The Russian Revolution and the Inception of Latin American Marxism: Marx at the Margins and the Problem of History. By Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott


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I have been asked to present on the impact the Russian Revolution had on Latin American intellectual and social history, which is a complex topic, to be sure. And I should start by recognizing that this is a necessary task, a task that will have as its gravitational center the figure of José Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian thinker who is among the most relevant figures of Latin American Marxism. However, it is almost impossible to be just with Mariátegui and with the impact of the Revolution on Latin American history in a short paper, reason for which I have opted for presenting some preliminary glosses around a problem that I would claim is the defining problem of the Latin American Marxist constellation. Indeed, Latin American Marxism is a symptomatic place to deal with the problem of history and, from Mariátegui on, the problem of history would be at the center of the multiple re-elaborations of the relationship between Marx and Latin America. I hope to make this clear by the end of these glosses.

However, before moving to my main arguments, I would like to state a couple of disclaimers that could be helpful to understand them. First, I do not claim Marxism as a commanding force, a philosophical authority or an enabling theoretical articulation that would have triggered Latin American insurrectional processes during the 20th century. On the contrary, Latin American social processes, their singularity, are to be understood as analytically and chronologically previous to any theoretical configuration. Second, and as a consequence of the former, a sort of anachronism would have always characterized Latin American Marxism, an anachronism due basically to the incongruence between the theoretical model of its “theory of history and of historical development” and the specific historical condition of the region. These two elements explain better our claim, to say, Latin American Marxism was, in general, oriented to produce an alternative narrative about Latin America’s historical evolution, and consequently, Latin American Marxism presented itself as an alternative theory of modernization and developmentalism (here its importance and its limit).

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            From a series of recent interventions regarding the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I would like to mention Josep Fontana’s recent book entitled El siglo de la revolución. Una historia del mundo desde 1914 (2017). In this ambitious and comprehensive book, Fontana emphasizes the relevance of the Russian Revolution throughout the 20th century. His main point consists of presenting the Revolution as an unexpected event that dramatically changed international politics and led to the bipartisan organization of the world proper to the Cold War period. More importantly, I would argue, Fontana understands the Revolution not only as a historical process but also as a discursive configuration instrumental to the restrictive and securitarian policies of conservatives and liberals alike. Somehow, the emphasis of his book is not only put on the event itself, but also on the uses of the Revolution as a threat to any radical politics oriented to change the liberal and the current neoliberal social contract. The actuality of the revolution lays, therefore, not only in the particularities of the pre-revolutionary Russian society, but also in the political effects brought about by the events of 1917 for the rest of the world. For better and for worse.

The revolution, Fontana claims, was crucial in changing the economic and social characteristics of the Russian society, and, by extension, those of Europe and the rest of the world. Along with this, of course, the Revolution appears as a discursive trope, one that was also crucial in the alignment of the western powers and, after the Second World War, became decisive in defining the role of American imperialism. In a way, the counter-revolutionary strategy followed by the West worked not only at the military or political level, it did too at the ideological one, and in this second case, the counter-revolution performed a rather particular reading of history. Tactically put, along with a sort of demonization of the Bolsheviks, there was also a representation of the revolution as a punctual, uneventful event, very much in the line of some conservative readings of the French Revolution (Furet, for example). For others, however, the Revolution was a brutal event that opened the way to totalitarianism and, to borrow Carl Schmitt’s geopolitical analysis (The nomos of the Earth, 2005), it was thought of as the very embodiment of the Eschaton, the demonic force that should be contained by the Katechon, the controlling power represented by the NATO. In this regard, the increasing relevance of America in the aftermath of the Second World War was due to its self-appointed position as the power in charge of policing the world.

Fontana also highlights that, whether thanks to communist or to social-democratic parties, the political strategies followed by the left and the progressive organizations in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in Russia as well as in the rest of the world, were oriented to restrain the accumulation processes, the increment of the profit rate, and the general pauperization of the world population characteristic of the capitalist system of late nineteenth century. But all of this has changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Communism as such, along with the ongoing crisis of the social democracy in Europe, the dominant position of neoliberalism in the world, and the technological sophistication of vigilance and security policies. Somehow, from the late twentieth century on, we have been experiencing a radical disarticulation of the social conquests enabled by the Russian Revolution. In other words, we are living today in similar conditions to those of the last part of the 19th century. And it is not clear up to what point a revolution or even a radical leftist politics could emerge from these years of neoliberal hegemony.

