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Mike Gonzalez, In The Red Corner, recovers José Carlos Mariátegui’s Marxist understanding of Latin America in the context of the development of capitalism, finds Orlando Hill

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Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: the Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Haymarket 2019), 331pp.

As an activist from Latin America who has been involved in the movement for over thirty years, I am embarrassed to confess that I only came across the name Mariátegui when reviewing Jeffrey Webber’s book The Last Day of Oppression, and the first Day of the Same. My Latin American friends would say that it’s because Brazilians are always looking to the sea and have their backs to the rest of the continent. There is an element of truth in that, but the main reason for José Carlos Mariátegui being relatively unknown is in the title of Mike Gonzalez’s book In the Red Corner, the Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui is depicted as a fighter in the red corner against the reformism of the Second International and the mechanical interpretation of Marxism by the Comintern. Unfortunately, both reformists and Stalinists, with their formal and uncreative interpretations of Marxism, have succeeded in keeping his work hidden from the wider public.

Mariátegui was born in Peru in 1894. When he left Peru in 1919 on a fact-finding mission to Europe, he was already an established journalist and activist in the working-class movement. He arrived in Italy in the end of the first year of what became known as the Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years), an intensive revolutionary moment when factories were occupied, land was seized, and general strikes were held. Yet the PSI (the Socialist Party) denied political support for the occupations. Gramsci’s newspaper Ordine Nuovo saw the occupations as a potentially revolutionary moment in the class struggle. But his position was isolated in the PSI and the revolutionary moment was lost. Mariátegui understood that the vacillation of reformism not only misses opportunities but allows the emergence of fascism. Since the reformists showed ineptitude in the leadership of their working-class supporters, it was up to the radical left to assume that role but without forgetting that ‘a variety of tendencies and a range of ideological nuances are inevitable in that great human legion called the proletariat’ (p.59).

In Mariátegui’s view, the collective subject of the revolution was not limited to the urban workers who were already engaged in the wage system. What Mariátegui referred to as the multitude or sometimes the masses included artisans, peasants and indigenous communities. In Italy, he noticed that while the revolutionary crisis involved not just urban workers, but also peasants and agricultural workers, these were ignored by the PSI and left to the Popular Party. Gramsci interestingly reached the same conclusion that ‘a revolution that involved only the urban proletariat would be stillborn’ (p.59).

Mariátegui returned to Peru in 1923 as a marxista convicto y confeso, but with the understanding that Marxism had to be interpreted in the context of the specific conditions of Peru and Latin America, while simultaneously from the perspective of the international situation. This interpretation would in turn add new dimensions to Marxism itself. For this he was unfairly accused of developing a national Marxism or variant of socialism. However, for Mariátegui, capitalism can only be understood as an economic system that operates on a world scale. Nationalism was what the ruling classes deployed to divide the international working class against itself and to forge a spurious unity between the domestic ruling class and its working class. For him a national-liberation movement to be successful had to develop into a socialist revolution:

‘The Latin American revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage in the world revolution. You may add to the word and adjective you wish: “anti-imperialist”, “agrarian”, “national-revolutionary”. Socialism presumes, precedes and includes them all’ (p.114).

It is interesting how close his conclusion was to Trotsky’s idea of a permanent revolution, without having read the work. This was in contrast to the Comintern’s theory of having to go through capitalism before reaching socialism.

MariáteguiadmiredTrotsky for his role in the Russian revolution. Although they never met, Mariátegui’s ideas on the importance of building a united front are very similar to Trotsky’s. Gonzalez affirms that Mariátegui articulated it before Trotsky. Whether or not that’s true, the fact is that Mariátegui opposed the Comintern’s decision to impose a communist party in Peru in 1929. In his opinion it was much too premature:

‘until the working class had begun to build its own class organisations and a leadership with knowledge and understanding of the issues they faced, the creation of a communist party would be premature, formalistic, and authentically sectarian’ (p.164).

Mariátegui’s concept of myth has caused a lot of controversy and debate. He has been accused of being a romantic. His theory of the myth (mistico) was constructed after World War I, when the capitalist myth of continuous progress had been shattered in the trenches. It was necessary to build a new myth, one that offered a glimpse into a possible future. For him ‘man, as philosophy defines him, is a metaphysical animal. He does not live productively without a metaphysical conception of life. Myth moves man in history’ (p.75). This myth is forged in the struggle. It offers a vision for the future, an alternative to the way the world is governed under capitalism. It is not imposed from the top down. The Italian Fiat workers, when they occupied the factories in Turin, were not conscious of their historic role. What started as a wage dispute grew into a contest for power over production itself, seizing the means of production and having control over one’s life was possible.

For Mariátegui, socialism cannot be simply an improvement of the conditions of the working class, a promise of future consumption. That would only lead towards integration of the working class into a bourgeoise order. Reading his articles offers constructive criticism to the recent pink tide in Latin America. Socialism cannot be simply about lifting the working class out of poverty and into a middle-class status. Socialism must be seen as a qualitatively different system to capitalism. Another world is possible.

At a time of climate emergency and when capitalism’s myth of continuous progress is doubted by school children and their parents, rediscovering Mariátegui is timely. You can read his articles at Marxists.org, but I would recommend reading Gonzalez’s book along with them so as to have the historical context. Mariátegui should up there along with Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci in the red corner in the defence of a revolutionary and creative Marxism.

Orlando Hill

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.

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