Mariátegui and 
Latin American Marxism

When José Carlos Mariátegui died in 1930, his friend Waldo Frank, the North American left intellectual, remarked about how strange it was to walk around New York City where everyone went about their business, not knowing that the greatest Latin American intellectual of the time had died, and that tens of thousands of ordinary Peruvians had filled the streets of Lima for his funeral.Mariátegui, the pioneering Peruvian socialist of the early twentieth century, remains relatively unknown in the United States today. And even while the last generation’s Latin American Left has rediscovered his legacy, he has never achieved the status of figures like Emiliano Zapata or Che Guevara in the last century’s revolutionary history.

In this article, I hope to combat at least some of the anonymity that Mariátegui faces, because his contributions to Marxism stand on the level of his more well-known contemporaries: Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, and Georg Lukács, to name a few. For this purpose, Monthly Review Press recently provided an outstanding tool to help us in Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker’s anthology of Mariátegui’s writings, most of them appearing for the first time in English.1  The anthology shows the breadth of Mariátegui’s interests, as well as the really pioneering Marxist work that he produced in his too-short public career of about a dozen years. Though well-curated, the anthology provides only a fraction of Mariátegui’s output. He wrote very astute analyses of fascism in Italy, championed the movement for Indian independence from Britain, and supported women’s liberation; he wrote dozens of profiles of political figures like Trotsky, Lenin, and Debs, and of intellectual and literary figures from Freud to John Dos Passos. His collected works run to more than 900 articles and about half a dozen books, three published during his lifetime. Those who can read Spanish and sample from his Obras Completas (Collected Works) will be well rewarded.2

To the extent that Mariátegui is known in the socialist movement, he is recognized for applying Marxist analysis to the concrete reality of Perú, in specific, and, by extension, to the concrete reality of Latin America in general. For this reason, he’s often called the first Latin American Marxist or the greatest Latin American Marxist. His Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality deserves its reputation as a pioneering Marxist work. And while it is obviously true that much has changed in Latin America since the book was published in 1928, there is much in that work and in his other major writings that can speak to questions today: the relationship between the working class, the peasantry, and other aspects of class formation in the developing world; the relationship between race and class, in particular as it relates to the struggles of indigenous people; and the relationship between the fight for socialism and the fight against imperialism. Mariátegui was no ivory tower intellectual. He developed all of his theoretical insights as part of his commitment to building a revolutionary socialist party in Perú. Not surprisingly, he was a central figure in the formation of the Peruvian Communist Party and was its first general secretary. He helped organize unions and the main workers’ federation in Perú. And he was a convinced Leninist.

These assertions about Mariátegui’s life and work are likely to be uncontentious topics for readers of the International Socialist Review. But that is not necessarily the understanding of Mariátegui that prevails in left and intellectual circles today. Some associated with anti-Marxist traditions of Latin American nationalism write off Mariátegui as an economic determinist, at best, or a Eurocentrist, at worst.3 Most other commentators see Mariátegui as part of an indigenous Latin American Marxism, a point that for decades led official Soviet (Stalinist) historians to condemn his “populism” and “romanticism.”4 Reflecting on this hostility to Mariátegui from what was considered the source of Marxist orthodoxy for most of the twentieth century, some question whether Mariátegui was a committed communist to the end of his life, and whether he was moving away from international Marxism toward a sort of nationalist Marxism when he died.5

Today, writers associated with the postmodernist or cultural studies schools pick through Mariátegui’s writings, highlighting what they see as foreshadowing of “post-coloniality” and other insights, while (at the most extreme) criticizing him for working within a Western rationalist framework that ignored the experience of the racially and gender oppressed.6 Even Marxist socialists differ in their assessment of Mariátegui’s contributions. In his review of the Monthly Review anthology, Dan La Botz describes Mariátegui’s writing as “rather dogmatic and doctrinaire . . . doctrinaire in the sense of sense of being absolutely committed to the Marxist method.”7 On the other hand, Michael Löwy and Penelope Duggan celebrate Mariátegui’s heterodoxy for incorporating elements of romanticism.8 Mike Gonzalez sees in Mariátegui a committed activist whose original thinking was grounded in his political engagement with the Peruvian and international workers’ and revolutionary movements.9

There seem to be as many Mariáteguis as there are people writing about or acting on his legacy. The worst perversion of what Mariátegui stood for—in fact, the exact opposite of what he stood for—was the Maoist guerrilla movement that claimed to follow in his “shining path.”  While Shining Path shook the Peruvian state in the 1980s and 1990s, it also engaged in violent attacks on other leftists and social movement activists who didn’t accept its Pol Pot-like cultish politics.10 In many ways, Mariátegui has suffered a similar fate as that other leading Marxist of the post-Russian Revolution period: Antonio Gramsci. In the hands of reformists and Western Marxist academics, Gramsci’s conceptions of hegemony and the “war of maneuver” have been transmuted from what Gramsci intended them to be—the application of Leninism to Italian conditions—into little more than cultural criticism or a recipe for reformist gradualism.11 It is likewise with Mariátegui, whose chief insights—all of which were developed in the process of determining how to build a revolutionary workers’ party on a Leninist model—have been turned into harbingers of identity politics or justifications for anarcho-syndicalism.

The making of a radical
Who was José Carlos Mariátegui? Though his father was a direct descendant of one of Perú’s post-independence elite families, José Carlos and his siblings grew up in relative poverty. He was born in 1894 in the provincial town of Mosequa. When José Carlos was about three years old, his father abandoned the family. José Carlos grew up in a household headed by his mother. She took the family to live with her parents in the mountain town of Sayán, which served as a gateway between the Andean highlands and the coast. Young José Carlos passed hours in his grandfather’s leather-working shop, where he heard stories of travelers from the Andes about the near-feudal conditions for laborers on the huge highland latifundios (large estates). As a child he sustained a grave injury to his leg, leaving him in poor health. In 1924 he faced a health crisis that required doctors to amputate his leg. As a result, he used a wheelchair in the last years of his life. 

He did not receive much formal schooling (reaching about eighth grade), and, as a result, he was almost completely self-taught. At age fifteen, he was apprenticed to work as a printer’s assistant in the print shop of the Lima-based El Tiempo newspaper. Within a few years, he was writing anonymous columns (under the pseudonym “Juan Croniqueur”) of cultural and literary criticism. In them, he tweaked the noses of Lima’s bourgeoisie from the pose of a bohemian. By age twenty-three, he was a full-time journalist, and he had organized the other journalists at his paper into a union.

He and a circle of other leftward-moving intellectuals, including his friend, fellow El Tiempo journalist and later comrade César Falcón, founded two journals in rapid succession. Nuestra Época, founded in 1918, advocated a radical renovation of Peruvian society. Mariátegui and Falcón modeled Nuestra Época on España, a magazine advocating progressive reform of Spanish society that the “generation of ’98” intellectuals published in Spain.12Nuestra Época’s radicalism soon ran afoul of El Tiempo’s management, which had allowed Nuestra Época to use its press. So, in May 1919, Mariátegui and Falcón launched La Razón as a more explicitly political and socialist outlet.  La Razón, for example, championed workers’ struggles more directly than Mariátegui’s earlier literary efforts.13

The context of Mariátegui’s emergence as a literary and political figure was that of a rapidly changing society in which the struggles of workers, indigenous people, and students were breaking through a conservative landscape. 

