Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 29, 2008

José Carlos Mariátegui

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 3:46 pm

(This was posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list today.)

While I have tried to base our readings on material available on the Internet, I am making an exception for a couple of chapters of José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” that I have scanned in from a Columbia library book that is generally only available in such research libraries unfortunately. Also unfortunately, the Marxism Internet Archives does not contain any of his writings on Peruvian society, nor are there articles anywhere else on the Internet that do so. This is a real shame since Mariátegui is important for a number of reasons.

To begin with, he is the quintessential 3rd world anti-imperialist Marxist. In distinction to Lenin’s “Imperialism-the latest stage of Imperialism”, his writings are focused on the problems of a “peripheral” society, namely Peru. It is understandable that Lenin would focus on the growth of finance capital in advanced countries like England, France, Germany and the U.S. but Mariátegui was really one of the first Marxists to examine imperialism’s impact on a less-developed country in any kind of depth.

Mariátegui is also important because he is a major influence on Latin American Marxism in general and on the Bolivian revolutionary movement specifically today. In an article titled “The `Indian Problem’ in Peru: From Mariategui to Today ” by Hugo Blanco that appears on the Socialist Voice website, we learn:

Unlike in Europe, the development of agriculture and cattle grazing in America did not lead to the emergence of slavery; instead primitive collectivism gave way to other forms of collectivism as privileged layers and privileged people arose. Some forms of slavery may have existed for domestic work, but agricultural production was not based on slavery as it was in Greece or Rome. Rather it was based on collective organization, called by different names in the various cultures (ayllu en Quechua, calpulli en Nahuatl).

In Mariátegui’s view, the ayllu-or indigenous peasant commune-could provide the basis for socialist development. In other words, it was not necessary for Peru to pass through a capitalist stage in order to build socialism. This analysis was sharply opposed to the “stagist” conceptions of the Second International that Lenin challenged in 1917. While this appeared extremely “anti-Marxist”, especially to Kautsky, Lenin’s approach had much in common with Karl Marx’s, who late in life supported the idea of a revolution in Russia based on what amounted to Slavic ayllus. In an 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich , Marx wrote:

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

Tomorrow, I am going to post chapter one of José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” that is titled “Outline of the Economic Evolution” but in the meantime here is an introduction to Mariátegui that I wrote about 12 years ago. (I would generally describe myself as a Mariáteguist.)


Mariátegui is the Western Hemisphere’s most influential Marxist thinker. He compares favorably to Gramsci because of his ability to understand and write about class relations in a fresh and creative manner. In addition to founding the Communist Party of Peru, he was also a major intellectual and political influence on the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. (The leaders of Peru’s “Shining Path” Communist Party also claim him, along with Mao, as a major intellectual and political inspiration. I will have more to say about the Shining Path in my next post.)

Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” (U. of Texas, 1971) is a masterpiece of Marxist thought that analyzes the class structure of Peru as well as its religion and literature. His major concern in these essays is with the oppression of the Quechuan-speaking Indian, the descendants of the Incas.

He argued that Peru was simultaneously communal, feudal and capitalist. The Peruvian government might have represented itself as a modern democratic republic to the outside world in the 1920s, but Mariátegui saw beneath the surface. What he saw was feudal property relations in the countryside and Indian villages that clung to ayllu collectivism. He proposed that the vast feudal estates be broken up and that the land be turned over to the Indians to reinvigorate the ayllus. The ayllus would form the basis of a new revolutionary society. Without showing any evidence of direct influence, Mariategui’s program for revolution in Peru bore a striking resemblance to the proposals that Marx made to his followers in Russia in 1880. He urged them to support the Populist struggle to turn the peasant communes into building blocks for a socialist society.

There is a tendency in dogmatic Marxism to see all societies as evolving through successive stages, like a larva becoming a caterpillar first before turning into a butterfly. In reality, all class societies retain modes of production from the past as well as anticipating those of the future. Barbara Brady’s “‘Resistance to capitalism’ in the Peruvian Andes” characterizes the economic and social mix of modern Peru in the following terms:

If we were to take an economic cross-section of an imaginary but typical province in the Peruvian Andes we would find examples of virtually every ‘mode of production’ in the book: modern industrial capitalism in the form of the multi-national mining corporation, large-scale farming for the world market perhaps organized by the same mining capital, traditional haciendas presided over by unruly and paternalistic gamonales, state capitalism with some form of workers’ participation where the Agrarian Reform had taken over one of the two latter forms, petty commodity production around the urban and mining centres, share-cropping and the various forms of pre-capitalist rent, right down to the survival of some communal forms of labour in the Communities [ayllus]. If we start to do the same thing from the point of view of labour in the area, we shall find that not only is it involved in all these forms, but of necessity we must move outside the area in both possible geographical directions: down to the agricultural plantations of the jungle area on the east side of the Andes, and down to the coast on the west, where we will find labour employed both by large- and small-scale capital, and in a welter of petty service and commodity occupations on the margins of the capitalist sector.

