The origins of Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui 

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The History of transformative ideas in Latin America

Progressive ideas and strategies for the achievement of structural transformations and development reached a peak in Latin America between the 1930s and 1960s. This period was marked by processes of industrialization and the consequential urbanization. National Developmentalism became dominant as a political project, especially in Brazil (with Vargas), Argentina (with Peron) and Mexico (with Cardenas), and the region witnessed the emergence of organized urban working classes. Labour rights were guaranteed and for the first time substantial sectors of the low-income classes have gained access to some basic material needs. The National Developmentalist project has remained firmly in power throughout these decades. Meanwhile, Marxist-Leninist organizations were convinced that national pacts between the bourgeoisie and the working class were destined to fail (Marini, 1971). Inspired by the Soviet global prosperity in the post-war, by the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and especially by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, radical sectors of the left in Latin America refused to accept what was being proposed by the Developmentalists: compromise between classes.
During the 1960s, the apparent stability of National Developmentalism began to show weaknesses (Marini, 1971). In an attempt to free the region from the “Communist threat”, in most Latin American countries – especially in the Southern Cone – the army rose to power. These new regimes had as a common feature the alignment with the United States foreign policies. Under these right-wing authoritarian administrations, structural transformations and revolution became a distant notion. This period (from the mid-1960s to late 1980s) was marked by political persecution, torture and the deconstruction of the social pacts that had been established in the decades of National Developmentalism. Many intellectuals and politicians who opposed the dictatorships were either arrested, assassinated or exiled. As a consequence, less and less political organizations – even after the re-democratization processes in the late 1980s and 1990s – defined themselves as revolutionary and the idea of building national programs of development was abandoned by the majority (Bresser-Pereira, 2010).
However, ideas of transformation and revolution re-emerged with strength with the victory of Hugo Chavez in the 1998 Venezuelan presidential elections (Bresser-Pereira, 2010). In allusion to the 19th century Revolutions of Independence led by Simon Bolivar in the region, Chavez’s project was named the “Bolivarian Revolution”. Socialism and anti-imperialism emerged as the core features of the project. In order to differ from traditional socialist movements, the term 21st Century Socialism was coined and used by other leaders in the region, including Rafael Correa. Directly influenced and inspired by the Bolivarian Revolution, Correa named his transformative political project the “Citizens’ Revolution”.

Legitimizing the absence of transformation

Popular support was achieved through what is commonly referred to as “compensatory policies”. According to Eduardo Gudynas, the State, by increasing public investment on social projects and important reforms, managed to co-opt considerable portions of the working and low-middle classes, which helped to decrease the level of social mobilization against land concentration, extractivism and for indigenous rights (Gudynas, 2009). Gudynas uses the term “Compensatory States” to describe governments like those of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. When confronted by criticism, Gudynas says, progressive governments have justified themselves by claiming that the intensification of extractivist activities would serve as the promoter of national development. Similar to the scenario found in Latin America during the 1950s, the progressive sectors of Latin American politics that came to power have decided to compromise with the traditional economic elites (Acosta, 2018; Marini, 1972). The idea of unifying the nation around a national project of economic development can be easily found in Latin American political history (Marini, 1971, 1972; Furtado, 1974; Prebisch, 1981; Bresser-Pereira, 2010).
This reflects one of the main points of divergence between Acosta and the economic strategy adopted by Rafael Correa in Ecuador. The notion of development under Correa’s regime, Acosta argues, follows a simplistic and mechanistic view of the world and social life. Developmentalism has found various obstacles in numerous spheres. On the social level, it promotes alienated labor, infinite search for accumulation and individualized societies. On the environmental level, it harms biodiversity and intensifies global warming. The historical evidences should be enough to clarify the unsustainability of developmentalism and the negative effects of comprehending development in this mechanistic manner:
“What is clear is that the “progressive” governments – and also the neoliberals – maintain the myth of » progress « in its productivist drift, and that of “development” as the only direction, especially in its mechanistic vision of economic growth, as well as its multiple synonyms. Incidentally, this 21st century extractivism – neoliberal or “progressive” – does not lose its conquering and colonizing character.” (Acosta, 2018b: 53).