Interestingly enough, Thomas Piketty’s monumental volume, Capital in the Twenty First Century (2014), achieves similar conclusions. Far from a Marxist understanding of capitalism, Piketty manages to show how the social and economic conditions that led to the Russian Revolution in the first place, are very similar to the current socio-economic situation of larger sectors of the world population. He even proposes a reading of the Russian Revolution as a fundamental corrective to the accumulation processes in place at that time. Somehow, and in the long durée, the revolution was effective not only within the East-European block, but also in the so-called post- colonial world, as it was able to oppose the “brutalities” of the sustained capitalist system while triggering, at the same time, important reforms. In short, the Revolution, whether directly or indirectly, through state-planned policies or through indirect Keynesian policies that emerged as a reaction to the revolutionary threat, favored a new social contract that corrected the increasing gap between classes and the consequent pauperization of the working sectors, and led to the emergence of the so-called middle class. Nonetheless, the fully articulated hegemony of neoliberalism in the ongoing process of globalization has as one of its worse consequences the disappearance of this middle-class and the subsequent concentration of capital and wealth, the unfair distribution of property and income, the increasing pauperization and even de-proletarization of the world population, and the devastation of the natural resources beyond the threshold of classical capitalism.

Yet, Piketty believes that a better policy of taxation, a more sustained inversion in education, and the improvement of legislation oriented to regulate financial capitalism, would be enough to correct the increasing and devastating gap between social classes today. And this is not just political candor since, as you might remind, Tony Negri and Michael Hard ended their monumental volume Empire (2000) with a sort of equally lax set of recommendations: a global, effective, and non-abstract citizenship; a collective social salary for all, and the right to re-appropriation or re-distribution of wealth. How to implement such a minimal program? Not through the classical political party, which seems destined to fail and become a bureaucratic corporation, but through an unthought-of organization of the multitude (the new revolutionary subject in their analyses). In fact, in an intense exchange between Thomas Piketty and Alain Badiou in the French television, the French philosopher recognizing the immense empirical value of Piketty’s approach criticizes it for the lack of a serious engagement with the political aspects that might lead to the transformation of the current capitalist system ( Badiou, however, opposes to Piketty’s candor the recovery of communism in a very uncritical way, appealing to the loyalty of the militants and to the heroic figures of an historical moment that has been forgotten by the limiting rationality of today’s parliamentary capitalism. This is, indeed, one of the main contributions of current neo-communist positions, the recovery of the forgotten memory of the Revolution in order to expose the complex articulation of capital accumulation and its interested version of history. In this sense, the radical event of the revolution needs to be thought as an interruption of history, since history itself was snared by the evolving narrative of capitalism, a narrative that justifies, ex post factum, the devastation of our time.

But, we might say, if the problem of the revolution is a problem of history, it is also a problem of historical rationality: how to imagine a political strategy oriented to social transformation that does not become caught by the logic of this same rationality, one that is fed by the will to power? In other words, the appealing to loyalty with the event and to radical militancy does not seem enough, neither the recovery of the very idea of communism as an unproblematic historical reference. How to imagine then a politics that is not just the mere repetition of modern politics, and even if I do not want to open here the crucial debate around the hegemonic and state-oriented limitation of modern politics, what matters for me here is precisely the fact that in placing the revolution as a central event, contemporary thinkers, instead of thinking the savage condition of the revolution, produce a fetishist representation of it as a foundational moment; a founding moment that also produce the normative criteria with which one can read and organize different political practices.

This is certainly a difficult question, but what is clear is that, for Piketty and Fontana, among others, the Russian Revolution interrupted the ongoing process of capitalist accumulation, producing an exceptional time through the twentieth century that, with the fall of communism and the final global articulation of capitalism, is currently reaching its end. Thus, the end of the revolutionary exception coincides with the predominance of capital’s exceptionalism, or, alternatively, with the complete articulation of a flexible pattern of capitalist accumulation.

