The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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Mariátegui, José Carlos (1894–1930)

  • Carlos Cruz MosqueraEmail author
Living reference work entry

Marxism had already reached Latin America’s shores prior to his ascendancy as a leading revolutionary theorist. Yet José Carlos Mariátegui is considered to be the founder of Marxism in the region on the grounds that he was the first to adapt it to local conditions. He famously stated that “we certainly do not want socialism in Latin America to be a copy or imitation. It should be a heroic creation. We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language” (Vanden and Becker 2011: 37). His pioneering contribution to Latin American Marxism has not only influenced political life in his native Peru but also revolutionary leaders and movements across the region, such as in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Mariátegui’s historical analysis of Latin America continues to be foundational material in academic institutions and circles, as well as inspiration for revolutionary activists and workers. The Communist Party of Peru, known as the Shining Path after one of Mariátegui’s famous phrases (“Marxism-Leninism will open the shining path to revolution” Jose Carlos Mariategui), has based much of their political ideology and analysis on his writings, complementing it with their Maoist ideology. Recently, the Communist Party of the Latin American Diaspora, also known as ANTICONQUISTA, made up of first- and second-generation Latin American immigrants in the United States and the United Kingdom, has adopted Mariátegui’s ideas in an attempt to understand ongoing oppression of their communities (ANTICONQUSITA 2017).

Furthermore, his work has also helped to radicalize and inspire the region’s middle and upper classes as was the case with Dr. Hugo Pesce, Mariátegui’s confidant and one of the first members of the Peruvian Communist Party, founded by Mariategui in 1928. It was in Pesce’s leper colony in Peru’s Amazon that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was first introduced to Marxism and Mariategui’s writing during his famous travels across the continent. According to Guevara himself, Pesce’s influence inspired him to channel his enthusiasm for adventure “towards goals that are more harmonious to the needs of the Americas” (Krauze 2011: 335–337). Mariátegui’s seminal book, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, was republished by Cuba’s national press at Guevara’s request following their victorious revolution against the Batista dictatorship (Hodges 1986: 179).

His influence on Cuban revolutionaries, however, was not just Guevara’s doing. Early Cuban Marxist thinkers were profoundly influenced by Mariátegui’s revolutionary magazine Amauta, helping them develop a revolutionary theory that spoke to the particular conditions of Cuban workers (Becker 1993). In Nicaragua, this same magazine was a staple for revolutionary thought directly influencing Augusto Sandino who was a subscriber and contributor (Hodges 1986, 264). On the 50th anniversary of Mariátegui’s death in 1980, Nicaragua’s Sandinista press acknowledged him as “having launched the revolution in Latin American thought” and as the “first to investigate the origins, effects and functions, development… and role of diverse social phenomena including ideologies” (Ibid, 179–180).

The sharpness of Mariategui’s revolutionary theory evidently cuts across class lines and epochs, bringing revolutionaries of different social strata and from distinct generations together in the task of building a socialist society on top of the ashes of capitalism. Today, as Eurocentric Marxism becomes ever more isolated and exposed, Mariategui’s work becomes ever more relevant, not just for Latin Americans but for the world.

Inside the Life of José Carlos Mariátegui

José Carlos Mariátegui was born on June 14, 1894, in the small Peruvian mining town of Moquegua. His father, Francisco Javier Mariátegui, was descended from an upper-class and prominent family that had played a part in the country’s independence. Conversely, his mother, María Amalia Lachira, was a mestiza and daughter of poor campesinos. Mariátegui’s father, a government worker, abandoned his young family and left for the north of the country not long after his birth, leaving his mother to raise the three children on her own and in dire poverty.

A decade prior to his birth, Peru and Chile signed the peace Treaty of Ancón that put an end to the War of the Pacific. The war had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the ceding of extensive territory to Chile by both Peru and Bolivia, leaving the latter landlocked up until the present day. The cause of the war was to do with the control of territories that were rich in saltpeter and guano, primary resources that were heavily sought after by the United States and Britain for the development of transport technology and agricultural science (Travis 2015: 8–9). The Peru that Mariátegui was born in, then, was still only recovering from a devastating war with not only an immense loss of human life but that also left the country economically crippled.

