marxist ideas. But it was clear that Mariátegui was extremely anxious to avoid sectarian splits. In fact he was operating consistently with the positions adopted at this stage by the international Communist movement, although, as Messeguer suggests, he may not have been aware of the discussions taking place in the Comintern. This drive for unity explains too his continuing relationship with Haya de la Torre and his newly formed Peruvian Nationalist Party, later to morph into Apra. It was an alliance that continued with the founding of Amauta in 1926 and lasted until the definitive break with Haya’s group in 1928.

It was no coincidence, therefore, that in the extraordinarily busy year of 1928 Matriátegui founded the newspaper Labour in November as a paper for a growing working class movement. This was in clear anticipation of the formation of the Peruvian Congress of Workers (CGTP), which he would be central in setting up in May of the following year. By this time the labour force consisted of some 58,000 industrial workers (mainly in Lima but also in the southern city of Cuzco) and some 28,000 miners. About a third of the urban workforce was unionised; in the mines, the building of trade unions was much harder, since the foreign mining companies immediately dismissed (or worse) anyone who attempted to set up a union.20 It was critical, however, to also acknowledge that some
1.5 million people remained within the rural and indigenous communities or were recent migrants into agriculture or indeed into mining.21 The implications of that social structure for political organisation had been a central and recurring concern in Mariátegui’s writings throughout the late 1920s. For while, as a Marxist who knew and read Lenin, Mariátegui recognised the leading role of the working class, he argued fiercely that a socialist movement in Peru must of necessity address the question of building a united front of struggle that could embrace and mobilise the majority of the exploited in that society. His insistence on that central issue was what produced Mariátegui’s particular and original contribution to the development of Marxism in Latin America.

It was the collective traditions and natural solidarity of the indigenous communities, as he depicted them, which would ensure the resonance of socialist ideas in the particular conditions of Peru. But that connection could only be made consciously and deliberately by Marxists. It was this question that he would address in the essays collected in Peruanicemos el Perú,22 though it was discussed and debated in the pages of Amauta throughout its existence. As he argued in a debate with the leading Aprista intellectual Luis Alberto Sánchez in 1927:

No one…can be surprised by the confluence of indigenismo and socialism. Socialism orders and defines the demands of the masses, of the working classes. And in Peru those masses are four-fifths indigenous. Thus our socialism must declare its solidarity with the native people.23

It was Mariátegui’s conviction that revolutionary socialism must of necessity connect with local traditions and conditions that would very soon bring him into confrontation with the Communist International. Yet if Mariátegui insisted on the “nationalisation”—or rather the adaptation to the real historical experience of each society—of Marxism, he remained emphatically internationalist in his perspectives and relentlessly committed to building the trade union movement as well as, in the same hyperactive year, to the setting up of a Peruvian Socialist Party in which, once again, he would play the leading role. Yet this again would bring him into conflict with the Comintern and its Latin American representatives.

The period between the beginning of 1929 and his death in April 1930 was overshadowed by the gathering clouds of a disagreement with the Communist International.24 Early in 1929 a Comintern representative visited Peru to invite Mariátegui’s group to send delegates to two upcoming conferences—the trade union conference in Montevideo and the first congress of Latin American Communist Parties, to be held in Buenos Aires in May and June. Mariátegui himself was unable to travel to either—the osteomielitis that dogged his short life was worsening—but he briefed the delegation of four who did attend. They included Hugo Pesce, the young doctor who would later make such an impression on the young Che Guevara and suggest his first readings of Marx, and Julio Portocarrero, a young worker from the important Vitarte textile plant in Lima. Portocarrero was in fact elected to the executive of the Latin American Trade Union Federation (CSLA). Yet “to some extent these meetings represented a showdown between the path being followed by the Peruvian cell and the official line of the Comintern”.25

