José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin American Communism, and the Russian Revolution

Portrait of José Carlos Mariátegui by Bruno Portuguez Nolasco

Who was José Carlos Mariátegui and how did he contribute to Latin American communism?

Por Jimena Vergara y Arielle Concilio 

The Russian Revolution had an enormous impact on Latin America, inspiring the formation of its first communist parties. Marxists faced the challenge of analyzing the complex realities of Latin American semicolonial countries and, on this basis, generated a theory of revolution that would address them. The discussions within the Russian Communist Party that later drew a bold line between Stalin’s stagist theories and Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution also reached the nascent communist parties in Latin America. José Carlos Mariátegui, a Peruvian journalist and Marxist who studied the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, was one of the most important figures in the development of Latin American communism.

As the Argentine historian Juan Luis Hernández stated in his article The Russian Revolution and its Influence on José Carlos Mariátegui,“[his] Marxism was far from a dogmatic analysis of canonical text, and his method was based on the fusion of the universal and the specific.” Hernández explained that for Mariátegui, “Marxism was never a fixed itinerary but rather a compass for the journey. This made him an excellent theorist to apply the Marxist method to the distinct cultural and social reality of Peru and the rest of Latin America where there was the combination of old indigenous communal property and a society organized alongside imperialist penetration and capitalist development.”1

Mariátegui and the Russian Revolution

As a young journalist in the early 1920s, Mariátegui was persecuted and exiled by the Peruvian government. It was after living in exile in Italy that he developed his Marxist world view. After returning from Europe to Peru, Mariátegui relayed what he had learned in Europe about the Russian Revolution in a course entitled “History of World Crisis.” His first lecture reconstructed the semiotic chain of the revolutionary process between the February and October Revolutions, concluding with the Peace of Brest-Litovsk. His explanation here centered the situation of dual power created by the February Revolution between the provisional government, presided over by Kerensky, and the soviets. The triumph of the October insurrection demonstrated that peace and land could only be won by a government of workers, a demand raised by the Bolsheviks through the slogans “All power to the Soviets” and “Peace, Land and Bread.”2

In a second lecture in October 1923, Mariátegui analyzed the institutions and the function, as well as the structure, of soviet leadership. He laid out the organization of the soviets into district, provincial, and regional councils, in which representatives were elected by the people through direct democracy and were recallable — an electoral system unlike the bourgeois democratic parliament. As Hernández suggested, Mariátegui understood the most important lessons of the Russian Revolution — the socialist character of working class democracy that became paramount was the force that led the new workers state.

Mariátegui and Trotsky

In 1925, Mariátegui published The Contemporary Scene which focuses on three points: the first, the “biology” of fascism; the second, the crisis of liberal democracy; and, lastly, the Russian Revolution.He studied Trotsky, Lunacharsky, and Zinoviev, seeing each as revolutionary leaders and recognizing their intellectual capacities. According to Mariátegui, Trotsky “was not only a protagonist, but also a philosopher, historian and critic of the Revolution” who, in addition to organizing the Red Army, was interested in literature and art. He praises Lunacharsky for his reorganization of Soviet education and considers Zinoviev a disciple of Lenin, an excellent polemicist and agitator.3

In the same book, three articles explore the political struggles within the Russian Communist Party between 1923 and 1929. At that time, Trotsky had already initiated the struggle against the Stalin-led bureaucratization of the party. But Mariátegui’s expectation was that the first internal political struggles would be resolved. By 1928, Mariátegui recognized that events had taken the party on a different course from the one he had expected; the fissures within the party were too profound to be reconciled.

In various texts, he addresses this schism between the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and the bureaucracy led by Stalin in the most important communist party in the world. For Mariátegui, Trotsky represented a truer and more orthodox Marxism — a continuity of Lenin’s legacy. At the same time, Mariátegui argues that, due to the dire economic and political circumstances in the USSR, Trotsky’s radical ideas were difficult to express in concrete terms while Stalin had a much more pragmatic sense of the opportunities.

Some historians read and interpreted these texts as a justification for Stalinism. Others, like Michel Löwy, argued that texts like Mariátegui’s supported Trotsky’s positions. For Hernández, however, these points of views are overstated; he argues that Mariátegui had a much more ambiguous opinion of the internal struggle of the Russian Communist Party. What is certain is that Mariátegui was nearer to the theory of the permanent revolution in Latin America than he was to the aberrant theory of socialism in only one country.

The Creation of the Peruvian Socialist Party

Mariátegui’s readings on the Russian Revolution and his affinity for the theory of the permanent revolution were closely linked to the politics he held towards Latin America and Latin American communism. Between the years of 1925 and 1928, Mariátegui channeled his energy into the construction of a network of Marxist militants and intellectuals to establish the publication Amauta, the name of which means “wise one” in Quechua.4 At the same time, he worked with Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, founder of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). APRA was a broad movement against the imperialism of the United States. According to Mariátegui, communists could intervene beside APRA as an independent and anti-capitalist wing of a defensive united front against imperialism.

However, in 1928, Mariátegui broke ties with Haya de la Torre, who had taken the broad anti-imperialist APRA movement a step further— forming a political party. While Haya was exiled to Mexico, he began distancing himself from communist organizations and founded the Nationalist Peruvian Party (Partido Nacionalista Peruano) in 1928. The Nationalist Peruvian Party was an electoral iteration of the APRA movement that formed a political coalition with reformists and progressive bourgeois nationalists. At this point, Haya had broken with communism altogether, his politics a radical version of Stalinist stagism. He argued that, throughout Latin America, the central task was to achieve national independence, something he thought could only be brought about by a political alliance with the national bourgeoisie.

