‘José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology’ reviewed by John Green

José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology

Edited and translated by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker Monthly Review Press, New York, 2011. 480pp., $29.95 / £18.95 pb
ISBN 9781583672457

Reviewed by John Green

About the reviewer

John Green is a journalist and former trade union official. He has also written several books …


José Carlos Mariátegui is not exactly a household name among Marxists outside Latin America, let alone among the wider left. In Latin America, however, his writings have played an influential role in the development of socialist politics and have impacted on recent progressive governments that have been elected in the wake of the collapse of the dictatorships and the neo-liberal economies associated with them. For this reason alone, this recent publication of an anthology of his writings is long overdue and much to be welcomed.

I realise that comparisons can be invidious, but Mariátegui’s life and writing have uncanny similarities to Gramsci’s. Born in Peru in 1894, he suffered from a crippling leg injury and continued ill-health throughout his short life. He was largely self-educated, becoming a journalist, political philosopher and activist. He died at the tragically young age of only 35, but his legacy has been enormous.

He is considered one of the most influential Latin American socialists of the 20th century. His most famous work, Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928)), is still widely read in South America.
While his ideas may not be as philosophically profound as those of Gramsci, they have been and are the most significant contribution today in attempting to apply Marxist ideas in the context of Latin American reality, and as a counter balance to those who have attempted, and continue to attempt, to impose Eurocentric interpretations.

Mariátegui championed the indigenous peoples, their experiences and social organisations; he comprehended the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and also asserted a mature Marxist feminism. Che Guevara, among other leading Latin American Marxists, was very influenced by his writing. His ideas have remained central to the ideological struggles throughout Latin America.

Mariátegui’s ideas have seen a major revival with the election of leftist governments in South America, in particular in Bolivia where in 2005 Evo Morales became that country’s first indigenous president since the Conquest 500 years ago. The rise of popular indigenous movements in Ecuador and Peru, as well as the increased rights gained by those in Venezuela have also sparked a renewed interest in Mariátegui’s writings concerning the role played by indigenous peoples.

This recognition of the significance and achievements of indigenous societies in Latin America even before their destruction and eclipse by the Hispanic imperial conquerors is perhaps his greatest achievement. Successive regimes throughout the continent have been made up almost exclusively of Hispanic Creole individuals, and these have consistently marginalised the indigenous peoples, condemned them to slavery and serfdom and treated them as sub-human and outcasts. In the social structures of the Incas, despite their autocratic nature, Mariátegui recognised a form of primitive communism that could be instructive for the building of future societies.

He was forced into exile in 1919 by the Peruvian dictator Augusto Leguia, who deemed his editorship of two magazines, Nuestra Epoca (Our Epoch) and La Razon (Reason), seditious.

Mariátegui spent the next four years in France and Italy imbibing the atmosphere of the heady revolutionary discussions then taking place in Europe. He became friends with the French writers Romain Roland and Henri Barbusse and witnessed the birth of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.

He returned to Peru as a committed Marxist and in 1924, now confined to a wheelchair, founded the journal Amauta – ‘Teacher’ in the indigenous language Quechua – dedicated to forging an understanding of the rapidly changing world from a Marxist perspective. It was intended as a vanguard voice for an intellectual and spiritual movement to create a new Peru. In its pages, he examined politics and history as well as art, literature, science and philosophy.

He went on to found the Partido Socialist Peruano (PSP, Peruvian Socialist Party) in 1928 and served as its first general secretary, and in 1929 the PSP set up the first general trade union confederation based on Marxist principles.

His truly innovative role, however, lay in his belief that ‘Marxist thought should be revisable, non-dogmatic and adaptable to new situations’. He developed what has come to be called national Marxism, i.e., a Marxism based on and growing out of local realities and not imposed from without.

This anthology could not have come at a better time and its focused selection of writings provides a satisfying ‘essential Mariátegui’. It covers a wealth of topics from indigenous affairs to feminism, from economics and imperialism to aesthetics and class organisation.

Unsurprisingly the Catholic Church also left its impact on Mariátegui’s thinking and in several essays he attempts to fuse his own idealism with his understanding of Marxism. Marx and Engels attempted to devise a scientific theory that could be applied to human societies, just as the laws of natural science were applicable in the wider natural world. Ironically, however, they themselves and many of their followers were motivated in the first place by an ideal, a vision (Mariátegui rather confusingly calls it a ‘myth’) of a more just world, a world of communism. Marxism was seen as a tool for shaping ideas and for accomplishing that ideal.

‘All modern intellectual investigations on the global crisis lead to a unanimous conclusion; bourgeois civilisation suffers from a lack of myth, of faith, of hope,’ he writes (383), and later, ‘The strength of revolutionaries is not in their science, it is in their faith, in their passion, in their will.’ (387)

He paraphrases Gramsci’s renowned mantra that revolutionaries need a: ‘pessimism of the intellect, but an optimism of the will’, with his own: ‘pessimism of reality, but optimism of the ideal’.

His essays on feminism are particularly far-sighted for the time, and courageous in a Latin American context. He writes unequivocally that, ‘We must not see feminism as an exotic idea, a foreign idea, we must see it simply as a human idea,’ (367) and, ‘Feminism as a pure idea, is essentially revolutionary.’ (369).

An avowed, self-taught Marxist, he insisted that a socialist revolution should evolve organically in Latin America on the basis of local conditions and practices, not as the result of a mechanically applied European formula.

In a phrase, Mariátegui’s fundamental contribution has been to provide a Marxist analysis of Latin American societies within a world context and from a Latin American perspective. His work has had and still has a significant and essential educational value for succeeding generations of socialists, reformers, trade unionists and indigenous leaders.

This anthology allows non-Spanish readers to acquaint themselves with the broad scope of Mariátegui’s thinking. Many of the excerpts are tantalisingly brief or cursory and one is left thirsting for a more in-depth or elaborated presentation. However, given the fact that much of Mariátegui’s writing was of a journalistic nature and that his life was cruelly short, we have to be satisfied with what we’ve been bequeathed. The selection in this anthology is of more historical value than anything else. Many of his ideas and analyses, innovative at the time, have, understandably, lost their gloss under the abrasion of history. This quite small selection provides scant indication of how his work can still offer new impulses to theoreticians or activists today.

8 August 2012

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