The lost paths of Marx’s
 thought uncovered

Given the breadth of his interests and analytical capabilities, it perhaps comes as a surprise that Karl Marx wrote very little about Latin America. Most Marxists know about his reference to the “discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent,” in Capital. But fewer know of his short biographical sketch on Simón Bolívar, the main leader of the movement that won independence of Latin America from Spain.

When one reads what Marx wrote about Bolívar, he or she might wonder if the author was the same Marx who’d laid out his emancipatory vision as early as 1847. To him, Bolívar, who in Latin America is viewed as The Liberator—a heroic figure—was, as Aricó explains “an imitation of Napoleon III, or more precisely, some sort of Bonapartist dictator.” In a letter to his collaborator Friedrich Engels, Marx described Bolívar as a “dastardly, most miserable and meanest of blackguards.”

When one combines Marx’s picture of Bolívar with a letter he penned in 1864 on behalf of the First International to congratulate the American people for reelecting President Abraham Lincoln (“the single-minded son of the working class”), one might be tempted to sniff out a hint of condescension to Latin America. Certainly many generations of Latin American nationalists and anti-Marxists have made this point. A standard line of attack on the pioneering Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930) from the nationalist American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) centered on Mariátegui’s supposed fealty to a “European” ideology.

José Aricó’s Marx and Latin America, first published in Mexico in 1982 and republished for the first time in English (Haymarket, 2014), rescues Marx and Marxism from these distortions. 

Aricó (1931–1991) was a good candidate for this task. An Argentinian socialist and historian forced into exile in Mexico during his country’s military dictatorship and “dirty war” (1976–1983), Aricó undertook to reflect on the fate of Marxism in Latin America. As a member of the generation of radicals who had participated in the revolutionary events of the 1968–1974 period, Aricó’s intellectual work reflected questions the socialist movement was debating at the time.

As editor of the journals Pasado y Presente, Cuadernos de Pasado y Presente and Controversias, and as editorial director at the publisher Siglo XXI, Aricó helped to recover the history of Latin American socialism and radicalism and to launch new lines of inquiry. He was among a group of Latin American intellectuals to explore the relevance of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s (1891–1937) insights to contemporary Latin America, and he helped to introduce Mariátegui to a new generation. 

His contribution in Marx and Latin America is not only substantive, but also methodological. Aricó urged readers of Marx to consider all of his work, including short articles and fragments, rather than simply the “canon” of works like The Communist Manifesto or the preface to The Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. Second, following from Rosa Luxemburg’s observations on the “stagnation of Marxism” in the early twentieth century (“our needs are not yet adequate for the utilization of Marx’s ideas”), Aricó encourages us to see Marx’s work as developing over time, in response to “processes of the development of the socialist movement.”

Treating Marx’s work as a “closed” system “tends to subsume an extremely complex and nuanced thinker under a category as ambiguous as “Eurocentric” erases all difference, and denies any history to Marx’s development that recognizes periodization, turning points, new discoveries, and varying perspectives.” When Marx holed up in the British Museum to study England, capitalism’s most developed society, he did so with an understanding that British capitalism was a worldwide phenomenon. Aricó poses this point: was the England Marx studied “just the industrial centers of Manchester, Liverpool, or London, or also its colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and its crushing political and economic hegemony over the formally independent nations of Latin America”? Aricó provides us with a way to understand Marx’s analysis of what is today called “the developing world” as being a fundamental part, rather than just fragments at the margin, of his critique of capitalism.