It is in this context that his mother decided to move to Huacho, her native town, to be near relatives and began work as a seamstress, the most common subsistence job for a single mother in that period. Despite the economic difficulties, she put Mariátegui through primary school and at age 15, unable to continue supporting his education, secures an apprenticeship for him in the La Prensa newspaper as an office boy. Gradually, the young Mariátegui was able to make a name for himself at the newspaper, despite the fact that he had lost a leg as a young child due to an injury that was not treated in time. At La Prensa, he is eventually promoted to reporter of local events in 1912, aged just 16 years. Two years later he begins to write cultural critiques under the pen name Juan Croniqueur, catapulting him to national recognition. Although Mariátegui would later refer to this period in his life as his “stone age” due to the noticeable lack of political analysis, it was through writing these critiques that he honed his skill as a critical writer, eventually using it to expose the appalling conditions caused by capitalism and imperialism across the world, but especially in his native Peru. Mariátegui (2014) would later explain that Peru’s economic development was impeded by a national economic structure that was designed to serve the interests of British and North American markets, with the help of local intermediaries.

Disenchanted with the elitist world of journalism and the pompous lifestyle of its circles in Lima, Mariátegui and a handful of colleagues begin to flirt with the idea of creating a publication that challenged the status quo, at least on a social and cultural level. The first attempt at a dissident newspaper appeared in 1916 under the name Colónidad but was discontinued after just four issues. That same year he left La Prensa to join the newly founded El Tiempo whose inclination was more left-leaning and allowed him to print articles that were somewhat critical of President José Pardo and his government.

By 1918 Mariátegui was producing over 200 articles a year for El Tiempo and other publications in Lima, also finding time to launch another of his dissident newspapers: Nuestra Epoca. In sharp contrast to the mainstream papers he had worked for, Nuestra Epoca was “destined for the masses” and not for a literary elite, as Mariátegui himself put it (Moretic 1970: 69–70). After printing just two issues, the paper had to be shut down due to lack of funding but not before provoking a national commotion with an article criticizing the excessive funding of the military. Funding that, according to Mariátegui, could have been going toward economic development and education instead. As a result, he was beaten up by soldiers and challenged to a dual (which he accepted without any firearms experience), all which led to the resignation of the minister of war (Paris 1973: 51).

This period marks the shedding of Mariátegui’s title as a mere journalist and the commencement of his life as a political theorist and activist that was not content with simply informing his readers but in committing himself and his work to the transformation of society. As early as 1918, outside of his publications, Mariátegui and his El Tiempo colleague, Cesar Falcón, were deliberating the idea of creating a socialist party, meeting labor leaders multiple times to discuss their proposal. In the end, they decided that the conditions were not yet ripe for such an organization and instead formed the Committee of Socialist Propaganda and Organisation with the view of preparing the ground for a future party (Moretic 1970: 71).

The following year Mariátegui and Falcón leave their posts at El Tiempo to start yet another publication, this time called La Razón. The new paper immediately gains popularity as it is the only publication to champion the rights of workers and students in Lima. Such was the impact of La Razón on the labor movement that on the same day that labor leaders were released from prison after a major strike, marches were organized to meet at the offices where the paper was based as a gesture of gratitude for its coverage. Addressing the huge crowd of workers that had gathered that day, Mariátegui reaffirmed the paper’s loyalty to the movement by declaring that La Razón was “a newspaper of the people and for the people” and that it was inspired by a “profound love for justice” (Illán 1974: 56). During the same period, the paper would also champion the struggle of university students who were calling for reforms, prompting praise from student leaders and committees.

Notwithstanding the huge popular support and praise, La Razón suffered the same ill-fate as all of Mariátegui’s previous publication projects, this time due to political persecution. Just 3 months after the first issue, the paper’s printing operations were first shut down by Lima’s conservative and right-wing archbishop, who owned the printing workshop, and then banned altogether by the incoming dictator Augusto B. Leguía who took power on July 4, 1919. It was not in his interest to enrage the public further by using force to eliminate his opponents and critics so Leguía effectively silenced Mariátegui and others, at least temporarily, by exiling them using foreign-based journalist roles in Europe as a guise (Baptista 2006: 89). Toward the end of 1919, Mariátegui and his colleague, Falcón, embarked for Europe with the former assigned to be based in Italy and the latter in Spain.

Mariátegui witnessed a postwar Europe that was struggling to reconstruct itself from the ashes of destruction, observing how radical European intellectuals made convincing arguments that singled out capitalism as the main culprit. A 2-month stint in France personally acquainted him with Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and their Clarté movement which are said to have had a huge impact on his ideological development (Becker 1993: 30). Specifically, it was the Clarté movement’s combination of both a radical internationalism based on worker’s unity and the role of intellectuals in this struggle that really affected the Peruvian exile. The harsh weather in France, however, was too much for Mariátegui who was prone to illness, and so decided to move on to Italy where he settled for 3 years. Mariátegui wasted no time in acquainting himself with the worker mobilizations and radical anti-capitalist intellectuals that developed out of turbulent postwar conditions.

