Mariátegui and the Permanent Revolution – Part One

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

Mariategui at typewriter-Jose Carlos Mariategui ArchivePhoto: Jose Carlos Mariategui ArchiveWhile 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.

[Part Two]


1 Autobiographical notes, 1927.

2 ‘El partido bolchevique y Trotsky’, Verdades, Lima, January 31, 1925.

3Lenin, Complete Works, Volume 33, P.63.

4El exilio de Trotsky’, Variedades, Lima, February 23, 1929.

5Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p.149. Quoted in: Ted Grant, Russia: From Revolution to Counter-revolution.

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

7Ibid., pages 121 & 129.