Of all the Latin American states that won their independence from Spain, Perú was arguably the most conservative. In the century or so before the Spanish conquest in 1532, Perú had been the center of the highly organized and advanced Inca Empire. Within a few decades, the Spanish destroyed not just the Inca Empire, but reduced the indigenous population to about a tenth of its size. The Spanish used Perú as a giant mine—extracting silver from its land to send back to Europe—and imperial center. The Spanish viceroyalty that administered most of Latin America for most of the colonial period was headquartered in Lima, a coastal town that the Spanish founded to supersede the Andean Incan capital of Cuzco. As a result of Perú’s importance to the administration of the Spanish Empire, the war of independence that freed most of Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s found its weakest link in Perú. Perú and Lima were the bastions of support for the Spanish crown to the end, which is why the key battle that ended Spanish rule in the continent is the Battle of Ayacucho in Perú in 1824. It took another two to three more years to suppress royalist outposts in the rest of Perú.

This meant that independent Perú retained many of the trappings of colonial Perú long after independence. First, it retained its subordinate role in relation to the world economy. While the mid- to late-1800s saw a brief boom in the export of guano and nitrates, the Peruvian economy remained subordinate to the leading capitalist powers of Britain and the United States, rather than to Spain. Second, elements of Spanish feudalism persisted in the mountainous areas where most of Perú’s indigenous people lived under the rule of land barons called gamonales. Third, for most of the republican period, Perú went from one military dictatorship to another—some with civilian trappings such as elections—but not generally following the model of bourgeois parliamentarianism. Finally, Perú’s criollo elite and intellectuals tended to look to Europe for their cultural and philosophical inspiration. If anything, they had contempt for the Peruvian majority, 80 percent of which (by some estimates) was indigenous.

This picture of a highly stratified, tradition-bound society began to change in the early years of the twentieth century. A nascent, export-oriented Peruvian capitalism began to create a stable rural and urban proletariat, concentrated in cotton and sugar plantations in the coastal lowlands, and in textile and other small factories in Lima and its suburbs. These developments augmented the earlier established concentrations of workers in copper and nitrate mines, and in the country.

The first workers’ organizations in the late 1800s tended to be organized as mutual benefit societies or artisan guilds. These gave way to the formation of trade unions and federations under anarchist and anarchosyndicalist influence. A 1912–13 general strike movement won the eight-hour day for significant sections of workers in Lima and Callao. The class struggle took its next upward surge during World War I. Although Perú was neutral in the war (with its government eventually backing the Allies), its raw materials exporting economy felt an increase in demand from the belligerents. The war accelerated the country’s urbanization and proletarianization, but also brought a huge increase in the cost of living. These social pressures exploded in a nationwide mass strike movement for the eight-hour day in 1918, followed in 1919 by a mass movement protesting high prices and shortages of staples. The first of these brought mass solidarity from a student movement that was already mobilized around the issue of university reform. The second led to food riots and to workers’ seizures of warehouses to distribute consumer goods to the people. These two movements represented a high point of workers’ radicalism in this period.14

The upsurge in urban class struggle coincided with an increase in struggle in the countryside of the country’s southern altiplano, or high plain. Here, rural uprisings expressed efforts of Perú’s indigenous people to assert their rights. In 1915, the army officer Teodomiro Gutiérrez Cuevas, taking the nom de guerre Rumi Maqui (Quechua for “stone hand”), led an uprising in Huancané y Azángaro against the landlords that briefly declared an independent indigenous state. Later, during the 1921 indigenous seizure of the town of Tocroyoc, activists demanded the expulsion of the big landowners (hacendados) and the restoration of Tawantinsuyo, the Quechua name for the Incan Empire. The 1920s uprisings were part of a long tradition of indigenous struggle that included the famous 1780 revolt against the Spanish conquistadores led by the Inca chief Túpac Amaru. The struggle in the south subsided over the next few years, but it gave life to a series of indigenous congresses that brought the country’s indigenous people together on a national basis for the first time since the Peruvian republic formed in 1824. Mariátegui attended one of the Congresos de la Raza Indigena (Congresses of the Indigenous People) and befriended Ezequiel Urviola, an indigenous leader who provided Mariátegui with much insight into the indigenous rebellion.15

The third major source of political radicalism in this period came from a continent-wide movement for university reform launched from Córdoba, Argentina in 1918. In Perú, this movement reflected the aspirations of a new middle class that wanted to break with the medieval, clerical, and elitist spirit of the university system inherited from the colonial period. The movement demanded more modern, science-based instruction, student governance of the university, and an expansion of higher education through free tuition and scholarships to poor students. University reform inspired an intellectual movement announcing “the dawn of a new civilization whose home would be based in America,” that required a greater encounter with the reality of Peruvian society. The upheavals in the indigenous communities and in the universities helped to kindle a self-conscious “Peruvian” or “Latin American” consciousness, where historians, social scientists, and literary figures turned their attention away from Europe to focus on more local, and especially indigenous, concerns. One of Mariátegui’s published books, We Must [or Let’s] Peruvianize Perú, a collection of his essays written between 1924 and 1929, was produced in this spirit.

The most prominent leader of this student movement Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre became a leading political figure in the country. At the request of workers striking for the eight-hour day in 1919, Haya de la Torre and other student leaders brokered an agreement with the government that granted the workers’ demands. In 1920, students won most of their demands for university reform. Another legacy of the student movement was the establishment of popular universities, where young intellectuals and university professors taught free classes for workers. The first of these, established in Lima in 1921 under Haya de la Torre’s direction, later became Mariátegui’s forum for working with the leading activists of the workers’ movement.16

Each of these upheavals had their impact on the young Mariátegui, whose increasing politicization led him away from his bohemian literary pursuits, a period that he later described as his prepolitical “stone age.” And Mariátegui would no doubt have been a major participant in the Peruvian upheavals, if it hadn’t been for a twist of fate. In 1919, he published an essay in La Razón criticizing the government of Augusto Leguía. Leguía, who had campaigned for support on a popular, reformist platform, seized power in a military coup in 1919. When Mariátegui’s editorial criticized Leguía’s dictatorial pretensions, the government threatened to arrest him, along with Falcón. Possibly because of Mariátegui’s elite roots, Leguía’s emissary offered the two a choice: spend the next several years in prison or accept a stipend to be Peruvian “information agents” abroad. Mariátegui and Falcón took the stipend. After traveling briefly through New York, Mariátegui made it to Paris. He traveled through several European capitals. But he spent the bulk of the next three and a half years in Italy, mostly in Rome.

A Marxist, “convicto y confeso”17
If the government thought that it had rid itself of a dangerous radical, that plan backfired. Mariátegui’s sojourn in Italy transformed him from a bohemian radical into a committed Marxist. As he later wrote, in Italy he gained a wife (he married Ana Chiappe and they had four children) and some ideas. The Italy where he stayed for most of his time abroad was a nation in ferment. While Mariátegui was there, Italy experienced the Biennio Rosso (the “two red years”), the occupation of the factories in northern Italy, the split in the Socialist Party (SP) and the founding of the Communist Party (CP), and finally the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists. Mariátegui attended the 1921 SP Livorno Congress, in which the left wing, under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga, walked out to form the Communist Party. Covering these events as a journalist, Mariátegui was clearly sympathetic to the communists, who wanted to ally with the Communist International. Mariátegui briefly met Antonio Gramsci in 1921, but there is no evidence that the two had any personal or political relationship. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he was a sympathizer of Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo group that championed the factory council movement and that formed an important part of the CP.18

The socialism that Mariátegui embraced was the active and open Marxism that embraced the 1917 Russian Revolution as its highest achievement. As he wrote in his Defense of Marxism, a posthumously published polemic against the Belgian reformist socialist Henri de Man, “Lenin appears incontestably in our epoch as the most energetic and profound restorer of Marxist thought, whatever doubts plague the disillusioned author [de Man]of Beyond Marxism. Whether the reformists accept it or not, the Russian revolution constitutes the dominant accomplishment of contemporary socialism.”19 In identifying himself with the revolutionary wing of socialism, Mariátegui decisively rejected the “positivist” reading of Marx prevalent in the reformist sections of the European socialist parties prior to World War I.