He gravitated toward a number of radical Italian intellectuals of the time but especially to Benedetto Croce whom he would later reference abundantly in his work. Perhaps the most influential event of his European stay, however, was his presence at the socialist Congress of Livorno in January 1921 where the communists split from the social-democrats, effectively creating the Communist Party of Italy (Marchena 1987: 52). During a trip to Florence at around this time, Mariátegui met his Italian wife, Anna Chiappe, with whom he settled briefly in the idyllic little town of Frascati. He later wrote that it was during their time in Frascati as a newly married couple that Mariátegui was finally able to grasp the “confusing, heavy and cold” Marxist theory (Illán 1974: 68). Shortly after and as a consequence of what he had witnessed at the Congress, Mariátegui together with Falcón and two other compatriots are inspired to create the first cell of Peruvian communists. The cell, however, was short-lived as they were forced to leave Italy on the back of the rise of fascist violence. Together with their newborn son, Sandro, Mariátegui and Chiappe traveled to Germany, France, Austria, and Hungary further investigating the postwar conditions in Europe and writing journalistic reports on the catastrophe that those countries were suffering at that time. Although he yearned to visit the Soviet Union, the couple decided against the difficult trip that would have been too strenuous for Sandro.

Mariátegui and his young family headed to Peru in 1923 where he quickly got reacquainted with activist and political circles that were fighting back against Leguía’s dictatorship. Shortly after his arrival in March, he was invited by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, who was spearheading the student movement, to give a series of lectures titled The World Crisis and Revolution based on his travels in Europe at the Gonzalez Prada Popular University in Lima. The lectures, held in July through to January, argued that Peru’s proletariat and their struggles were to be properly understood only when considered as part of the broader problem of global capitalism. Among a wide variety of themes, Mariátegui expanded on the devastating conditions that Europe was living, the disunity of the European left, particularly the division between reformist social democrats and revolutionary communists (Marchena 1987: 57). Mariátegui would later cut ties with Haya due to their irreconcilable positions that were based along those same lines.

Before their fallout, however, Haya and Mariátegui worked closely together. When Haya was arrested on October 2, 1923, by the Leguía dictatorship for his role as rector of the Popular University, Mariátegui and others at the university were also arrested for meeting up to discuss a plan of action to free him. Mariátegui and his comrades were set free a few days later but Haya was deported to Panama. His competency as a lecturer and his popularity among students in Lima led to him being proposed for a professorship at the University of San Marcos, but the institution refused on the grounds that he did not have any formal qualifications. Instead, Mariátegui accepts Haya’s offer to become the director of Claridad, a socialist-oriented magazine, in the latter’s absence.

Simultaneously, Mariátegui became a contributor for Variedades, a weekly newspaper that had ties to the dictatorship. While it may appear strange that he would collaborate with such an institution, he used his column to inform his readers about world events and the development of socialism in Europe, namely, in the Soviet Union. At the same time that he used Variedades to inform the public about external events, Claridad continued to directly challenge Leguía’s dictatorship prompting Mariátegui’s second arrest in January 1924. Upon his release, he became even more involved with the labor movement and begins to call for a united front of the proletariat, as per the directives of the Third International (Illán 1974: 75–76). These efforts were interrupted toward the end of May when he is diagnosed with a tumor in his right leg, his only leg, leading to its amputation.

His journalist friends asked the public that rather than pity him that they should offer economic assistance for which they held a cultural and literary event, giving the proceeds to his wife (Illán 1974: 77). Although wheelchair bound and distraught about his new physical condition, Mariátegui takes just a couple of months to recover before he is back leading Claridad, contributing articles to newspapers, and meeting with labor movements. In 1925, having realized that he was not going to get any institutional support, he founded the independent publishing house, Editorial Minerva, and launched his first book La escena contemporánea based on the articles that he had written since his arrival from Europe. It is also at this point that he became increasingly interested in including the indigenous question in his analysis of the political and economic situation of Peru. Importantly, Mariátegui centers indigenous people as the main actors of economic and political struggle in Peru, not as communities to be saved by benevolent mestizos as was the common view for many of his intellectual contemporaries but rather as the main actors because of their condition as the majority population in the country and the most affected by capitalist-imperialism (Cruz Mosquera 2018).

In September 1926, with the help of a cohort of intellectuals and artists, Mariátegui launches Amauta, a magazine whose intention was to attract and help develop a progressive intellectual movement that would serve as the ideological vanguard of the class struggle in Peru. The term Amauta in Quechua means “wise one” and was used as a title for professional teachers by the Inca. The magazine’s logo, too, was of an artist’s sketch of an Inca Amauta, and its pages were decorated with ancient Indigenous art and symbols. This indigenous aesthetic was a recurrent theme throughout its issues, demonstrating Mariátegui’s deepening concern with the indigenous problem, a problem that would become central to his original Marxist approach.

