Translated by Lucas Martins
It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born.–Jacques Derrida1Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), xvii.
It is now more than ninety years since the disappearance of José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), the Marxist intellectual, born in Peru. Since then, a lot of water has flowed through the river of diffusion processes, circulation, and reception of his work in Peru, Latin America, and the world. Anniversaries carry a strong symbolic load and can be interesting occasions, not to inscribe posthumous “tributes” but for balances and perspectives for the present time. After all, as Walter Benjamin said, the fundamental purpose of historical materialism is updating. It is in this sense that Mike Gonzalez’s In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui offers a thought-provoking political biography of Mariátegui’s multidimensionality.
Mariátegui’s career and work are not entirely unknown to the English-speaking public. In the USA, several works on the Peruvian thinker published since the 1970s stand out.2John M. Baines, Revolution in Peru: Mariátegui and the Myth (Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1972); Jesús Chavarría, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890–1930 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979); Elizabeth Garrels, Mariátegui y la Argentina: un Caso de Lentes Ajenos (Gaithersburg: Ed. Hispamerica, 1982); Harry E. Vanden, National Marxism in Latin American: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics (Boulder: Lynn Rienner Publishers, 1986); Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory (Columbus: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1993); William W. Stein, Dance in the Cemetery: José Carlos Mariátegui and the Lima Scandal of 1917 (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997); Melissa Moore, José Carlos Mariátegui’s Unfinished Revolution: Politics, Poetics, and Change in 1920s Peru (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2014). Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker also recently organized an excellent collection of texts as Amauta José Carlos Mariátegui: Anthology.3Marc Becker and Harry E. Vanden, José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011). And yet the academic and political interest in Mariátegui in Anglo-Saxon America is still a small initiative by some Latin Americanists. Mike Gonzalez, British historian and emeritus professor of Latin American Studies in the Hispanic Department at the University of Glasgow, has been investigating the political crossroads in Latin America and their characters for more than forty years. In the process, he has produced works of great relevance on the Cuban, Chilean, and Sandinista revolutions, and also on the governments of Bolivia under Evo Morales and of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.
Divided into ten chapters, In the Red Corner sets out to rescue the original thought of Mariátegui by reconstructing his political formation at its various stages. While reading the book, you can see the author’s effort to explain and understand the themes addressed by the Peruvian thinker during the 1920s, and to link them as far as possible with political and cultural processes experienced in Latin America in recent decades. It is also worth noting that Gonzalez’s work is based on the tradition of “classical” Marxism (Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky) and so-called Western Marxism (Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács, and Walter Benjamin). Indeed, Gonzalez brings Mariátegui closer to a heterogeneous constellation of “vanquished prophets” of critical Marxism.
One of the qualities of the book is to point out that the contribution of Mariátegui’s work is not limited to Latin American Studies but is primarily located in the transnational history of Marxism. With the intention of bringing to life the thought of Mariátegui, Gonzalez mobilizes an analysis of his subject’s conceptual arsenal (and its context) directed at anticapitalist practice, and not as closed and homogeneous formulas but in relation to a multiplicity of interpretations and historical controversies. Gonzalez’s purpose is fundamentally directed at an activist and militant (and not necessarily academic) audience, and the work’s production was accompanied by another study on the “decline of the Latin American left.”4Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019); Mike Gonzalez, The End of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America (London: Pluto Press, 2018).
The first chapter is one of the most interesting in the book. Gonzalez marks the 1994 centenary of the birth of Mariátegui as a kind of “resurrection” of the Marxism of the Peruvian essayist—that is, as a “new political consciousness” in the face of a working class shaped by the exploitation and oppression of neoliberal capitalism.5Ibid, 6. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern European bureaucracies opened up the possibility of discovering heretical authors in the Marxist tradition who had been consigned to the dungeons for challenging the authoritarian practices of (Soviet) state Marxism and theoretical ultra-dogmatism. At the same time, revolutionary Marxism became the target of a campaign of delegitimization and repeated problematization, even among anticapitalist sectors sometimes associated with the “new” social movements.
Mariátegui was certainly also a hostage to various “isms” during the twentieth century, especially in Peru, pursued by both the Peruvian Communist Party and the Peruvian Aprist Party, and also by the Shining Path guerilla organization (especially by its leader Abimael Guzmán). Each in their own way, claimed a “true” and “authentic” Mariátegui to legitimize their political actions. One day Mariátegui would be the continuation of Stalin-Lenin, the next he would be the product of Mao Zedong. Recently, however, the triumph of neoliberal rationality and the resistance of the peasant and Indigenous movement in Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s has made it possible to develop a radical research program with subversive scope. Gonzalez points, for example, to the notion of “revolutionary romanticism,” elaborated by Michael Löwy, who updates Mariátegui’s “heterodoxy” as a thinker who projected the possibility of a socialist society of the future inspired by the Indigenous community “traditions” of the past.6Michael Löwy, The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (London: Verso Books, 1998).