Chilean Marxist Jaime Massardo has documented a long history of an anti-positivist interpretation of Marxism in Italy, dating from Antonio Labriola’s 1890 correspondence with Engels on the publication of Marx and Engels’s Theses on Feuerbach. Purveyors of the positivist interpretation saw Marxism as a system of immutable laws that made the triumph of socialism inevitable as a matter of economic development. Revolutionaries like Luxemburg, Lenin, and Gramsci rejected this passive evolutionism, arguing that, at its core, Marxism was based on workers’ struggles to change society. “So it does not seem at all accidental that the kernel of Marx’s thought was defined by Labriola, before anyone else, as ‘the philosophy of praxis.’”20 Labriola was the Italian translator and popularizer of the ideas of the French syndicalist Georges Sorel. During Mariátegui’s short stay in France, he met Sorel, and was greatly influenced by him. Massardo contends that Labriola’s interpretation of Marxism influenced the more well-known Hegelian commentators on Marxist philosophy, Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, who, along with Sorel, Mariátegui cited as his intellectual forebears. In this regard, Mariátegui shared the same philosophical influences as Gramsci.21

The embrace of an active, open Marxism rooted in the class struggle brought socialists like Labriola and Gramsci into a convergence with the revolutionary syndicalists of the day. In developing the theory of the L’Ordine Nuovo group and its critique of the reformist Socialist Party, Gramsci acknowledged the contributions of the revolutionary syndicalists like Sorel.22 Like the American Industrial Workers of the World, revolutionary syndicalists argued that the trade unions, using the weapon of the general strike, would bring down capitalism and take over the running of a socialist society. Socialists disagree with this conception of revolution that attempts to bypass the question of the capitalist state. Gramsci himself moved away from a “productivist” interpretation of the factory councils to regard them as more akin to the Russian soviets, an embryo of a new state. But revolutionaries in this period found common ground with the spirit of those who put revolutionary action above parliamentary maneuvering.

Another key element of Sorel’s thought that Mariátegui absorbed was the idea of the uses of “myth,” a vision that inspires the masses to take action, to exert their will. In his Reflections on Violence, Sorel calls the general strike “the myth in which Socialism is wholly comprised.” Years later, Mariátegui wrote that “Marx, Sorel, Lenin, these are the men who make history.”23 That’s putting Sorel in pretty august company.

Some writing on Mariátegui has since characterized him as someone interested in myths and religion, that he brings insights from both of those nonrational factors into his Marxism. “Revolutionaries’ strength isn’t in their science, it’s in their faith, their passion, in their will,” Mariátegui wrote during his time in Italy. “It’s a religious, mystical and spiritual force.”24 Using evidence of statements like that one, Löwy and Duggan classified Mariátegui as a romantic revolutionary who invested the struggle for socialism with something akin to a religious calling.25 In my opinion, Löwy and Duggan are a bit one-sided in their focus on this aspect of Mariátegui’s thought.

As Diego Messeguer Illán explained, “[Myth] is a synonym for faith, action, hope, combat, supreme and absolute truth, the final conflict, etc. Through these terms, two facets of ‘myth’ stand out. In the first place, myth is something that exists ‘beyond” reason: it’s a faith, a hope that, without being understood completely rationally, is accepted with absolute certainty. Second, this faith is not something passive, but rather something that spurs [people] to action, to struggle.”26  In other words, Mariátegui’s embrace of Sorel’s concept of myth in his Marxism is not some call to religious vocation, but a statement of first principles and confidence in the precepts of Marxism. It is akin to the words of Trotsky’s testaments written in the months before a Stalinist agent assassinated him: “I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.”27

Nevertheless, Löwy and Duggan rightly point out that Mariátegui was attracted to the ideas of Sorel because they emphasized revolutionary and workers’ agency against the positivist and scientistic Second International Marxism of the day. Like Gramsci and the L’Ordine Nuovo group, Mariátegui hated the passivity and fatalism of the socialist parties, who held to the idea that socialism would emerge as a part of the natural process of evolution, without workers having to fight for it. That is why the Mariátegui quote about revolutionaries’ “strength” above continues thus: “Religious motivations have been displaced from heaven to the earth. They are not divine. They are human, they are social.” And unlike most syndicalists or romantic anticapitalists, Mariátegui believed the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks were the authentic bearers of this revolutionary will. As Mariátegui wrote, “Marxism, where it has shown itself to be revolutionary—that is, where it has shown itself to be Marxist—has never obeyed a passive and rigid determinism.”28 Rejecting an economic determinist distortion of Marxism has had obvious application to the fight for socialism in an underdeveloped area like Latin America.

Mariátegui returns to Perú
In 1923, Mariátegui returned to Perú, with the aim of building the struggle for socialism there. And for most of the rest of his life he dedicated himself to building workers’ organizations and a Leninist socialist party. Mariátegui’s plans to form a revolutionary socialist party took root in Italy, among a circle of Peruvian exiles that included Mariátegui and Falcón. They and a handful of other Peruvian exiles discussed forming a socialist party affiliated to the Communist International when they arrived back in their native country.29

The Perú to which they returned was transformed. The impact of the World War I economic boom and the movements of Indigenous people, workers, and students had produced a flourishing of radical political currents and organizations. The two most important of these were socialism/Marxism and radical Pan-Latin American nationalism as represented in the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, known by its Spanish initials, APRA. APRA, founded by Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre in 1924 during his exile in Mexico, was initially conceived as a continent-wide, anti-imperialist and economic nationalist movement. From a socialist point of view, APRA’s politics can be defined as “petit-bourgeois nationalist”—and crucially, procapitalist30—if politically flexible. So, at its founding, it had a leftish, anti-imperialist bent. Later, it adapted to Latin American populism and neoliberalism. Today, it remains a political party on the Peruvian scene, having elected President Alan García twice.31 

This background helps us to understand why Mariátegui joined a radical milieu that was sorting itself out between socialism and radical nationalism. In fact, these two forces combined together to create and maintain the González Prada People’s University where the radical intelligentsia and workers’ leaders converged. Workers and students attended the Popular University, and leading Peruvian intellectuals lectured there. At Haya de la Torre’s invitation, Mariátegui took up the position as rector of the Popular University. Over the next few years, Mariátegui became the university’s most popular speaker. He regularly lectured on world events to audiences composed primarily of workers.

Even though Mariátegui collaborated with Haya de la Torre and the Apristas in his initial years back in Perú, he was committed to developing support for a Marxist socialist party and for broad trade union organization. As he noted in a key 1923 lecture at the Popular University, he wanted to impart the revolutionary experience of Europe and the rest of the world to the vanguard of Peruvian workers because “the proletariat is not a spectator, but an actor.” He continued: “Perú, like the other peoples of the Americas, is not, then, outside the crisis, it is inside it.”32 In the rest of this lecture, he outlined the political trends in the working class and socialist movements—essentially the divide between reformists and revolutionaries, between the Second and Third Internationals—and made a strong case for the Peruvian vanguard to align itself with the revolutionaries and the Comintern. Mariátegui’s 1923 lecture illustrated a constant theme: that although socialism in Latin America must be based on Latin American realities, it was not exceptionalist. He conceived of socialism in Latin America as part of a world socialist and working-class movement.

