Jose Carlos Mariátegui was born in Moquegua, Peru, in 1894. He was a radical in his early teens, a declared socialist by his early twenties, and “a convinced and committed Marxist” by the time he returned from Italy early in 1923.
He had just under eight years of life left – which makes his contribution as a thinker and an organizer all the more remarkable. He shaped the early working class movement in Peru, created a platform for the development of the left and reinterpreted Marxism for the reality of Latin America.
He was a revolutionary who challenged both reformism and the idea of gradual change under bourgeois leadership, and the sectarianism of the Communist International (the Comintern) and its insistence on imposing on all socialist movements the model of the Russian Revolution as the only strategy worthy of the name.
“In the struggle between two systems, between two ideas, we don’t see ourselves as spectators, nor are we seeking a third way…Although socialism was born in Europe, it is a world movement from which no country that moves within the orbit of civilization can stand aside…”
Jose Carlos Mariátegui died in Lima in 1930. He was thirty-six years old, but his impact on his own country and more broadly in Latin America was extraordinary. Yet for nearly six decades he was forgotten and ignored, his ideas distorted and parodied
A Marxist for our time
As the 20th century drew towards its end Latin America was confronting neo-liberalism in its fiercest guise.
Multinational corporations were gouging out its mountains, its forest cover was devastated to make room for soya cultivation and cattle-raising, new dams for industry drove millions off the land into the poor barrios surrounding all its major cities. What had been gained in social policies was swept away, the trade unions undermined, and the gulf between the rich and the poor widened.
The response was what came to be called ‘the pink tide’, as new grass roots movements arose across the region resisting neoliberalism. They mobilised the poorest and the most marginalized – indigenous communities, the urban poor - on the one hand, and on the other a new generation of students, encouraged the mobilization of women and expressed a rising ecological consciousness.
In Ecuador three governments fell as a result of mass protests by indigenous organisations. In Bolivia, the water and gas wars marked the new century with victories against multinational companies bent on seizing control of the country’s natural resources.
In Venezuela in 2002, the attempt to bring down the government of Hugo Chávez failed in the face of a mass movement.
The movements threw up new kinds of democratic organization and identified global capitalism as the enemy. Yet there was a political vacuum at their heart. They all proclaimed that “a new world was possible” – the slogan of the World Social Forums, which brought the movements together from 2001 onwards - but it was unclear what exactly that meant. The ‘socialist’ societies of Eastern Europe had been exposed as tyrannies driven by the same imperatives of accumulation and profit as the capitalist world.
And many of those who had claimed to represent that socialism were now colluding with neo-liberalism and pronouncing the death of Marxism.
These were the circumstances in which the creative Latin American Marxism of Mariátegui was rediscovered.
By 1918 he had established his own newspaper La Razón, with an explicit commitment to socialism
After a serious childhood illness, Mariátegui began work at 15 as a printers assistant at the Lima newspaper La Prensa.
Within a year he was contributing to several papers, reporting on the cultural and political life of Lima, where he also belonged to a circle of avant-garde artists. By 1918 he had established his own newspaper La Razón, with an explicit commitment to socialism. And when the workers movement launched a general strike early the next year, Mariátegui and his paper were enthusiastic supporters.
The demands of the general strike of January 1919 were for an 8-hour day and for the control of the price of basic necessities. Peru’s main industry at that point was cotton textiles produced largely in factories in and around Lima. But the end of the First World War reduced demand and brought unemployment and dramatic rises in the price of (mainly imported) food. Anarchists, who carried Mariátegui shoulder high through the streets when they won their demands, led these new trade unions. But the new president Augusto Leguía’s commitment to change and modernization proved short-lived and his promised reforms never materialized. One of his first acts was to send Mariátegui into a three-year political exile in Europe. Its effect on the young radical was not what Leguía had been expecting.
When Mariátegui arrived in Italy, in 1920, a new order was emerging. The old socialism, social democratic and reformist assumed that socialism would emerge from the development of capitalism itself. But the Russian Revolution of 1917 announced the possibility of revolutionary change, led by the working class and won by their collective action.
In Russia, the soviets, new organs of popular power that emerged in the course of the revolution, were the expression of this new world and of a new kind of democracy. In the car factories of Turin, in Italy, the workers councils, which had begun as strike organisations at the end of the First World War, developed into organs of popular power that challenged the capitalist class directly. In his Letters from Italy – articles sent back to Lima newspapers – Mariátegui described the intense political debates, the possibilities and the dangers facing the socialist project in Europe.
The rich and imaginative debates that followed the Russian Revolution explored oppression, the role of culture, the diversity of working class experience.
In Italy Mariátegui was present at the great debates between reformism and revolution and made contact among others with Antonio Gramsci, though the Peruvian died too early to be able to read Gramsci’s great contributions to Marxism, some of which Mariátegui seemed to anticipate.
