Book Review: José Carlos Mariátegui An Anthology
Harry E. Vanden and Mark Becker editors and translators
José Carlos Mariátegui: an Anthology (Monthly Review Press, 2011), 480 pgs, $29.95 paperback
The recent growth spurt among the various Latin@ nations here in the United $tates has begun to turn the spotlight on the various peoples and movements within these nations. Although the Chican@ nation has long resisted Amerikan occupation in various ways, the left wing of white nationalism has, until recently, pretty much neglected any acknowledgement of the Chican@ nation. Recently, with the help of an upsurge in the war on Chican@s, with the state of Arizona spearheading this war, some in the Amerikan left circles have begun to rediscover the communist theory and struggles that have been coming out of Latin America for about a hundred years. The new book José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology adds to this budding interest in revolutionary Latin@s. This book is a compilation of Mariátegui's writings.
José Carlos Mariátegui's Life
Mariátegui was a Peruvian communist who upheld revolutionary nationalism within the context of Marxist theory, but not in a mechanical way. He developed a line based on the material conditions of Peru, and thus Latin America, as most of Latin America was feudal or semi-feudal and developing at roughly the same pace. And like Mao would later come to say, Mariátegui believed Marxist thought should be undogmatic. In fact, Mao was known to have read Mariátegui as well.
In a time when Marxists believed the peasantry to be a potential revolutionary force, before Mao proved this theory to be true, Mariátegui developed a groundbreaking theory of the role of peasants in the revolution.
Mariátegui was born in the small town of Moguera, Peru on 14 July 1894. Born in poverty and crippled as a child, Mariátegui began life in an uphill battle. Like most people in Latin America, school was a luxury Mariátegui could not afford and so he had to work with an elementary school education in order to help contribute financially to his family. At 15 he began work at La Prensa newspaper. He advanced from copy boy to writing and editing. He soon learned to make a living as a journalist while at the same time using this journalistic talent for propaganda work.
Starting as a teenager, Mariátegui began to develop socialist ideas and began writing about student rights and labor struggles. He and a friend even founded two short-lived newspapers as teenagers, one called Nuestra Epoca (Our Epoch) and La Razón (The Fault). Although at this time Mariátegui had not developed the deep Marxist theory he was later known for, it does show his early consciousness and the beginning of his revolutionary thought in his articles. So much so that in his early 20s he was sent in exile to Europe by the Peruvian government and charged by the Peruvian dictator Agusto B. Luguia as an "information agent." This reminded me of how, in the United $tates, once prisoners begin to develop and define their revolutionary thought, they too are placed in "exile" — Security Housing Units.
It was while Mariátegui was in Europe that his study and thought deepened and became socialist. His four years in Italy and France were spent amidst the different communist groups active there at the time. This was where he met many people who helped shape his growth. By the time he returned to Peru in 1923 he had developed his political line significantly.
One of the things that stands out about Mariátegui in reading his anthology is that although he had a formal education only up to 8th grade, he developed into a self-educated intellectual, but an intellectual in sync with the most oppressed, an intellectual for the people in contradiction to the bourgeois intellectuals. I thought this was similar to many prisoners who, like Mariátegui, are often without a "formal" education. I myself have never attended a high school and instead educated myself in prison as an adult, seeing the importance of education, especially in the realm of advancing my nation, as well as the international communist movement more broadly. So I found this small but significant aspect of Mariátegui really inspiring and I think other prisoners will as well.
Mariátegui was confined to a wheelchair most of his adult life due to illness. This "disability" was a hinderance to his goals of making socialist revolution in Peru, but he endured; he overcame this burden and found ways to continue onward. This too relates to the conditions of the prisoner, as many may see being in prison as a hinderance to those seeking to transform their nation, to advancing society. In a way it is, however we must find ways to continue onward despite our challenges.
Back in Peru, Mariátegui launched the theoretical journal Amauta. He then founded the biweekly periodical Labor which sought to politicize the Peruvian working class, but was shut down within a year by the Peruvian government. He also published two books in his life and published numerous articles in many Peruvian periodicals. One book, La Escena Contemporánea (The Contemporary Scene), was a collection of articles he wrote for two Peruvian magazines. These articles dealt with racism, socialism and events in Peru. While in his second book, Siete Ensayos de Interpretación (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality), he applied a Marxist analysis to the social reality of Peru and thus Latin America.
