Marxism & Latin America: Jeffery R. Webber

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This piece was first published in French at http://revueperiode.net/guide-de-lecture-marxisme-et-amerique-latine/

Any periodization of the flow patterns of Latin American Marxism will by necessity involve schematic simplification and the muffling of anomalous eddies that break up and run against the strongest currents. Nonetheless, there are few other ways forward in a reading guide.  

An initial gestation phase of Latin American Marxism (1870-1910) involved the dissemination of the writings of Marx and Engels in the region, alongside the organization of the first Latin American sections of the Communist International, and initial elaboration of socialist programs in places like Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina.

The second, revolutionary phase (1910-1932) kicked off with the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and brought to the surface the problems of land, indigenous liberation, the unity of Latin American peoples from the new vantage point of the popular classes and oppressed groups, the role of national and anti-imperialist struggle, and the socialist character of envisaged revolutions on the horizon. In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the first Communist Parties were formed – Argentina (1918), Uruguay (1920), Chile (1922), Mexico (1919), and Brazil (1922). This was the era of giants, like Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, and, most decisively, Peru’s José Carlos Mariátegui, to this day Latin America’s most original theoretician. This phase draws to a close with the bloody massacre of the Communist insurgents of the uprising in El Salvador in 1932.

In the decades following the Salvadoran massacre, the main currents of Latin American Marxism lost such independence and audacity. This is the third phase (1932-1959). Communist Parties throughout the region were systematically brought under the thumb of Stalinism, in what was to be a painfully sclerotic phase of Marxism, lasting until the 1959 Cuban Revolution. For the bulk of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the dogma of Stalinist development-by-stages prevailed, with any revolutions in Latin America to be contained within the boundaries of the national-democratic type, in accordance with the region’s presumed feudal phase of development. On this view, a long period of industrial capitalist development was the next step in progress, necessitating political alliances in the short and medium term between the popular classes and “progressive” national bourgeoisies. Socialist revolution would only be possible sometime in the distant future, once productive forces had been sufficiently advanced.

A fourth phase of revolutionary experimentation in the history of Latin American Marxism (1959-1980) begins with the Cuban Revolution, passes through Allende’s Chile, takes a last breath in Sandinista Nicaragua, and is quickly eclipsed by the neoliberal counter-reformation of the 1980s and 1990s. The many internal threads and currents of dependency theory were a central part of this intellectual and political tumult. The debates in and around dependency theory are of crucial importance here.

The fifth phase (1980-2000), maps onto the regional reign of neoliberal orthodoxy, and is unsurprisingly characterized by retraction, defeat, and self-criticism, although also by renovation at the margins. This was the era of abandoned revolutionary strategy, the fall of the bureaucratic regimes of the Soviet Union and its client states, the transition to capitalism in China, the isolation of the Cuban Revolution, and the defeat of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Most Latin American Marxist intellectuals decamped, opting for post-Marxism or straightforward liberalism.

In the twenty-first century, the surprising richness of the extra-parliamentary cycle of revolt, and the contradictions of subsequent left-government rule, spurred a new period of Latin American Marxism, the sixth phase, which persists today (2000-). It is perhaps imprudent to make summative judgements on key features of the theory and praxis generated thus far, and assuredly over hasty to determine whether the phase of Marxism begun in 2000 is drawing to a close in tandem with the end of the political cycle of the latest Left turn. But one tentative conclusion might be hazarded – the latest season of Latin American Marxism has been characterized by the kind of bursts of originality and profundity last witnessed in the 1959-1980 phase, and, at the same time, signs of sclerotic rigidity and formulaic dogma last seen in the 1932-1959 period. Winds of transformation and restoration wrestled each other indeterminately through this latest storm of the region’s Left.

In what follows I offer an idiosyncratic and obviously extremely partial list of important texts which speak (historically, and to a lesser extent theoretically) to each phase, some of which are widely recognized as pivotal interventions in Latin American Marxism, others of which have been insufficiently celebrated.

Introduction

Michael Löwy, ed., Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present: An Anthology. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006. The lengthy introductory chapter of this collection is the most persuasive periodization of intellectual and political trends in Marxism available in English. The primary texts of movements and parties which follows the introductory chapter is wide-ranging and elucidatory of key threads in the twentieth century, even if it is hardly exhaustive.

1. 1870-1910

José Aricó, Marx and Latin America, (trans. David Broder), Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015. This is arguably the single most influential book in Latin America on the question of the relevance of the oeuvre of Karl Marx for understanding Latin American realities. In the little he wrote about Latin America, Aricó contends, Marx got much wrong. But the contradictory tendencies and counter-tendencies in Marx’s output taken together, rather than amounting to Eurocentric dogmas on linear progress, can be read in ways that continue to illuminate Latin American revolutionary potentialities.

2. 1910-1932

Adolfo Gilly, The Mexican Revolution, New York: New Press, 2006. Gilly, a long-time Argentine exile in Mexico City, is one of the most creative sociological historians in Latin America. He wrote this “people’s history” of the Mexican Revolution while in the Mexican prison of Lecumberri in the late 1960s. First published in 1971, the book has gone through more than 30 editions in Mexico. It can be read fruitfully alongside the following biographies of some of the revolution’s central figures: Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa; John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution; and Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón.

Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker, eds., José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011. This is the most extensive collection of the work of José Carlos Mariátegui available in English. In the work of Mariátegui, a utopian-revolutionary dialectic borrows selectively from the indigenous precapitalist past to fortify a forward-looking vision of socialist emancipation. Strategically, the revolutionary subjects are workers and peasants, oriented in opposition not just against foreign capital but vis-à-vis class enemies at home. Mariátegui’s vision struck simultaneously at the core of Comintern orthodoxy – he was denounced as a populist – and the reigning nationalism of his country, as captured in the ideology of its most important populist party, APRA. The indigenous community was not a relic for Mariátegui; it was a living organism.

Jeffrey Gould and Aldo A. Lauria-Santiago, To Rise in Darkness: Revolution, Repression, and Memory in El Salvador, 1920-1932, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. The first revolutionary phase of Latin American Marxism, set in motion by the Mexican and Russian revolutions, was brought to its tragic conclusion in 1932 in El Salvador. In January of that year, thousands of indigenous and ladino (non-indigenous) rural labourers made waves in protest against electoral fraud and the repression of strikes. Rebels seized control of a number of municipalities in central and western El Salvador. The uprising was organized by Communists, many of whom were themselves indigenous rural labourers and union militants of the coffee plantations. The Salvadoran military and allied paramilitary militias quickly won back the towns and massacred thousands of mainly indigenous rural activists. The leaders of the Communist Party in El Salvador – Farabundo Martí, Alfonso Luna, Mario Zapata and Miguel Mármol – had been imprisoned prior to the insurrection, in a preventive crackdown orchestrated by the state. Party documents of the period demonstrate that the aim of the upheaval was nothing short of socialist transformation of Salvadoran society, and that the initiative was born independently from any directives emanating from the Kremlin.

3. 1932-1959

Caio Prado, Jr., The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil, (trans. Suzette Macedo), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967 [1942]. Caio Prado, Jr., a long-time a stalwart member of the Brazilian Communist Party, was one of Brazil’s most important historians of the twentieth century. This is one of his classic works. First published in Brazil in 1942, it remained for decades the only serious synthetic economic history of the socioeconomic structure of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Brazil.

Daniel James, Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. This third phase of relatively sclerotic Marxism overlapped with Latin America’s period of classical populism. Peronism in Argentina was, of course, a central exemplar of the phenomenon. This seminal text on classical Peronism gave life to the social-historical approach of E.P. Thompson in Argentina. James saw Peronism’s classical success in its ability to capture a sentiment of social and political protagonism of the working classes during the era of early Argentine industrialization. Above all, this phase of Peronism permitted the contradictory expression of class consciousness. The contradiction lay in the loyalty the movement fostered in harmony between classes, and the subordination of working class interests to the nation, on one hand, and the appearance of multifaceted forms of working class counter-cultures and resistance it allowed – counter-cultures which would challenge established social hierarchies and symbols of authority in a number of respects.

James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-82, London and New York: Verso, 1984. Although missing the precursor of peasant-indigenous rebellion subsequently highlighted in Laura Gotkowitz’s, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880-1952, Dunkerley’s account remains the most riveting and finely-tuned assessment of the national-populist Bolivian Revolution of 1952, and its subsequent overturn and descent into right-wing authoritarian rule between 1964 and 1982.

Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. This is an extraordinarily original book of history and anthropology. It turns on the question of Cold War terror in Latin America, as seen through the lens of Guatemala. Guatemala provides the quintessential backdrop to the Latin America story: the October Revolution of 1944 inspired hope for a socialized democracy through Agrarian Reform and other initiatives; the 1954 US-backed coup cut short that dream and instituted the start of a reign of terror; the left was forced eventually to take up guerrilla insurgency after all other means of political action were thwarted; and the scourge of death squads, rapes, torture, disappearances, kidnappings, and massacres, fortified by US-trained and equipped central intelligence agencies, reached its apogee in the racialized genocide of 1981– 1982. In 1996, with over 200,000 murdered by the Guatemalan state, the four decade long civil war ended with the left vanquished, and the ideal of democratic socialism effectively crushed.