The imposition of this flexible process of accumulation, considered from Latin America, seems to be even worse. The violent implementation of neoliberal policies has yet unknown social consequences that contrasts radically with the optimism of those who identify themselves with the so-called pink-tide or progressive governments of the region. Whether we are talking about the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone, the Central American civil wars, or even about the current war on drugs in Mexico and before in Colombia, along the complementary militarization of those countries, what is most notorious in this process is the general devastation of the former Welfare State (associated with Latin American national-developmentalism), not to mention the forgetting of the revolution, now seen as an impossible utopia, something that should be relegated to the past. The fact that the new progressive cycle of Latin American governments appears today exhausted when confronted with the successful re-articulation of conservative administrations in the region (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, etc.), is anything but promising. And as Fontana would have put it, in the absence of an organized oppositional strategy, what we have are social movements unable to overcome the very sophisticated repressive mechanisms of today’s power. Neoliberalism nonetheless, as biopolitical management, does not repress in the classical way, it integrates and organizes the resistance to make of it a profitable business.

The implementation of neoliberalism in Latin America, however, required a series of operations that, in general, are called counter-insurgency. Along with the privatization of the public sector, the downsizing of the state, the liberation of the markets, the deregulation of the financial sectors, it was also necessary to deactivate the social movements and their narratives of emancipation, for which not only repressive policies were in place, there also was a sustained erasure of history that private new generations of the historical understanding of the political fights they were to confront. In other words, the implementation of neoliberalism was also the deletion of history and, paradigmatically, the obliteration of the relevance that revolutionary processes have had in shaping Latin American societies.

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            However, let’s not give up on pessimism either, since what we are confronted with is the very question of the revolution as a problem of history. And here I want to be very precise, it is not just a historical or historiographical problem; on the contrary, what I meant by the revolution as the problem of history refers to the very conceptualization of historical temporality and the hegemonic narrative of progress that I propose to call capital’s philosophy of history. This particular philosophy, hegemonic through Latin American history, understands the region’s processes as an evolving movement toward modernity and toward a fully developed capitalist economy. Besides some dark moments in this process, Latin American society, from their discovery to globalization, would have been articulated according to a homogeneous temporality, one that fits perfectly in the western narrative of modernization and the current predominance of the American way of life. This is the narrative, I should say, related to the Christianization of the West Indias; to the Bourbon’s reforms and the centralized organization of the Empire in the 18th century; to the positivist ideology of progress proper to the 19th century; to the pacification wars during the inception of Latin America independent life; to the theories of modernization from the mid-twenty century on, and to the current justifications of the neoliberal globalization as the only valid way for Latin American societies.

I would like to claim that the Russian Revolution had a deep impact on this narrative, as it showed not only the possibility of the revolution in an undeveloped or peripheral society, but also as it marked the inception of Latin American Marxism. To be sure, the Mexican Revolution was an ongoing process from the 1910s, and the revolutionary imaginary of Latin American societies was very fresh, due to the recent independence revolutions of many countries in the region. However, the radical agenda of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent adoption of Marxism as its official ideology had multiple consequences in the political and intellectual history of Latin America. We might assert that Marxism in Latin America was, from the beginning, a problematic field in which the real problem was the production of a counter-narrative to the one we just called the philosophy of history of capital. This is the main problem confronted by José Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian writer who is unanimously recognized as one of the first and most prominent Marxist intellectuals influenced by the Russian Revolution. But Mariátegui was not alone; we should mention the political influence of Luis Emilio Recabarren, the Chilean founder of the Communist Party and an activist and journalist who was crucial to the organization of the Chilean working class at the beginning of the twentieth century. We should not forget the influence of the Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist Franz Fanon who was fundamental in opening the problem of race within the class-oriented politics of Latin American Marxism. The same goes for the Argentine historian José Aricó, director of Cuadernos de Pasado y Presente, a collection of Marxist books, 99 in total, that shaped Latin American debates in the second half of the twenty century. Also the Argentinian philosopher Oscar del Barco, author of one of the most appealing critiques of Leninism and the shortcomings of the Russian Revolution (Esbozo de una crítica a la teoría y práctica leninista, 1980). The Ecuadorian philosopher Bolívar Echeverría, author of a rather complex cultural theory of capitalist accumulation processes in colonial Mexico. Also, the Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel, who was not only influential to the philosophy of liberation of that time, but also attempted a controversial reading of Marx along with Emmanuel Levinas. And, of course, the current Bolivian vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, who has also produced a nuanced integration of Marxism and Indigenism in the line of José Carlos Mariátegui.

