Latin America

6
Jan

 

 

By Christian Noakes (Posted Dec 20, 2022)

 

Within the heterogenous tradition of Marxism there are two diametrically opposed conceptions of popular culture: the elitist and vanguardist. The former is far from unique to Marxism, and it could be argued that such positions are antithetical to the popular sentiments of Karl Marx’s revolutionary thought. Such an orientation represents a dominant intellectual trend more generally, wherein the popular culture of the masses is considered devoid of positive value and categorically distinct from so-called high culture.1 Within Marxism, this elitism tends to assume that the ruling class has an absolute monopoly on popular cultural production. This position is perhaps best represented by Theodor Adorno, who categorically dismisses popular culture as insidious and debased. In his analysis of popular music, he goes as far as to distinguish between popular and “serious” music.2 Such positions overlook popular agency and the need to combat capitalist ideology on a social, rather than individual, level.

In contrast, vanguardists consider popular culture as a fundamental vehicle for mass education and the propagation of a particular worldview, in concert with a corresponding and underlying socioeconomic order. Proponents do not dismiss popular culture outright or conceive of it as inherently “bad” or “low,” but instead ask: popular culture for which class and toward what ends? Vanguardist praxis treats popular culture as “a terrain of contestation.”3

Another distinguishing characteristic of vanguardism is the belief in the intellectual capacity of the populace. Vanguardism is not simply a matter of being the most advanced. It also implies the ability to lead or give direction to the masses. On the intellectual field of culture, this entails a raising of consciousness. In response to the critique that ideas put forward in socialist publications were too complex for the working class to grasp, Antonio Gramsci observed the following:

The socialist weeklies adapt themselves to the average level of the regional strata they address. Yet the tone of the articles and the propaganda must always be just above this average level, so that there is a stimulus to intellectual progress, so that at least a number of workers can emerge from the generic blur of the mulling-over of pamphlets and consolidate their spirit in a higher critical perception of history and the world in which they live and struggle.4

Gramsci, therefore, rejects the extremes of both infantilizing anti-intellectualism (i.e., tailism) or isolated elitism. This is illustrative of how vanguardists can meet the people “where they are,” so to speak, and then work to move them to higher levels of class consciousness.

Gramsci and the lesser-known Peruvian Communist José Carlos Mariátegui—who is himself often compared to Gramsci—were not merely theorists of vanguardism. They actively practiced it and indeed, led this aspect of the class struggle in Italy and Peru, respectively. Both treated cultural and political issues as being deeply intertwined and sought to promote politically and intellectually developed popular culture for the working class and oppressed peoples in order to counter the dominant popular bourgeois culture. Their revolutionary praxis materialized in publications such as Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo and Mariategui’s Amauta.

Gramsci looked with admiration at the strides made by the Soviet Union in making the arts accessible to the working class and the proliferation of revolutionary cultural institutions such as the Proletkult. The revolutionary fervor in the Soviet Union and the increasing militancy of Italian workers inspired Gramsci to create an institution for the development and propagation of proletarian culture in Italy. Out of this desire came the newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo: Weekly Review of Socialist Culture, which Gramsci founded in 1919 with a group of intellectuals and revolutionaries that would later become a core group in the Communist Party of Italy. In its pages, readers found works of political prose alongside theater and literary criticism. The paper also introduced many to Communist artists and intellectuals from abroad, such as Anatoly Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, Henri Barbusse, and Romain Rolland. Reflecting on the initial impetus for the publication, Gramsci said,

The sole sentiment which united us… was associated with our vague yearning for a vaguely proletarian culture.5

The June 21, 1919, edition marked a significant shift in the publication from this somewhat eclectic initial phase into an organ for a concrete political program. Ordine Nuovo became not only a publication, but a core group representing something of a tendency or faction within Italian socialist politics—with a particularly heavy influence on labor struggles in Turin. Central to this solidification of political purpose was the factory council movement, which Ordine Nuovo fueled with its program to turn internal commissions of Turin factories into Italian soviets or councils. By directly empowering the workers to manage production themselves, Gramsci asserted that the councils would prepare the working class of Italy to take power and provide them with the competence to build and maintain a socialist society. The Ordine Nuovo group put its energies toward fostering a culture, by means of the councils, in which the workers would see themselves as producers within a larger cooperative system of production, rather than as atomized wage-earners.6 This culture was organically fostered through direct dialog with the workers themselves. With an air of satisfaction, Gramsci remarked that “To us and to our followers, Ordine Nuovo became ‘the newspaper of the factory councils.’ Workers loved Ordine Nuovo… [b]ecause in its articles they found part of themselves.… Because these articles were not cold, intellectual architecture, but were the outcome of our discussions with the best workers. They articulated the real feelings, will, and passion of the working class.”7

