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“We do not want American socialism to be a copy or an imitation, it should be a heroic creation. We must give life to Indo-American socialism with our own life, in our own language.” –Jose Carlos Mariátegui, An Anthology (Monthly Review Press)
This anthology provides an illuminating insight into the writings and philosophy of Peruvian thinker and journalist, Jose Carlos Mariátegui. A pioneer for more contemporary thinkers such as Ernesto Che Guevara, and analyst of continuous struggles such as the Indigenous “problem,” Mariátegui sought to rethink Marxism in a manner which would provide Peru and Latin America with its own Marxist reality. Mariátegui’s non-dogmatic thought transcends history to reflect current reality.
Mariátegui’s socialist orientation was visible by age 16, despite the fact that his writing exhibited none of the Marxist thought of his later literature. However, he supported revolutionary demands of students and workers. Peruvian dictator Augusto Leguía exiled him to Europe in 1919, bringing Mariátegui into contact with Benedetto Croce, an Italian communist whose work is extensively reflected upon in the writings of Antonio Gramsci. Upon returning to Peru in 1923, Mariátegui declared himself a Marxist. He was imprisoned twice by the Leguía dictatorship, without being convicted on any crime. His support for organizational struggle and strike action was described as subversive, at a time when the Peruvian government depended on foreign economic interests.
Mariategui’s political analysis delves into revolutionary socialist thought within a Latin American reality. The reconstruction of Peru’s social and economic history allowed Peruvians to establish their local reality. However, Mariátegui is adamant that such a process cannot be achieved in isolation. The effects of colonial and capitalist oppression of Peruvians should raise awareness in the country about the international nature of capitalist oppression, which is in direct confrontation with international revolutionary socialist thought. Isolating the effects of exploitation by feudalism and capitalism in Peru would sever the connection between internal oppression and foreign forces.
The three economic systems in Peru identified by Mariátegui: the fragments of original Indigenous communities which practiced a primitive form of communism, European feudalism and modern capitalist economy thrived on land. Land dispossession impoverished Indigenous people, who also suffered massacres and dispersion during uprisings against Spanish colonial rule. The Indigenous community was forced to work in mines, surviving under servitude whilst colonizers failed to organise Peruvian economy. Capitalism further impoverished Peru, using the country’s human and natural resources to strengthen the US imperialist program. With landholding evolving from feudal to capitalist, Peru’s economy continued to dwindle as contempt for workers increased and production suited the US market demand, creating an economic dependency which could not be sustained.
The agrarian problem features prominently in this anthology. Mariátegui states “What we call the Indigenous problem is the feudal exploitation of the native people in the large agrarian landholding system.” The Indigenous community was faced with a bourgeois system on the coast of Peru, while the highlands were controlled by feudalism – a system which hindered the development of civilisation. The forced recruitment of Indigenous people gives an impression of submission, serving to ignore the fact that revolt against the ruling classes brutally annihilated the majority of the Indigenous population. Hence, judgments on the problems faced by Indigenous people have been dominated by a colonial and imperialist ideology.
Formulating a historical social movement in Peru cannot be achieved without ‘asserting economic terrain’. Marxism and the proletariat, according to Mariátegui, demand a consciousness of nature in order to obtain legitimacy and historical necessity. While the Indigenous population is already ingrained in the principles of communism, defined in Mariátegui’s writing as Inca-communism, a lack of revolutionary consciousness prevents them from gaining stronger representation on a national level outside their community.
Socialist ethics prevents indifference in class struggle – central to strengthening socialist ethics is the necessity of creating class consciousness through socialist education. Besides insisting on education as a right for all Peruvians, Mariátegui considers socialism an integral and essential part of education. It should impart the principles of revolutionary pedagogy in order to unite the proletariat under a strong ideal which defines both solidarity and discipline. A socialist revolution in Peru should incorporate the peasants, the Indigenous community, the working class proletariat and the industrialized working class.
In their detailed introduction to Mariátegui’s life and thought, the editors emphasise the reality of capitalism’s failure to sustain itself. The book is replete with references to capitalism’s necessity to exploit natural resources and people, which created another realm of internationalism. Exploitation threatens to conquer the socialist concept of internationalism because socialism has mellowed into reformist practices. Capitalism internationalized human life – bringing to light a situation where exploitation retains its stronghold and socialism fails to discern the importance of the historical moment.
This observation is expounded in Mariátegui’s description of two groups of workers. The first group is alienated from the historical moment, lacking class consciousness and therefore willing to try achieving socialism by collaborating with the bourgeoisie, under the assumption that the proletarian movement is not yet ready for revolution. The second group believes in proletariat power, deems the bourgeoisie incapable of managing social wealth and recognises the current moment as revolutionary. An economic crisis, according to Mariátegui, portrays the ideological crisis between these groups of proletariat.
Imperialist intervention in Latin America leads to the necessity of reclaiming the definition of socialist revolution, stressing that additional terms such as anti-imperialist, agrarian and national revolutionary would have failed to materialise in the absence of socialism. Socialism’s involvement in the historic moment must relate to both language and reality.
A lack of military intervention, on the other hand, would require the bourgeoisie’s collaboration. Such a scenario would consolidate the power of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. Mariátegui explains how, from an anti-imperialist viewpoint, nationalism would not serve to unite the proletariat, since it comprehends only a fragment of a nation’s reality. The participation of the proletariat is a necessity brought about by the capitalist economic and political crisis. Since capitalism internationalized human life, the international human reality involves also Peru and Latin America.
This anthology not only offers a profound insight into Mariátegui’s writings. It manages to remain relevant to contemporary historical reality, at a time when intellectual writing remains confined to academia. The publication of this anthology, with its detailed introduction to Mariátegui’s life and work, brings readers closer to works which otherwise might have been inaccessible to a broader audience. In particular, apart from being an excellent, critical source of Latin American history and political thought, the concept of internationalism forming the premise of Mariátegui’s writings is a foundation through which Western readers may analyse the compromise which the left effected in relation to capitalism, smothering class consciousness within a system of dependence and exploitation.
Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.