Explaining the absence of transformation

Acosta believes that there was space and popular support for the production of structural transformations during Correa’s administration, but political decisions and the insistence on extractivism were the reasons for the absence of transformation that Ecuador has gone through, according to him, between 2007 and 2017. The root of the problem is the incapability of Correa’s administration to remain loyal to initial promises. Among these promises, Acosta highlights two: to change the “productive matrix” and to decrease exploitation of natural resources. During Correa’s administration, Ecuador has deepened the process of “deindustrialization”. The manufacturing sector has lost importance and investment in the production of capital goods has decreased. On the other hand, there was a process of reprimarization of the Ecuadorian economy: “in fact, while in 2007 primary products represented 74.3% of total exports, for 2014 that proportion shot up to 83.5%” (Acosta, 2018: 118). Moreover, new extractivist activities were supported by the government, most prominently the mining sector (Gudynas, 2009: 191).
The conclusion of the investigations made by Acosta and Gudynas is that the reasons for the absence of structural transformation under progressive regimes in Latin America and under Correa in Ecuador lie on the lack of political will. Acosta understands that the arguments used by Rafael Correa and his supporters to explain the current crisis are superficial. In other words, blaming the crisis on the decline of commodity prices hides its structural features. The authors claim that there was popular support and political space that would enable the promotion of deeper transformations.
However, I believe that the focus given by Alberto Acosta to “neoextractivism” and the absence of change in the productive matrix hides essential historical and geopolitical factors. Therefore, if one wishes to comprehend to which extent structural transformations were achieved (or not) during Correa’s administration and what steps towards sustainable development were taken (or not), it is necessary, in my view, to establish an alternative model of interpretation which expands the scope of analysis.

Theoretical framework

My theoretical framework draws from two important schools (traditions) in Latin American social sciences. On the one hand, I am considerably influenced here by the works of some of the most prominent marxist intellectuals of the 20th century in the region: José Carlos Mariátegui, who is considered by many the founder of Marxism in Latin America (Löwy, 2005) and Ruy Mauro Marini, who contributed for the debates regarding dependency and underdevelopment. Moreover, Marxism as a method (historical materialism) provides fundamental tools in order to comprehend how social life is historically and materially conditioned. On the other hand, the CEPAL tradition also plays an important role in shaping my method of investigation. The central concern given to the national matter and the conceptualization of development in the region are the two main elements that I draw from authors like Celso Furtado, Raúl Prebisch and Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira2.

The origins of Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui

In order to establish a dialogue with the interpretations of Alberto Acosta regarding the legacy of the Citizens Revolution, I believe that the works of José Carlos Mariátegui (1895-1930) provide an initial basis for the comprehension of what paths the transformation of Latin American societies must take. The central concern of Mariátegui was to establish the core elements of the economic formation of Peru. Mariátegui’s works serve as a good tool to conceptualize and comprehend the social processes that have shaped and still shape political life in Latin America. Similar to Peru, the Ecuadorian society is marked by the constant conflicts produced by the dualisms coast/highlands, european/indigenous, Spanish/Quechua, feudalism/capitalism, colonialism/liberalism, etc.
In his most acknowledged work, “Seven Essays on the Interpretation of the Peruvian Reality” (1929), Mariátegui critically analyses the development of capitalism in Peru, especially from the Independence process until his days. Among his central concerns, the incompatibility between the Liberal constitution that was written as a consequence of independence and the persistence of a semi-feudal organization of the society is seen as the core socio-economic contradiction of the Republic: “(…) while the Conquest totally engenders the process of the formation of our colonial economy, Independence appears determined and dominated by that process” (Mariátegui, 1929: 10).

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CEPAL and Dependency School: Development and Socialist Revolution