At the request of the workers, Gramsci and other members of Ordine Nuovo spoke regularly at council meetings. In September 1920, the revolutionary potential of the councils reached a high point when workers occupied factories and took direct control over production. At this time, the publication ceased, and Gramsci and the other members joined the workers in the factories “to solve practical questions [of running a factory] on a basis of common agreement and collaboration.”8

While the editorial line of the newspaper became more defined and motivated by concrete political goals, it still focused on fostering an organic popular culture of the working class, which it treated as an integral part of building socialism. This included the creation of the School of Culture and Socialist Propaganda, which was attended by both factory workers and university students. Among the lecturers were Gramsci and the other members of Ordine Nuovo, as well as several university professors.9 Such efforts were vital in the intellectual and ideological preparation for the establishment of an Italian socialist state, at which time “[b]ourgeois careerism will be shattered and there will be a poetry, a novel, a theatre, a moral code, a language, a painting and a music peculiar to proletarian civilization.”10 While Italy would soon see the horrors of fascism—rather than the establishment of this proletarian civilization, and thus the full development of a national proletarian culture—the militant working class culture fostered by Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo could never be fully snuffed out by the Mussolini regime. The cultural politics of Gramsci would also have a lasting influence beyond Italy.

Such influences are apparent in the works of José Carlos Mariátegui, who had been in Italy at the time of the founding of its Communist Party and identified most closely with the Ordine Nuovo group. After returning to Peru, Mariátegui put his newfound Marxist convictions to use in a variety of endeavors, including the production of the journal, Amauta, which was heavily influenced by Gramsci.11

Published from 1926 to 1930, this groundbreaking and visually stimulating journal was Mariátegui’s primary vehicle for uniting the cultural and political vanguards of the time.12 In his introduction to the inaugural issue, Mariátegui states: “The goal of this journal is to articulate, illuminate, and comprehend Peru’s problems from theoretical and scientific viewpoints. But we will always consider Peru from an international perspective. We will study all the great movements of political, philosophical, artistic, literary, and scientific renewal. Everything that is human is ours.”13 Along these simultaneous lines of inquiry into Peruvian society and internationalism, Amauta brought together leading artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries of Peru, Latin America, and Europe. In addition to featuring much of Mariátegui’s most enduring works, it featured other key Peruvian figures, such as the feminist activist and poet Magda Portal and leading indigenist artists José Sabogal and Camilo Blas. Reaching beyond Peru’s borders, the journal also featured contributions by Diego Rivera, Pablo Neruda, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and Georg Grosz. Likewise, its readership was also international. In addition to being available throughout much of Latin America, it was also distributed in New York, Madrid, Paris, and Melbourne, Australia.14

Mariátegui was at the center of the vanguardista movement in Peru. This youthful and creative movement concerned itself with the creation of a “new Peru,” which would break from the prevailing oligarchic traditions inherited from Spain.15 While diverse in focus and orientation, vanguardistas sought to create new social, political, and cultural forms. According to Mariátegui,

A current of renewal, ever more vigorous and well defined, has been felt for some time now in Peru. The supporters of this renewal are called vanguardists, socialists, revolutionaries, etc.… Some formal discrepancies, some psychological differences, exist between them. But beyond what differentiates them, all these spirits contribute to what groups and unites them: their will to create a new Peru in a new world.… The intellectual and spiritual movement is becoming organic. With the appearance of Amauta, it enters the stage of definition.16

For its part, Amauta promoted anti-imperialism, gender equality, and internationalism as core principles of its national vision.

A new Peru would have to resolve the “Indigenous question”—the most pressing issue for Mariátegui. To aid in this endeavor, the journal laid bare the semi-feudal/semi-colonial nature of Peru’s economy, which relied on the socioeconomic subjugation of the country’s Indigenous population, and acted as national forum and network for otherwise regionally isolated Indigenous peasant organizing.17 Every issue also promoted a plurinationalism that included Quechua and Amari people in the Peruvian identity and body politic. In stark contrast to the national bourgeoisie, which saw Spain as the source of Peruvianness, the journal promoted a national identity and culture centered around the country’s Indigenous population, as was reflected by the majority of its content. This included articles analyzing racialized relations of production, Indigenous-centered art, and even the very name of the journal, Amauta being Quechua for “wise one” and a title given to teachers in the Inca Empire. As Mariátegui states in his introduction of issue 17 (September 1928), “We took an Inca word to create it anew. So that Indian Peru, Indigenous America might feel that this magazine was theirs.”18 Previously excluded and infantilized, Indigenous people were central to the pages of Amauta, and to the national culture it fostered.