(“Ecology and Exchange in the Andes,” edited by David Lehmann, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982)

Why do precapitalist modes of production persist in Peru? Marx and Engels argued that capitalism seeks to uproot all previous forms of social and economic relationships. If it had to obey the laws of commodity production, why would the Peruvian bourgeoisie tolerate a feudal landed gentry in its midst?

Mariátegui’s caustic dismissal of the Peruvian bourgeoisie leaves no doubt. This was an underdeveloped class that lacked the social and economic power to transform Peru into a modern democratic republic in the classic mold of the USA or France. The Peruvian bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary class, especially when it came to the demand for radical land reform.

He blames this on the foreign domination of guano fertilizer and nitrates industries in the 18th century. Business and finance in the seaport cities like Lima remained in foreign hands, while development of the guano fertilizer and nitrates industries relied on the cooperation of the landowning class. The landed gentry cut deals with the British and the Americans, who had the capital and technical expertise to extract the resources. A powerful local manufacturing bourgeoisie never emerged. The power and wealth of the gentry created a class of professionals who could flatter it and cater to its needs: lawyers, writers, priests. Meanwhile, the traditional social base of the bourgeois revolution–shopkeepers and peasants–was narrow as a reed. He writes:

Guano and nitrates, first and foremost, generated a lively trade with the Western world during a period when Peru. in its unfavorable geographical location, had little hope of attracting the colonizing and civilizing currents that were sweeping through other Latin American countries. This trade placed its economy under the control of British capital. Later, as a result of debts guaranteed by both products, Peru was forced to hand over to England the administration of its railroads, that is, the very key to the exploitation of its resources.

The profits earned from the export of guano and nitrates created in Peru, where property always had preserved its aristocratic and feudal character, the first solid elements of commercial and banking capital. Those who profited directly and indirectly from the wealth on the coast began to constitute a capitalist class. The bourgeoisie that developed in Peru was related in its origin and structure to the aristocracy, which, though composed chiefly of the descendants of colonial land-holders, had been obliged by its role to adopt the basic principles of liberal economics and politics.

Eventually German scientists developed chemical fertilizer alternatives to guano, while Chile seized the nitrate fields in a brief war with Peru. The landed gentry found alternative ways to accumulate capital, mostly through raising cotton and sugar for the export markets. It continued to function as a ruling class in a nominally capitalist country, but remained hostile to the democratic values and enterpreneurialism of textbook examples of bourgeois democracies. Their vast estates remained undercapitalized and indentured labor was common. Most importantly, the law on the estate was what the gamonale, or aristocrat, said it should be in the last analysis. The scenario described in Argueda’s “Pongo’s Dream” was accurate. The lord could tell his retainers to bark like a dog if it pleased him.

Mariátegui describes the bondage of the Indian in the feudal-like estates:

In the agriculture of the sierra exactly those features of feudal property and work are found. The free labor system has not developed there. The plantation owner does not care about the productivity of his land, only about the income he receives from it. He reduces the factors of production to just two: land and the Indian. Ownership of land permits him to exploit limitlessly labor of the Indian. The usury practiced on this labor– translated into the Indian’s misery–is added to the rent charged for the land, calculated at the usual rate. The hacendado reserves the best land for himself and distributes the least fertile among his Indian laborers, who are obliged to work the former without pay and to live off the produce of the latter. The Indian pays his rent in work or crops, very rarely in money (since the Indian’s labor is worth more to the landlord), and most often in mixed forms.

The difference between the gamonale of Mariátegui’s era and the Spanish viceroys of the 16th century is that the modern aristocrat produces for the export market rather than for trade in the rural economy. In the 16th century, there might have been some paternalistic kindness offered to the Indian through a sense of “noblesse oblige,” but the modern capitalist system provides no such concessions. When the liberal revolution of the 19th century abolished the formal structures of feudalism, it destroyed the slender fabric of mutual support that existed on the plantation. Cash, not loyalty, now dominated the relationship between lord and servant.

Mariátegui did not believe that capitalism, either of the latifundista variety or the modern industrial version, could provide a better life for the Indian majority of Peru. Rather than patiently waiting for an industrial proletariat to emerge, he urged the socialist movement to work with the human material at its disposal. Peru, like China and Vietnam, had a disenfranchised and economically exploited peasantry. Moreover, Peru’s peasantry had traditions of communally owned property that could provide the basis for a new socialist society. While it was reasonable to look to the trade unions and factories of modern Germany and England for a base of support, socialists in Peru had to look to the countryside.