A Latin American Marxist against Capital
In subsequent chapters, the author turns to the public trajectory of the Peruvian thinker and his political context. Here, the book’s method of exposition follows a conventional model that commonly marks studies of Marxist intellectuals—and, of course, also of Mariátegui: the “Marxism” of the Peruvian intellectual is classified in the name of a political “coherence” forged in his “heroic” development. It is important to note that Gonzalez’s political biography of Mariátegui is structured in two movements. On the one hand, it narrates in linear fashion the “stages” of the author’s trajectory (life) and, on the other hand, it “interrupts” the linearity to comment on aspects of Mariátegui’s work, his concepts, and theory. In other words, there is a “to-ing and fro-ing” that anticipates political positions, rescues debates, and scrutinizes theoretical identifications, all with the aim of reinforcing or criticizing his ideas. In the Red Corner takes care to highlight historical events not only as description, but also to reveal the impacts that such continental and international processes had on the political formation of Mariátegui—the Russian revolution, student movement, Mexican revolution, European crisis, and so on.
Gonzalez initially offers a political, economic, and social contextualization of Peru in the first three decades of the twentieth century and explores the relations of the young Mariátegui (using the pseudonym Juan Croniqueur in his writings between 1914 and 1917) with the intellectual milieu that influenced him, his participation in newspapers and magazines in Lima, and the literary productions (short stories, chronicles, poetry, and plays) that earned him a modest recognition. He goes on to describe the process of politicization of Mariátegui through his contacts with the university movement and the anarcho-syndicalist-inspired workers’ strikes in the context of the permanent institutional instability in Peruvian politics. He does not establish a static opposition between “young” Mariátegui and “mature” Mariátegui. Gonzalez traces continuities, while recognizing discontinuities within the global itinerary of Mariátegui.7Gonzalez, Red Corner, 38.
From Mariátegui’s so-called Stone Age the text moves on to Europe, especially in Italy, where Mariátegui discovers Marxism and experiences major political events in that country. There is an explicit association between Mariátegui and Gramsci which is sometimes exaggerated. On the one hand, it is fruitful to start from the notions of Gramsci to understand the philosophy of praxis of Mariátegui as an intellectual and political militant in the construction of cultural hegemony. It is very interesting, for example, when Gonzalez approaches Mariátegui with Gramsci’s memorable 1917 text “The Revolution Against Capital” to mark both thinkers’ moves away from the economist vision impregnated with the positivism of the Second International. A series of Latin American writers have built a certain “Gramscian-Mariáteguista” tendency, to the point where this association has become a sort of symbolic capital in Mariátegui studies. Statements such as the following have become frequent—and too stereotypical (fortunately not Gonzalez): “Mariátegui is the Gramsci in Latin America,” or “Gramsci is the Lenin of Italy.” There is a clear problem with such formulations. After all, which Mariátegui, Gramsci, or Lenin are we actually talking about?
On the other hand, suggestions of Gramsci’s influence on Mariátegui, or even that he was a reader of Gramsci’s paper, L’Ordine Nuovo, are highly questionable. Once and for all, Mariátegui did not meet Gramsci personally, even though both were present at the famous XVII Congress of the Italian Socialist Party held in Livorno in January 1921. As a professional journalist Mariátegui was in the habit of writing daily articles about political, social, and cultural events of great relevance, places visited, and personalities he met on his European tour. Had he met an intellectual and politician of the stature of Gramsci, he would certainly have taken note of the leader of the Italian Communist Party. Perhaps we can only hope that some Latin American writer writes a short story (or novel) narrating the encounter and dialogue between two emblematic figures of Marxism in the Global South.
In the Red Corner considers the postwar context in Europe and the crisis of capitalism. Upon his return to Lima, Mariátegui taught at the Universidad Popular González Prada between 1923 and 1924, a collective space created by sectors of the student and labor movements in Lima. The series of lectures he was responsible for is known as the “History of the World Crisis,” with a predominance of European themes. One of Mariátegui’s central arguments—curiously influenced by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West—was that the European crisis meant a crisis of Western civilization.