In his tenure at the Popular University, he met and collaborated with what can legitimately be called the vanguard of the Peruvian working class, including many of the country’s main workers’ leaders. As the most popular speaker at the university, Mariátegui often found crowds of workers gathering around him to ask him questions after his classes. One of these was Julio Portocarrero, a textile worker from age twelve at the Vitarte mill near Lima. Vitarte, with Portocarrero playing a key role, had distinguished itself as a leading site for the struggle for the eight-hour day. It hosted an annual workers’ festival, featuring political and cultural activities, which Mariátegui attended as a participant and popular featured speaker. After meeting Mariátegui at the Popular University, Portocarrero became a distributor at Vitarte of socialist newspapers and journals that Mariátegui edited, and a founding member and labor secretary of the Peruvian Socialist (Communist) Party. He was one of seven workers and intellectuals who formed what the participants called the “secret cell of the seven” at the core of the Peruvian Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers.33

For much of his time in Perú after returning from Italy, Mariátegui attempted to practice his understanding of the Comintern’s policy of the united front, but in the absence of an explicitly revolutionary socialist or communist party to concretize it.34 In his writings, speeches, and organizing efforts, Mariátegui argued for an explicitly Marxist current in the broader workers’ movement. But he did not, at first, promote the formation of an explicitly Marxist party. He preferred instead to build basic workers’ organizations, such as trade unions, while building a current for socialist politics in the workers’ movement and among the radical intelligentsia. “The classist (clasista) movement, between us, is still incipient, too limited for us to think of fractionizing it and splitting it. Before the perhaps inevitable hour of a division, it is up to us to complete much common work, much shared labor. We have to set off on many long days of work together,” said Mariátegui in a declaration issued on May Day, 1924. Nevertheless, “[R]ecommending the united front is not, then, recommending any ideological confusion. Inside the united front everyone should keep his own affiliation and his own ideology. Everyone should work for his own credo. But all should feel united by class solidarity, bound together by the struggle against the common adversary, tied by the same revolutionary will, and the same renovating passion.” 35

Much of Mariátegui’s trade union work in this period involved support for nitty-gritty demands for higher wages, for social legislation, and for freedom of the press and association. As late as the 1927 Second Local Workers Congress, a national Peruvian convocation of workers’ representatives, Mariátegui cautioned anarchists and other socialists against consuming the meeting with ideological discussion that “will only serve to disorganize workers when what’s needed is to organize them.”36 Perhaps Mariátegui can be faulted for not giving more organizational shape, in the form of a party, to his current. In fact, the “secret cell of the seven” did not organize the Peruvian Socialist Party until late 1928, which, even in Latin America, was a late development.37 Only in 1929 did Mariátegui, along with Portocarrero and other workers’ leaders, declare the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers, dedicated to “clasista” (or class struggle) unionism. To understand why Mariátegui delayed in drawing the organizational conclusions of his political convictions, it is necessary to return to the battle for political influence between socialists and the nationalists of APRA.

Nationalism and internationalism
As someone who was committed to building a socialist party in Perú, Mariátegui was also aware of the early Comintern congresses’ discussion about the need to work alongside of, but independent of, petty-bourgeois nationalists in the colonial or semicolonial countries.38 On his arrival back from Italy, Mariátegui and the Apristas worked as part of a broad radical front. Not only did Mariátegui serve as the rector of the Popular University, but he and Haya de la Torre shared the editing of a radical journal called Claridad (Clarity). Mariátegui maintained this relationship with APRA as it stuck to its original vision as a broad front of anti-imperialist forces. But as Haya de la Torre and his cothinkers moved toward reorganizing APRA as a political party, and a procapitalist one at that, Mariátegui moved away from it. 

The authorities shut down Claridad in 1925. And in that moment of clarity, Mariátegui decided to launch an explicitly socialist journal, Amauta, taking the title from the Quechua word meaning “wise teacher,” in 1926. Though it published a wide array of material, its editorial voice was Marxist and socialist. It reprinted articles by Marx, Lenin, and Lunacharsky. Around Amauta, Mariátegui hoped to gather a readership that might form the cadres of a socialist party. The year after opening Amauta, he launched Labor, a newspaper directed specifically to the developing workers’ movement. In conjunction with these contributions to the socialist press, Mariátegui participated in initiatives to launch a socialist party and a radical workers’ federation. These actions show a fairly determined, deliberate (and Leninist) effort to establish a socialist organization. 

So much so, the Peruvian authorities declared the existence of a fictitious international communist conspiracy, shut down Amauta, and threw Mariátegui in jail in 1927. This happened around the time that Amauta published articles in support of Augusto Sandino’s revolt against the US occupation of Nicaragua—about which the US embassy in Perú wasn’t too happy. The pro-United States Leguia regime was implicated as well; it had virtually mortgaged the country to US banks. Following an international campaign for Mariátegui’s release, the government freed him after six days. A few months later, Amauta resumed publication.

In this atmosphere of political instability in Perú, Haya de la Torre, from exile in Mexico, declared the National Liberation Party and announced its intention to contend for power in Perú.  Mariátegui criticized Haya de la Torre and the new party for endorsing a cross-class alliance rooted in the middle class, for embracing capitalism and abandoning socialism, for turning itself into an electoral party, and for adopting an authoritarian organizational style. In numerous references to Haya de la Torre and APRA at this time, he compared them to the Kuomintang in China (which means comparing Haya de la Torre to Chiang Kai Shek—the butcher of the Chinese Revolution.)39 Whether Mariátegui followed all of the twists and turns of the Comintern at this time or not, it is fair to say that he upheld the original Leninist position of the relationship of socialists to nationalists, rather than the emerging Stalinist view of seeing the nationalists as representatives of a progressive bourgeoisie to which the socialists must subsume themselves.40 This Stalinist theory was the root cause of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution, which was happening in real time as the break between Haya de la Torre and Mariátegui was developing. As Mariátegui wrote in his Seven Essays, “ . . . here does not and never has existed in Perú a progressive bourgeoisie, endowed with national feelings, that claims to be liberal and democratic and that derives its policy from the postulates of its doctrine.”41

In his assessment of the direction of Haya de la Torre’s politics, Mariátegui took note of developments in Mexico, where a radical plebeian revolution had produced a bourgeois state that, by the end of 1920s, was accommodating itself to a US-dominated continent. In a series of pointed analytical essays on the Mexican Revolution, Mariátegui chronicled the shift to the right in the new ruling class. He castigated President Portes Gil’s attacks on trade unions and peasant organizations, and the “revolutionary” intellectuals who defended them. As Mariátegui wrote,

The Mexican state was not a socialist state in theory or in practice. The revolution had respected the principles and forms of capitalism. What was socialist about this state consisted of its working-class political base. [The] capitalist class solidified in the context of the regime created by the revolution. And they had in their favor a greater political maturity. The petit-bourgeois elements, the military caudillos of the revolution, placed between these two influences [i.e., the capitalist class and the working class], had to regularly give way to capitalist influence.42 

This may have hit too close to home for Haya de la Torre: his model for the National Liberation Party was precisely the governing Party of the Mexican Revolution, the object of Mariátegui’s scorn.43

Haya de la Torre denounced Mariátegui for succumbing to “tropical illusions and absurd sentimentalities” because he claimed that socialism was possible in Perú, whereas, according to Haya de la Torre, only an anti-imperialist revolution was possible. “Be realistic and try to take your discipline not from revolutionary Europe but from revolutionary America.” He charged Mariátegui with wanting to curry favor with Europeans and wrote, “We shall accomplish the revolution without mentioning socialism, and by distributing land and fighting imperialism.”44 This line of attack from an anti-Marxist nationalist is really the beginning of the baseless charge that Mariátegui was a Eurocentrist. But Mariátegui later had the perfect rejoinder: “We are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because we oppose capitalism with socialism as an adversarial system called to succeed it. In the struggle against foreign imperialism we are fulfilling our duties of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe.”45 

It is in the context of this clarification of political program and orientation that Mariátegui’s most well-known work, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, published in 1928, should be understood. 

Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality
As Trotsky wrote about combined and uneven development in Russia, or as Gramsci wrote about the “southern question” in Italy, the Seven Essays is Mariátegui’s attempt to understand Peruvian reality as a Marxist—in order to change it. Although many have since hailed Seven Essays as an example of open, heterodox—even “indigenous” —Marxism, the book reflects a materialist and fairly orthodox approach. Several of the essays originally appeared in Amauta, and Mariátegui considered them to be provisional, subject to revision after further research. He dedicated each of the essays to a crucial question of Peruvian society: the economy, the problem of land, the “problem of the Indian,” religion, regionalism, education, and literature. Even the long essay on literature—which is about a third of the book—roots its cultural analysis in the neocolonial class and the racial dynamics of Peruvian society.

The most consistent theme of Seven Essays is the division of Peruvian society into two: an indigenous, Andean society where remnants of Spanish feudalism persisted and a coastal, mestizo, more economically developed, neocolonial society. This division of society is reflected in everything from fights over regional governments to education policy. Mariátegui’s key message is the necessity for Peruvian socialists, by championing the rights of the indigenous majority, to break down these divisions and build a multiracial working-class movement.

To be sure, Mariátegui sees Perú as capitalist, with the guano and nitrates trade spurring that development. After losing the 1879–83 War of the Pacific to Chile, where Chile made off with the guano and nitrates territories, the capitalist class rebuilt itself through sugar and labor-intensive industries such as textiles, and the penetration of British and American capital, especially in mines and petroleum. This creation of industry provided the basis of an industrial proletariat, which, he argued, must ally with peasants and agricultural workers. He asserts that the Peruvian economy has elements of three economies coexisting within it: a coastal bourgeois economy “growing on feudal soil,” a semi-feudal agrarian society in the sierra, which overlays the remnant of “an indigenous communal economy.” 46 This citation of the indigenous communal economy is both the most well-known and the most controversial aspect of Seven Essays. He posits that indigenous traditions embodied in the ayllu, a kin-based organization of labor and collective management of resources, provide at least an implicit challenge to the feudal and bourgeois elements. Here, and in other writings, Mariátegui often used rhetoric implying that these kinds of indigenous traditions would be a foundation for socialism. He often wrote that because Perú was the home of “Inca communism,” it would be a base for an Indo-American socialism. Many commentators have pointed to these references, and used them either to praise or to condemn Mariátegui, depending on which ax they were grinding.47 

To make sense of what Mariátegui was arguing, you first have to set aside some of the references to “Inca communism” as rhetorical flourish—intended to support an argument that Perú and South America were as ready for socialism as was England or Germany. As an analytical tool, though, Mariátegui’s citation of the role of community among the indigenous population might be more accurately understood to mean something like “a culture of solidarity” that can contribute to the building of socialism in Perú. “We believe that in the so-called ‘backward’ populations, like the indigenous population descended from the Incas, gathers very favorable conditions where primitive agrarian communism, surviving in concrete structures and in a deep collectivist spirit, can be transformed, under the leadership (‘hegemonía’) of the proletariat, into one of the most solid bases of the collectivist society that Marxist communism envisioned.”48 Two points are worth noting here. First, this invocation of a collectivist substrate in the rural population echoes Marx’s provisional writings in his Ethnological Notebooks, including his speculation about the role of the peasant commune in a future Russian revolution.49 Second, he doesn’t argue that indigenous collectivism is synonymous with or even primary to the struggle for socialism in Perú—it is an essential feature of Peruvian society that can be mobilized under the leadership of the proletariat.

So when he wrote about “the problem of the Indian,” he was not simply talking about a question of racial or cultural oppression. As he put it, “The problem of the Indian is rooted in the land tenure system of our economy.” He inveighed against the reigning ideology of the indigenistas of the time, who thought of the issue of indigenous rights as a question of civil rights that might be overcome with education or transcended through the creation of a mestizo race (i.e., created through intermarriage with whites.) He argued that socialists are not just content to assert the Indians’ right to education or culture; they assert indigenous rights to the land. And to attain that goal, indigenous people have to overthrow the latifundistas and take the land for themselves—the peasants, sharecroppers, and agricultural workers.

In this way, Mariátegui saw the indigenous question as providing the key to unlock the socialist revolution. He writes that the Indian question must be “given the first place in the revolutionary program of the vanguard.”50 But he believes the Peruvian socialist revolution must unfold as an alliance between the wage-earning working class—white, mestizo, indigenous, and immigrant—and the largely Indian agricultural proletariat. He concurred with the indigenista writer, Luis E. Valcárcel, who asserted “the Indian proletariat awaits its Lenin.” To which Mariátegui responds: “A Marxist would not state it differently.” Some on the left have criticized this, implying that Mariátegui believed that Indians could not generate their own leadership, and would have to look to an “external” force.51 But that is a deliberate misreading. There is nothing in his writings to conclude that, and unlike most other mestizo intellectuals of his generation, he actually wrote about the necessity for Indians to take matters into their own hands. He had both knowledge and appreciation of the long history of indigenous resistance: first to the Spaniards, and then to the republic.

Did this mean that he thought Inca communism should be a model for the future? This is another key point of controversy surrounding Mariátegui’s assertions: after all, the Inca state was a theocratic empire. So some liberal contemporaries criticized Mariátegui for invoking Inca communism. Because of this, he felt compelled to add a long footnote to the chapter on the Indian in the Seven Essays. In it, he pointed out a number of things, including that those who criticized him based on what the Spanish conquistadores wrote about the Incas should consider the source. But the key point he made was this: “Modern communism is different from Inca communism. . . . They belong to different historical epochs.” The Inca civilization was agrarian, today’s is industrial. “It is therefore absurd to compare the forms and institutions of the two civilizations.”52 His invocation of Inca communism is by analogy. The communism he is fighting for is that of Marx and Lenin.

Though Seven Essays was a landmark Marxist study and polemic, it was not a programmatic statement or a manifesto. But it was, in some ways, Mariátegui’s final announcement to a wider audience of his Marxist convictions. It was part of a process in which he made his final break from an alliance with the likes of APRA to concretize his ideas into an organizational form, a socialist party. In the Seven Essays and other writings until his death, we can see a fuller development of what might be called Mariátegui’s “Latin American Marxism,” of which the Massardo53 identified five major elements:

  • First, the national bourgeoisie is incapable of carrying out the tasks of national liberation and social development that Perú required, and that these roles fell to a broader coalition of popular social forces. 
  • Second, the leading role of the working class in this broad coalition interacts with the ethnic and racial dimensions of the society.
  • Third, the fight for democracy and national liberation must be carried out within the rubric of the struggle for socialism. 
  • Fourth, a victorious struggle will overcome the racial divisions within the working class, and will create a new concept of the nation and nationality.
  • Fifth, the indigenous population will play a key role in bringing about a socialist state akin to that which Marx expected the peasant communes of Russia to play in a future Russian revolution.

The “founder of Latin American Marxism”
From the time of the final break with APRA to the end of his life in April 1930, Mariátegui was engaged in a whirlwind of activities, along with the leading members of the Peruvian labor movement. At this time, when Mariátegui was actively engaged in launching a communist party and the workers federation in Perú, he wrote or contributed to a number of texts. Some of these were published in Amauta, and others prepared for an explicitly socialist audience, especially for the 1929 meeting in Buenos Aires that convened the existing Communist parties of Latin America for their first and only meeting of that kind. These writings bear review because they are much more pointed and address key issues that are still discussions on the left today, and not just in Latin America. Mariátegui’s writings on two key questions—race and class, and agency for the socialist revolution in the underdeveloped world—provide many insights. But to get the full weight of Mariátegui’s insights, readers should consult his writings in full.