Marx had come to similar conclusions in the 1870s after studying Russian society. He thought that the peasantry could spearhead a revolution on its own. After achieving victory, it would look to the Western European proletariat to make successful revolutions in advanced countries. The West would then supply capital and technical aid to an infant Russian socialist state. The notion that Russia would have to endure decades and decades of capitalist growth in order to complete this necessary preliminary to socialism was a distortion of his theory. Furthermore, the introduction of capitalist property relations into the countryside would only undercut the possibilities for revolution, since it would turn the collectively minded peasant into a grubbing, individualistic rural entrepreneur. The village commune needed protection from capitalism, if socialism was to triumph.

I could find no reference in Mariátegui to Marx’s late correspondence with Zasulich or Danielson, but it is obvious that the similarities between Russia in the 1880s and his own Peru impressed him. He says, “Feudalism similarly let rural communes continue in Russia, a country that offers an interesting parallel because in its historical process it is much closer to these agricultural and semi-feudal countries [like Peru] than are the capitalist countries of the West.”

Capitalism besieged the Peruvian ayllu from all sides, just as it did the Russian peasant commune. Liberal apologists for the ruling class thought that they were relics of an outmoded past. They thought that Indian “backwardness” could be overcome through a combination of private property and education. Mariátegui was not alone in seeing value in the ayllu. Luis Varcárcel, the most influential “indigenist” of the 1920s, wrote extensively about Incan culture and the persistence of the ayllu. He was an important influence on Mariátegui, even if he regarded his statements as “too colored by his ideal of an Indian renaissance.”

Mariátegui thought that the Indian remained unassimilated by Peruvian capitalism:

The Indian, in spite of one hundred years of republican legislation, has not become an individualist. And this is not because he resists progress, as is claimed by his detractors. Rather, it is because individualism under a feudal system does not find the necessary conditions to gain strength and develop. On the other hand, communism has continued to be the Indian’s only defense. Individualism cannot flourish or even exist effectively outside a system of free competition. And the Indian has never felt less free than when he has felt alone.

Since the 1920s, the ayllus continued to be undermined by capitalist pressures. Some scholars believe that the process is complete. Rodrigo Sánchez argues in “The Andean economic system and capitalism” (in the Lehmann collection) that there has been large scale proletarianization, reinforcement of the nuclear family as a unit of agricultural production and class differentiation between rich and poor peasants. In the same collection, Barbara Brady’s “‘Resistance to capitalism’ in the Peruvian Andes” makes the case that communal solidarity persists even when wage labor is the norm.

Even if we confine our view to the Andean area itself, we find that capitalism is present in the area in many forms. We find wage labour, we find small accumulated funds, we find the products of capitalist mass- production, we find money almost everywhere we go. In what sense are we to say then that the area is ‘outside’ or ‘resisting’ capitalism? To show what I mean with an example: if we take Carhuapata, a largely subsistence Community [ayllu], where a number of the men work in the nearby mines for two or three years of their life, then it would be strange to talk about the Community ‘resisting’ capitalism. The men may be keen, rather than reluctant, to go and work in the mines. The capitalist firms involved may have no interest in taking over production in the Communities. At the same time, subsistence production itself is changed by temporary emigration: not only will changes in the division of labour within the household be necessary, but the possibilities of using the wage for buying in the products of advanced capitalism (fertilizers, improved seed, tools both for agricultural and other uses) mean that the amount of land needed for subsistence may actually be decreased, allowing population increase in the subsistence area. But if the subsistence production differs from some ‘pure’ model, because of its articulation with capitalism, then so does the capitalist presence; it is not like ‘advanced’ capitalism, since the wage form is not related to ‘necessary labour’, nor is it the only way in which the worker and his family can obtain the ‘necessaries’ of life. The worker’s family stays in the Community and often provides him with food while he works in the mine. The wage then becomes ‘surplus’ from the Community’s point of view –a means of access to ‘luxury’ goods traded in the company store; and from the company’s point of view it can be seen in a way similar to that of married women’s wages in ‘advanced’ capitalism– ‘pin-money’, or ‘money for holidays.

The long-term viability of the ayllu is not something that can be used in itself to validate Mariátegui’s interpretation of Peruvian reality. He was a Marxist revolutionary, not an anthropologist. Unfortunately he died of tuberculosis in 1930, so we were deprived of his talents. He was only 35, a tragic loss. It would have been wonderful to benefit from his continuing analysis of Peruvian social reality, as well as his analysis of the rise of fascism and the decline of the USSR.

Mariátegui is an antidote to all forms of dogmatism. His only “theory” is Marxism and his only subject matter is the class struggle of his own country. His Marxism has been described as a “National Marxism” and there is some truth to this. In a certain sense, all Marxism must be rooted in the particularities of a time and place, or else it is useless. If one wants to understand the class struggle in one’s own country, Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” is a good place to start. If you can understand and appreciate his methodology, then you are in a good position to undertake a similar study of your own society.

