Mariátegui and the Permanent Revolution

José Carlos Mariátegui was founder and general secretary of the Peruvian Socialist Party, set up in 1928, that later became the Communist Party. There is much mythology on the left about him. Here José Pereira puts the record straight explaining how this great Latin American Marxist, in spite of some errors, had reached the same general conclusions as Lenin and Trotsky on the fundamental questions facing the revolution in colonial countries. (First published in America Socialista, No. 6, August 2012)

The Latin American Revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a stage of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be the socialist revolution. (JC Mariátegui, Anniversary and Balance Sheet)

A great paradox surrounds José Carlos Mariátegui’s thought. The man who sought a specific road for revolution in Latin America, without turning it into a “copy or an imitation” of foreign emancipatory experiences, came to share the archetypal destiny of other great international revolutionaries: persecuted, disparaged, and hated throughout their lives, to be later turned into inoffensive icons, “castrated from the revolutionary contents of their doctrine” after their deaths. His famous dictum of carrying out revolution in Latin America, as a “heroic creation”, and not as the faithful repetition of European revolutions, has been taken up not to encourage the concrete analysis of the American reality, as Mariátegui had wanted and had done by brilliantly applying the Marxist method, but to blindly incur in the same mistakes that had been committed elsewhere, in the pursuit of reformist utopias.

Mariátegui’s work retains all of its strength and continues to be indispensable for those who are facing the great challenges of revolution in Latin America, its characteristics and its destiny, as well as its particularities, like the indigenous question. Mariátegui committed errors that were common in his time, like not paying sufficient attention to the split that was brewing in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the labelling of the Inca civilization as one of “primitive communism”, the tackling of the national question as one of “race”, the concessions to positivist and idealist theories that nonetheless don’t mar his concrete and political approach to the problem.

However, the close reading of his works, in which, as Gramsci once said, Mariátegui proved to be one of those who learn a book at a time and are better than those who forget a book at a time, does not justify the image of “romantic Marxism” with which some have tried to blemish the legacy of this Peruvian Marxist. Lenin’s epitaph for Rosa Luxemburg might also be fitting for Mariátegui: “Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.”

The Road to Marxism

Mariátegui was born on July 14, 1894 in Moquegua, in the southern tip of Peru, in a rural and indigenous region, land of pisco [a Peruvian brandy] and mining, the capital of the Peruvian copper industry. He grew up in a humble family and, despite the fact that José Carlos would soon become a leading theoretician of the Peruvian workers’ movement, poverty forced him to end his studies at a very young age. An accident at the age of eight would result in persistent problems with his left leg, which would eventually be amputated. For all his troubles, he managed to begin a career in journalism, starting off as a linotypist apprentice and, later on, in 1914, as writer in the newspaper La Prensa.

In 1919 he founds together with César Falcón the journal La Razón, from whose columns they lambaste Leguía’s government, who had dissolved Congress and had proclaimed himself provisional president. The newspaper was closed down and some of its reporters, including Mariátegui, were granted scholarships to study abroad – which in reality represented exile sentences. This allowed Mariátegui to travel to Italy, where he witnessed the revolutionary process that gripped the country, the “biennio rosso” [the two red years], which saw a wave of factory strikes in the north and land occupations in the centre and the south.

In 1920, after a set of futile negotiations for wage rises, the Confindustria [General Industrial Confederation], the Italian union of industrialists, decided to lock out its workers. The metalworkers’ union (FIOM) responded with the occupation of the factories. Some 400 factories in the north of the country were taken over by armed workers, organized into self-defence militias (the Red Guards) and into Factory Councils, the workers’ power organisms that Gramsci had envisaged in his articles in L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order) magazine in Turin.

However, neither the trade union leadership nor the Socialist Party were able to seize the opportunity and to provide guidance and organization to the proletariat and the peasantry in their bid for power, as the Bolshevik Party had done in Russia. While the Socialist Party and the trade union leadership negotiated with the government, the industrialists and the landowners increased their support for Mussolini’s fascist gangs, ready to hand over political power to them in order to safeguard the capitalist regime of exploitation.

The hesitance of the leadership of the proletariat frustrated the middle class, which, even if initially sympathetic to socialist revolution, began to warm to the demagogy of the fascists, who combined the violent repression of the working-class movement with an anti-bourgeois phraseology. This was the demagogy of opposing order to chaos, provoked not by revolution, but by the indecisiveness of the working-class organizations when confronted with the possibility of taking power. In 1921, after an agreement that was never implemented regarding wages and workers’ management that allowed the reformist leadership of the SP to demobilize the revolution, the SP itself suffered a split in which the pro-Soviet tendencies led by Gramsci and Bordiga walked out of the Livorno congress to create the Communist Party of Italy.