The document he produced on “The Problem of Race in Latin America,” for the 1929 Buenos Aires meeting is a thoroughly Marxist account of how race interacts with class in the Peruvian context. He confronts the fact that in many parts of Latin America, racially oppressed groups form large sections of the working class, while the exploiters are almost universally white. So race and class heavily overlap, and socialists must take note of that. He extends his analyses of the indigenous population to include skilled mestizo workers in the small industries in the cities, as well as Black workers, the descendants of African slaves, and Chinese immigrant workers, who were recruited to work on coastal agricultural plantations. While he recounts much detail about the conditions of existence of these groups of laborers in the Peruvian economy, what stands out is the degree to which he spoke of the growth of industrial capitalism as helping to produce a working class that is conscious of its own role.

Capitalist industry breaks this equilibrium, breaks this stagnation by creating new forces and new relations of production. The proletariat will gradually grow at the expense of artisanship and servitude. The nation’s economic and social evolution enters into an era of activity and contradictions that, on an ideological level, causes the emergence and development of socialist thought.54

To illustrate, he notes many Indians work in semi-feudal conditions for part of the year, work as day laborers in the cities for other parts of the year, or work in the mines. In this sort of situation, he argues that wage labor will help to build a working-class and socialist consciousness that can be brought to the experience of agricultural labor. This will be the beginning of an indigenous working-class vanguard which, he asserts, should be the leading force in organizing among other indigenous proletarians. “A revolutionary Indigenous consciousness will perhaps take time to form, but once Indians have made the socialist idea their own, they will serve it with a discipline, a tenacity, and strength that few other proletariats from other milieus will be able to surpass.”55 He also notes that, for mestizo workers, adopting a class and revolutionary perspective is the only way for them to overcome their prejudices against the indigenous majority. Many of these insights are reminiscent of Trotsky’s discussions on Black liberation in the United States with C. L. R. James and American Trotskyists in the 1930s.56

The most important point, though, is that Mariátegui’s analysis always traces back to the analysis of class. So he concludes with an argument that socialists “must convert the racial factor into a revolutionary factor,” and to assure all workers, especially the racially oppressed, that their only salvation lies in a socialist government that puts an end to the domination of the latifundistas, the industrial capitalists, and the imperialists.

We propose with total clarity the fundamentally economic and social aspects of the problem of race in Latin America and the obligation of all of the communist parties to prevent the bourgeoisie from trying to impose an exclusively “racial” solution to the problem. At the same time, the communists are obliged to accentuate the economic and social character of the struggles of the exploited indigenous and Black masses, destroying racial prejudices and promoting class consciousness, orienting their concrete and revolutionary demands away from utopian solutions and pointing out their common interests with white and mestizo proletarians, as part of the same exploited class.57

This conclusion segues well to the second question: Who would lead the Latin American revolution? The first point of the statement by the “secret cell of seven” announcing the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP) is: “The clasista organization of workers and peasants is the object of our effort and our propaganda and at the base of the struggle against imperialism abroad and the national bourgeoisie.”58 That captures just about every strategic point within one sentence. Later, the PSP statement commits to the class organization of the urban and rural proletariat. In other words, Mariátegui and the PSP took a broad view of the revolutionary subject (“the working masses of the city, the countryside, mining camps, and Indigenous peasants, whose interests and aspirations we represent in the political struggle”) but was not a proponent of some sort of peasant-based socialism. In fact, as mentioned earlier, Mariátegui was very conscious of the differences between agricultural workers and peasants. He, like Lenin, recognized the necessity of an alliance between the urban working class and agricultural laborers, both agricultural workers and peasants. And like Lenin, he put the stress on the leading role of the urban working class, and furthermore like Lenin, he stressed that his alliance wouldn’t come about automatically, but had to be consciously forged through the activities of a revolutionary party.59 We shouldn’t forget that the 1917 Russian Revolution took place in a country in which the urban working class was a minority, and where peasants were an overwhelming majority of the population.

Mariátegui vs. the Comintern
Mariátegui’s fidelity to a genuine Leninist view on these questions brought him into conflict with the increasingly Stalinized Comintern, which was starting to extend its tentacles to Latin America, and spreading its new ultraleft doctrine of the “third period”. Problems with the Comintern emerged almost from the first contact between the Peruvian socialists and representatives of the international. When Portocarrero represented the Peruvians at a 1928 meeting of the Red International of Moscow-aligned trade unions, he and the other Peruvian representative were the only delegates to refuse to sign a Comintern-sponsored statement condemning the Catalan revolutionary Andreu Nin for “Trotskyism.”60 They also refused to back a resolution condemning Aprismo. In the first instance, the Peruvian delegates demurred because they said they knew nothing about the charges against Nin and did not want to be stampeded into signing. In the second instance, the Peruvians, although politically hostile to Aprismo, indicated that they did not want to go on record on such an important political matter to Perú and Latin America before the issue had been adequately debated in Perú. On these judgments, Mariátegui supported his Peruvian comrades.61

However conscientious, the Peruvians’ actions put them and the group of activists and intellectuals around Mariátegui in Moscow’s crosshairs. This became evident with the isolation of and political attacks against the Peruvian delegates to the first, and as it turned out only, continental congress of the fledgling Latin American Communist parties, held in Buenos Aires in July 1929. Although Mariátegui was too sick to travel to the conference, he played a major role in preparing the delegation’s two main written interventions, the aforementioned “Problem of Race in Latin America,” and “The Anti-Imperialist Point of View.” Dr. Hugo Pesce, one of Mariátegui’s closest comrades, presented these discussion papers on Mariátegui’s behalf. Even though both of Mariátegui’s contributions are brilliant applications of the Marxist method to explain contemporary reality, the Comintern disparaged them. 

In the lead-up to the 1929 conference, Mariátegui came under pressure from the Comintern and its local agent, Codovilla, an Italian immigrant living in Argentina, to adapt to the new “third period” line that advocated the creation of separate republics for racially and ethnically oppressed groups. In the United States, this took the form of the “Black Belt” theory.62 In Latin America, it meant that communists should advocate for the creation of separate Indian and Black republics. At Codovilla’s request, Mariátegui wrote “The Problem of Race” to address these questions. As already noted, he marshaled an impressive argument sustaining the close entwining of race and class in Perú, and concluded that the call for a separate republic was among the “utopian” solutions he criticized.

When socialists have considered the Black Belt theory in relation to the Black question in the United States, they have often concluded that despite having no real practical application in the United States, it raised the Black question to a central point of politics for a largely white communist movement. Trotsky, in the discussions with the American socialists cited earlier, even pointed out that if a demand for a separate Black state emerged from Blacks themselves, the socialists would defend it and champion it. In this regard, one could criticize Mariátegui for ignoring the theoretical possibility of an Indigenous demand for separation, but one can hardly say that Mariátegui had ignored or given short shrift to the Indigenous question before. In a country where 80 percent of the population was Indigenous, Mariátegui envisioned a future in which the Indigenous majority asserted itself throughout the entire national territory. As Mariátegui declared in one of his polemics with the Apristas, “My ideal is not a colonial Perú or an Inca Perú, but an integrated Perú.”63

Another major controversy revolved around the southern provinces of Tacna and Arica, which had been under Chilean occupation since the 1880s War of the Pacific. Codovilla criticized the Peruvians for not having raised the slogan of a plebiscite for “self-determination under workers’ control” in the regions, whose status was being negotiated between the Peruvian and Chilean governments. While Mariátegui’s lack of attention to this topic—a source of much nationalist agitation in Perú at the time—is significant, in that bigger issues were at stake. For one, the Comintern’s “third period” assumed that anti-imperialist struggles and insurrections were on the verge of breaking out across the region of “semicolonial” countries. And behind that dictation of a world perspective lay the increasingly obvious quest to subsume the policies of all national communist parties to the whims of Moscow’s foreign policy. 