Unlike Mariátegui’s previous publications, Amauta was a huge success both in terms of impact and longevity, although it did survive several financial struggles over the years, thanks to contributions from “friends and sympathisers” (Marchena 1987: 71). In Peru, Amauta’s stated objective to influence intellectuals and workers over to a socialist analysis of society was hugely successful, soon becoming a dangerous threat to the Leguía dictatorship who arrested and harassed Mariátegui and attempted to shut down the magazine’s printing operations without success.

The impact of the magazine was also felt across Latin America where in Cuba, for example, copies of Amauta circulated among the early Marxist vanguard, Mariátegui’s ideas becoming evidently present in their own theoretical expressions and actions (Becker 1993: 63). Juan Marinello, one of these early Cuban Marxists, played an important role in bridging “the gap between the generation of Mella and Mariátegui and that of Castro and Guevara” (Ibid: 71). Nicaragua’s Augusto César Sandino, too, is said to have kept copies of Amauta on his person and would go on to correspond with Mariátegui who published some of his anti-imperialist letters in the magazine (Hodges 1986: 264).

When Amauta was temporarily shut down and banned by the dictatorship in 1927, Mariátegui and his colleagues reacted by publishing a new magazine called Labor, which was less theoretical and aimed at informing workers about current events and labor actions. Through the connections that were made with the labor movement, in large part thanks to Labor, Mariátegui suggested the creation of the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú, the country’s most affiliated national trade union center up until the present.

In 1928 Mariátegui and Haya de la Torre collided ideologically creating a rift not just between themselves but throughout the whole leftist movement in Peru and the whole of Latin America. Haya argued for a united front between the workers and the progressive bourgeoisie against North American imperialism, using the Kuomintang in China as an exemplar for his united front turned political party Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), even after the former had betrayed the communists. Mariátegui, on the other hand, argued that the most fitting way to combat imperialism was for a communist worker’s party to take power. Their ideological differences can be deduced from a back and forth they had in which Haya stated: “we are leftists because we are anti-imperialists” to which Mariátegui responded “we are anti-imperialists and leftists because we are socialists” (Illán 1974: 164). Haya accused Mariátegui of being Europeanized in his position and suggested that he needed to analyze the situation in the Americas according to its own reality and not through what was dictated by the left in Europe. This accusation prompted Mariátegui’s now famous phrase on socialism in Latin America having to be an original creation based on the region’s own reality.

Following this exchange, Mariátegui is inspired to finally establish the Peruvian Socialist Party in September 1928 affiliated to the Third International, which changed its name to the Peruvian Communist Party in 1930. In this same period, he also publishes his second book Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, where he elaborates a socialist account of Peru’s history. Even the most aggressive critics of the ideas expressed in the Seven Essays conceded that it was convincingly written and forecasted that it would have a great impact. It was only after his death, however, that the book really began to gain popularity, eventually praised as one of the most original pieces of work by a Latin American writer.

By September 1929 Mariátegui was, more than ever, attempting to integrate socialist ideas into the direction of the labor movement using his newly established party as the vehicle of influence. Leading members of Haya’s APRA, especially in the diaspora, dissolved their branches and joined Mariátegui’s Socialist Party and postulated him as their representative at forums such as the Second Anti-Imperialist World Congress of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence. Leguía’s dictatorship, however, did not stand by while his influence within the labor movement grew. Once again, using the accusation of a “communist conspiracy” against the government, officers were sent to shut down Labor’s printing operations as well as to search Mariátegui’s home. In reality, Leguía was anxious about Mariátegui’s anti-imperialist influence on the public as his government was increasingly dependent on trading relations with the United States who sought access to Peru’s abundant primary resources such as rubber, cotton, sugar, silver, copper, and so on.

On the back of this renewed and intensified persecution, Mariátegui, toward the end of 1929, arranges to move with his family to Buenos Aires where he planned to continue to publish Amauta and advance his revolutionary projects. Ready to depart, Mariátegui’s health rapidly deteriorates and is admitted into a hospital. Sensing the severeness of his condition, Mariátegui renounces his positions in the Party and Amauta, handing over the leadership to trusted comrades. On the morning of April 16, 1930, Mariátegui passes away at the age of 35. The next day, laborers from the Confederación General de Trabajadores led the funeral procession waiving a single red flag followed by tens of thousands of workers and supporters in what has been described as the largest funeral procession ever seen in Lima. Just prior to his death, Mariátegui had completed two manuscripts of books that were to be published in Spain by his long-time friend and comrade, César Falcón, but these were lost during shipping.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent researcherLondonUK