Mariátegui's theory and quantitative development soon turned to qualitative development and practice and in 1928 he formed the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP), which was the forerunner of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), which led a heroic people's war in the 1980s and 1990s. Mariátegui was the first Secretary General of the PSP, which would form a Marxist trade union and would participate in Communist International-sponsored meetings. But Mariátegui's above ground party building actions were not exclusive to 'legal organizing,' he was also involved in the Peruvian underground movement. Indeed he was a sharp thorn in the side of the Peruvian government, having organized communist cells throughout Peru. The government labeled him "subversive" and threw him in prison many times — often with no charges though each time they eventually released him. He faced political repression most of his political life; surveilled and harassed by the state.
Much of his later organizing was in opposition to the U.$.-owned copper mine at "Cerro de Pasco" where he often agitated strikes around working conditions. Mariátegui died at age thirty six due to poor health.
Mariátegui's Political Line
In Mariátegui's piece "The Land Problem," he gets at something that is essential to any struggle, which is getting to the heart of a struggle, to the kernel of contradiction. He states, in part in reference to the contradictions surrounding Peru's indigenous peoples:
"We are not content with demanding the Indian's right to education, culture, progress, love and heaven. We start by categorically demanding their rights to land."(pg 69)
This demand for land cuts to the heart of a people's right. This is what separates those seeking a "reformist approach" from those seeking a more revolutionary approach. The same lesson can be gleaned by prisoners who, in many parts of the United $tates, come to this crossroad where in any struggle for prisoners' rights those actively pushing the prison movement forward MUST choose between reforms or real revolutionary demands. In Mariátegui's case he chose the more revolutionary approach — the struggle to free the land.
This demand continues in all parts of the world in contradiction to the capitalist practices of private ownership, monopolizing the land and outright stealing of land from oppressed nations. To the people of the world it is being established that Amerika's right to colonize and oppress has expired! The iron hold of capitalist tradition has been broken in the minds of many of the oppressed and time is running out for the imperialists!
In "The Land Problem," Mariátegui describes the error that most people fell into in analyzing Peru in his time. Most mechanically attempted to apply methods used in a capitalist society to Peru's semi-feudal economy. As he describes, Peru during this time was a "gamonalism" society, which was a share cropper society where the indigenous of Peru would work the land of a large land owner in return for a portion of the harvest. But due to the abuse of the colonizers, the Incan peoples saw gamonalism as a punishment, and so methods of building the infrastructure were also seen as forms of gamonalism even though pre-colonial Incans always have collectively worked on building roads or waterways. This was once a duty, simply a part of life, but under the semi-feudal existence these projects were seen by the Incan people as more abuse brought on by gamonalism and this goes to the heart of Mariátegui's line on how Peruvians cannot mechanically apply the Marxist analysis that paved the way in Europe to Peru or Latin America for that matter, as social conditions were much different and so a Marxist analysis had to be created that was specific to Latin America.(pg 115)
Peru experienced the destruction of social forms through the colonization process. But this colonialism fertilized the birth of a nation. The development of the new economic relation breathed new life into the people's resistance. This new development was behind Peru's independence revolution with Spain, it was a natural development that can be seen worldwide. It simply validates the laws of contradiction.
Mariátegui saw the distinct concrete conditions in Latin America but he understood that the peoples victory in Latin America was but a step toward a bigger picture. He wrote:
"In this America of small revolutions, the same word, revolution, frequently lends itself to misunderstanding. We have to reclaim it rigorously and intransigently. We have to restore its strict and exact meaning. The Latin American revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a phase of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be a socialist revolution. Add all the adjectives you want to this word according to a particular case: 'anti-imperialist', 'agrarian', 'national-revolutionary,' socialism supposes, precedes and includes all of them."(pg 128)
And so although Mariátegui fought for and developed a line for his nation he still kept the broader movement for world revolution as his compass. This is very important for those of us of the internal semi-colonies to understand that it is not just ok but necessary for us to struggle for and develop a political line for our distinct conditions living here in the belly of the beast and under the heel of the super-parasite. But at the same time we must keep the bigger picture in mind, the world movement as a compass, and grasp that liberating our nations is only the first stage in what we are ultimately struggling for.
