Preface to the Indian Edition of Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker’s José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology

Upon the release of the Indian edition of Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker’s José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (Kharagpur: Cornerstone Publications, 2013; originally New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), Vanden is in India on a lecture tour to spread the word about the ideas of José Carlos Mariátegui.  On this occasion, we are publishing the Preface from the Indian edition, written by Bernard D’Mello and Alpa Shah.

It is generally believed that as one gets older, the making of new friends doesn’t come easy.  But with Harry Vanden and Marc Becker, who have edited, translated and introduced this anthology of José Carlos Mariátegui’s writings, comradeship was almost immediate.  This was in Oxford in July last year where we came together in an Economic and Social Research Council UK workshop to consider the comparative experiences of radical social movements.  An idea then blossomed — to extend the heritage of José Carlos Mariátegui from the workers, poor peasants, indigenous peoples and revolutionary intellectuals of Latin America to their counterparts in India.  This book is the product of that intent.  With the Indian government bent upon slapping colonial sedition law — still on the statute — on intellectuals who hold the Indian state to account, it might not be out of place to mention that Mariátegui’s journalistic writings and his politics were deemed to be so seditious that he was once forced into exile and twice imprisoned.

Mariátegui was one of the most influential Latin American Marxist intellectuals of the 20th century.  He deeply impressed Ernesto Che Guevara, and when Abimael Guzman separated from the mainstream Communist Party in Peru, Guzman said he was led “by the shining path of José Carlos Mariátegui.”  Today, with the resurgence of the left in Latin America over the last decade, there has been a revival of Mariátegui’s ideas, especially in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, as the continent grapples with the question of socialism in the 21st century.  Indeed, we have a lot to learn now from Mariátegui’s theoretical and practical applications of Marxism in the context of Latin American, particularly Peruvian, reality, as controversial as they were in his time in the 1920s.

In a sense, in the Indian context, this anthology comes at the right time.  Here, the most radical expression of the Indian left, while being labeled the greatest internal security threat to the Indian state by the Prime Minister, appears to be struggling in renewing and refreshing its theory and praxis.  These Maoist revolutionaries, or Naxalites as they were once known, now find themselves squeezed in the adivasi- or tribal-dominated forests and hills of central and eastern India.  In this context, where the “Indigenous Question” in relation to class struggle seems almost undertheorized in the subcontinent, Mariátegui’s seminal thesis, known in Latin America as “the Indian Question”, is thought-provokingly significant.

To begin with it is important to point out the creative and non-doctrinal spirit of Mariátegui’s revolutionary praxis.  Rather than applying general principles that may have little to do with local conditions, Mariátegui firmly believed that good revolutionary praxis must begin with the careful application of Marxism to the concrete realities of different nations.  Socialism in Latin America was thus to be a “heroic creation”, springing to life from Latin America’s own reality.

On the Indian Question then, Mariátegui, in the late nineteen twenties, directly challenged the Comintern’s proposal to establish a separate Indian Republic in the South American Andes where the Quechua and Aymara peoples were in a majority.  With the subtlety in Lenin’s analysis of the National Question lost in Stalin’s formulation, the Comintern was defending the rights of self-determination for national minorities to secede from oppressive state structures and had for instance proposed similar Black Republics for the southern United States and South Africa.  Mariátegui maintained that the existing nation-state formation was too advanced to resurrect a separate Indian Republic and that the oppression of Indians, or the Indian Question, was a function of their class relations as a rural proletariat.  He argued that treating them as a separate national/racial or ethnic minority, without addressing underlying class issues, would only result in an Indian bourgeois state which was as exploitative as the white-dominated one.  Thus it was better to fight for equality within existing state structures rather than the Indigenous peoples separating themselves from modernity in alternative states which would only increase their poverty and marginalization.