Mariátegui witnessed these events in first person, reporting on what was happening to the Peruvian readers of the El Tiempo newspaper of Lima. In his articles, compiled and published under the title “Letter from Italy”, Mariátegui still recounts the events with neutrality, and talks about them without expressing his convictions, although a deep admiration towards Gramsci is tangible in his writings, as well as a great interest in the split at Livorno and the rise of fascism. The Italian experience was to become a milestone in Mariátegui’s political development, and through this he was to become familiar with central issues of Marxism, such as class collaboration, united front tactics, the seizure of power, or the threat of fascism. In Italy he was also to meet the woman who would become his wife, the Genoese Anna Chiappa. During his stay in Italy, he matures politically and moves towards Marxism, in a process that Mariátegui himself described in the following words: “From 1918, nauseated by Creole politics, I turned resolutely toward socialism, breaking with my first attempts at being a literato full of fin-de-siècle decadence and Byzantinism, then in full bloom.”[1]

While in Italy, he creates the first Peruvian Communist Cell, along with other exiles like Falcón. Upon his return to Peru, he immerses himself headlong in agitation and political organization work, firstly as director of Claridad, cofounded by Mariátegui and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre (exiled in Mexico), to later become the main figure in the Peruvian Socialist Party in 1928 and of the General Workers’ Confederation of Peru the following year. It is precisely at the peak of his political activity when conflicts start to break out with the Communist International, which was in full degeneration at the time. A relapse in his disease, which lead to the loss of his leg, and the bureaucratic manoeuvring of the Political Bureau of the International in South America, prevented Mariátegui from personally facing the looming political battle.

Mariátegui intended to take part in the 1st Latin American Communist Conference which took place in June 1929 in Buenos Aires, a city which he was also planning to visit to receive medical treatment. He had even planned to move to Buenos Aires for some time and make it the base of his journal Amauta. However, this possibility was denied to him. His Theses on the Racial Problem were defended by his friend Hugo Pesce and rejected by the International. In them, Mariátegui tackled the indigenous question in Latin America from a highly original perspective. The national questions had precisely been one of the bones of contention that had led to the split of the Communist International.

Taking advantage of Mariátegui’s ill health, the then head of the Communist International in South America, Eudocio Ravinez, took over the leadership of the Peruvian Socialist Party. Left to treat his health problems on his own, Mariátegui still planned to travel to Buenos Aires when, in late March 1930, he was urgently taken to the Lima hospital, where he died on the 16th of April at the young age of 36. A month after his death, the party Mariátegui had founded decided to change its name to Communist Party of Peru. For different reasons, Mariátegui had always been against the idea of changing the name of the organization as the International was demanding. The renaming of the party, carried out furtively, marked the abrupt beginning of a process of “de-Mariateguization”, of the castration of the power of Mariátegui’s revolutionary doctrine to turn it into an inoffensive icon in the Communist International’s official ideology.

The degeneration of the Communist International

Mariátegui’s legacy cannot be organically claimed by any of the tendencies that undertook the split with the Communist International. And least of all by the Stalinist current, that first transformed the world party into a foreign policy instrument in the service of the interests of the ruling bureaucracy in the USSR, to liquidate it later on in an act of complete submission to the Allies during the Second World War. What is of interest here is how, through an original and independent analysis, and by applying the Marxist method, Mariátegui had come to the same general conclusions as Lenin and Trotsky with regards to revolution in colonial countries, enriching his perspectives with the peculiarities of the Latin American reality. A close reading of the polemic between Mariátegui and the Communist International, which considered him a “heretic” on the loose, leaves no room for doubt on this question.

Mariátegui underestimated and failed to grasp the extent of the degeneration of the International. As late as 1925, he was still writing “but the outcomes of the conflict [between Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the power bloc of Stalin-Bukharin-Zinoviev, NdR] will not lead to a split. The leaders of the Bolshevik old guard… have already openly endorsed the idea of democratizing the party”.[2]

These statements and predictions were very far from the real situation, although one should not forget that this was a reality that he never personally witnessed.

The Communist International was founded in 1919. Its first years of life saw the fighting of a fierce civil war, a struggle for the Russian Revolution that was to lead to an inevitable World Revolution. Even in these dire circumstances, the International held annual congresses up to 1922, where key disagreements were discussed and resolved in conditions of maximum democracy, such as the question of the United Front or of the revolution in colonial countries. The International held its 5th Congress in June 1924, after the death of Lenin, and its 6th Congress in 1928, four years later, a time lapse that was used by the majority faction in power to liquidate Trotsky’s Left Opposition with bureaucratic methods and preventing it from contacting the rest of the International.