On nationalism Mariátegui writes:
"The nationalism of the European nations ... is reactionary and anti-socialist. But the nationalism of the colonial peoples — yes, economically colonial, although they boast of their political autonomy — has a totally different origin and impulse. In these people, nationalism is revolutionary and therefore ends in socialism."(pg 175)
Mariátegui wrote these words in 1927 so this was even before Mao wrote, "thus in wars of national liberation patriotism is applied internationalism"(1) in 1938. And just like Mao, Mariátegui believed that nationalism from the oppressed nations was revolutionary and true internationalism. But the Amerikan crypto-Trotskyites today disagree with Mao and Mariátegui on this, mainly because agreeing with them on this would undermine the white privilege enjoyed by them and their allies.
Mariátegui was in fact not just aware but correctly analyzed what was taking place around the world during this time, particularly in China. Indeed, he criticized the Chinese Kuomingtang and upheld "Chinese socialism" during this time, which was the budding movement that Mao was involved with. In a polemic on China he wrote:
"And I will be content with advising him that he direct his gaze to China where the nationalist movement of the Kuomingtang gets its most vigorous impulse from Chinese socialism."(pg 175)
It is refreshing to see Mariátegui, from the Third World and under intense state repression, was able to grasp the concrete conditions and political development taking place internationally, especially in China when he had already seen Mao's camp as the correct line even before Mao's line was victorious in liberating China.
Disagreements with Mariátegui
One problem of line is what Mariátegui calls "Inca socialism." In his analysis the ancient Incas lived in what he describes as Inca socialism. There are many things wrong with this. For one, the Incas, like the other pre-Columbian societies of what is referred to as "Latin America," such as the more widely known societies like the Aztecs and Mayans, lived in communal societies. But these societies had many facets of privilege and even caste-like systems with everything from kings, priests, priestesses, laborers and slaves. Indeed, most of these larger societies like the Aztec, Mayan and Inca's operated on tribute systems where essentially the surrounding tribes that were dominated by these larger groups basically payed rent to these groups, they were taxed or they were slaughtered. So this was in no way "socialism." Sprinkled throughout his writings Mariátegui refers to a pre-Columbian "Inca Socialism" and even declares its previous existence in the Peruvian Socialist Party's 9 point programs — which he himself drafted. Point 6 states:
"Socialism finds the same elements of a solution to the land question in the livelihoods of communities, as it does in large agricultural enterprises. In areas where the presence of the yanaconazco(2) sharecropping system or small landholdings require keeping individual management, the solution will be the exploitation of land by small farmers, while at the same time moving toward the collective management of agriculture in areas where this type of exploitation prevails. But this, like the stimulation that freely provides for the resurgence of indigenous peoples, the creative manifestation of its forces and native spirit does not mean at all a romantic and anti-historical trend of reconstructing or resurrecting Inca socialism which corresponded to historical conditions completely by passed, and which remains only as a favorable factor in a perfectly scientific production technique, that is the habits of cooperation and socialism of indigenous peasants. Socialism presupposes the technique, the science, the capitalist stage. It cannot permit any setbacks in the realization of the achievements of modern civilization but on the contrary it must methodically accelerate the incorporation of these achievements into national life."
We must be grounded in materialism and approach reality how it is, not how we wish it to be. To refer to pre-Columbian societies in Latin America as "socialist" is an ultra-left deviation and thus our line becomes contaminated along with our potential for victory. The fact that Mariátegui wrote this in his party's program reveals how much he believed this to be true, and so there was some error in his line.
Furthermore, Mariátegui attempts to weld events in Europe with events in the Americas and says in a university lecture: "A period of revolution in Europe will be a period of revolution in the Americas."(pg 297) Of course world events spark arousal in the international communist movement, but to assume or claim revolution will mirror Europe or anywhere else despite material conditions is to succumb to pragmatism.
Anyone interested in the birth of Marxism in Latin America will find this book fulfilling. It takes you from Peru's indigenous anti-colonial uprisings to an analysis of indigenous peoples in Peru, to early proletarian organizing, the Peruvian pre-party, propaganda work, the creation of the first socialist party, and the creation of workers federations. It gives a complete picture of the ideas of Mariátegui, who declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, and had he lived to see the advances of Maoism would no doubt have raised its banner in Peru as well.