3 April 2020

Contemporary Mariategui


Marcelo Starcenbaum

Today, more than 90 years after the first publication of Mariátegui’s Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, it is no simple task to offer a meaningful intervention around his figure. Doing so inevitably means measuring oneself against a mountain of research that has already dealt capably with the innumerable problems connected to the work of the Peruvian Marxist. Often, these approaches prefer to locate Mariátegui along a specific spatial-temporal axis. This line of inquiry has sought to grasp how the surrounding Peruvian context would shape the elaboration of such a singular and influential body of work. Or, differently, his work is just as frequently placed in relation to contemporary intellectual currents, where scholarship then attempts to delimit the complex reading processes conceived by Mariátegui to interpret European Marxism and traditional Latin American cultures. In sum, Mariátegui’s writing has spawned its own field of research, Mariateguian studies, which has, in turn, become the object of debates and critical inquiry in recent years.[1]

Bearing all this in mind, and remembering that we are also coming upon the 40thanniversary of the last great theoretical and political “Mariátegui debates”,[2] my purpose here is to reflect on Mariátegui’s contemporaneity. By this, I am proposing an exercise in which the foundational problems present in his work might also be relocated within broader Marxist debates taking place over the last two decades. This type of reading, I feel, can be productive for two reasons. Firstly, and without jettisoning the contributions of Mariateguian studies, the direct interpellation of his work by contemporary theoretical and political discussions invites us to consider both the potential and limitations of one of the foundational figures of Latin American Marxism.[3]Secondly, by analysing contemporary theoretical debates in light of Mariátegui’s work, we are able to re-examine more closely and without concessions the specific challenges with which Marxism has been met in recent years. This approach allows us to consider the limitations proper to the Marxist tradition while also questioning several recent postulates that have been offered as an attempt to overcome Marxism itself.

As my point of departure, I would like to examine a text by Mabel Moraña that discusses the actuality of the Seven Essays in terms of that work’s understanding of the colonial phenomenon. There, Moraña insists on the productivity of an apparently contradictory position taken up by Mariátegui vis-à-vis the nation.[4] On her account, Mariátegui combines an understanding of the strategic importance of national organisation and state institutions as a reference point for social struggles, while simultaneously being cognisant, where popular struggles are concerned, of the forms of domination and exclusion proper to the bourgeois nation. While the first variable leads to a conception of the nation as “the emancipated underside of the colony” and the “doorway to an open history leading towards future liberation”, the second consideration seeks to “dismantle the mechanisms of control and subalternisation of popular sectors at the heart of the criollo nation”. This apparent contradiction provides a useful inroad insofar as it allows us to situate the concerns of theSeven Essays within contemporary Marxist debates. Taking this apparent contradiction as our point of departure is especially useful insofar as a large part of debates in recent years have centred on this two-sided interpretation of the nation: on the one hand, centred around Marxist narratives related to the capitalist periphery and the variety of ways in which the politicity of subaltern sectors may be represented; on the other hand, in nations born from their rupture with the colonial form, the need to attend to enduring mechanisms of domination and exclusion even after the colonial break.


On the specificity of the national question in the capitalist periphery, much has been written on the foundational role Mariátegui has played in shaping subsequent discussions. Put succinctly, we might say that, taking up a position equidistant from teleological Marxism and democratic nationalism, Mariátegui develops an understanding of the nation in which different productive regimes can coexist and where the unfinished character of the local bourgeoisie is a defining feature. That is, the contours of the nation are delineated by a political and economic development at variance with the experience of European modernity. Following in the footsteps of a less teleological Marx, and anticipating the “motley thesis” of René Zavaleta Mercado, Mariátegui offers a vision of economic evolution capped with the observation that “there are elements of three different, coexisting economies in present-day Peru”.[5] In a schema at once classificatory and symptomatic, Mariátegui retraces the feudal inheritance set down from the colonial period and highlights the enduring presence of indigenous communism, while also identifying the slow development of capitalist relations in Peru’s coastal region. In addition to the deferred development of a modern national institutionality, feudal social relations in Peru, Mariátegui argues, have retarded the development of a truly bourgeois class and its corresponding impetus for national development. In that precise sense, Peru’s economic evolution would be defined by “a landowning class [that] failed to transform itself into a capitalist bourgeoisie, steward of the national economy”.[6]