The exceptional measures adopted in 1921 at the 10th Congress of the CPSU in 1921dictated by the special circumstances were used to expel the Left Opposition and to banish its leaders. In that congress, the creation of internal factions within the party was temporarily banned. However, for Lenin, this decision was provisional and could be interpreted in different ways. Lenin opposed Riazanov’s proposal to extend the veto to future congresses with the following argument:

“The present Congress cannot in any way bind the elections to the next Congress. If the circumstances should give rise to fundamental disagreements, can we prohibit them from being brought before the judgement of the whole Party? No, we cannot!”[3]

The discussion on democracy had been sidelined through the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of a leadership more concerned with defending its supposed infallibility than with educating and training cadres. The selection of cadres itself was deteriorating. Servility and opportunism were more highly valued than any other quality. Gramsci, who can be regarded as Mariátegui’s teacher, sent a letter in 1926 in the name of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Italy, in which, justifying the line of the Stalin-Bukharin majority in the CPSU using arguments with which we don’t agree (for reasons that cannot be delved into here), he called for the unity of the “leading party in the International”, and expressed his naïve belief that Stalin would not undertake “excessive measures” such as expulsions. This simple appeal followed in the same line and recognised that Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, “have powerfully contributed to our education as revolutionaries, have sometimes corrected us severely, and have been our teachers”. This was enough to prevent the letter from ever being presented by the PCdI delegate in the International Executiv, Palmiro Togliatti, who in Gramsci’s view was a mediocre figure that was put at the helm of the International by Stalin. This letter was kept secret from the Communist Party of Italy itself until 1964.

Mariátegui and the “leading personalities” of the Communist International

Mariátegui, unlike Gramsci, never met personally any of the leaders of the International. It is worthwhile studying his changing views on the split in the USSR, which matured as more information came into his hands. Mariátegui himself commented that the only text of Trotsky he was able to read was The New Course, his long article which marked the beginning of his struggle in the party, centred on the question of internal democracy. As late as 1925, in the article quoted above, Mariátegui echoes the slander directed against Trotsky. He considers him the leader of a “defeated fraction or tendency of Bolshevism”, adding that “he has never been an orthodox Bolshevik. He was a Menshevik until the World War… and only in July 1917 did he join the party”, and concluding, “Trotsky’s opinions diverged from those of Lenin with regards to the most important questions of the revolution”.

However, only three years later, when his own conflict with the International was raging, Mariátegui radically corrected his position:

“Trotsky exiled from Soviet Russia: here is an event to which international revolutionary opinion cannot become easily reconciled. Revolutionary optimism never admitted the possibility that this revolution would end, like the French, condemning its heroes… Trotskyist opinion has a useful role in Soviet politics. It represents, if one wishes to define it in two words, Marxist orthodoxy, confronting the overflowing and unruly current of Russian reality. It exemplifies the working-class, urban, industrial sense of the socialist revolution. The Russian revolution owes its international, ecumenical value, its character as a precursor of the rise of a new civilization, to the ideas of Trotsky… Lenin intelligently and generously appreciated the value of collaborating with Trotsky, who himself – as the volume of his writings on the revolution's leader attests – unreservedly and without jealousy respected an authority consecrated by the most inspiring and enthralling work of revolutionary consciousness. But if almost all the distance between Lenin and Trotsky could be erased, the identification between Trotsky and the party itself could not be equally complete. Trotsky could not count on the full confidence of the party, as much as his performance as people's commissar merited unanimous admiration. The party machinery was in the hands of members of the old Leninist guard, who always felt themselves a bit distant from and alien to Trotsky, who, for his part, was not able to fully join them in a single bloc. Moreover, Trotsky, it seems, does not possess the special talents of a politician as Lenin did to the greatest degree. He does not know how to gather men; he is not acquainted with the secrets of managing a party. His singular position – equidistant from Bolshevism and Menshevism – during the years between 1905 and 1917, besides disconnecting him from the revolutionary team that prepared and realized the revolution with Lenin, must have disaccustomed him to the concrete practice of a party leader.”