Amauta aimed to polarize Peru’s intellectuals and bring readers under the banner of Marxism-Leninism.19 Its content was particularly important in organizing and providing direction to the country’s rural and Indigenous populations.20 It also helped to establish Indigenismo as Peru’s dominant school of art, thereby fostering a national culture in opposition to the colonial culture inherited from Spain.21 As the most popular Latin American journal of its time, it was central in the propagation of an Indigenous and peasant-centered Marxism that would come to characterize socialist movements throughout Latin America.

The works of Mariátegui and Gramsci were instrumental in the development and dissemination of popular subaltern culture. Through dialog and collaboration, Amauta and L’Ordine Nuovo would come to be leading outlets in the education of the masses along explicitly revolutionary lines. In contrast to both anti-intellectualism and elitism, the cultural projects of Mariátegui and Gramsci represent the vanguardist conviction that the masses are capable both of understanding complex or advanced ideas and of developing their own organic culture divorced from the ruling.


Notes:

  1.  Peter McLaren, “Popular Culture and Pedagogy,” in Rage and Hope: Interviews with Peter McLaren on War, Imperialism, and Critical Pedagogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2006) 213.
  2.  Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2006).
  3.  McLaren, Rage and Hope, 214.
  4.  Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgas and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 33.
  5.  Quoted in Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (New York: Schocken 1973), 118.
  6.  John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), 95.
  7.  Quoted in Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 68.
  8.  Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, 139.
  9.  Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, 81.
  10.  Gramsci. Selections from Cultural Writings, 50—51.
  11.  Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1993).
  12.  David O. Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930), A Source of Peruvian Cultural History,” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografia 29, no. 3—4 (1979): 299.
  13.  José Carlos Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” in “The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism”: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui, 75—76.
  14.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 293.
  15.  Kildo Adevair dos Santos, Dalila Andrade Oliveira, and Danilo Romeu Streck, “The Journal Amauta (1926—1930): Study of a Latin American Educational Tribune,” Brazilian Journal of History of Education 21, no. 1 (2021).
  16.  Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” 74—75.
  17.  Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019).
  18.  José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance Sheet,” in José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 128.
  19.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930)”; Jesús Chavarría, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890—1930(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).
  20.  Harry E. Vanden, National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1986).
  21.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 295.

 

 

Category : Fascism | Latin America | Marxism | Blog
31
Dec

By Marc Becker
Against the Current
No. 209, November/December 2020

WRITING IN THE 1920s, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui introduced a uniquely Latin American perspective on revolutionary socialist movements and theories. He famously noted, “we certainly do not want socialism in America to be a copy. It has to be a heroic creation.”(1) This political dynamism is what made him into an intellectual force with lasting relevance.

Mariátegui’s voluminous and perceptive writings as well as extensive political activism left an unmistakable and lasting impression on the political, social, and intellectual landscape of his country. Nevertheless, even as he has retained central importance for revolutionary socialism in Latin America, in the United States few people are aware of his contributions.

When Mariátegui died in 1930, his funeral turned into one of the largest processions of workers ever seen in the streets of the capital city of Lima, but in the United States his death was hardly noticed.

Waldo Frank, a prominent left-wing U.S writer, the first chair of the League of American Writers and a close friend of Mariátegui, declared that Mariátegui’s death plunged “the intelligentsia of all of Hispano-America into sorrow; and nothing could be more eloquent of the cultural separation between the two halves of the new world than the fact that to most of us these words convey no meaning.”(2)

Despite this lack of attention in the United States and writing a century ago and on a different continent, Mariátegui’s thought remains relevant for the struggles we face today.

Early Life

José Carlos Mariátegui was born June 14, 1894 in the southern Peruvian coastal town of Moquegua and grew up on outskirts of Lima. He was raised by a poor and deeply religious mestiza (mixed race) single mother, Maráia Amalia LaChira. She had separated from her husband, Francisco Javier Mariátegui, because, when she discovered that he was the grandson of a liberal independence hero, she wanted to protect her children from that liberal influence.

This did not prevent her son from becoming the leading Marxist thinker in Latin America, but it did seem to temper his attitudes toward religion.