By grasping Peru in terms of a specific socio-economic formation, Mariátegui embarked on a path that diverged sharply and in equal parts from a necessity-driven variant of Marxism, as well as the variety of nationalisms then on offer. This singularity was expressed paradigmatically in the statements made by the Peruvian delegation to the First Latin American Communist Conference, held in 1929 in Buenos Aires. There, these national particularities acted as the grounds for the Peruvian delegates’ defence of a full-fledged socialist revolutionary programme, plainly at odds with the communist leadership’s insistence that Latin American countries should follow a bourgeois-democratic course. This was certainly one of the most productive elements in Mariátegui’s Marxist analysis: his conception of the nation skirted the essentialisation of the Peruvian case just as much as it rejected the idea that the nation would be a mere expression of external tendencies. As Antonio Melis suggests, “the more mature Mariátegui intuit[ed] that in order to understand Marx one must be prepared to grasp the full ‘structural’ breadth of his analysis, that is, his pursuit to situate features specific to a given social-economic formation within a general model of historical development”.[7]

We should underscore here that taking up such a position involved a series of contortions in relation to the requirements imposed by political practice. There was, on the one hand, the familiar opposition between Mariátegui and Victorio Codovilla, head of the Communist Party of Argentina and responsible member for enforcing the policies of the Comintern. But there was an additional predicament, centring on the conflict between Chile and Peru over the Tacna and Arica regions, that proved especially illuminating. Whereas the International called for a plebiscite under worker control, taking for granted widespread unrest among diverse sectors of Peruvian society, Hugo Pesce intervened on behalf of the Peruvian delegation to argue that a communist politics should be based on precise knowledge of the context in which it is unfolding: “we communists, we must study an extremely important point: what has been the position of different social layers before a determinate conflict”.[8] As Flores Galindo has pointed out, these differences were not so much due to a lack of information as they were that the Peruvians were asserting “a line of reasoning that subordinated political action to the class situation, refusing to ignore objective conditions and social consciousness, considerations without which it was impossible to draw up any tactics”.[9]

In the last several decades, Marxist discourse on the peripheral nations of the capitalist world-system has been branded as teleological and Eurocentric in nature. With support from British Marxism’s theoretical and methodological innovations, and employing the historiography of colonial India as their object of analysis, these authors associated with subaltern studies have sought to identify how colonial, nationalist and Marxist discourses share a common set of analytical variables. By centring its historical narrative on insurgent movements where a written agenda and a theoretical programme were predominant, Marxism would on this account have contributed to reinforcing elitist accounts that were guilty of omitting the politicity of subaltern sectors.[10] This tendency present in Marxist discourse would suppose European history as the silent reference point in its historical narratives of peripheral regions. By locating in European civilisation the parameters that oversee the national history of non-European societies, Marxism would have proffered a developmental and modernising account in which local experience would only appear as weak, lacking and insufficient.[11] The reception of these types of readings in Latin America would eventually galvanise attempts to restore the historicity of popular political experiences outside the framework of the nation-state, and to conduct a critical revision of the vanguardist and enlightened methods with which the subcontinent’s left-wing intellectuals had attempted to represent the experience of subalterns.[12]

A superficial reading of the subaltern tradition could lead one to see Mariátegui as reproducing a number of the master narratives of European mint. The schema of economic evolution rehearsed in the Seven Essays and its conceptualisation of Peru’s political development are certainly loaded with figures of failure and lack. A landowning class thathas failed to become a capitalist bourgeoisie. Latifundio and forms of bondage as feudalholdovers. An independence that was not guided by the existence of a conscious bourgeois class and that could not count on the collaboration of a revolutionary peasantry. The property system acting as an obstacle to the development of national capitalism. The Peruvian criollo’s incapacity to represent nationality. And yet, unlike other Marxist discourses of Latin America, Mariátegui foregrounds in his analysis the national particularities within the global development of capitalism, thus proffering elements that would counteract the aforementioned tendencies.