Nevertheless, even in this article, Mariátegui still considers:

“In most of what relates to agrarian and industrial policies and the struggle against bureaucratism and the NEP spirit, Trotskyism tastes of a theoretical radicalism that has not been condensed into concrete and precise formulas. On this terrain, Stalin and the majority, along with having the responsibility for administration, have a more real sense of the possibilities.”[4]

The Left Opposition

In 1928, only one year before Trotsky’s banishment and the expulsion of the Left Opposition, circumstances had proven the correctness and the importance of their struggle. By 1926, 60% of all the wheat on sale was in the hands of the wealthy peasantry, the kulaks, who hardly represented 6% of the population but whose power was growing more and more. In 1928, the State’s wheat procurement had fallen from 428 million puds (1 pud = 16 kilograms) to 300 million.[5]

The Civil War, the New Economic Policy (NEP), and the failures in the leadership, fuelled by the pressures of an increasingly powerful and ambitious bureaucratic apparatus, had transformed the structure of the party. As the Left Opposition had denounced in their August 1927 platform, in that year:

“on January 1, our party had only one-third workers from the shops (in fact, only 31 per cent)… 100,000 peasants have been admitted to the party since the Fourteenth Congress, the majority of them middle peasants… At the time of the Fourteenth Congress, 38 per cent of those occupying responsible and leading positions in our Press were persons who had come to us from other parties”.[6]

Mariátegui never read the platform of the Left Opposition. This document only began to circulate outside of the USSR when a delegate of the Communist Party of the United States found a translated copy of the document in his folder, placed there by mistake by a secretary of the International. Contrary to Mariátegui’s opinion, the platform did have a realistic analysis and concrete proposals to reverse the degenerative process in the USSR and to recover its proletarian direction.

Proposals in the economic field, which called for less conservatism in Stalin and Bukharin’s Five Year Plans, and an industrialization policy that favoured the poor peasantry together with voluntary collectivization of the land; proposals on specific problems such as housing, the end to evictions, the reduction of working hours, the improvement of education facilities and other services in working-class districts to put the proletariat in a more favourable condition to participate in political activity; proposals on the social composition of the party, on the national question, and on international issues. In these schemes we see the echoes of Lenin’s last efforts to broaden the proletarian base of the party as well as in the Central Committee, to fight what he referred to as “bureaucratic degenerations”.

The Left Opposition did not fight the theory of “socialism in one country” in the name of abstract radicalism, but through a critique of its theoretical basis and its practical consequences.

“The whole theory of socialism in one country derives fundamentally from the assumption that the stabilization of capitalism will endure for a series of decades... [this theory] is now playing a directly disintegrating role and clearly hindering the consolidation of the international forces of the proletariat around the Soviet Union.”[7]

Let us recall how only a few years later the world would be shaken by the most severe and profound crisis that capitalism has ever gone through until the present one. The “theory” of socialism in one country did not serve to prepare the cadres of the International or the party for the storms that were looming.

Mariátegui and the Inconsistencies of the International

Faced with the grain crisis of 1928, the Soviet bureaucracy felt vulnerable and undertook a shift to the left, drifting from opportunism to sectarianism. The liquidation of the kulak was carried out in a criminal way, at the expense of millions of lives and a collapse of agricultural production from which the USSR never fully recovered. The industrialization plans were now to become bolder: a Five Year Plan was to be concluded in four years. It was only the exiled Trotsky that understood that this caricature of the Left Opposition’s programme was a way of attempting to stabilize the bureaucracy’s power, which had the planned economy as its basis and which was threatened by the NEP.

In the 1930s, the repressive apparatus was unleashed against all trace of genuine Bolshevism. If the struggles of the 1920s were waged between Old Bolsheviks, in the 1930s having a Bolshevik past was the best guarantee of receiving a death sentence. The liquidationists of the Old Guard were men like Vishynsky, the state prosecutor during the Moscow mock trials, who had been a Menshevik until 1920 and who, in 1917, had signed an order to arrest none other than Lenin. 80% of the members of the Central Committee of the CPSU that was directing the trials were former Mensheviks. The process of divesting the Soviet working class of political power had been brought to a successful conclusion for the bureaucracy, which would become the global agent of counter-revolution.

If in those years experienced and discerning leaders like Preobrazhensky and Zinoviev were capitulating before the turn to the left of the bureaucracy, one cannot condemn Mariátegui for having expressed views on the “realism” of Stalin’s policies. More than Gramsci himself, Mariátegui understood that the “measures” employed against the Opposition in the USSR were not a simple “excess”, anecdotal events, but rather the substance and real expression of the class struggle within the USSR, a struggle which placed Trotsky in the camp of “orthodox Marxism” and the “urban proletariat”. These intuitions are clear indications of a lively intellect powered by Marxism. The “turn to the left” in the USSR found him on the sidelines of the split in the International and it was only an early death which interrupted his eager desire to keep up with events.