Aricó also emphasizes the way in which Marx’s willingness to evaluate his analyses and conclusions are inherent in Marx’s unfolding understanding of political developments. Critics of Marx’s “Eurocentrism” point to his and Engels’ early writings characterizing some nations, following Hegel, as “non-historic,” or lacking the ability to assert themselves as independent forces embodied in modern nation-states.  To the extent that any of these Hegelian holdovers persisted in Marx’s and Engels’ thought, they may explain why they didn’t immediately identify the South American independence movements as movements of peoples transforming themselves into “historic” nations.  The fragmented character of the rebellion against Spain, issuing in weak states led mostly by criollo (i.e., white, European-descended) generals, seemed to contradict the “heroic” model of bourgeois revolution, exemplified by 1789 in France. While Aricó acknowledges this shortcoming in Marx’s and Engels’ early writings, he notes that Marx (and to a lesser extent Engels) completely revised their views in light of struggles for national liberation, particularly that of the Irish against British colonial rule. 

“Marx began to see the possibility that the struggles of these peoples could upset the stability of the world capitalist order, even within Europe itself,” Aricó points out. Marx embarked, near the end of his life, on an intensive study of peasant and rural societies, most of them non-European, to discover “communal structures” conducive to socialist transformation. Most famously, Marx corresponded with Russian socialists, speculating that a “Russian revolution” would be needed to save the communal organization of peasant society, which could then become an “element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system.” 

All of Aricó’s explications of Marx’s thought on these points circle back to his assertion that “The theoretical and political presuppositions from which the ‘autonomy’ of the Latin-American region could have been understood, then, did exist in Marx’s thought.” Marx may not have been fully conscious of this, Aricó argues, but he possessed the theoretical tools to examine and explain Latin American society.

Which brings Aricó to Marx’s 1857 biographical article on Bolívar written for a US-published encyclopedia.  Marx exhibits hostility to Bolívar and blindness to the Latin American revolutions for specific historical and methodological reasons, Aricó argues. Marx’s hostility to Bolívar reflects Marx’s hostility to Napoleon III. Marx likened Bolívar to Napoleon, whom he viewed as a dictator and negation of revolutionary ideals. Additionally, Marx’s conception of the state rejected Hegel’s celebration of constitutional monarchy using its power to shape civil society. Bolívar’s attempt to create a continent-wide state under the authority of a single leader struck Marx as the epitome of the type of politics he left behind in breaking with Hegel. Aricó faults Marx for not delving further into the history and development of the mass struggle for independence, but he dispatches the charge that Marx’s hostility to Bolívar stemmed from any sort of “Eurocentrism.” 

Yet had Marx applied fully the historical materialist method he developed in other contexts to the understanding of the Latin American revolution, Marx would have left us with a brilliant analysis. He did not accomplish this, but he left us with the tools we can use to accomplish it. In the fuller explication of other aspects of Marx’s thought, Aricó shows how we can “uncover . . . ‘lost paths’ of Marx’s thought . . . [and] restore to Marxism its character as a revolutionary, critical theory, full of the disruptive potential that Marx’s thought always entailed.”

Aricó performed a great service in recovering Marx’s contributions to the understanding of critical issues relevant to Latin America: the role of imperialism and colonialism in capitalist development, the struggle for national liberation, and an analysis of social forces, such as the peasantry, in countries with small industrial or urban working classes.  His analysis isn’t without its faults. First, he tends to connect Marx’s burgeoning interest in national liberation and rural society to a reevaluation of the centrality of the proletariat to the revolutionary process. While it may be argued that Marx broadened his perspective beyond the centrality of the Western European proletariat, I don’t think it’s correct to see in this a demotion of the working class as the central agent of the struggle for socialism. Second, Aricó sometimes makes it seem as if Marx and Engels diverged greatly on the national question, with Engels holding to a mechanical view of capitalism erasing “non-historic” nations from the path of historical development. Engels may not have developed the same theoretical insights on these questions that Marx did, but Aricó’s rendering gives short shrift to Engels’ many writings and speeches in defense of national liberation movements.

With numerous interesting appendices, and with excellent introductory materials by Horacio Crespo and Carlos Franco, Marx and Latin America is a stimulating rediscovery of Marxism’s ability to understand the world in order to change it.


Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

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  • 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
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