Moreover, the radicalisation of certain subaltern hypotheses could just as easily push some of the founding research of that tradition into the camp it purports to oppose. Guha’s “domination without hegemony”, in reference to the local bourgeoisie’s failure to represent the nation under contemporary India, could just as easily be understood as a narrative structured with Europe as its silent reference point. Thus, rather than insisting on this dimension, it seems more productive to consider those aspects of Mariátegui’s analysis that distance themselves from accounts anchored in necessity and lack. In that respect, Chakrabarty’s terminology is useful insofar as it revisits the disputes over teleological and Eurocentric narratives employed in the Third World. Opposed to the idea that determinate social sectors were still not ready to assume political responsibilities, the discourses and anticolonial politics of the 20th century insisted on “the now” as the temporal horizon of action. In that sense, theSeven Essays can be situated within an impetus to politically register the experience of subaltern subjects and counteract interpretations that, even within Marxism, would perpetuate their subaltern status in the name of development and historical necessity.


With respect to the other side of this two-sided position regarding the national question, Mariátegui has likewise offered a foundational precedent for subsequent research and ample material with which to discuss contemporary theoretical developments. The general terms in which he interprets the forms of the bourgeois nation are relatively familiar. Analysing the diverse issues pertaining to the Indian, Mariátegui asserts that liberal politics are incapable of advancing the liberation of the indigenous and reverting the colonial condition to which they have been subjected. In that sense, the revolution for independence amounted to a process whose liberal program was favourable to the Indians but lacked a bourgeois class capable of bringing that process to a head. Despite independence, the latifundist colonial aristocracy preserved its rights over the land and over the Indians. Here as before, Mariátegui’s analysis insists on the evidence of failure. Republican rule ends up reproducing a logic that should have been defeated. Thus the power and precision of his assertion: “the Viceroyalty emerges as being less guilty than the Republic”.[13] One could hardly expect more from the colonial order: as a medieval and foreign regime, it was in its nature to exploit the Indian. The Republic is a different case, and insofar as it was a Peruvian and liberal regime it bore the mission of raising up the Indian.

Mariátegui’s analysis of the process of subalternisation in the Seven Essays is essentially multidimensional. A careful reading of the terms on which Mariátegui constructs an opposition between colonial and republican regimes reveals a series of interpretive levels. On the one hand, there is the strictly economic. Contrary to its rightful mission, the Republic “has pauperized the Indian, compounded his depression and exacerbated his misery”.[14] For the Indian, the shift from Viceroyalty to Republic represented a transition from a colonial system of exploitation to a system of dispossession led by a new dominant class. Along with this aspect, the Seven Essays gives ample space to the political and cultural dimensions of subalternisation. According to Mariátegui, “the Republic is additionally responsible for having made the race lethargic and weak”.[15] Republican rule not only worsened the economic situation of the Indian, it also meant the appropriation of the Indian’s own grievances by the criollo elite. National parties would include indigenous demands in their political programmes, pressing the issue into the services of demagogic speculations while diminishing the Indians’ capacity to fight on their own behalf. Finally, Mariátegui notes that the Indian problem is a logical component in any analysis of public instruction in Peru. At the level of what might be called a national ideology, Mariátegui observes that Republican rule has preserved a representation of the Indian corresponding properly to the colonial regime. The fact that national education is itself the preserve of a colonial framework means that the Peruvian state reproduces the same notion of the inferior Indian race that typified the Viceroyalty.

Acknowledging that mechanisms for colonial exclusion and dominance have been preserved within the national order, as well as recognising the contemporary transformations to the capitalist economy, the last several decades have seen the emergence of a discourse that question the centrality of the nation-state as the fundamental political and organisational unit, while equally questioning the general understanding of the modern social order through binary relations (coloniser/colonised, First/Third world). Disavowing master narratives, orientalism, foundational categories and fixed subjects, postcolonial theory has encouraged replacing national origins with subject positions, prioritised local interactions over global structures, and the faculty of being in the midst of the postcolonial subject.[16]Just as with subaltern studies, contrasting the Seven Essays with this discursive postcolonial constellation results in an ambivalent picture. On the one hand, Mariátegui is indeed clearly staking a more subtle position on the idea of the nation-state as the foundational organiser of contemporary political experience. His understanding of the liberal regime as a continuation of the colonial order suggests a thinker acutely concerned with delimiting the particularities of Peru as apostcolonial society. On this point, while the arguments developed in theSeven Essays could be made to engage with some important aspects of the postcolonial condition – the description of conditions in once-colonial societies –, it is harder to see how it can relate to other concerns of the postcolonial tradition: the assertion of a global condition in the aftermath of the colonial period, or a discourse epistemologically oriented by a postcolonial condition.[17]