Mariátegui’s contribution on the “Anti-Imperialist Point of View” did not confront the Comintern’s theory explicitly, but it explained why many South American national bourgeoisies were content to play a role as junior partners to the United States, while they exploited and oppressed their own working classes. As in his writing on the question of race, his analysis leads back to the necessity to mount a class struggle for socialism—rather than seeing the struggle purely through a lens of anti-imperialist politics.

The taking of power by anti-imperialism as a demagogic populist movement, if it were possible, would not represent the conquest of power by the proletarian masses or socialism. The socialist revolution would find its most fierce and dangerous enemy—dangerous for its confusion and demagoguery—in the petite bourgeoisie placed in power by the voices of order.

Without eliminating the use of any type of anti-imperialist agitation, nor by any means of mobilizing social sectors that can eventually contribute to this fight, our mission is to explain and demonstrate to the masses that only socialist revolution can permanently and truly oppose the advance of imperialism.64

The differences with the Comintern have opened up speculation that Mariátegui was moving away from communism at the end of his life. Yet there is no indication that he was seeking anything other than the formation of a socialist party that would have been affiliated with the Communist International, even while standing on its own in rejecting the imposition of a policy declared in Moscow.

Unfortunately for the movement, Mariátegui’s health was failing. He died in April 1930. Within months of his death, the Peruvian Socialist Party became the Peruvian Communist Party, and the Stalinist (and former APRA) apparatchik Eudocio Ravines took over the party. Nineteen thirty was a year of upheaval in Perú. When miners at the US- and British-owned Cerro de Pasco mines, led by the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), protested layoffs and working conditions, the military shot protesters, arrested the union leaders, and outlawed the PCP. For the next several decades, the PCP existed underground or marginally. Both from pressures internal to the movement and external (from the state), almost all of Mariátegui’s careful work in building the trade union movement and building a socialist party was undone.

Mariátegui’s legacy
For a few generations, Mariátegui’s thought and work were largely absent from discussions of socialist politics, both inside and outside of Latin America. That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, as mass movements and the growth of the revolutionary Left led to a rediscovery of pioneering Marxists like Gramsci and Mariátegui. Mariátegui is today celebrated as a “heterodox” Marxist. But as I have tried to show, Mariátegui’s heterodoxy was very much a part of the mainstream discussion of the communist movement before the dead weight of Stalinism descended upon it. In other words, Mariátegui appears heterodox when compared to the epigones of Stalin who populated most of the history of “official” communism. As John Riddell has recently demonstrated, the communist movement that nurtured the development of a Mariátegui was far more creative, contentious, and critical in addressing the political challenges of the united front, the national and colonial questions, and fighting racism than today’s critics of Marxism would acknowledge.65 Mariátegui thought of himself as nothing more than a “tried and true” Marxist who was actively engaged in the struggle for socialism.

Today, when the world is still experiencing the aftermath of a sharp economic crisis, and Latin America is grappling with the experience of the last decade of “progressive” governments (including that of Bolivia, led by the Aymara indigenous president Evo Morales), it is worthwhile for us to look back at Mariátegui’s work with a fresh eye. Today’s Latin America is closer in image to an urban-dominated society, but it also faces all of the issues of race and class, and of the differing types of labor that come together to form a working class. And given recent experience in Venezuela, we need to evaluate what socialism in the twenty-first century will be like. As we go about that work today, we can take a lot from the letter and spirit of Mariátegui’s  Amauta, where he wrote in 1928:

The Latin American Revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a phase of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be the socialist revolution. Add all the adjectives you want to this word according to a particular case: “anti-imperialist”, “agrarian”, “national-revolutionary”. Socialism supposes, precedes, and includes all of them.

We certainly do not want socialism in Latin America to be a copy or imitation. It should be a heroic creation. We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language. Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.66

Those are the words of a wise teacher indeed.

Suggested readings on José Carlos Mariátegui

Thomas Angotti, “The Contributions of José Carlos Mariátegui to Revolutionary Theory,” Latin American Perspectives 33, no. 2, (Spring 1986).

Marc Becker, “Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory,” Latin American Series, no. 20 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Monographs in International Studies, 1993),

Mike Gonzalez, “José Carlos Mariátegui: Latin America’s Forgotten Marxist,” International Socialism 115 (July 2007),

Dan La Botz, “Latin American Marxist: José Carlos Mariátegui,” review of José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology ed. and trans. by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker in New Politics, Summer 2012,

Michael Löwy and Penelope Duggan, “Marxism and Romanticism in the Work of José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin American Perspectives 25, no.4, (July 1998).

José Carlos Mariátegui, Obras completas [Complete Works], Marxists Internet Archive

José Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, trans. Marjory Urquidi (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971).

Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker, ed. and trans., José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).