In Italy Mariátegui was present at the great debates between reformism and revolution and made contact among others with Antonio Gramsci
When he returned to Peru early in 1923, Mariátegui was invited to provide a series of lectures on the world crisis at the People’s University in Lima. They were the clear expression of the Marxism to which he had become committed during his European period.
Mariátegui asked the critical question – who were the subjects of the Peruvian revolution? He set that out in a key essay, ‘The first of May and the United Front’, in which he addressed the problem of building a revolutionary movement where the working class was just emerging.
The European experience was important and inspiring but it could not simply be translated into a very different reality, a reality that Mariátegui was the first to analyse in a Marxist framework – in his best known work Seven Essays.
His proposal would embrace and strengthen the trade unions, in Lima, among the miners in the copper mines of the Central Valley and the oil workers employed by American corporations, and in the coastal latifundia producing crops for export.
But in a Peru 65% of whose population were indigenous people living in the Andean highlands under a semi-feudal regime, a socialist project must recognize their struggles against a brutal landowning class who were also part of a dependent capitalist economy.
In Seven Essays he described the role of the Peruvian bourgeoisie. Since the mid-19th century they had been the supine agents of the foreign capital – British, German and North American that dominated the Peruvian economy. There was no strategy for national independence emerging from them, no perspective for building a strong nation-state.
So the task of national liberation fell to the united front of workers, peasants and indigenous communities. That front would and must see itself in an international context; their common purposes and their common enemy –international capital, would define its allies. His 1923 lectures had set that out very clearly.
As he wrote and argued, revolutions do not arrive pre-packaged. They are the product of the particular conditions of the class struggle in which they take place, and they are informed by the specific historical and cultural experience of their central actors. In a country 60% of whose population was indigenous, their experience and traditions of struggle must also shape the revolution.
Building that united front would not be an easy task. The contact with and understanding of the indigenous world in the rest of the country was minimal. Although they coincided in time, the first trade union struggles of the urban workers and the miners were unconnected. One of Mariátegui’s key contributions was to build those links through the trade unions, and, after 1926, through the journal he founded, Amauta.
It brought together writings from the revolutionary movement in Europe and the Americas; it argued and debated the importance of Marxism with other currents like Apra –a radical nationalist movement that had once claimed to be Marxist.
Through those debates Mariátegui set out to win a new generation of young intellectuals away from the influence of populism. At the same time, the journal became a platform for indigenous voices and included a pullout bulletin providing news and analyses of indigenous struggles.
By 1928, when his Seven Essays were published, Mariátegui had had his leg amputated and was restricted to a wheelchair. But his energy never seemed to abate. His writings on every topic fill twenty volumes, and the daily meetings at his home in Lima brought together the different elements of the movement.
Where once the Communist International had provided a forum for an international debate among revolutionaries –and where Trotsky had also once argued for a ‘united front’ – the Comintern had by then become an instrument of the Soviet state, now controlled by Stalin.
The strategies defined by Stalin were imposed across the movement as a universal model. From the early twenties, communists in every country had been required to accept the twenty-one conditions for membership of the Comintern in order to be accepted into the world revolution. Under Stalin this was extended to include unquestioning acceptance of the instructions of the Comintern. The persecution of Trotsky represented the treatment of dissent.
By 1928, Mariátegui was under extreme pressure to accept those conditions and form a communist party. He had already founded the Socialist Party of Peru and written the first constitution and manifesto of the Peruvian Trade Union Congress.
His commitment to socialism was not in doubt, and Marxism informed everything he wrote. But it was not the narrow sectarian version of Marxism propounded by Stalinism; it was far closer to the creative, imaginative Marxism of Gramsci or Korsch. More importantly, Stalinism at this point argued that the class struggle had reached a definitive ‘third period’ when capitalism would face its final crisis and communism triumph.
Any who doubted its truth were condemned out of hand. The consequence was an emphasis on the separation between communists and others in the movement This would drive a wedge between the workers and the indigenous movements in Peru, whose united front was,for Mariátegui, the foundation of a revolutionary movement.
In his explorations of indigenous history Mariátegui identified in Inca culture a strong collective tradition embodied in the idea of the land as communally owned and in the form of social organisation called the ayllu.
The common strand he found, and which caused enormous controversy, was what he called ‘the myth’ – the cultural expressions that pointed to a different, anticipated future in every popular culture. It was what enabled him to define an ‘Andean socialism’ – not as a romantic throwback but as evidence of the common threads that could draw together the elements of a proletarian united front.
In 1930, as he was dying, Mariátegui refused to yield to Stalinism. He was denounced and derided by the leadership of the Comintern and his reluctance to form a communist party that would divide the movement described as ‘populism’ – the insult leveled at all dissenters and heretics.
Yet it is his ideas that survive and have made sense to a future generation that found in his writings resonances of their own experience and traditions and anticipations of their revolution, which Mariátegui worked so hard to build.
His ideas are as purposeful as ever, and can contribute to building new, revolutionary movements informed by his creative reading of Marxism.