In the Red Corner also explores Mariátegui’s use of Georges Sorel’s notion of myth. He not only mentions this influence, but seeks to explain the reasons behind this particular incorporation. For Gonzalez, “Mariátegui found in Sorel’s writing a critical account of bourgeois rationalism, an anti-reformist skepticism about the state, and an emphasis on the significance of workers’ self-activity.”8Ibid., 76. Peru’s specificity required absorbing the theme of popular religiosity as an instance capable of unifying oppressed sectors of the Andean world for socialist political action. It was a powerful antidote to the evolutionism and positivism of 1920s eurocentric Marxism. Unlike many scholars who are excessively framed by Western rationality, Gonzalez is pointing out the importance of religion (ancient, clandestine, Black, and Indigenous) as a social myth. Later, in the Latin American left of the 1980s, with the birth of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil under the influence of Liberation Theology,9See Luiz Martínez Andrade, Écologie et Libération. Critique de la Modernité dans la Théologie de la Libération (Paris: Van Dieren, 2016); and Michael Löwy, “Marxism and Romanticism in the Work of José Carlos Mariátegui,” Latin American Perspectives 25, no. 4 (1998): 76–88. one of the most remarkable aspects of the peasant movement was the concept of mística, which takes into account the subjective dimension of social struggle, humanist values, and the symbols (flags, banners, music, dances, theatres, posters, and so on) that become means of communication between people with the aim of guaranteeing the unity and identity of the collective.10Deni Alfar Rubbo, Párias da Terra: o MST e a Mundialização da Luta Camponesa (São Paulo: Alameda/FAPESP, 2016), 231.
Next, Gonzalez presents Mariátegui’s political objectives on his return from Europe, inspired by “the action of the multitudes”11Gonzalez, Red Corner, 69.: the construction of a publishing house (Empresa Minerva), and the publication of magazines (Claridad and Amauta) and newspapers (Labor) to disseminate new ideas; studies on the Peruvian social formation in its different dimensions, including the dynamics of peripheral capitalism in the imperialist phase and the constitution of social classes in their ethnic form; the articulation with workers’ and artisans’ guilds; the approaches to Indigenous leaders of the Andean regions; the contacts with intellectuals and artists from Peru and Latin America; and, finally, the foundation of a political party. Part of this involved monitoring, disseminating, and producing reports on the exploitation of miners, workers, and peasant Indigenous people. The goal of all this work was to stimulate permanent solidarity and mutual support between urban and rural subaltern organizations, especially under the repression that social organizations suffered from the dictatorship of Augusto Leguía (1919–1930). Finally, Mariátegui launched initiatives that, in the medium and long term, constituted a “thick fabric” of regional, national, and international contacts in the field of the Peruvian political culture of the 1920s.
Seen in this light, the magazine Amauta and his significant Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality stand out as far-reaching projects. Gonzalez performs a careful reconstruction of the fundamental aspects marked out both in the political approach of the magazine (published between 1926 and 1930), and in the book, which appeared in 1928. Gonzalez highlights the colonization process, the remembrance of “Inca socialism” and the different historical temporalities that marked a country on the periphery of the world capitalist system.
In the Red Corner also dedicates a chapter to Mariátegui’s incursions into literature as an integral part of his Marxism and an anticipation of alternative potentials. For Mariátegui, literary, and artistic production had important resources to offer in the construction of an authentic imaginary of “nation” that would start from Peru’s irreducible plurinationality, its identities and its struggles, its narratives and hidden memories. In this direction, Gonzalez builds a relationship between Mariátegui’s imagination—an indispensable element of creation—and the reconstruction of the “tradition of the oppressed,” as Walter Benjamin put it in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” For Gonzalez, furthermore, “A realism of the future, for Mariátegui, must embrace not simply what is visible to the observing eye, but also what is buried and sensitive to the ‘pulse of the times.’”12Ibid., 149. In fact, there is a relationship between Mariátegui’s approach and the Latin American literature of writers like José María Arguedas and Gabriel García Márquez.
Conjuring with Mariátegui, or in Search of a Lost Heritage
Gonzalez devotes the last two chapters to characterizing both the type of party founded by Mariátegui and his Marxism. These are delicate topics, since it is precisely in the intense debates on the question of strategy that Mariátegui’s ideological operations and political work take place. Since there is no systematic elaboration of the concept of the party in Mariátegui, it is difficult to build a definitive answer to such politically controversial issues.
In any event, the Peruvian intellectual’s vision was never frozen and was enriched as his political experience and his interactions with various social agents and militants in Peru expanded. Gonzalez emphasizes the text, “The First of May and the United Front,” designed to gradually build up an incipient class movement in a common front of urban workers and peasant and indigenous organizations. The first task of the movement was to discover its “own identity and its own uniqueness.” One of the pillars of Mariátegui’s political formation was the united front policy, developed by Lenin and Trotsky at the Third Congress of the Communist International in the context of the first defeats of the European revolutions. The objective was to create a mechanism for the accumulation of social and political forces by entering into the mass organizations and build a hegemonic force of the proletariat.