  1. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker, ed. and trans., José Carlos Mariátgui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 14.
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, Obras completas [Complete Works], Marxists Internet Archive,
  3. The critique of Mariátegui as an economic determinist is connected to a critique of his commitment to “scientific socialism,” an argument whose main proponent is Susanna Nuccetelli. See her Latin American Thought: Philosophical Problems and Arguments (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002). The “Eurocentrist” charge has been a staple of the anti-Marxist Aprista tradition, discussed later in this article.
  4. The key text of the “official” Stalinist version is by V. M. Miroshevski, “El populismo en el Peru,” Dialéctica 1 (May-June 1942): 41-59.
  5. Despite providing many valuable insights in his study of Mariátegui, that is the conclusion Alberto Flores Galindo reaches in La agonia de Mariátegui (Lima: Centro de Estudios y Promoción del Desarrollo, 1980). Some of this interpretation no doubt owes to Flores Galindo’s identification of the Stalinized Comintern with “international Marxism.”
  6. See Juan E. de Castro, “Nuevas visiones (y algunas omisiones) sobre Mariátegui,” review of Mabel Moraña and Guido Podestá, eds., José Carlos Mariátegui y los estudios latinoamericanos, in A Contracoririente 8, no.1 (2010): 431–41. See also Silvana Fereyra, “Notas sobre José Carlos Mariátegui y los ‘estudios culturales’,” Diálogos Latinoamericanos 18, (2011): 1–21.  
  7. Dan La Botz, “Latin American Marxist: José Carlos Mariátegui,” review of Vanden and Becker, Anthology, in New Politics, Summer 2012,
  8. Michael Löwy and Penelope Duggan, “Marxism and Romanticism in the Work of José Carlos Mariátegui,” Latin American Perspectives 25, no. 4(July 1998): 76–88.
  9. Mike Gonzalez, “José Carlos Mariátegui: Latin America’s Forgotten Marxist,” International Socialism 115 (July 2007)
  10. Marc Becker provides a useful history of Shining Path and its divergence from the core of Mariátegui’s ideas in “Shining Path,” at his website,
  11. Chris Harman’s “Gramsci vs. Eurocommunism” remains the essential source on these distortions of Gramsci’s thought, Marxists Internet Archive,
  12. The “generation of ‘98” was a group of liberal Spanish intellectuals like Antonio Machado and Miguel de Unamuno, who, reflecting on Spain’s defeat in the 1898 war with the United States, called for the regeneration and modernization of the country. Most of their literary output took place in the 1910s.
  13. This section on Mariátegui’s early journalistic career is documented in Diego Meseguer Illán, José Carlos Mariátegui y su pensamiento revolucionario (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruano, 1974), 20–24. 
  14. This far-too-schematic description of this period in the Peruvian class struggle is described further in Robert J. Alexander, A History of Labor in Peru and Ecuador (Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers, 2007), chap. 1.
  15. Albert Flores Galindo, La agonía de Mariátegui. Second Edition. (Lima: Centro de Estudio y Promoción de Desarrollo, 1982), 46–47.
  16. Diego Meseguer Illán, José Carlos Mariátegui, 33-39. The direct quote on the “dawn of a new civilization” is from p. 36 (my translation).
  17. A “committed and convinced” or “tried and true” Marxist. Mariátegui used this phrase several times to define himself after he returned to Perú from Italy. The most personal statement of his political convictions, when he used this phrase, was contained in the letters he issued in response to the government’s 1927 jailing of him over a fictitious “communist conspiracy.” In the letters, Mariátegui denied the charges of conspiracy, but affirmed his commitment to Marxism.
  18. For more on L’Ordine Nuovo and the factory council movement, see Glyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order (London: Pluto Press, 1975). Sheldon Liss’s research at the Institute for Gramsci Studies in Rome in 1979 found no evidence of any links between Gramsci and Mariátegui. See Sheldon Liss, Marxist Thought in Latin America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 132.
  19. José Carlos Mariátegui, “In Defense of Marxism” (1934), in Vanden and Becker, Anthology. 190.
  20. Jaime Massardo, “La larga ruta de Engels hacia América Latina,” in Investigaciones sobre la historia del marxismo en américa latina (Santiago: Bravo y Allende Editores, 2001), 15.
  21. Ibid., 16–17.
  22. See Alastair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography (London: Merlin Press, 1977), 112–16; and Williams, Proletarian Order, 42–43, 113.
  23. José Carlos Mariátegui, “Aniversario y balance,” Amauta, September 3, 1928, in Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 13. 
  24. Mariátegui quoted in Meseguer Illán, José Carlos Mariátegui y Su Pensamiento Revolucionario, 141. 
  25. Michael Löwy and Penelope Duggan, “Marxism and Romanticism in the Work of José Carlos Mariátegui,” Latin American Perspectives 25, no. 4, (July 1988), 76–88.
  26. Meseguer Illán, Mariátegui, 131.
  27. See “Testament of Leon Trotsky,” February 27, 1940, Marxists Internet Archive, A week later Trotsky added these lines to his testament: “But whatever may be the circumstances of my death I shall die with unshaken faith in the communist future. This faith in man and in his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion.”
  28. Mariátegui, “In Defense of Marxism, in Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 208.
  29. Plans to form a socialist party among Mariátegui and other Peruvian exiles are mentioned in Meseguer Illán, Mariátegui, 68, citing a 1939 biography. Little apparently came of these plans, and they had little to do with Mariátegui’s and Falcón’s subsequent efforts to form a party.
  30. See Victor Villanueva and Peter Crabtree, “The Petty Bourgeois Ideology of the Peruvian Aprista Party,” Latin American Perspectives 4, no. 3 (Summer 1977), 57–76.
  31. A visit to the party’s website recently found that its main crusade today is defending “traditional marriage” from the threat of civil unions. So it has come a long way from 1924! Anibal Quijano argues that Aprismo as an anti-imperialist force was spent by World War II. See Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America” in Nepantla: Views from the South 1, no. 3 (2000), 533–80.
  32. Mariátegui, “The World Crisis and the Peruvian Proletariat,” in Vanden and Becker, Anthology.
  33. For background on Portocarrero, see Wilredo Kapsoli, Mariategui y los congresos obreros (Lima: Biblioteca Amauta, 1980).
  34. For a more developed discussion of the united front policy, see Antonis Davanellos, “The Fourth Comintern Congress: A Way to Claim Victory” in International Socialist Review 95 (Winter 2014–15).
  35. Mariátegui, “May Day and the United Front,” in Vander and Becker, Anthology, 342–43.
  36. Kapsoli, 37.
  37. The timing of the formation of the Communist parties of Latin America: Mexico, 1919; Argentina, 1920; Uruguay, 1921; Chile, 1922; Brazil, 1921; Cuba, 1925 (the Popular Socialist Party of Cuba).
  38. The “Draft Thesis on National and Colonial Questions,” written by Lenin for the Second Congress of the Communist International in June 1920, contained this passage: “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.” Marxists Internet Archive,
  39. See, for example, “Reply to Luis Alberto Sánchez,” in Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 173ff.
  40. See Duncan Hallas’s critique of this “left oscillation/right turn” in the Comintern in The Comintern (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), chap. 5.
  41. José Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, trans. Marjory Urquidi (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 30. 
  42. Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 457.
  43. For the series of Mariátegui’s articles on Mexico see “Temas de nuestra America,” Marxists Internet Archive,
  44. The exchanges between Haya de la Torre and Mariátegui are collected in Jorge Basadre, introduction to Seven Essays, xx–xxi.
  45. “Anti-imperialist Point of View,” in Vanden and Becker,  Anthology, 274.
  46. Mariátegui, Seven Essays, 16.
  47. Meseguer Illán, summarizes the debate during Mariátegui’s lifetime on the nature of the Inca state, in Mariátegui, 181–84.
  48. From “El problema de la raza,” Marxists Internet Archive,
  49. “Thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia,” Marx wrote in a draft letter to the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, “the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale.” (Marx to Vera Zasulich, March 1881, See José Aricó, “Appendix Four: Marx’s shift of attention towards agrarian communities,” in Marxism and Latin America (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 83–88 on Marx’s 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich. Although Marx’s letter to Russian socialists was first published in Mariátegui’s lifetime, I know of no evidence that Mariátegui was familiar with it.
  50. Mariátegui, Seven Essays, 172.
  51. Marc Becker, “Mariátegui, the Comintern and the Indigenous Question in Latin America,” Science and Society 70, no. 4 (October 2006), 450–79.
  52. Mariátegui,Seven Essays, 74.
  53. Jaime Massardo, “El marxismo de José Carlos Mariátegui,” in Investigaciones sobre la historia del marxismo en América Latina (Santiago: Bravo y Allende Editores, 2001), 102.
  54. Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 313–14.
  55. Ibid., 325.
  56. See “Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism,” Marxists Internet Archive,
  57. “El problema de las razas,”  Marxists Internet Archive, (My translation.)
  58. Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 338. 
  59. Agnotti, 44.
  60. Mariátegui and his comrades were not “Trotskyists,” but Mariátegui did correspond with the Left Opposition group in France. More interestingly, his early writings on the Russian Revolution show great admiration for Trotsky as both leader of the Red Army and literary critic. And in 1929, he commented on Trotsky’s expulsion from Russia: “Trotskyist opinion has a useful role in Soviet politics. It represents, if one wishes to define it in two words, Marxist orthodoxy, confronting the overflowing and unruly current of Russian reality. It exemplifies the working-class, urban, industrial sense of the socialist revolution. The Russian revolution owes its international, ecumenical value, its character as a precursor of the rise of a new civilization, to the ideas that Trotsky and his comrades insist upon in their full strength and import. Without vigilant criticism, which is the best proof of the vitality of the Bolshevik Party, the Soviet government would probably run the risk of falling into a formalist, mechanical bureaucratism.” In “The Exile of Trotsky,” Marxists Internet Archive, Needless to say, Mariátegui’s admiration for Trotsky didn’t endear him to the Stalinist Comintern.
  61. Flores Galindo, 23–24.
  62. For a succinct explanation of the Black Belt theory, see Lee Sustar, “Self-determination and the “Black Belt,” Socialist Worker, June 15, 2012,
  63. Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 175.
  64. “Anti-imperialist Point of View,” in Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 269.
  65. John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012); John Riddell, “How Socialists of Lenin’s Time Responded to Colonialism,” December 14, 2014,
  66. Vanden and Becker, Anthology, 128.

Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story




  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz