Writer & Sociologist

José Carlos Mariátegui: “Defense of Marxism”


A translation from Spanish into English of the first two chapters of José Carlos Mariátegui’s book of the same title. First published in 1994 in Scottish Marxist Voice, Glasgow.

Translator’s note:

The Peruvian writer José Carlos Mariátegui (1894 – 1930) came to Europe in 1919.  In France he had his first contact with the ‘conscious proletariat’ of whom some were survivors of the Paris Commune.  In Paris he met the author of the “The inferno”, Henri Barbusse.  Barbusse like Mariátegui, had also evolved ideologically, from being a supporter of ‘rational republican socialism’ to becoming affiliated to the Third International.  Mariátegui was searching for new influences.  In France many other intellectuals influenced him: Roman Rolland, who also influenced Haya de La Torre; Jean Jaures and, particularly, George Sorel.  In Italy he met Bendetto Croce, one Italy’s most prominent intellectuals, and was familiar with the communist group leaders Antonio Gramsci and Terracini in Turin.  In Rome, Florence and Genoa, Mariátegui had personal contact with men of letters like Papini and Martinetti, and with political theoriticians such as Guglielmo Ferrero.

In Germany he was impressed by the drawings of George Grosz.  Mariátegui’s experience in Germany in the early 1920′s, was similar to that of George Luckas, whose work was also influenced early on by; Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism, Rosa Luxmburg, and the period of social expectation in Germany during 1922, when Sorel completed his “History and class consciousness”.   Like the German, the Peruvian was inspired by the Russian revolution.  Notably whilst in Italy, Mariátegui became very interested in Lenin’s ideas.  In Berlin, Mariátegui interviewed Maxim Gorki whose work, “Lenin et le payssan russe”, he had read in French.

The present translation of José Carlos Mariátegui’s work consist of two chapters of his book “Defensa del marxismo” written originally as independent articles, between 1928 and 1929, in the Limeñan magazines “Mundial” and “Variedades”. “Defensa del marxismo” was also partially published in Santiago de Chile in 1934.  In 1959, in Lima, the definitive version was published, which consists of a first part, reviewed and edited by Mariátegui himself and a second part consisting of some of his selected articles.  I present to English readers the translation of the two first chapters of the fourth edition, “Defensa del marxismo” published in Lima in 1969 by Amauta.  Jorge Aliaga Cacho, (Glasgow, 1994).

Henri de Man

Henri de Man and the ‘crisis’ of Marxism

by José Carlos Mariátegui and translated by Jorge Aliaga Cacho

In a book that perhaps aims at the same effect and publicity as Spengler’s two volumes: “La decadencia del occidente”, (“The Decline of the West”), Henri de Man proposes -going beyond Eduardo Bernstein’s initiative of a quarter of a century ago -not only the ‘revision’, but the ‘liquidation’ of Marxism. This intention, of course, is not original.  Marxism has suffered since the end of the nineteenth century -even before the start of the reaction against the characteristic products of that rationalist age of which it is seen as one more example -from the attacks, in varying degrees documented or instinctive, or university lectures, heirs of official science’s rancour against Marx and Engels, and heretical militants, angered by the formalism of the party’s doctrine.  Professor Charles Andler (1866-1933) predicted the ‘dissolution’ of Marxism and entertained his classroom audience, with his erudite musings on the topic.  Professor Masaryk, now President of Czechoslovakia, diagnosed in 1898 the ‘crisis’ of Marxism: and this phrase, less extreme and more academic than Andler’s had more success.  Masaryk later collated, in six hundred pages of Gothic type, his learned sociological and philosophical arguments concerning historical materialism, though his pedantic criticism, which although (as was quickly proved by various commentators) failed to grasp the sense of Marx’s doctrine, did not even minimally undermine its foundations.  Eduardo Bernstein, distinguished student of economics, conceived into the social-democratic school of thought, formulated his revisionist thesis during the same period, elaborated with facts on capitalist development which did not accord with Marx’s forecasts regarding capital accumulation and the de-pauperisation of the proletariat. Because of its economic character, Bernstein’s thesis echoed widely of those by professors Andler and Masaryk; but neither Bernstein nor other ‘revisionists’ from his school managed to storm the citadel of Marxism.  Bernstein, who did not seek to launch a secessionist current, but rather to assert the relevance of circumstances not anticipated by Marx, remained part of German social-democracy which was, it is true to say, more influenced at that time by the reformist spirit of Lasalle than by the revolutionary thought of the author of “Das Kapital”.

It is not worthwhile to list other minor attacks, which used identical or analogous arguments against Marxism, or which merely explored its relations to one or other of the sciences, for instance law.  Heresy is necessary to prove a dogma’s validity.  Some have served to stimulate the intellectual activity of socialism, fulfilling the useful function of generating a reaction.  Other individual’s, have incurred the implacable justice of time.

The true revision of Marxism, in the sense of renovation and continuation of Marx’s work, has been produced, in theory and practice, by another category of revolutionary intellectuals.  George Sorel’s studies which separate and distinguish what is essential and substantive in Marx, from that which is formal and contingent, represent perhaps more the two first decades of the present century; the reaction of class feeling among the trade unions against the evolutionary and parliamentary degeneration of socialism, the return of the dynamic and revolutionary conception of Marx and its insertion into the new intellectual and organic reality.  Through Sorel, Marxism acquired the elements and substantial contributions of the philosophical currents that came after Marx, and has overcome the rationalist and positivist basis of the socialism of his time.  Sorel finds in Bergson the pragmatists ideas which invigorate socialist thought.  He restores socialism to its revolutionary mission from which it had been gradually removed, by the intellectual and spiritual bourgeoisisation of the political parties and their parliamentarians who were philosophically satisfied with the most elementary historicism and the most graceless evolutionism.

The theory of revolutionary myths, which applies to the socialist movement and the experience of religious movements, establishes the basis of a philosophy of revolution deeply impregnated with psychological and sociological realism.  It anticipates, at the same time, the conclusions of contemporary relativism so dear to Henri de Man.  The case made for the trade unions, as a primordial factor in a genuine socialist consciousness, and as an institution characterised by a new political and economic order, signals the renaissance of class-based ideology which had been subdued by democratic illusion during the great period of universal suffrage when Jaures’ eloquence echoed so magnificently.  Sorel, clarifying the historic role of violence, is the most vigorous follower of Marx during this period of social – democratic parliamentarianism, the most evident effect of which was during the post-war revolutionary crisis, the psychological and intellectual resistance of the worker’s leadership to the taking of power in response to pressure from the masses.  ”Reflections on Violence” seems to have decisively influenced the mental formation of two leaders as antagonistic as Lenin and Mussolini.  And Lenin, without the shadow of a doubt, seems in our epoch the most energetic and fertile restorer of Marxist thought, whatever might be the doubts of the disillusioned author of “Más allá del marxismo”, (“Beyond Marxism”), the Russian revolution constitutes, whether the reformists accept it or not, the most significant event of contemporary socialism.  It is in that event, the historical importance of which cannot yet be measured, that one must search for the new Marxist era.