The traces of Mariátegui’s vision of the party form, according to Gonzalez, include the rejection of the “Creole policy” based on its warlord leaders, dominant in Peruvian politics since the middle of the nineteenth century. Instead, he emphasized defense of the socialist “vanguard” not as a conspiratorial and enlightened minority, but as a “conscious” and “combative” element of the exploited classes. In this way, the “vanguard” would not come to the class from the outside:
[Mariátegui] was concerned to build what would be a spur to joint struggle between each sector of the exploited class, and a forum of debate, respectful of a diversity that reflected the working-class movement itself, and capable of drawing together the experiences, visions (or passions as he was inclined to call them) and demands of the peasantry and the indigenous communities as well as workers.13Ibid., 180.
In the prism of the party-united front dialectic, Gonzalez sees Mariátegui as an unfaithful “Marxist-Leninist,” so to speak, permeated by contradictions, distancing him from the rigid, centralist, top-down, orthodox, and authoritarian organizational practice of Stalinism. It is interesting to recall a note by Antonio Melis, regarding the issue of Mariátegui’s Marxist heritage: The common reference to an intellectual tradition, he says, “does not hide the presence of distinct and opposing interpretations.”14Antonio Melis, Leyendo Mariátegui (Lima: Amauta, 1999), 60. In the present case, Mariátegui’s intellectual and political autonomy is most evident in his “critical infidelities” in his use of authors (such as Lenin, Georges Sorel, Piero Gobetti, and Benedetto Croce), interpreted in the freest possible way. In any case, Mike Gonzalez is not the first and will not be the last to seek to establish a distance between Mariátegui and Stalinism in favor of an approximation to Lenin and Trotsky.
Finally, the construction of Mariátegui is praised by Gonzalez because of his development of a Marxist method that seeks a rich “understanding of the historical and cultural circumstances of Latin America.”15Gonzalez, Red Corner, 184. What Mariátegui did was to “draw on every source of knowledge, in theory and in practice, in order to make sense of his own world. In doing so he enriched Marxism in a global sense.”16Ibid., 202.
Smoke Clouds: Reinterpretations of Mariátegui and Critical Horizons
I would like to add some final notes on important gaps in In the Red Corner, and to outline some methodological and epistemological challenges for future Mariátegui investigations that remain open, in expectation of a rigorously creative and original reinvigoration of a timeless body of work. In no way are these observations intended to overshadow the merits of Gonzalez’s research.
In my opinion, In the Red Corner presents some of the difficulties in elaborating questions that have not yet been resolved or simply not yet formulated in the field of biographies of Mariátegui. To solve these, it would be essential for the author to carry out a survey and presentation on the “state of the art” of the main works in the academic literature. To what extent does this study differ from such authors as Genaro Carnero Checa, Diego Mesenger Illán, Oscar Terán, Osvaldo Fernandes Díaz, and Miguel Mazzeo, to cite examples from different generations?17See Genaro Carnero Checa, La Acción Escrita: José Carlos Mariátegui Periodista (Lima: Torres Aguirre, 1964); Diego Mesenger Illán, José Carlos Mariátegui y su Pensamiento Revolucionário (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1974); Oscar Terán, Discutir Mariátegui (México: Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1985); Oscar Fernández Díaz, Mariátegui o la Experiencia del Outro (Lima: Amauta, 1994); and Miguel Mazzeo, El Socialismo Enraizado: José Carlos Mariátegui, Vigencia de su Concepto de “Socialismo Práctico” (Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2013). Relatedly, there is also the absence of a sustained bibliographical discussion on Mariátegui in English by the author (he only makes occasional citations of some works), and the differences between this political biography of Mariátegui from previous studies.
A second point is that there is an invisible compass reference in Mike Gonzalez’s book. This is the Marxist historian Alberto Flores Galindo (1949–1990). Flores Galindo is mentioned at different times in the book for different purposes, either regarding Peruvian history or Mariátegui himself. Yet this raises the problem of locating such a crucial person in the history of Mariátegui’s reception. Flores Galindo was an extraordinary historian for his generation and left an abundant production on the history of Peru in its political, economic, social and cultural dimensions. Furthermore, he was also a public intellectual in his country, and like Mariátegui, he wrote frequently for newspapers and magazines on a variety of interests and topics, as consultation of the volumes of his Complete Works, published in the 1990s, would show.