In this complex and heterogeneous set of Marxist thinkers in Latin America, Mariátegui is still placed at a central position not only because he was among the firsts to react to the Russian Revolution, and to understand the political and cultural innovation of that Revolution, but also because he was not a passive receptor of Marxism, but rather a critical and creative thinker who was able to adapt Marx’s analysis of European capitalism to the singularity of the Andean region. His famous Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (originally published in 1928) was already a monumental study of the problem of the indigenous people in Modern Peru that did not appeal to classical social Darwinism to explain it, but to a materialist analysis of the structure of property (and the role of latifundistas or landowners) in that country, in tandem with the brutal abrogation of indigenous communitarian economic practices. He understood, to put it in other words, that the class-centered analysis of western Marxism should be adapted in order to incorporate the ethnic, communitarian, and agricultural variables of the Andean region. For Mariátegui, the Ayllu (the Inca system of collective production and social organization) was not a remainder of the past that the proper implementation of capitalism will suppress; it was, on the contrary, a form of life that complicates the most rigid version of capital’s philosophy of history, including the Marxist version of history that became official after the Russian Revolution (associated with the famous Stalinist model of the five modes of production defining the historical development toward communism).

As José Aricó indicates in a classical study on Mariátegui (Mariátegui y los orígenes del marxismo latinoamericano, 1980), the Peruvian thinker was a contemporary of Antonio Gramsci and it would be simplistic to say that Gramsci was a dominant influence on him, since the kind of problems and formulations articulated by Mariátegui are rather particular to the Andean realities. However, the proximity between the Peruvian and the Italian thinkers lays in the fact that both have to confront the historical conditions of societies that do not fit within the “ideal” model of the north-European countries. In other words, both Mariátegui and Gramsci have to deal with the so-called Southern Question and, in doing that they not only adapted Marxism to the specificities of their respective realities, but also became important intellectuals and political organizers. Those are some of the main virtues Aricó considers distinctive of Mariátegui, and it would be tanks to them that the Russian Revolution became relevant to the social and political history of Latin America, a sort of big bang of Latin American Marxism.

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            But Marxism is not the same when considered as a problematic field related to the question of history (as an interruption of the historical narrative that I have called capital’s philosophy of history) than when considered as a tradition. In an interesting recent volume entitled Decolonizing Dialectics (2017), George Ciccariello-Maher speculates about the gaining of the encounter between Marxism and postcolonial theories that, in Latin America, goes from Dussel’s first appropriation of Marx and the critiques of Eurocentrism, through Anibal Quijano’s notion of coloniality of power, to Walter Mignolo and the decolonial critique (not to mention the Caribbean Black Radicals and their theorization of racial capitalism, colonialism, and violence). For Ciccariello-Maher Latin American realities, its complex cultural setting and its ethnic heterogeneity, demands an integral analysis that goes well beyond classical Marxism. Somehow in line with the Sub-Asiatic subalternist critiques of western Marxism and its inability to understand the singularity of the political and historical processes of India, he appeals to the work of Mariátegui, Fanon, and Dussel, in that particular order, as an ongoing problematization of the limitations of conventional, official, Eurocentric Marxism. If Mariátegui was the first to supplement the Marxian class analysis with the ethnic component and with the question regarding the indigenous communitarian form of life (the Ayllu); Fanon was central in the problematization of race and in the articulation of the Radical Black tradition with the Marxist one. Dussel, in this line of thinking, would have gone even further when changed the focus of analysis from class structures, ethnic identities, and the racial component of capitalist accumulation, to the people (the pauper el pobre) as the central component in the formation of the nation. Indeed, Dussel thinks of the people as a “national people” already articulated by a conflictive dynamics between colonial powers and colonized nations. Thanks to this line of argumentation, Marxism becomes one component, important but not unique, in the configuration of the liberationist paradigm. Decolonizing dialectics therefore implies not just a new call for provincializing Europe, but also the constitution of an alternative radical tradition that would feed a new radical politics today. As a process of decolonization, what matters for Ciccariello-Maher is the understanding of the historical specificities that permit, in the very first place, the rather particular constitution of this liberationist paradigm without subsuming it to the classical (colonizing) model in which, what we have instead is the implementation of a lineal and homogeneous tradition of thought produced in Europe. However, what still remains as a problem in this decolonization of dialectics is the very dialectics that still subordinates the savage and heterogeneous condition of social practices to an ongoing process of liberation that appears now as a nation formation process, opposed to imperialism.