Ostensibly the dispute centred on the question of whether or not the new party would be called “socialist” or “Communist”. To the last Mariátegui was adamant that it should be a socialist party and resisted the Comintern’s mounting pressures. There was never the slightest doubt as to the character of the new party. Its statutes declared the party’s affiliation to the Communist International and its commitment to what it described as “militant Leninism”. Its six-point programme was equally uncompromising. It argued for the expropriation of the landed estates and their redistribution to communal organisations or small peasants, with guarantees of technical and financial support. It called for the expropriation of all foreign enterprises as well as those belonging to big Peruvian capital. It demanded an immediate renunciation of the foreign debt and all imperialist controls and called for the immediate enactment of the eight-hour working day, as well as the immediate arming of workers and peasants and the dissolution of the armed forces and police into the militias. Its sixth point called for establishment of “workers, peasants and soldiers municipalities” as the organs of power in the new society.26 By no stretch of the imagination could this be described as a reformist programme, still less as lacking a clear revolutionary impulse. The fact that the Socialist Party did not call for soviets but for municipalities did not affect the fact that these were clearly organs of workers’ power similar in character and structure to the soviets.

If there was so little ideological difference, however, why did Mariátegui stick so stubbornly to the “socialist” label? In my view there are several reasons, but they are all tied to his sense that within the framework of revolutionary Marxism each national struggle must find its particular articulation of the local and the international. This was clearly a principle with Mariátegui. Another factor is that he had been briefly arrested and jailed at the beginning of 1928 after the “discovery” by President Leguía of a “Communist plot” to bring down his regime. The reality of the plot was open to severe doubt, but it provided the pretext for a repressive response. It may be that Mariátegui was anxious to avoid a similar response to the foundation of his party which, he hoped, would operate legally as far as possible.27 Beyond that, however, and of much more fundamental significance, was his conception of the “united front”. The party, as its founding programme demonstrated clearly, was intended to appeal to workers, to peasants and indigenous communities, and to the anti-imperialist sectors of the middle classes.

These latter layers were people to whom Haya de la Torre’s Apra had appealed, with some success, in the earlier part of the decade—and using some of the same language of “unity” as Mariátegui had. The pages of the journal Amauta were an open forum in which the supporters of Apra participated freely. But Mariátegui’s September 1928 editorial “Aniversario y Balance” in the journal marked a clear and definitive break with the Apristas:

Amauta now enters its second period, when it no longer needs to describe itself as a vanguard or left journal. To be faithful to the revolution, it is enough that it be socialist… The very word revolution can lend itself it to ambiguities. Its meaning needs to be clear. The Latin American revolution can be nothing other than a stage, a phase of the world revolution. It will be, quite simply, a socialist revolution.28

Haya’s announcement from Mexico in 1928 of the formation of a party of his own provoked Mariátegui’s trenchant response. Up till then he had regarded Apra as a “front” with whom joint work was still possible, despite a continuing debate and a widening ideological gulf. The formation of the party, however, precipitated matters—for Mariátegui had made his criticisms of Apra clear in Amauta and elsewhere. Where Apra argued the possibility of a broad front in alliance with elements of the bourgeoisie, Mariátegui’s formulation of the nature of the united front clearly argued for a unity of the working classes and indigenous communities led by socialists. Haya de la Torre, by contrast, had always argued that Peru’s backwardness meant that leadership must necessarily fall to middle class elements and the progressive military. While these arguments could be conducted in the context of broad movement of activists, Mariátegui may well have seen the building of a socialist party as a lesser priority. Now, however, the socialist vision of the united front which he propounded required a clear political expression.

Mariátegui’s consistent and withering critique of Second International Marxism and reformism provided the political groundwork for this. His studies of the Peruvian economy, particularly in the Seven Essays explored the consequences of the weakness of the Peruvian bourgeoisie and its incapacity to carry through an independent national project. The tasks of economic development and growth would therefore have to be carried through by a socialist movement. The concept of the united front and what was clearly an evolving theory of “permanent revolution”, although never couched in those terms, seemed to suggest at least some awareness of Leon Trotsky—and there seems to have been some direct contact between Mariátegui and the Trotskyist groups around Naville during 1929.