Mariátegui and his comrades rejected, in strong terms, Haya’s conversion of the anti-imperialist front into a political party. In the “Collective Letter of the Lima Group,” written on July 10, 1928, they declared that, as socialists, they could participate in an anti-imperialist united front with reformist, social democratic, and nationalist elements. They included, however, that they would not participate in APRA if it was converted into a party that assumed “an organic doctrinaire and homogenous faction.” They instead saw the necessity of revolutionary socialists having their own political organization.5

In an editorial in the Amauta, Mariátegui reaffirmed the need for a socialist revolution that rejected two tenants of Stalinism: stagism, as supported by Haya, and the idea of socialism in only one country. He wrote, “On our flag, we inscribe only one simple and great word: socialism,” adding, “The Latin American Revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a phase, in the world revolution. It will be simply and purely, the socialist revolution.”6

By rallying the Marxist Left behind Amauta, Mariátegui and his comrades formed the Partido Socialista del Perú (Peruvian Socialist Party) in 1928. Adherents to the theses of the Communist International of 1921, when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky, the party had significant ideological disagreements with the South American Secretariat of the International, which followed Stalin’s orders.

One of the central points of the party’s program states that it is advantageous for socialists in Peru to organize in rural areas because of communal indigenous land, and another point calls on socialists to capitalize on the industrial and technological advances of large businesses. A socialist revolution, they argue, should dovetail capitalist technology with traditional communal land to advance the socialist organization of production.

Furthermore, the Peruvian Socialist Party argued that only the proletariat can fulfill the tasks of previous bourgeois revolutions, echoing one of the principal lessons of the Russian Revolution: “Only proletarian action can stimulate and later achieve the tasks of the bourgeois–democratic revolution, what the bourgeois regime is incompetent to develop and achieve.” In solving the tasks of the democratic revolution, the proletariat goes further and initiates the socialist transformation of society.7

Stalinism in Latin America

The programmatic differences between Mariátegui and the Stalinist-influenced leadership of the South American Secretariat created important debates for Latin American communists. In 1929, because of the heightened repression of the Left Opposition, Stalinism sought to homogenize and subsume emerging communist parties under its leadership. In June of that year, the South American Secretariat of the Comintern organized the first Latin American Communist Conference in Buenos Aires with this goal.

Although Mariátegui couldn’t attend the meeting for health reasons, the Peruvian delegation presented three documents at the conference. One of them, written by Mariátegui and entitled “An Anti-imperialist Point of View,” was contentious. The text recognized the semicolonial status of Latin American countries and the necessity to fight imperialism with a socialist and independent political force. It concludes, “We are anti-imperialist because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because we oppose capitalism. Socialism is a system antagonistic to capitalism, called to succeed it because, in the struggle against foreign imperialisms, we will fulfill our duties of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe.”8

Members of the South American Secretariat opposed the conclusions of the text, believing that the struggle against imperialism required the leadership of, or at least alliances with, bourgeois nationalism, and this belief separated the struggle for national independence from the struggle for socialism.

Another important disagreement came about because the South American Secretariat wanted to impose a specific form of organization mirroring the Russian Communist Party, but many political parties were resistant to this. Mariátegui and his comrades were an important part of the resistance that soon, after Mariátegui’s death in 1930, fizzled out when the sector of the Peruvian Socialist Party nearest to Stalinism took up leadership and renamed it the Peruvian Communist Party.

Latin America’s Organizers of Defeat

The Kremlin dictated to the communist parties from that point on as explained in “The Moscow Thermador.” After years of putting forward a politics of unity with the national bourgeoisie in semicolonial countries, which the Latin American leaders defended tooth and nail against Mariátegui, the Stalinist leadership imposed a radical change in the Comintern. The shift was a reaction to the massive defeat of the communists in China (1927) who were murdered by their former allies, the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist movement led by Chiang Kai-shek. From the late 1920s to the mid 1930s, the Stalinists imposed a tactic of class warfare characterized by a complete rejection of any united action with progressive national bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces. It was an ultra-leftist turn towards organizing for revolution in the immediate future regardless of how favorable (or unfavorable) the conditions for those revolutions were.

This sectarian political tactic of “class against class” also brought about a new defeat in Germany when the communists refused to engage in a defensive united front with the social democrats against Nazism. This divided workers and allowed the growth of the Nazism of the Third Reich. At the same time, this ultra-left turn did not abandon the ideas of a stagist revolution and socialism in just one country, ideas essential to Stalinism. In fact, the united front with sectors of the bourgeoisie was taken up again as the official politics of the party in the later half of the 1930s, leading Stalinists to act as a counter revolutionary force in Spain.


Mariátegui’s interpretations of the Russian Revolution and his attempts to bring those lessons to Latin America are invaluable. He was one of the few Latin American socialist militants who rigorously applied Marxism to the complex situation of Latin America. Peru, like many South American countries in the early 20th century, actively opposed imperialism and the violence of capitalism. The fact that Mariátegui theorized a revolution in Latin America— one that would be led by the socialists and the working class — makes him one of the great Latin American thinkers of the 20th century.

This article was inspired by Argentine historian Juan Luis Hernández’s article, “The Russian Revolution and its Influence on José Carlos Mariátegui, published in “Ideas de Izquierda,” a special issue of La Izquierda Diario on the Russian Revolution.

Left Voice
Categories: De interés, Perú, Política