In fact, I would claim, the main problem with this argumentation lays in the form in which it still articulates the past as an ongoing, evolving, and homogeneous tradition of resistance, in which the main agency is given or granted to the national-popular subject who is always fighting for its liberation. We might say that this is the exact inversion of what we just called capital’s philosophy of history, since in this inverted version what we have is the same temporal structuration of the tradition as a teleologically oriented history, in this case not toward full modernization and development, but toward a final liberation. Liberationism is the inversion of capital’s philosophy of history and as such it remains a philosophy of history. What this teleological structuration of time represses is the radical heterogeneity of social formations and historical times, a sort of savage temporality that complicates the historicist accounts of the past.

Within the Latin American Marxist “constellation”, Mariátegui was, without a doubt, one of the firsts in understanding how the powerful hermeneutical apparatus of Marxism could become its opposite, a fossilized philosophy of history. If Marxism’s original contribution was the dismantling of the ideological version of history, the “bourgeois” historicism proper to the nineteen century, from the point of view of the historicity of the social relations of production, then the very configuration of Marxism as a sort of liberationist tradition always run the risk of producing a counterproductive effect: a disciplinary version self-appointed to evaluate and police any political manifestation.

This is the reason we affirmed that Marxism was from its inception in Latin America a problematic field related to the question of history. Already with Mariátegui this was the main problem: how to account for the specific historical configuration of the Andean region within a Marxist conceptual frame? After almost a century, we might say that Mariátegui was clever enough to understand Marxism as an open approach to history and not as a hermeneutical model to which reality has to be adjusted.  By the time he was writing and thinking, he did not have access to a series of important publications, by Marx and other intellectuals, related to the debates about the modes of production, the pre-capitalist social formations, the problem of the agrarian community (Marx correspondence with Vera Zasulich, for example), and the critiques to the working class-centered political strategy of classical Marxism. The agrarian and ethnological hypotheses developed by Kevin Anderson (Marx at the Margins, 2016) and Lucca Basso (Marx and the Common, 2017), are also relevant, we might say, to understand the originality of the works of Roger Bartra, Álvaro García Linera, and Jean Tible, among many others Latin American thinkers. But what seems to be a common element to all these works is the way in which history remains as an open problem, a problem that is at odds with the configuration of “traditions” and resists the Hegelian ruse of subsuming the “savage heterogeneity” of Latin American societies to the narrative of national liberation and decolonization. In other words, if the Marxist critique of accumulation was a deactivation of the general categories informing the classical political economy, the current configuration of decolonial theory not only displaces the emphasis on accumulation processes to forms of lives and cultural differences, but suture the heterogeneity of social processes to the paradigmatic configuration of colonial and anti-colonial fights. In doing so, decolonial critique repeats in the cultural field the same generalizations of classical political economy.

Let me finish then by returning to Jean Tible’s recent and challenging book, Marx Selvagem (2013), in which the very configuration of the Andean Ayllu and the Inca model of socialization are put in question as rough generalizations, even in Mariátegui, of the indigenous people’s heterogeneous conditions of life in the region. For Tible, who reads the Marxist theories of the state and social formations along with Pierre Clastres’ “anarchist” anthropology, what remains as a problematic assumption in Mariátegui and, therefore, in the Latin American Marxist “tradition”, is its inability to differentiate the savage and heterogeneous condition of the indigenous peoples from the monumental representations of indigenous identities. His critique complicates not only the notions of social classes, races and nations, proper to this tradition, but also, the homogeneous representation of the indigenous, the so-called Inca reference, so important to Mariátegui himself, from the perspective of nomadic Amazonian tribes without state. In this sense, Marx Selvagem proposes a Marx opened to the radical historicity and singularity of social processes, and not a Marx placed at the center of a tradition that, beyond its good intentions, remains the inversion of capital’s philosophy of history.

In any case, more important than this new attempt to rescue Marx from his interpreters, what seems to be crucial, once again, is the problem of historicity and its relation to time, to a time other than the spacialized time of capital, and we might add, only in that way, the Russian Revolution that was a savage anomaly in its time, remains as a savage encounter with history. Because “savage” is precisely the nature of historical temporalities. This is what is at stake in that time and in ours, I would suggest.

Ypsilanti, 2017


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