In a text from the 1990s exploring the possibility of a “postcolonial Mariátegui”, Neil Larsen poses the following question: “If Mariátegui had been able to benefit from the ‘conceptual revolutions’ of Freud, Saussure and Derrida, would he then be telling us that the ethico-social goal of Peruvian literature should not be to transcend the cultural dualism of Peru and create an autochthonous ‘Peruvianness’, but instead to foster a ‘différance’ that resists an type of reductive identification?”.[18] No doubt counterfactual and deeply debatable, Larsen’s suggestion to a great extent anticipated subsequent developments in subaltern and postcolonial thought on the national question in Latin America. While also engaging with Lacanian and post-structuralist perspectives, these currents have advanced the hypothesis that the nation is represented theoretically as an oppressive identity built on the a priori exclusion of a stigmatised other. Thus, studies of national literature, to take one example, began to take shape according to an ethics of literature whereby the subject should be thwarted in its attempt to take shape through the logic of an “other”.  Again, the Marxist framework in which theSeven Essays is framed clearly acts as a counterweight to the postcolonial appropriation of Mariátegui. In an attempt to answer the above-cited question, Larsen asserts that, contrary to the contemporary tendency to think of the nation as one among several possible subject positions, “Mariátegui never ceases to insist on the social and historic place of the nation as an integral factor in the process of post-national emancipation”.[19]

Finally, this conception of the relation between the nation and emancipatory politics offers a series of elements that make possible a general evaluation of the relations between Marxism and post-colonialism. As previously stated, the subaltern perspective and postcolonial studies alike erupted within the field of critical thought, introducing a set of concepts and postulates that seemed to rescue Marxism from its entanglements with the teleological, Eurocentric narratives of colonialism and nationalism. Two decades on from this emergence, Vivek Chibber’s recent book has again placed Marxism in a position to criticise the influence of subaltern and colonial studies in contemporary analyses.[20] Following Chibber’s diagnostic, the link between the New Left and Marxism in the 1960s and 70s gave way to an interest in culture and ideology, no longer as objects of study but as explanatory principles previously reserved for class and the relations of production. The implications here are clear enough. Subaltern and postcolonial studies, in detriment to a materialist perspective, have produced influential research on modernity, hegemony and resistance while largely ignoring the capitalist substrate of such phenomena. Introducing Mariátegui into this discussion merits at least two considerations. First, Mariátegui’s analysis of the Peruvian situation in the Seven Essays is as different from a teleological Marxism – a difference subaltern and postcolonial studies would later vindicate – as it is from anything like a radical culturalism, being that is clearly comes down in support of a Marxist and materialist position. One could better speak, in Mariátegui, of the productivity of a Marxist conception of the postcolonial condition. The second consideration concerns what utility Mariátegui’s writing might offer towards an understanding of the relation between Marxism and postcolonial studies, beyond their apparent incompatibility. As Chibber has suggested, Marxism and the postcolonial condition can be understood less as fixed categories and more as dynamic positions responding to social transformations that make the understanding of events and historical processes an increasingly complex undertaking.  A productive dialogue between both perspectives can contribute to a renewed analysis of, among other issues, uneven capitalist development, the process of capitalist accumulation, or the relationship between modernity and capitalism.[21]


