Many in the Latin American diaspora view Marxism as an irrelevant Eurocentric theory and therefore an ineffective ideological tool for social change. Many diasporic Latin American activists, view Karl Marx as racist and argue the funding that allowed him to write “Capital” can be traced to colonialism and slavery. This latter claim is a bit of a reach, yet it is understandable why there is a resistance to Marx and Marxism. Passages, where Marx calls Mexicans “lazy” and refers to Simón Bolívar as some sort of “Bonapartist dictator”, are shared in our circles as proof. So, we ask, can a theory with roots in 19th Century Europe be relevant to Latin American thought in the 21st Century? In order to answer this question, we must look at the work of José Carlos Mariátegui, considered by many a pioneer of Latin American Marxism.
When Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a young man, he travelled to a leper colony in Peru’s Amazon rainforest. At this point, he wasn’t the revolutionary we know him to be.e was a young doctor, apolitical and taking a sort of gap year before practicing medicine. At this leper colony, he met a doctor who gave him several books which changed the direction of his life. He said it was reading these books and talking to this doctor that made him want to fight for socialism in Latin America. Among the books, he was given was the “Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality” by Mariátegui. The doctor was Hugo Pesce, a close friend of Mariátegui, and a co-founder of the Communist Party of Peru. The impact that Pesce and Mariátegui had on Che was so strong when the Cuban revolution overthrew the Fulgencio Batista government in 1959, one of his first requests was that the national press print copies of Mariátegui’s seminal book. Che’s theory of applying Marxism to local conditions and giving centre stage to rural communities alongside the industrial proletariat is a direct influence from Mariátegui, not just Mao Zedong, as is usually suggested.
Although Che made it an official policy to republish Mariátegui’s work during the revolution, we know Mariátegui already influenced Cuban intellectuals in the late 1920s via his magazine “Amauta.” Scholar Marc Becker shows Mariátegui’s magazine directly influenced Juan Marinello, who later served as one of the most prominent ideological contributors of the revolution. In fact, he is considered to be one of the intellectuals who influenced Fidel Castro and his Movimiento 26 de Julio to embark on the path toward socialism. The underlying idea, a ripple which can be traced to Mariátegui, was that Cuba needed a socialism adapted to its conditions not a European copy.
In Colombia, scholar Alberto Pinzón Sánchez recounted the first time he and other students were introduced to revolutionary literature while studying anthropology at their university in the late 1960s. He recalled that their tutor made them read the “Seven Essays” and then presented it to the class. They were shocked that a book written decades earlier in Peru was so relevant to Colombia and its present socio-economic and political conditions.
Among those in this study group was Boris Zapata Mesa, who would later become a well-known anthropologist assassinated in 1989 for his socialist activism. Another member was Guillermo Saenz, known as Alfonso Cano, who joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement in the late 1970s. He became the organization’s ideologue first, and then its leader in 2008. Today, Cano is known in Colombia’s left-wing circles as the “architect of the peace,” as he pushed for a peace process with the government, although he himself would be executed by the military in 2011 before his vision came to fruition.
Like in Cuba, Mariátegui’s influence in Colombia began in the late 1920s,through the proliferation of his literature among intellectuals and through communist activists. Recent research I conducted about communism in Colombia revealed how Fidedigno Cuellar, a young Colombian communist who heard about Mariátegui’s work through Dr. Pesce’s participation at a conference in Bueno Aires, — was inspired to go live among Indigenous Colombians in the Cauca department. Here, Cuellar built a powerful cell of Indigenous communists, including a young Indigenous leader named Isauro Yosa. Yosa was, one of the founders of the Marxist FARC guerrilla alongside other Indigenous communists like Charro Negro, Ciro Trujillo and Mayor Lister. The fact that the Colombian Communist Party had several Indigenous co-founders and Central Committee members since the early 1930s, who nominated the first Indigenous presidential candidate in 1934, and that these Indigenous Marxists went on to found the region’s longest-lasting and most powerful guerrilla army, is not a coincidence. Mariátegui played an essential role in convincing communists Indigenous people needed to be at the forefront of the struggle, and helped convince Indigenous people that Marxism could be used as a method to bring about decolonization and social change.