4. 1959-1980

Gilbert M. Joseph and Greg Grandin, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. This is the best single collection in English on insurgency and counterinsurgency in Latin America in the twentieth century. Grandin’s panoramic introductory chapter is one of the more persuasive synoptic periodizations and theorizations of Latin America’s “long Cold War.” Other standouts include Friedrich Katz’s comparative examination of violence and terror in the Russian and Mexican Revolutions, Carlota McAllister on Guatemalan insurgency and counterinsurgency and the question of indigenous-guerrilla relations, Gerardo Rénique on the Shining Path and state terror during Peru’s civil war, and Forrest Hylton on Colombia’s paramilitarization.

Samuel Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, Chicago: Haymarket, 2011. Farber’s work on Cuba has long championed revolutionary democratic socialism from below. This book, a sophisticated and nuanced historical synthesis of the Cuban Revolution since 1959, provides an indispensable guide to the politics of a tiny island state that helped determine the history of Latin America and the dynamics of the Cold War in the latter half of the twentieth century.  With a magisterial grasp of historical detail, and an incisive analytical eye, Farber offers an unparalleled cartography of the ideological debates and political outcomes of Cuba’s economic development, foreign policy, socio-cultural fluctuations in race and gender, and working class and peasant realities. While acknowledging the achievements of the revolutionary process in education and health, and defending Cuban sovereignty against imperial intervention under any guise, Farber shatters many of the idyllic myths propagated by left-wing apologists for the regime’s political authoritarianism.  Farber’s work can be usefully read alongside the writings of the most prominent historian of Cuba working in English, Louis A. Pérez, Jr. who offers a distinct perspective, and a broader sweep of history in, for example, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution.

Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism, second edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. This is an engrossing bottom-up account of the Chilean “democratic road to socialism” under the Salvador Allende government (1970-1973). The workers who seized control of and sought to socialize Chile’s largest cotton mill, the Yarur plant, are the focal point of this study. Winn shows how these workers were radicalized, how the depth of change they envisioned seriously outpaced – and thus led to collisions with – the vision of the Allende administration. This book can be nicely paired with Franck Gaudichaud’s Chili 1970-1973: Mille jours qui ébranlèrent le monde, and Patricio Guzmán’s epic, three-part documentary film chronicle, Battle of Chile.

Matilde Zimmermann, Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Biographical portraits, done well, can offer novel entry points into revolutionary processes. This is one such biography. Carlos Fonseca, killed in battle in 1976, before the revolutionary triumph three years later, was the leading intellectual and strategic thinker of the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua (FSLN). Beyond the life of Fonseca, Zimmerman’s penetrates the complex internal disputes and ideological shifts of the FSLN over time.

Timothy Wickham-Crowley, Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes Since 1956. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Although not a Marxist work, this is included here as perhaps the most systematic and serious comparative treatment of Latin American rural guerrilla insurgencies of the twentieth century available in English.

James Brennan, The Labor Wars in Cordoba, 1955-1976: Ideology, Work, and Labor Politics in an Argentine Industrial City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. Too often, Latin American Marxist history in the post-1959 period is reduced to rural – and later, urban – guerrilla waves of insurrection. This book stands as a corrective to that narrative. Brennan explores how Argentina’s second largest city, a university town and centre of the country’s automobile industry, witnessed the most explosive working-class uprising in post-war Latin American history, the 1969 Cordobazo. For European readers, especially, the correspondence with dynamics in France and Italy in that period will be of interest.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Probably the most influential single text of Latin American dependency theory, it is also one of the few available in English or French It was first published in 1969, but preliminary drafts circulated widely throughout Latin America in the preceding two years. Cardoso is probably most widely recognized today for his subsequent apostasy, first as President of Brazil, and just last year as vocal supporter of the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff. Nonetheless, this text – of the moderate wing of dependency theory – is obligatory reading.

Ernesto Laclau, “Feudalism and Capitalism in Latin America,” New Left Review, I/67 (May-June) 1971: 19-38.

Steve J. Stern, “Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World-System in the Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean,” The American Historical Review, 93, 4 (October) 1988: 829-872.

Immanuel Wallerstein, “Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World-System in the Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean: Comments on Stern’s Critical Tests,” The American Historical Review, 93, 4 (October) 1988: 873-885.

This trio of articles, together with the Cardoso and Faletto, are the best introduction to the range of debates that emerged out of contestation between dependency and classical Marxism in Latin America over this period. Key, here, are the questions of modes of production, the articulation of modes of production, property relations, labour regimes, and the world-system.