The resistance of the man who had set up the first Peruvian Communist Cell in exile to changing the name of his party to Communist Party of Peru can be explained only as a sign of mistrust towards the International. The organization that Mariátegui came to know was not that of Lenin and Trotsky, but one which was dominated by dubious characters such as Ravinez, who later became an ardent anti-communist, or Codovilla, the leader of the Communist Party of Argentina, remembered for his mistakes regarding Peronism and his scrupulous persecution of “Trotskyists”. These figures rejected Mariátegui’s theses, which in essence represent the reformulation of the theory of Permanent Revolution in a Latin American setting.

The Theory of Permanent Revolution

This theory, which is often mystified and falsified by its opponents, can be summed up as follows: in colonial and semi-colonial countries, the complete and final resolution of the pending problems of the bourgeois democratic revolution requires the revolutionary action of the proletariat, who, in alliance with and leading the peasant masses, penetrates into the realm of private property, giving the revolution a permanent character on its advance towards socialism, whose final victory – even more so in backward countries – ultimately depends on the success of world revolution. In short, revolution in colonial or semi-colonial countries is to be socialist and international or else it will fail.

The distinctive features of colonial and semi-colonial countries are their backwardness and economic dependence. Their bourgeoisies are latecomers on the scene of history, emerging when the world had already been divided up between the great capitalist powers. This is a parasitic bourgeoisie to the extent that it owes its position to being the lackey of imperialism, living off rent and off the demand generated in the enclaves of imperialist investment. It is a conservative bourgeoisie due to its inextricable connections with Caciquism [rule of local chiefs or bosses, caciques, and landed property].

In the end, we are talking about a bourgeoisie that is incapable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, i.e., the liquidation of feudalism, land reform, the development of the productive forces, the resolution of the national questions within the State, and the defence of national independence. The interconnection of this bourgeoisie’s interests with those of imperialism and the landed elites turns it into an enemy that, even if taking recourse to anti-imperialist phraseology, capitulates before imperialism when it comes to staving off the revolutionary rise of the masses.

The theory of Permanent Revolution has been proved correct in endless historical examples, both negative and positive. The Russian Revolution itself became its first confirmation. After the overthrow of the Tsar, the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of meeting any of the expectations of the masses, and even defended and continued the imperialist war. Until April 1917 the Bolshevik Party newspaper, Pravda, run by Stalin at the time, gave critical support to the provisional government headed by the liberal aristocrat Georgy Lvov, defending also the continuation of the war and encouraging Russian soldiers to fight back against the Germans.

It was only in April, when Lenin corrected his old formula of “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants” in order to reorient the party towards the seizure of power, that the Bolsheviks began to win over most of the soviets and the revolution itself. Lenin’s old dictum had played an important propaganda role, but proved useless to influence the outcome of the revolution. Only the taking of power by the working class could enable the resolution of the pending bourgeois democratic tasks. Similarly, the successful revolutions in China and Cuba were only able to remain alive and solve the urgent agrarian question by breaking the bonds of the bourgeois democratic revolution, embarking on the nationalization of the economy and thus winning the support of the masses, and overcoming capitalism.

At the same time, in the negative, the Stalinist notion that revolution in semi-colonial countries requires a democratic-bourgeois stage in which emancipation from imperialism and the development of the productive forces is to be achieved with the support of the “progressive bourgeoisie”, led to a series of defeats. The Chinese Revolution of 1927 was strangled by that same Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Kuomintang, that had been invited by Stalin as a Chinese delegate to the Communist International, in the name of a policy of alliances and cooperation between classes, in the belief that they were all equally opposed to imperialism. Chiang responded to this call for an alliance by joining the imperialists in the bombing of Shanghai, where the workers had risen up, and where a million communists were massacred.

Mariátegui and Permanent Revolution

Mariátegui wrote many articles on the situation in China. In them we can find some brilliant intuitions on the background of the Chinese Revolution and on the influence played by imperialist penetration. In these writings, as in others, particularly those on India, one can appreciate Mariátegui’s lively interest for international questions and trace his evolution as a Marxist. In his first articles, especially those on China, Mariátegui makes some concessions to nationalism and its exponents, like Sun Yat Sen or Chiang Kai-Shek himself, who he saw as a man who had the choice of either becoming the liberator or the betrayer of his people, in what was still a romantic vision of revolution. Later on, however, in his writings of 1929 and 1930, particularly with regards to India, he spared no criticism towards Gandhi, who he considered to be a British collaborator, and vesting his hopes for the independence of India on the country’s nascent workers’ movement.