But this does not seem to be the primary reason for the deep and growing hostility of the Comintern representatives in Latin America. Rather, it derived in the first place from Mariátegui’s resistance to calling his party Communist. And that in turn seems to have been interpreted as an indication of a deeper deviation, prioritising race over class and nation over the international movement. Mariátegui’s response was to send with the Peruvian delegates to the May-June Congress three key documents addressing those areas of concern: “The Problem of Race in Latin America”, “The Anti-imperialist Perspective” and “Antecedents and Developments of Class Struggle”.29

Final days

Since his days at La Razón Mariátegui had been a tireless campaigner, organiser, writer and provider, through Amauta, of a platform for socialist debate. As the 1920s drew to a close his level of activity did not diminish, despite his deteriorating physical condition and increasing financial difficulties at home. His Wednesday evenings at home in Calle Washington, Lima, brought the movement to him—and the respect he had earned ensured that the movement did visit. His correspondence—aside from his hundreds of articles, reviews and documents—reveals an activist as engaged with comrades elsewhere in the continent as with those in Peru.30 The amputation of his right leg meant that he would conduct his activity in this final period from a wheelchair.

His letters from this time to his friend Samuel Glusberg in Buenos Aires, reveal that the political tensions in Peru were becoming increasingly difficult to handle and the pressures on him mounting; just before his death he began to make arrangements to move to Buenos Aires where he felt the atmosphere would be less oppressive and he would feel his isolation less. In May-June 1929, however, he was unable to travel and it was Pesce and Portocarrero who would once again present his documents to the Comintern.

But the frosty reception given to the publication of his Seven Essays gave Mariátegui some sense of the hostility his ideas might meet at the conference. Codovilla, secretary of the Argentine Communist Party and the representative of the Comintern at the conference, argued fiercely that Mariátegui’s analysis of the specificity of the Peruvian situation was a concession to nationalism. Peru, he argued, was more than adequately described by the general thesis on semi-colonial nations, and by extension could not therefore be an exception to the general “class against class strategy” laid down by the Third International.

Yet Mariátegui’s documents did not argue Peruvian exceptionalism; they discussed the application of revolutionary strategy in the particular conditions of Peru. Thus his document “The Anti-imperialist Perspective” is a fierce condemnation of Apra’s anti-imperialism, because “even if it were able to mobilise the national bourgeoisie and the peasant masses (a possibility we have discounted) this would not cancel conflicts of class”. He uses the experience of the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution (about which he wrote extensively) as a warning. In Mexico the revolutionary movement represented most clearly by Emiliano Zapata had produced a bourgeois nationalist regime whose first act had been to attack the peasant revolutionaries. Mariátegui argued, “Our mission is to explain to the masses how only the socialist revolution can offer real opposition to the advance of imperialism.” It is hard at this distance to understand why this position should have generated such opposition from Codovilla and others. But in the context of the Stalinist turn of the Third International towards an ultra_left policy of treating all non-Communists as counter-revolutionaries, even “social fascists”, it becomes easier to understand.

Mariátegui’s second paper on the “problem of race” met with equally obstinate resistance. Returning to the arguments that he had made in Seven Essays and elsewhere, Mariátegui reminded the conference that four-fifths of Peru’s workforce were still peasants or semi-rural workers (for example in the mines) with conflicting allegiances. By mobilising the solidarity and collective action embedded in indigenous traditions, he argued, socialism could take root among the majority of the exploited in Peru. The Comintern line, by contrast, was to see this as a national question and to argue for the “self-determination of the indigenous peoples”. It was ironic that Mariátegui’s insistence on the interlacing of race and class, and that the situation of the indigenous peoples had to be understood ultimately in terms of the economy, should have been rejected in the name of Marxism!

The consequence of the Buenos Aires conference, given the authority of the Comintern representatives, was that Mariátegui’s authority and leadership came under immediate attack. Eudocio Ravines, a sinister character who had moved from Apra into the offices of the Third International in Paris, was now sent to Peru to implement the decisions of the conference and form a Communist Party. Mariátegui’s letters to Glusberg reveal a man of failing health increasingly frustrated by events at home. Ironically, Mariátegui welcomed Ravines when he arrived in Peru early in March 1930 and agreed that he should take over the leadership. A month later Mariátegui was dead and the city of Lima stopped all activity for five minutes in his honour. His funeral was a massive demonstration of the affection in which he was held.

By May the Peruvian Communist Party had been formed—on the basis that Mariátegui’s project for a united front had been too broad, admitting intellectuals and petit bourgeois elements.31 Within a year a disastrous armed rising in the indigenous highlands isolated the communities and brought down on them the most severe repression. By the mid-1930s much of Mariátegui’s patient work in the trade union movement had been undone, and his ideas systematically misrepresented to the succeeding generation. By then, of course, the Third International had turned back to many of his positions—without acknowledgment, of course.