As he did then, Mariátegui now raises crucial questions as to whether marginalized and impoverished ethnic populations comprise national/ethnic or racial minorities and, if so, what the relationship between identity and class struggle should be.  Although he saw race or ethnic identity and class identity as being intertwined with each other, he threw a challenge to identity politics which asserted that racial or ethnic oppression and discrimination lay at the heart of the poverty of indigenous peoples.  Instead he made the materialist claim that Indian oppression was a socioeconomic issue which at that time was rooted in the unequal distribution of land and the failure to overcome the legacy of feudalism in the Peruvian countryside.  The protection of land and its redistribution for Indians was not in any sense linked to a project of identity politics of Indians as being quintessentially attached to their land, but a consequence of a specific Peruvian history of appropriation and exploitation.  And indeed Mariátegui argued that the best way to achieve the liberation of the indigenous masses was not through their ethnic segregation but by them joining workers and peasants of all races in a struggle for a socialist revolution.  Mariátegui thus cast the Indian Question as a class, not an ethnic or identity-based, struggle.

This does not mean that Mariátegui denied the significance of indigenous struggles or ethnic cultures.  Rather, he reflected a sophisticated understanding of how indigeneity operated in specific local contexts.  And though opposed to “indigenism” — the reactionary romantic plea for a return to the so-called glorious past — for Mariátegui, the legacy of Inca communism, the communitarian traditions, were still significant if they were fused with Marxist-Leninist socialist theory and modern technology to create socialism in Latin America.  Mariátegui had sensed the indigenous people’s egalitarian consciousness in the manner in which they faced deprivation — dispossessed Indian peasants forming labor gangs to collectively contract the sale of their labor-power for a wage, their collective efforts to prevent the forced sale of their land to outsiders, and their coming together in a shared system of labor exchange that served the common good.  In fact, against the Comintern’s advocacy of a bourgeois democratic revolution as a necessary stage in the resolution of the problems of the popular classes, Mariátegui’s non-teleological perspective placed great hope in these communitarian traditions of the Indian peasants.  When led by a proletarian vanguard, Mariátegui believed that the egalitarian consciousness of the Indian peasants could be a very effective agency for socialism.

In contemporary India, although the adivasis are now the main representational front of the revolutionary left, in contrast to even the “Dalit Question”, the “Adivasi Question” or “Indigenous Question” has been little theorized by the left.  The marginalization of the adivasis — their relegation to the lowest rung of the social hierarchy as a result of the cumulative effect of protracted extra-economic coercion — has a long history.  Colonial exploitation of their forests, which denied them access to these lands, drove adivasis to become seasonal migrant laborers; a process which has only accelerated through the further appropriation of adivasi land for the purposes of mining and resource extraction by the independent government most recently in conjunction with multinational companies.  Although the communists, in the past, where they could, organized adivasis as a “tribal peasantry”, seeking unity with the non-tribal landless, poor and middle peasantry, in recent years the politics of “indigenism” or indigeneity has muddied the water of class-based mobilization.

Today indigeneity or identity politics has a broad appeal.  It is buttressed by the international alliances of NGOs who claim to unite the adivasis against persecution by “outsiders” and the state and is rooted in networks of indigenous peoples all over the world.  It is also a ground for adivasi proselytization by Christian evangelists and the semi-fascist Hindutva forces (for instance the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram).  And moreover, it is the foundation of the government’s own allegedly protectionist and progressive policies to seduce tribals away from organized resistance against the state — policies that have shaped, for instance, the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Area) Act of 1996 and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act.  In this context, too often a long history of class struggle is easily subverted into an indigenous struggle based on identity politics.  Mariátegui died in 1930 at the age of 36 but were he alive today no doubt he would have reminded us not to get sidetracked by the identity politics of indigeneity but to explore the “Indigenous Question” through an understanding of how it operated in the specific local Indian context — to see the adivasis in alliance with the landless, the poor and middle peasantry of other castes, and yet pay due attention to adivasi communitarian traditions, as a force for socialism.

Many of our failures stem from our penchant to mechanically imitate and copy rather than critically learn from the Russian and Chinese revolutions.  If Mariátegui had known that some of his writings are being published in India for the first time, we think he would have, above all, wished: May socialism in India be a “heroic creation”; may India’s own reality give the revolution its lifeblood.

Bernard D’Mello, deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, has edited and co-authored What Is Maoism and Other Essays (Kharagpur: Cornerstone Publications, 2010).  Alpa Shah, Reader at the Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics, is the author of In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).

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