Nonetheless, it’s in his writings on Peru and Latin America, which Mariátegui had studied and personally knew, where his analysis on revolution in colonial countries really stands out. In the thesis he presented before the Latin American Communist conference in June 1929 in Buenos Aires, Mariátegui wrote: “For us, anti-imperialism does not and cannot constitute by itself a political program for a mass movement capable of conquering state power. Anti-imperialism, even if it could mobilize the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie on the side of the worker and peasant masses (and we have already definitively denied this possibility), does not annul class antagonisms nor suppress different class interests.”[8]

Let us compare these lines with Trotsky’s arguments against class collaboration in China: “It is a gross mistake to think that imperialism mechanically welds together all the classes of China from without… The revolutionary struggle against imperialism does not weaken, but rather strengthens the political differentiation of the classes.”[9] Trotsky did not deny the possibility of an anti-imperialist alliance with the Kuomintang; what he frontally opposed was the espousal of Chiang Kai-Shek as a stable ally, and the dissolution of the communist party and its subjection to the discipline of the Kuomintang, measures that ran counter to all of Lenin’s resolutions on the colonial question from the first four congresses of the Communist International.

The Peruvian Reality

It’s no surprise that Mariátegui’s theses, correct both in form and content, were rejected by the International. Their relationship with Haya de la Torre’s American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), branded by Mariátegui as the “Latin American Kuomintang”, was studied by Mariátegui through the lens of his previous analyses on the Peruvian reality, which afforded him a scientific approach to the problem of class collaboration defended by the International, leading to an inevitable clash.

In his 7 Interpretive Essays on the Peruvian Reality, written in 1928, Mariátegui provides the following characterisation of the Peruvian bourgeoisie, a portrayal that can easily be extrapolated to the whole of the Latin American ruling class: “The landowning class has not been transformed into a capitalist middle class, ally of the national economy. Mining, commerce, and transport are in the hands of foreign capital. The latifundistas have been satisfied to serve as the latter’s intermediaries in the production of sugar and cotton. This economic system has kept agriculture to a semi-feudal organization that constitutes the heaviest burden on the country’s development.”

Who is to be entrusted, then, with the tasks of solving the problems of the bourgeois democratic revolution in the face of this parasitic and intermediary bourgeoisie, only anti-imperialist by chance? Mariátegui is categorical about this: “It is possible only by the action of the proletarian masses in solidarity with the global anti-imperialist struggle. Only proletarian action can stimulate and then perform the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution that the bourgeois regime is incapable of developing and delivering”.[10]

Mariátegui’s conclusions are reminiscent of those which Trotsky had arrived at in his 1905 Results and Prospects and in his 1929-1930 Permanent Revolution (books that Mariátegui did not know), and Lenin himself in his April Theses and in several speeches and resolutions from the first four congresses of the Communist International. What’s more, Mariátegui was completely aware of the necessity for the revolution to be international. In Anniversary and Balance, the editorial of the 17th issue of his magazine Amauta, published in September 1928, Mariátegui 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 stage of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be the socialist revolution. Add all the adjectives you want to this word according to the particular case: ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘agrarian’, ‘national-revolutionary’. Socialism supposes, precedes, and includes all of them.

The National Indigenous Question

One of the clumsiest criticisms that were and are levied against Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution is that it supposedly overlooks or underestimates the problem of the peasant masses, attaching to them only a subsidiary role owing to his mistrust towards the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. Nonetheless, as Trotsky explained, the theory simply states that the final and complete solution to the agrarian and the national questions in their “varied combinations” demanded “the boldest revolutionary measures”.[11] It is for this same reason that in the Transitional Programme, Trotsky insisted that workers should take the class struggle to the countryside, offering the rural proletariat and the poor peasantry an alliance to struggle together against the exploiters for a worker and peasant government.[12]

Mariátegui, and here resides his real originality, went beyond that, breaking the liberal prejudices found among certain sectors of the Left, when he tackled the revolutionary problem represented by the national oppression of the indigenous majorities in countries like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico etc. Even if his emphasis on the national indigenous question led him to commit some understandable theoretical mistakes, his views retain all of their practical and concrete value.

