Latin America

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

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