Flores Galindo also studied Mariátegui and published La agonía de Mariátegui, in 1980, a book that addresses controversies between Peruvian intellectuals and the Communist International, through interviews and documents. As expected, the work provoked innumerable challenges and in subsequent editions of the book the author tried to answer some of these. The Peruvian historian also frequently disputed with intellectuals and activists in the political field.
As the author of Buscando un Inca, he had both a political and academic concern for Mariátegui. He was fully in tune with the “Mariateguista” generation of the International Congress at the Universidad de Sinaloa in the city of Culiacán (Mexico), in 1980, whose emphasis was to “remove dogmas” from the orthodox and eurocentric approach to the Peruvian thinker.18See Fernanda Beigel, La Epopeya de una Generación y una Revista. Las Redes Editoriales de José Carlos Mariátegui en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2006), 19; Martín Cortes, “José Aricó y el Colóquio Mariáteguiano (1980) de la Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa,” Cuadernos Americanos, no. 165 (2018): 65–82. Research on Flores Galindo and Mariátegui, from the perspective of the sociology of reception, has yet to be done.
In conclusion, I would suggest at least three challenges for future Mariátegui research. First, we need an editorial initiative that allows us access to the complete works of Mariátegui (letters, manuscripts, texts) organized chronologically in a “genetic-evolutionary” framework; this would open promising horizons for philological studies but, unfortunately, this initiative has not yet been suggested by any institutions or publishers. As Flores Galindo stated:
A genetic reading that starts from the texts of youth, from the first literary attempts—poems, included—and that reaches the political texts, without dispensing with the literary texts. A total reading, less concerned with quotations than with understanding the work as whole. Finally, a reading while located in biography and history (the history of Peru and history of socialism) can take a certain distance, essential to understanding an author that we feel too close to ourselves, with our own worries and anxieties.19Alberto Flores Galindo, “El Mariateguismo: Aventura Inconclusa,” in Obras Completas, II (Lima: Fundación Andina/Sur Casa de Estudios del Socialismo, 1994), 587–588.
Second, from a methodological point of view, we need to articulate work, context, and reception in a kind of triangle of analysis for a sociology (or history) of committed intellectuals. In other words, research that deals with Mariátegui’s trajectory and intellectual production must be linked to the study of its reception. Ninety years after his death, the “Mariteguian heritage” that spread throughout Latin America and the world should not be underestimated in the analysis.20See, for example, José Aricó, ed., Mariátegui y las Orígenes del Marxismo Latinoamericano (México: Siglo XXI, 1978); Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory (Columbus: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1993); Ádam Anderle, “Mariátegui y Perú en la Historiografia Húngara,” Anuario Mariateguiano, Amauta, no. 6 (1994): 243–48; Horacio Tarcus, Mariátegui en la Argentina o las Políticas Culturais de Samuel Glusberg (Buenos Aires: El Cielo por Asalto, 2001); Luiz Bernardo Pericás, “José Carlos Mariátegui e o Brasil,”Estudos Avançados 24, no. 68 (2010): 335–61; Deni Alfaro Rubbo, O Labirinto Periférico: José Carlos Mariátegui e a Sociologia Crítica Latino-americana (doctoral thesis, Universidade de São Paulo, 2018); and Rubbo, “Diffusion and Circulation of Marxism in the Periphery: Mariátegui and the ‘Dependency Theory,’” Latin American Perspectives, forthcoming 2021. As Jacques Derrida noted, “An inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. Its presumed unity, if there is one, can consist only in the injunction to reaffirm by choosing.”21Derrida, Specters, 33, emphasis added.
The third point is that studies using comparative methods can be promising, whether for research concepts, contexts and/or trajectories. Such studies allow new perspectives unavailable to works devoted to only one author—Gonzalez makes an interesting comparison between Mariátegui and Paulo Freire, for example. Last but not least, the political relevance of “returning to Mariátegui,” must necessarily show what is contradictory in his writings, in addition to being careful not to mix the theoretical debate with the political-conjunctural debate. It is also possible, starting from Mariátegui’s work, to venture into a critical dialogue with different branches of contemporary social science (the post/decolonial perspective, despite many antiMarxist authors, and the Latin American Indigenous scientific production seem interesting, among other possibilities) and with the anticapitalist political praxis of social movements and their collective subjectivities of resistance, emancipation, and struggle. There is still much to discover in Mariátegui.
As long as there is capitalism, there will be anticapitalists like Mariátegui, willing to interpret the world, to be indignant about its oppressive and exploitative rationality, and to transform it radically. Here is one of the thunderstorms on the periphery of the West that break open the homogeneous and destructive temporality of capital, and Mike Gonzalez’s In the Red Corner is definitely a political subversion that updates the critique of capitalism with Mariátegui.