For Mariátegui, the national indigenous question, far from being a historical problem, was a tinderbox with a huge revolutionary potential. However, “As long as the vindication of the Indian is kept on a philosophical and cultural plane, it lacks a concrete historical base. To acquire such a base— that is, to acquire physical reality—it must be converted into an economic and political vindication. Socialism has taught us how to present the problem of the Indian in new terms. We have ceased to consider it abstractly as an ethnic or moral problem and we now recognize it concretely as a social, economic, and political problem. And, for the first time, we have felt it to be clearly defined.[13]

The national oppression and the social exploitation of the indigenous people are, for Mariátegui, a concrete political problem rather than a theoretical question. As a concrete political problem, its solution is in the hands of the Indians themselves who Mariátegui considers the natural ally of the urban proletariat in its struggle for socialism, the only road to emancipation for the worker and the Indian.

The problem of the Indian is the problem of the land, the problem of a neo-feudal Caciquism that holds economic and political power, and which has not been liquidated but has rather been strengthened after independence and with the subsequent development conditioned by imperialist penetration. For Mariátegui, the Indians are an oppressed class and nation, kept down also by the “literate Indian, who is corrupted by the city, and who becomes the reliable assistant of the exploiters of his race”.[14]

In his writings on The Problem of Race, he observed that “not less than 90% of the Indigenous population works in agriculture. The development of the mining industry has resulted in an increasing use of Indigenous labour in mining. But some of the mineworkers are still farmers. They are ‘community’ Indians who spend most of the year in the mines, but return to their small plots that are insufficient for subsistence.

This situation still exists in countries like Bolivia or Peru. For Mariátegui, the solution to the indigenous question lies in the formation of worker vanguards among proletarianized or semi-proletarianized elements of the indigenous population, who will then be able to organize their own communities and overcome the resistance of mestizo, Spanish-speaking, and white “preachers”.

First and foremost, it was necessary to educate political cadres to leave aside their prejudices towards the Indians. As Mariátegui put it, “It’s not difficult to find among the so-called revolutionary elements of the city, prejudices about the inferiority of the Indian, and a resistance to acknowledge that this prejudice is a simple legacy or mental contagion from the environment”.[15] And, once more, it was important to fight the mistaken policies of the Communist International, which advocated Indigenous self-determination, i.e., the creation of independent Indigenous States, which, in Mariátegui’s view, “would not result in the present moment in the dictatorship of the Indian proletariat nor in a classless Indian State, as some have tried to argue, but in the creation of a bourgeois Indian State with all the internal and external contradictions characteristic of bourgeois States”.[16]

The Nature of the Inca Empire

Mariátegui considered that the tradition for cooperation that exists in indigenous communities could represent a solid base for the construction of socialism in rural areas, becoming thus a powerful thrust in the struggle for communism and against capitalist tendencies. This is the same position taken up by Marx in an 1881 letter to Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, whose questions on the possibilities for a revolution in backward Russia and on the future of the Russian peasantry were answered by Marx as followed:

At the same time as the commune is bled dry and tortured, its land rendered barren and poor, the literary lackeys of the “new pillars of society” ironically depict the wounds inflicted on it as so many symptoms of its spontaneous decrepitude. They allege that it is dying a natural death and they would be doing a good job by shortening its agony. As far as this is concerned, it is no longer a matter of solving a problem; it is simply a matter of beating an enemy. To save the Russian commune, a Russian revolution is needed. For that matter, the government and the “new pillars of society” are doing their best to prepare the masses for just such a disaster. If revolution comes at the opportune moment, if it concentrates all its forces so as to allow the rural commune full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system.

To strengthen his position, another demonstration of his brilliant application of the Marxist method to a concrete reality, Mariátegui defended the idea that the Inca Empire could be characterized as one of “primitive communism”, from which the Indians had inherited their habit for cooperation. For him, this was the type of communism that was possible at the stage of development of the productive forces in the Inca Empire.

A society where a ruling caste free from manual work spent most of its time looking at the stars and forbidding the people from eating certain types of food; where slavery existed; which had a problem of underuse of the land and a need for acquiring new lands through wars of expansion; with a professional army and with internal divisions that impeded the defence of the empire in the face of the conquistadores, cannot be considered as one of “primitive communism”.

It was rather an expression of the “Asiatic mode of production”, a label that Marx would use to describe a social formation substantially characterized by underdeveloped social divisions, where a caste (the symbol of unity of agrarian communities), consumes the surpluses and guarantees the distribution of agrarian production and the construction of great transport and irrigation works that are necessary to maintain it. Let us remember that Marx’s Grundrisse, where the concept of the Asiatic mode of production is analysed in depth, was published for the first time in the late 1930s, and was thus never read by Mariátegui.

Some authors have considered that this theoretical error undermines the whole of Mariátegui’s body of thought. We don’t agree. The tradition for cooperation in Indigenous communities and the reciprocity in labour really existed. Leaving aside the nature of the Inca Empire, Mariátegui’s revolutionary understanding of the Indigenous question and its close relationship with the struggle for socialism retains all its value.

Mariátegui and APRA

The Indigenous question was one of the reasons for the agreement that came into being between 1926 and 1928 between Mariátegui and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre. Much has been said about this brief collaboration between Mariátegui and APRA, which at the time was not yet a party. Mariátegui is often remembered as one of the founders of APRA, something that doesn’t seem to be of much bother to some so-called Mariateguista communists. After all, this would prove that Mariátegui was not opposed to class collaboration policies, going against the line of argument we have heretofore followed.

We have already explained how his return to Peru in 1927/28 was a period in which Mariátegui’s adherence to socialism was still being consolidated and the Marxist ideas he brought back from his Italian exile were still maturing. The break with APRA, when it went on from being an anti-imperialist movement to a political party, and his participation at the time in the creation of the PSP and the CGTP, at least show that Mariátegui never vested his hopes in this organization and was never ready to entrust its petty bourgeois leadership with the future of the revolution in Peru.

Since the beginning, Mariátegui was convinced of the need for an independent revolutionary organization for the proletariat, a belief that was strengthened by the experience of betrayal by the Kuomintang and Chang Kai-Shek. Indeed, the comparison between the Kuomintang and APRA became the bone of contention between him and Haya de la Torre, as can clearly be seen on the theses put forward by Mariátegui for the Latin American Communist Conference.

In a letter to Nicanor de la Fuente dating to July 20 1929 (published in the third volume of his Correspondencias), Mariátegui explains his relationship with APRA: “We work with the proletariat for socialism. If there are groups that are ready to work with the petty-bourgeoisie on a revolutionary nationalist platform, let them do so. We won’t refuse to collaborate with them, if they effectively represent a tendency, a mass movement”. This is the same position that Trotsky had defended against the subservient opportunism of the International towards the Kuomintang.

In his most controversial piece on APRA, and controversial also towards the policies of Stalin’s Communist International, Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint, Mariátegui asserted: How can the most demagogic petty bourgeois oppose this capitalist penetration? With nothing but words; with nothing but a quick, nationalist fix. The taking of power by anti-imperialism, if it were possible, would not represent the taking of power by the proletarian masses, by socialism. The socialist revolution will find its most bloody and dangerous enemy (dangerous because of their confusion and demagogy) in those petty bourgeois elements placed in power by the voices of order.” These lines, written in 1929, have a prophetic value not only with regards to APRA but also to the different populist experiments of nationalist Third Ways that, from Peronism to the Bolivian MNR, have characterised the revolutionary struggle of the last century.

Nevertheless, the day will soon come when Mariátegui’s true ideas, his relevance, and example as a Marxist teacher will be reclaimed and hoisted aloft by workers, youth, peasants, and Indigenous peoples in the struggle for a Socialist Federation of Latin America. A fight in which Mariátegui’s words, which so scared the philistine followers of the zigzagging and degenerated Third International, will become the inspiration and the banner of the revolutionaries of our continent. As Mariátegui said, “We are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because we oppose capitalism with socialism, an antagonistic system called upon to transcend it, and because in our struggle against foreign imperialism we are fulfilling our duty of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe.


[1] Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint, May 21, 1929.

[2] Trotsky, The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin, April 1927.

[3] Programmatic Principles of the Peruvian Socialist Party, October 1928.

[4] Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, Chapter 7, 1931.

[5] The practical participation of the exploited farmers in the control of the  different fields of the economy will allow them to decide for themselves whether or not it would be profitable for them to go over to the collective working of the land — at what date and on what scale. Industrial workers should consider themselves duty-bound to show farmers every cooperation in traveling this road: through the trade unions, factory committees, and, above all, through a workers’ and farmers’ government. Trotsky, Transitional Programme.

[6] Mariátegui, Foreword to Tempestad en los Andes (L. Valcárcel, 1927)

[7] Mariátegui and Hugo Pesce, El problema de la raza en América Latina, 1930.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Autobiographical notes, 1927.

[11] ‘El partido bolchevique y Trotsky’, Verdades, Lima, January 31, 1925.

[12] Lenin, Complete Works, Volume 33, P.63.

[13] El exilio de Trotsky’, Variedades, Lima, February 23, 1929.

[14] Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p.149. Quoted in: Ted Grant, Russia: From Revolution to Counter-revolution.

[15] Platform of the Left Opposition, in La Oposición de Izquierda en la URSS, pp.90-91, Editorial Fontamara, Madrid, 1977.

[16] Ibid., pages 121 & 129.