What we want to point out by outlining their contact with the “Seven Essays,” is that Mariátegui’s work had a profound effect on Latin American revolutionaries and inspired them to take action. It inspired them to try and alleviate the ongoing oppression suffered by the masses, rural and urban, in their country. Although, this book alone was not the sole reason why Che and other revolutionaries gave their lives to the struggle, it played a significant role in inspiring them to fight for social, political and economic justice. Mariátegui’s work spoke to their experience and that of the world around them.
Overall, Mariátegui’s continued influence on Latin American Marxist thought is this: Marxism cannot and should not be applied as if it were a universal law. He was the first in our region to introduce Marxism as an intersectional theory that had to take into account the local configurations, the legacy of enslavement, racism, sexism, colonialism and imperialism. The orthodox Marxist premise of the worker versus the bourgeoisie was insufficient; other factors needed to be considered. In this sense, he can and should, in my opinion, be compared to great Marxist thinkers and revolutionaries in the Third World, like Mao, Walter Rodney, Thomas Sankara and Amílcar Cabral, among others.
In short, the “Seven Essays” are a collection of articles that outline Peru’s history from a socialist and historical materialist lens. One of the innovations of this book, apart from prioritizing the political role of Indigenous and rural peoples, is that it places Latin America within a global context. In Essay One, for example, he shows that Western imperialists, especially the British, were after natural resources, and this relation to capitalist core nations influenced the region’s economic underdevelopment. In other words, we aren’t backward nations because we are naturally or inherently incapable of development, but because we are forced into unequal relationships with capitalist-imperialist nations. This formulation alone has been an ongoing source of dignity for our people because it allows us to see our situation from a broader context. Theoretically, this was the basis for future Latin American Marxist thought, including neo-Marxist dependency theory.
An example of this in the Seven Essays is when he says: “From the standpoint of world history, South America’s independence was determined by the needs of the development of Western or, more precisely, capitalist civilization.” He then goes on to say that “Peru’s economy is a colonial economy. Its movement, its development are subordinated to the interests and the necessities of the markets in London and New York … our latifundistas, our landowners, whatever their illusions of independence, are in reality only intermediary agents of foreign capital.” Here, as you can see, he’s describing neo-colonialism and dependency before these terms were defined by academics in the 1960s.
In another related passage, Mariátegui says, “the degree of development achieved by the industrialization of agriculture under a capitalist system and technique on the coastal valleys has as its principal factor the interest of the U.K. and the U.S. in the production of sugar and cotton in Peru … the best lands on the coastal valleys are planted with cotton and sugarcane, not so much because they are suited to these lands but because these are the crops that currently matter to English and Yankee business.” This quote is as true today as it was back in his time, though it has expanded from sugar and cotton to other primary materials.
The genius of Mariátegui was that he was able to make Marxism relevant to our region’s history, as well as the conditions of his time. He was innovative because he showed us we need to fight the global capitalist system while simultaneously fighting colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism. He even urged us to decolonize education and art. In this spirit, we shouldn’t look to Mariátegui as a religious-like figure who can provide us with a universal truth, as we shouldn’t look to Marx and Marxism for a universal truth, but rather we should take his methodological approach and apply it to our present conditions.
It is this combination, this early practice of intersectionality, which makes Mariátegui relevant to Latin American Marxism today. It is time to learn from his ideas here in the Western world, too and, most importantly let them inspire us so we may go out in the world and do what we can to bring about tangible change.
Note: This is a transcription of a speech given at the University of Westminster, London, at an event titled “The Relevance of Mariátegui for Latin American Marxist Thought” on February 6, 2020.