One of the more controversial aspects of Mariátegui’s thought is his description of Inca society as socialistic. More recent scholarship, such as Thomas Patterson’s, makes a convincing case that the Incan empire was a classic “tributary” society. In the Byzantine world of Maoist polemics, detractors of the Peruvian “Shining Path” try to make Mariátegui appear like a fool. How could a movement regard an “Inca worshipper” as a major Marxist thinker? Clearly the Incas were repressive.

Mariátegui, to the contrary, understood the true nature of the Incas. He wrote in a lengthy footnote to the third essay in his collection that calls for understanding the Inca state in context:

It is not possible to speak abstractly of tyranny. Tyranny is a concrete fact. It is real to the extent that it represses the will of the people and oppresses and stifles their life force. Often in ancient times an absolutist and theocratic regime has embodied and represented that will and force. This appears to have been the case in the Inca empire. I do not believe in the supernatural powers of the Incas. But their political ability is as self- evident as is their construction of an empire with human materials and moral elements amassed over the centuries. The Incas unified and created the empire, but they did not create its nucleus. The legal state organized by the Incas undoubtedly reproduced the natural pre-existing state. The Inca did not disrupt anything. Their work should be praised, not scorned and disparaged, as the expression of thousands of years and myriad elements.

The nucleus of the Inca state was the ayllu. This was the egalitarian and collectivist core that Mariátegui supported, in distinction to the sometimes arbitrary and cruel practices of the Inca ruling-class. His embrace of this culture was not romantic or reactionary. It was an attempt to ground the Peruvian revolutionary movement in the traditions of resistance against Spanish colonial rule. It was a celebration of Tupuc Amaru’s revolt. It was also a rejection of the institutions that capitalist Spain imposed on the indigenous peoples.

We must understand Mariátegui’s Indian nationalism in the context of the awakening that was taking place throughout Latin and Central America, as intellectuals and revolutionaries sought to create an authentic national culture. It inspired the Mexican novelists and mural painters to look to Aztec culture, another ancient civilization like the Inca’s. Mariategui’s embrace of the Inca past helps to fortify the revolutionary movement of the present era, as he states in “Nationalism and Vanguardism”:

In opposition to this spirit, the vanguard proposes the reconstruction of Peru on an Indian foundation. The new generation is recovering our past, our true history. Our antiquarians content themselves with the fragile, courtly memories of the viceroyalty. Vanguardism, on the other hand, seeks truly Peruvian and more remotely ancient materials for its work.

And its indigenismo is neither literary speculation nor a romantic pastime. Nor is it an indigenismo that, like many others, reduces itself to an innocuous apologia for the Incan empire and its splendors. In place of a Platonic love for the Incan past, the revolutionary indigenistas show an active and concrete solidarity with today’s Indian.

This indigenismo does not indulge in fantasies of utopian restorations. 1t perceives the past as a foundation, not a program. Its conception of history events is realistic and modern. It neither ignores nor slights any of the historical facts that have modified the world’s reality, as well as Peru’s, in these four centuries.


  1. It is refreshing to see some light shed on the contributions of Mariategui and indigenismo. I made the mistake of lending out my copy of Seven Interpretive Essays a long time ago, and it’s one of those volumes that never came back so I will enjoy these postings. Some years back while browsing at the old Labrynth bookstore I came across a compilation of Mariatequi’s other essays titled “The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism” which was printed under the Humanity imprint of Prometheus Books (Is that the same press as the one the Sparts run?) but the essays on Peru are abbreviated, the book forcuses on more of Mariategui’s stuff on world questions.

    In terms of marxist method applied creatively to domestic politics in the U.S., I’ve long enjoyed Adolph Reed’s stuff on the politics of black America, far sharper analysis then anything I’ve seen out of the radical stars West, Marable, or Hooks so far. Forget Baraka, whose sense of proportion begins and ends with Newark. Manning says Adolph is “mean spirited”, but then, Manning says lots. He seems to be having a nice little romance with Barracks O’Bomber this year. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Reed, his stuff offers a nice example of creative use of dialectial method, I think. I found “Stirrings in the Jug”, out of U of Minnesota Press really fine. Heads and shoulders above so much of what passes for black progressive thinking anymore.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — July 29, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  2. Quite similar to conditions in Guatemala even during the period I lived there during the later 1970s and which constituted my introduction to Marx without Marx.

    Comment by Juan — July 31, 2008 @ 7:55 am

  3. […] under: Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 3:55 pm As indicated in the post on Mariátegui below, I am making available the first chapter of his important study of Peruvian history and […]

    Pingback by Chapter one of José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 1, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

  4. Are you familiar with Lucha Indigena published in Peru by Hugo Blanco? It is worth a look.

    Comment by Derek Wall — September 17, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

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