Perhaps it is appropriate to leave the last word with Gregory Zinoviev:

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.32

In his own time, that originality was his undoing. Today, it is the reason to rediscover his work.


1: Yepes del Castillo, 1972, pp41-42.

2: The rising at Huancané in 1866 was so brutally crushed that a “Society of Friends of the Indians” was formed by white sympathisers, the forerunners of the “indigenist” schools of writers and artists of the early 20th century.

3: See Garrett, 1973; Yepes del Castillo, 1972, chapter 10; and Kapsoli, 1976.

4: See Pflucker, 1978, and also Pflucker, 1973, her undergraduate thesis on the important anarchist newspaper La Protesta. See too Kapsoli, 1976, and Denis Sulmont’s work in general, particularly Sulmont, 1978.

5: This is the theme of a number of the early “indigenista” narratives by writers such as Ciro Alegría.

6: Martínez de la Rosa quoted in Checa, 1964, p116.

7: Apra, the Latin American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, currently holds the -presidency of Peru in the person of Alan García. It was, from the moment of its formation as a party in 1924, the main political antagonist of Mariátegui, especially when Mariátegui finally broke with Haya in 1928. Despite the break, many subsequent writers have attempted to claim Mariátegui for Aprismo!

8: According to Redondez, 1982, Mariátegui had been introduced to Marxism already by one professor Maúrtua.

9: His experiences in Europe, largely published in newspapers and journals at home, were later collected as La Escena Contemporánea, volume one of the Obras Completas (Mariátegui, 1959_) and his Italian writing as Cartas de Italia¸ volume 15 of the same collection. See too Vanden, 1986. The main writer on this aspect of Mariátegui’s work is the Italian scholar Antonio Melis. See for example Melis, 1994.

10: While he frequently mentions Antonio Gramsci’s name in connection with his Italian experiences, he makes no special mention of him, though Mariátegui’s wife later said that the two men had spoken on several occasions.

11: These lectures are collected in Historia de la Crisis Mundial, volume eight of Mariátegui, 1959_. Some of these are available in English.

12: Volumes 16, 17 and 18 of Mariátegui, 1959_.

13: Quijano, 1986, pp44-45.

14: Most cogently expounded in his Defensa del Marxismo (in volume five of Mariátegui, 1959_), which was not in fact published until after his death.

15: Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality) to give it its full title, volume two of Mariátegui, 1959_. There is also an English translation of this work-Mariátegui, 1971.

16: This essay is currently available online.

17: Mariátegui, 1971, p27.

18: “El Primero de Mayo y el Frente Único”, in Ideología y Política, volume 13 of Mariátegui, 1959_, pp107-110.

19: Mariátegui, 1959_, volume 13, p108.

20: For a glimpse of the atmosphere that prevailed in the mines see the translation of Ciro Alegria’s famous novel Broad and Alien is the World (Alegria, 1983), which includes several chapters set in the mining areas (these were not included in early translations).

21: These figures are from Chavarría, 1979, p156.

22: Peruanicemos el Perú (We must Peruvianize Peru), volume 11 of Mariátegui, 1959_.

23: Mariátegui, 1959_, volume 13, p217.

24: Galindo, 1980, explores this conflict in detail. It should be read in conjunction with Martínez de la Torre’s Notes Towards a Marxist Interpretation of Peruvian History (Torre, 1958). Torre was one of Mariátegui’s closest collaborators, who broke with the Communist Party after his death. His two volume history is invaluable because it reproduces so much primary material-leaflets and pamphlets, as well as correspondence.

25: Chavarría, 1979, p158.

26: Galindo, 1980, p87.

27: He later insisted, for example, that the CGTP should register under Leguía’s labour laws, despite their restrictive character.

28: “An Anniversary and an Accounting”, volume 13 of Mariátegui, 1959_, p247.

29: All three appear in the first section of Ideología y Política, volume 13 of Mariátegui, 1959_.

30: For his correspondence, see Mariátegui, 1984.

31: Chavarría, 1979, pp165-167.

32: Chavarría, 1979, p162.


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