Interpreting Mariátegui: Lessons from Peru for the British Left

It is difficult to interpret exactly why José Carlos Mariátegui is such an unknown figure among the pantheon of international Marxist thinkers regularly discussed or referenced by the British Left.

It is difficult to interpret exactly why José Carlos Mariátegui is such an unknown figure among the pantheon of international Marxist thinkers regularly discussed or referenced by the British Left. In part, this lack of knowledge, of arguably Latin America’s greatest Marxist thinker, could be explained by his early death at only the age of 35. Another explanation could simply be a degree of snobbish Eurocentrism which dismisses figures from the so-called developing world as being unable to contribute to knowledge in the so-called Global North.

But perhaps the most convincing explanation can be found in Mariátegui’s greatest potential contribution to Leftist thinking in the UK. That is because Mariátegui did not simply attempt to apply Marxist (or Marxist-Leninist) doctrine to Peru, but adapted international theories of class struggle to the society which he saw around him. In short, he developed a class-based analysis of Peruvian society which was as rooted in the realities of national, regional and local politics as it was in the European ideas of global proletarian struggle.

Although Mariátegui’s life and work describes a world both temporally and spatially distant from the present day UK, his form of analysis has important implications for understanding the role of the Left in Britain today. At present, the Labour Party appears on course for further internal division, not just between the Corbynite and Blairite wings of the party but also between two competing interpretations of the relationship of the Left to class. MPs such as Phil Wilson (MP for Sedgefield), who represent mostly northern constituencies which have greatly suffered the effects of deindustrialisation, argue that while Corbyn’s Labour is increasingly attractive to students and residents of the UK’s big cities, they have lost their connection to the working-class communities in former industrial heartlands of the north.

Advocating for a more nationally-based understanding of socialism in this context may appear rather alarming to some (not least because of the historical connotations of “national socialism”), but this is by no means a call to install immigration controls and do away with international solidarity. What Mariátegui argued for in the case of Peru, particularly in his Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), was for a more complex understanding of class which pays attention to the influence of race and ethnicity, co-existing modes of production and the politics of space in a given nation.

This re-examination of the nature of class alongside contemporary politics and economics is absolutely vital. Like it or not, deindustrialisation and Thatcherism have changed the British landscape, and with it they have vastly altered the rules of the game for the Labour Party and Left in general. Whilst a re-examination or where we go from here has already begun (see these New Socialist analyses on re-interpreting class through geography and gender), it is vital for the British Left to continue this work to move forward, and for the Labour Party to continue to appeal to the populations of former industrial heartlands as well as major urban centres.

This project could benefit greatly from a closer reading of Mariátegui’s life and writing, a more detailed analysis of which you will find in the paragraphs below.

Life of Mariátegui

Born in 1894, Mariátegui spent most of his early twenties writing for a number of increasingly radical left-wing magazines and newspapers in Peru’s capital, Lima. In 1918, he set up his own left-wing publication, La Razón, which marked his turn towards socialism and away from the Creole politics represented by Lima’s whiter middle-class (as opposed to the indigenous, Quechua-speaking population of Peru, located predominantly in Andean regions). Mariátegui was influenced by the Peruvian anarchist Manuel González Prada, and both became highly critical of the domination of land ownership by a small group of land-owners (known as latifundistas or gamonales).

Although the 1910s and 1920s were an important period for the development of the Peruvian Left, they were also marked by state suppression. After a coup d’état in 1919 which brought Augusto Leguía into power for his second Presidential term, Mariátegui was faced with the probability of going into prison or exile, of which he (perhaps preemptively) chose the latter.
On returning to Peru, Mariátegui worked closely with the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) led by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre. However, APRA’s suppression (and anti-communist rhetoric) led Mariátegui to leave and set up his own socialist party, which would later become the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP). He was also involved in the creation of the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) which took part in the Latin American trade union conference in 1929.

Sadly, the next year he died a young death at the age of 35.

Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality

Mariátegui’s influence and impact on future generations of the Latin American Left, however, had already been secured. His 1928 book Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (SIEoPR) is, in part, a Marxist economic analysis of Peru’s history which understood the country as a semi-feudal nation dominated by the political and economic power of the latifundistas. The latifundistas, Mariátegui argued, were “indifferent not only to the interests of the proletariat but also to those of the bourgeoisie”, and as such were guilty of consigning Peru to economic underdevelopment.

What Mariátegui saw in Peru convinced him of two major critiques of international Marxist thought in the 1920s. Although the latifundistas were an agrarian nobility, they also accumulated capital and acted as capitalists by making alliances with foreign (predominantly British) business interests. Therefore, Mariátegui saw both feudal and capitalist modes of production existing simultaneously in Peruvian society, instead of a linear progression from one to the other. Secondly, Mariátegui saw that the power of the latifundistas was so great, and that the Peruvian state was structured so completely in their favour and the interests of international capital, that Peruvian society would not simply progress dialectically from feudalism to capitalism to socialism, but was instead consigned to existing in its semi-feudal, semi-capitalist state.

However, SIEoPR is far more than a simple economic history. The second essay, “The Problem of the Indian”, is devoted to Mariátegui’s understanding of the integration of the indigenous population into Peruvian society, and the potential for indigenous communities to develop as a proletariat. In this essay, he argues that:

ANY TREATMENT OF THE PROBLEM of the Indian—written or verbal—that fails or refuses to recognize it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited…Any attempt to solve it with administrative or police measures, through education or by a road building program, is superficial and secondary as long as the feudalism of the gamonales continues to exist.

In articulating this position, Mariátegui defines the social integration of indigenous communities as fundamentally one of class struggle. However, he adds greater complexity to this picture by also highlighting the importance of cultural and social factors which reinforce the indigenous population’s lowly class position. Mariátegui appears well ahead of his time, articulating an understanding of society and Marxist theory which is rooted in the politics of space long before Henri Lefebvre and others. In doing so, he does not simply apply a class-based analysis to explain Peru, but highlights how traditional Marxist understandings of class must be adapted to understand indigenous integration.

The rest of SIEoPR deals with a number of issues including religion, education, literature and land reform. Taken together, these chapters highlight the numerous forms of exclusion experienced by the indigenous population: racial, economic, spatial, social, and cultural. In this way, Mariátegui demonstrates that while the indigenous population’s exclusion is fundamentally rooted in economics and the land, their position as a class is far more complex than a simple economic calculation.

The importance of Mariátegui today

Mariátegui today remains a writer underappreciated outside of Latin America. In Peru, his legacy remains strong having influenced Leftist thinkers such as Alberto Flores Galindo (although his grand-nephew Aldo is a staunch right-winger, a sort of Peruvian Piers Morgan who has written his own Eighth Essay) and through the mobilization of the CGTP, although the PCP has long-since fractured into a myriad factions (many of whom engaged in open conflict with the state in the second half of the twentieth century). In other Andean countries, his writings on the indigenous population remain relevant for those who, like Flores Galindo, believe that the mobilisation of the indigenous population is the most logical route to socialism.

The potential for Mariátegui’s writings to shape understandings of British society has certainly not been written about in any great depth. Yet, rather than seeing any direct comparisons between the 1920s Peruvian society he describes and our own, his writings on class, culture and the politics of land and space have important contributions to make if the British Left is to truly revitalise its own intellectual proposition in the near future.


Daniel Willis (@not_djw)

Daniel Willis writes about Latin American history and politics, with a particular focus on Peru, global commodity chains and extractivism.