5. 1980-2000

Ronald H. Chilcote, “Post-Marxism: The Retreat from Class in Latin America,” Latin American Perspectives, 17, 2 (Spring) 1990: 3-24.  Chilcote survey’s the global crisis of Marxism in the early 1990s, and the dynamics of this crisis that are specific to Latin American developments.

Enrique Dussel, Towards and Unknown Marx: A Commentary on the Manuscripts of 1861-63, London: Routledge, 2014. First published in Spanish in 1988, Dussel took the ostensible moment of “post-Marxism” to return to the work of Marx himself. In so doing, he generates one of the most novel theoretical contributions to our understanding of Marx, not simply from the vantage point of Latin America, but in a universal sense.

René Zavaleta Mercado, Towards a History of the National-Popular in Bolivia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Zavaleta was with little doubt the most important social and political theorist in twentieth-century Bolivia. It is a travesty that so little of his work has been translated – before this text, the only work available in English was a conjunctural analytical article in New Left Review. It is to be celebrated that Zavaleta’s most important book – posthumously published in 1984 – is now available in English. In this profoundly innovative text, Zavaleta offers a series of theoretical and conceptual reflections on pivotal moments in Bolivian history – the recurring plebeian, indigenous, and working class challenges from below, and the restorations of seigneurial rule from above.

Roberto Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture, London and New York: Verso, 1992. Schwarz is arguably Latin America’s most prominent Marxist critic of culture. These essays – spanning film, fiction, theatre, and music – are steeped in the particularities of Brazilian history, ideologies, and culture, even as they are simultaneously reflections on Europe and the world writ large.

William I. Robinson, Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. One need not be persuaded by the theoretical apparatuses of the “transnational capitalist class” or “transnational state” employed in this book, to learn a great deal from Robinson’s detailed portrayal of domestic changes in Latin American social structures during the neoliberal period. This is the most all-encompassing account of changes in the political economy of the region over the recent decades.

Peter Winn, eds., Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973-2002. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Chile was the earliest, and possibly the most radical, laboratory of neoliberal restructuring in Latin America. This is the best collection of writings on the dynamics of class struggle over this period, and the fate of different sectors of the working class.

Leandro Vergara-Camus, Land and Freedom: The MST, the Zapatistas and Peasant Alternatives to Neoliberalism. London: Zed Books, 2014. If the 1990s was, in general, a low point of the Latin American Left – in all of its social movement, trade union, peasant association, and party modalities – there were some major counter-currents of note. Two of them – the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil, and the Zapatistas in southern Mexico – are expertly historicized in this book. 

6. 2000-2017

Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics, London and New York: Verso, 2007. The left-indigenous, quasi-insurrectionary cycle of revolt in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005 was the most advanced edge of the extra-parliamentary tide of rebellions in Latin America in the early twenty-first century. This text, by two of the leading historians of the country, is the best contextualization to date.

Raquel Gutiérrez, Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Indigenous Uprising and State Power in Bolivia, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. Gutiérrez is one of Latin America’s most important living theoreticians of social movement struggle. A Mexican, with two decades of militant experience in Bolivia, including five years as a political prisoner, there are few observer-participants with more fine-grained appreciation for the opening sequence of the 2000-2005 cycle of protest.

Álvaro García Linera, Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, Chicago: Haymarket, 2015. García Linera was already one of Bolivia’s – and Latin America’s – most prominent Marxist theorists before becoming Vice President of the country in 2006. This collection spans decades of his thought, right up to the present, demonstrating both the freedom and creativity born of militancy in a series of uprisings in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the later, stifling consequences of state managerialism.

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. Written in the feverish apogee of the Bolivarian process, this book does not anticipate the depths of the crisis in Venezuela which unfolded in the following few years, and which continues to wrack the country into the present. Nonetheless, it remains arguably the best chronicle available in English of the variety of popular movements that “created Chávez.”

Franck Gaudichaud, dir., Amérique latine: émancipations en construction, Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2013. This is one of the best collections on the Latin American Left turn available in French. It is broad in geographic scope – Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico – and in thematic coverage – indigenous rebellion, participatory democracy, eco-socialism, worker’s control and self-management, urban struggles, and feminism.

Jacobin, “By Taking Power,” No. 25, Spring, 2017. This is an excellent, up-to-date survey of the current complexities and debates shaping the Latin American Left as the commodity boom unravels and the regional Right recuperates.

  • Jeffery R. Webber is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. He sits on the editorial board of Historical Materialism. His most recent books are The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left (Haymarket, 2017), and with Todd Gordon, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America (Fernwood, 2016).