The 1950s witnessed the emergence of a new tradition of intellectuals in Latin America. United both at the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL, Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean, Santiago, Chile) and at the Instituto Superior de Estudos Brasileiros (ISEB, Superior Institute of Brazilian Studies, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), sociologists and economists that would become references in the field (e.g., Celso Furtado and Raúl Prebisch) dedicated considerable efforts into the conceptualization of and on the formulations of strategies for economic development in the region. The tradition of scholars, that would also become known as “Developmentalists”, emerged in a scenario where national pacts between the bourgeoisie, the working class and the public bureaucracy had achieved solid results, especially in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, where industrialization was more intense. Furtado and Prebisch were convinced that industrialization and nationalism were the two central elements of economic development. The strategies, they argued, must involve Socialism and Liberalism. In other words, Prebisch proposed what might be called state planning of the market.
For our purposes, one specific concept developed by Raúl Prebisch is fundamental: “excedente” (surplus). Prebisch believed that the initial step towards transformation in the periphery of capitalism must necessarily involve the redistribution of the surplus produced by the primary exports. The next step must – also necessarily – be the process of industrialization. First by the substitution of imports, and later by technological improvements. It is also important to mention that the pacts that could be found in Latin America during the National Developmentalist period represented exactly what constituted the conditions for a revolution in the region, according to both authors.
Despite that, Furtado recognized the contradictory character of the Latin American elites, similarly to Mariátegui. Differently from the latter, however, Furtado believed that this immanent contradictory character must be overcome by alliances that put the national interest above all others (Bresser-Pereira, 2009).
Contrary to the CEPAL tradition of developmentalism and as an answer to the collapse of National Developmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, Ruy Mauro Marini developed what he calls the dialectics of dependency. In line with Mariátegui, Marini did not believe that there was a real possibility of alliance between the working class and the bourgeoisie. According to him, the interests of the bourgeoisie in Latin America are contrary to the National interests. In other words, the elites in Latin America represent imperialist interests. Marini claimed that the history of underdevelopment in the region is a representation of the history of development in the rich countries (Marini, 1972).
Here it is important to highlight an important concept developed by Marini: superexploitation. Differently from the working conditions in the central economies, where the access to basic material goods has already been achieved by the great majority of the working class and the exploitation exists only at one level (employer-employee), in the periphery of capitalism exploitation exists at two levels. On the one side there is the exploitation of one nation by the other and the relationship of dependency between them, on the other side there is the “regular” type of exploitation. Therefore, the workers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are under the condition of superexploitation (Marini, 1973, 1974). Taking that into account, in addition to the immanent contradictory character of the “national” bourgeoisie, Marini concluded, in line with Mariátegui, that the only possible revolution for Latin America is a Socialist one.
In my view, Marxism and developmentalism are complementary as methods. Even though on essential aspects they end up not “agreeing with each other”, they provide the tools that enable us to comprehend the relationship between Socialism and nationalism, pragmatism and radicalism, and between industrialization and development.

Building an alternative interpretation: four essential spheres of analysis

In order to promote an alternative interpretation of the Correist experience and to establish a dialogue with the interpretations of Acosta, here I expand the scope of analysis. While Acosta’s (and Gudynas’) critique is centered on the “productive matrix” and neoextractivism, here I propose to structure my analysis around four main spheres: the national project issue, pragmatism as a strategy, the historical perspective and Socialism. The analysis is considerably influenced by the insights provided by the developmentalist tradition with regards to the national project issue. In addition, Mariátegui and Marini also play an essential role in structuring my analysis here. The second and the third spheres will be analysed together, and the works of Bresser-Pereira and Marini serve as my main theoretical basis.
Finally, the analysis of Socialism as a political project in Latin America draws on the insights of Mariátegui regarding the importance of the land and the re-founding of the nation. In the following subsections, I detail each of these spheres.
Here it is important to make a brief explanation of the relevance of 20th century Latin American Marxism and developmentalism to the 21st century. On the one hand, the international politics arena remains structured in a way similar to the early 20th century. It is possible to argue that the only two experiences of challenge to the given world order were the rise of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in the early 1990s, and China, which is nowadays the main challenge to western dominance. However, the center-periphery, developed-underdeveloped dualisms remain in place. On the other hand, Latin America has gone through a process of de-industrialization over the past decades, which reinforces the importance of the works produced by the CEPAL tradition.

Table of contents :

1. Introduction 
1.1. General Identification of the problem and aims of the study
1.2. Contextualization
1.3. Description of the problem
1.4. The history of transformative ideas in Latin America
1.5. Aims of the investigation
2. Literature Review 
2.1. Legitimizing the absence of transformation
2.2. Explaining the absence of transformation
3. Theoretical Framework 
3.1. The origins of Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui
3.2. CEPAL and Dependency School: Development and Socialist Revolution
4. Methods 
4.1. Motivations and Case Study
4.2. Building an alternative interpretation: four essential spheres of analysis
4.2.1. National Project
4.2.2. Pragmatism and Historical Perspective
4.2.3. Socialism and the RIght to the Land
5. Analysis and Discussion 
5.1. Analysis
5.1.1. The National Project Matter
5.1.2. Pragmatism and the Historical Perspective
5.1.3. Socialism and the Citizens’ Revolution
5.2 Discussion
6. Conclusion and outlook 
7. Bibliography 


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