Mariátegui was a poor and sickly child. He suffered from tuberculous, and when he was eight years old he hurt his left leg, disabling him for life. Because of a lack of financial resources, he only managed to achieve an eighth-grade education. As a result, he was largely self-taught, which later led him to quip that he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

Rather than continue his education, Mariátegui was forced to find a job to help support his family. At the age of 15, he began to work as a copyboy for the newspaper La Prensa. He soon rose through the ranks in the newsroom as he began writing and editing as well.

These experiences introduced him to the field of journalism, which he subsequently used both for his financial livelihood and as a vehicle to express his political views. Almost all of his voluminous writings originated as relatively short pieces that he penned for popular magazines.

Drawing on this journalistic experience, Mariátegui launched two short-lived newspapers, Nuestra Epoca and La Razón, that assumed an explicitly pro-labor perspective. His vocal support for the revolutionary demands of the workers soon ran him afoul of the Peruvian dictator Augusto B. Leguía, who in October 1919 exiled him to Europe.

Mariátegui later calls this early period of his life his “stone age” and ignored the literary output that resulted from it. As a result, his early writings have received little attention.

Marxism and Amauta
It was during his three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Europe that Mariátegui developed into a Marxist intellectual. Through a series of experiences in France and Italy he saw the revolutionary potential of Marxism. This trajectory and orientation later led his critics to condemn him as a “Europeanizer,” a rather ironic criticism for someone who has come to be generally applauded for adopting Marxist theories to a Latin American reality.

Mariátegui later commented that in Europe he picked up some ideas and a woman, the Italian Anna Chiappe with whom he subsequently had four children — all boys.

In 1923, Mariátegui returned to Peru “a convinced and declared Marxist.” He presented a series of lectures on the “history of world crisis” at the González Prada Popular University in Lima that drew on his experiences and observations in Europe.

He was a popular lecturer, but because of his lack of an academic degree he could not get a regular teaching appointment at the main San Marcos University. Indeed, he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

In 1924, the police arrested Mariátegui because of his alleged subversive activity at the González Prada Popular University. A strong international reaction led to his release, perhaps reinforcing in his mind the importance of the international dimensions to a socialist struggle.

In 1924, Mariátegui lost his (good) right leg, and as a result spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even as his health failed (or perhaps because of that), both his intellectual output and efforts to organize a social revolution intensified.

Among Mariátegui’s literary activity, the most significant was the founding in 1926 of the journal Amauta (which means “wise teacher” in Quechua) as a vanguard voice for an intellectual and spiritual revolution. The journal moved beyond politics to include philosophy, art, literature, and science.

Amauta was a relatively high-brow publication that gained international renown. Two years later, Mariátegui launched a short-lived biweekly newspaper appropriately titled Labor as an extension of Amauta to reach out to the working class.

In 1928, Mariátegui published his most famous book 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality). The essays provide a broad sociological overview of key issues facing Latin America: economics, racial problems, land tenure, education, religion, regionalism and centralism, and literature (the last and by far the longest essay in the collection). This book quickly became a fundamental work on Latin American Marxism and established him as a founding light of Latin American Marxist theory.

In terms of his political activity, in 1928 Mariátegui founded the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP), served as its secretary-general and brought it into alignment with the Communist International as a vanguardist party designed to lead the proletariat to revolution. With that goal in mind, the party organized communist cells all over country. In 1929, the PSP launched the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) as a Marxist-oriented trade union federation.

During this entire time, Mariátegui continued to run into political problems with the Leguía regime. Mariátegui attacked working conditions at the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco copper mine and Leguía feared that he was inciting workers.

In 1927, the police arrested and detained him for six days at a military hospital on charges of involvement in a communist plot. The police subsequently raided his house and shut down Labor.

Even as the labor and political organizations that Mariátegui helped found flourished, his health floundered. The person who came to be known as the Amauta died on April 16, 1930.

Mariátegui’s Ideology
Mariátegui was an integrative thinker who incorporated a broad range of factors into his political analyses and materialist conception of the world. Broadly, his intellectual contributions can be broken down along five lines: national Marxism, anti-imperialism, agrarian issues, racial matters, and religion.

Mariátegui is often seen as the first truly creative and original Latin American Marxist thinker who analyzed concrete historical realities in order to develop solutions to problems of non-European societies. Rather than a rigid and determi­nistic Marxism, he embraced an open and voluntarist revolutionary praxis that excelled in applying European doctrines to Latin American realities in new and creative ways. continue

Category : Latin America | Marxism | Theory | Blog