By way of concluding, I would like to offer up for consideration how Mariátegui’s writing might interact with another challenge recently posed to Marxism. I am referring here to the so-called decolonial perspective in its explicitly Marxist-hostile iterations.[22] Just as with the counterpoint to subaltern and postcolonial studies, the potential encounter between the Marxist Peruvian and the decolonial school takes place on a common ground. The decolonial discourse addresses a set of fundamental issues that partially align with the Marxist inquiry of Latin American reality. Among them, the relation between local historical experience and global civilisational development, the correlation between Latin American modernity and the economic structuration of the subcontinent, or the link between scientific knowledge and popular cultures. However, unlike the other currents, the results of the decolonial-Mariátegui encounter offer a much less positive yield. Whereas in the former case, Mariátegui’s interpellation by contemporary discussions serves to revisit the productive aspects of his work while relativising some of the accusations levelled by postcolonial and subaltern studies against Marxism, the decolonial perspective tends to foreclose any such dialogue with the Marxist tradition and thus the possibility of the aforementioned productive recognitions. The unwavering assertion that Marxism is just another Eurocentrism, located along a sequence of colonial thought running from the Crónicas de Indias to contemporary social sciences, requires an enormous distortion of a Marxist theoretical accomplishment such as that of Mariátegui. His work would, on the one hand, lie outside the repertory of possible readings on account of its being contaminated by colonial knowledge. On the other hand, even if it were read, revisiting the work of Mariátegui would be conditioned by the absolutisation of elements (the local, the margins, the ancestral, etc.) that can only be apprehended in a more complex mode.



Translated by Nicolas Allen


[1] For an example of one such inquiry, see Beigel, Fernanda, El itinerario y la brújula. El vanguardismo estético-político de José Carlos Mariátegui, Buenos Aires, Biblos, 2003.

[2] This is in reference to the so-called “Sinaloa generation”, a shared reading framework that converged at the International Colloquia “Mariátegui y la revolución latinoamericana”, held in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in 1980. For further reading, see, Cortés, Martín, “José Aricó y el coloquio mariateguiano (1980) de la Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa”, Cuadernos Americanos. No. 165, 2018, pp. 65-82 and Giller, Diego,7 ensayos sobre socialismo y nación(incursiones mariateguianas), Buenos, Aires, Caterva, 2018.

[3] The author is well aware that the assertion of Mariátegui’s foundational role in Latin American Marxism is not without its problems. This discussion, however, is beyond the purview of this article. For a systematisation of the problem see Acha, Omar y D’Antonio, Débora, “Cartografía y perspectivas del ‘marxismo latinoamericano’”, A Contracorriente. Vol. 7, No. 2, 2010, pp. 210-256.

[4]Moraña, Mabel, “José Carlos Mariátegui en los nuevos debates. Emancipación, (in)dependencia y ‘colonialismo supérstite’ en América Latina”, in: Mabel Moraña and Guido Podestá (eds.), José Carlos Mariátegui y los estudios latinoamericanos,Pittsburgh, Instituto Internacional de Literatura Latinoamericana, 2009, p. 67.

[5]Mariátegui, José Carlos, 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana, Caracas, Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2007, p. 20.

[6] Ibid., p. 21.

[7]Melis, Antonio, Mariátegui, primer marxista de América, Mexico D.F., Universidad Autónoma de México, 1979, p. 19.

[8] Cited in Flores Galindo, Alberto, La agonía de Mariátegui. La polémica con la Komintern, Lima, Centro de Estudios y Promoción del Desarrollo, 1980, p. 26.


[10] Guha, Ranahit, “Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India”, in: Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Vol. 1, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 1-8 and “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency”, in:Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Vol. 2, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 1-42.

[11] Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 3-16.

[12] Latin American Subaltern Group, “Manifiesto inaugural”, in: Santiago Castro-Gómez and Eduardo Mendieta (eds.), Teorías sin disciplina (latinoamericanismo, poscolonialidad y globalización en debate), México D.F., Porrúa, 1998, pp. 85-100.

[13] Mariátegui, José Carlos, 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana, op. cit., p. 36.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Prakash, Gyan, “Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1990, pp. 383-408.

[17] Dirlik, Arif, “Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1994, pp. 328-365.

[18] Larsen, Neil, “Indigenismo y lo ‘postcolonial’. Mariátegui frente a la actual coyuntura teórica”, Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. LXII, No. 176-177, 1996, pp. 871-872.

[19] Ibid., p. 872.

[20] Chibber, Vivek, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, London, Verso, 2013.

[21]Sinha, Subir and Varma, Rashmi, “Marxism and Postcolonial Theory: What’s Left on the Debate?”, Critical Sociology. Vol. 43, No. 4-5, 2015, pp. 1-14.

[22] See, for example, Lander, Edgardo, “Marxismo, eurocentrismo y colonialismo”, in: Atilio Borón, Javier Amadeo and Sabrina González (eds.), La teoría marxista hoy. Problemas y perspectivas, Buenos Aires, CLACSO, 2006, pp. 209-243.