| Two Exemplary TwentiethCentury Socialist Latin American Lives José Carlos Mariátegui and Orlando Letelier | MR Online

Two exemplary Twentieth-Century Socialist Latin American lives: José Carlos Mariátegui and Orlando Letelier

Originally published: COHA (Council on Hemispheric Affairs) on January 10, 2022 by Nicholas Birns (more by COHA (Council on Hemispheric Affairs))  | (Posted Jan 12, 2022)

The two books we will analyze in this essay, Bread and Beauty: The Cultural Politics of José Carlos Mariátegui by Juan E. De Castro, and Alan McPherson’s Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice, are very different in subject matter, discipline, and style. But they both tell the stories of twentieth century Latin American activists of the left who strove for social justice and against dictatorship and authoritarianism. Together, they show the variety of and range of contemporary Latin American studies.

Although the name of José Carlos Mariátegui is well known to scholars of Latin American Marxism and critical theory, De Castro is right to say that he has been “relatively ignored in the English-speaking world” (5) despite his cosmopolitanism and his keen examination of Anglo-American modernism. De Castro portrays Mariátegui as expressing a “life praxis” (3) that is “egalitarian, anti-racist, in other words, socialist” (3). But Mariátegui, despite often being linked with the indigenista writers of Peru such as José María Arguedas was not, De Castro insists, a “rabid regionalist” (19). De Castro proffers instead a global and cosmopolitan thinker. More precisely, De Castro sees nationalism and cosmopolitanism as coextensive in Mariátegui, and deftly reads Mariátegui’s great work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, as revealing a vision where the “universal and local are imbricated.” (102) Seven Essays is an extraordinary book, part tract, part-intellectual history, part speculative vision, and De Castro gives the reader a good sense of this seminal work that will hopefully induce many to gravitate to the original (which is available in English, translated well by Marjory Urquidi).

He centers this latter argument around Argentina and Mariátegui’s sense of Buenos Aires as a “cultural meridian” (164) that could galvanize and stimulate the culture of the Andean nations, even though Argentina was, demographically, richer and whiter, and, culturally, far more under the economic umbrella of the British Empire. De Castro quotes Mariátegui’s close friend Luis Valcárcel of Peru saying that its “compass needle points towards the River Plate” (167). This was a contention at once indigenista, since parts of what is now Argentina were included in Qullasuyu, the southeastern quadrant of the Inca realm as it existed upon Spanish invasion, and cosmopolitan, as Argentina was celebrated by/for its greater “openness” and “cultural liberalism” (167). De Castro speculates on the counterfactual scenario of what would have happened if Mariátegui had lived to edit his journal Amauta (a journal virtually synonymous with him) in Buenos Aires. Would he have been able to bridge “aesthetic, cultural, and political radicalism?” (192). Would his presence have engendered both a more experiential strand of Latin American radicalism, and a more mestizo and even “woke” version of Argentina than that of Jorge Luis Borges and the journal Sur edited by Victoria Ocampo? We will ever know, but de Castro’s speculation reminds us that Mariátegui’s career was very much in progress when he died at the age of thirty-five, and that he had several more phases of his career ahead of him.

Though this is not a biography, De Castro gives a good sense of Mariátegui as a person. His stress on Mariátegui’s affinity with the syndicalism of the Ferenc thinker Georges Sorel is very useful in showing how Mariátegui was always a committed Marxist but never a party-line Communist. De Castro’s approach is not hagiographic. He admits, for instance, Mariátegui’s racism, especially towards Asians. Much of this had to do with the Marxist tendency, inherited from Hegelianism and its teleological, Eurocentric assumptions, to see Asia as backward. When Chinese Peruvians seem other than passive refugees clinging to their own culture, when they (ironically, given what surely would have been Mariátegui’s eventual support of Mao Zedong) support the “nationalist and progressive politics” (82) of “Kuomintang China,” Mariátegui is willing to welcome them into the fold of a radicalizing coalition. Though De Castro might be a bit too exculpatory of Mariátegui on this point, he rightly asserts that Mariátegui’s’ racist remarks should not lead to regarding him as a racist; De Castro sees Mariátegui as, at his core, anti-racist.

Anyone who writes about Mariátegui must address a raft of Peruvian predecessors and contemporaries, as so many of these are polemical dramatis personae in Seven Essays. Manuel González Prada, Clemente Palma, and the enigmatic Abraham Valdelomar (whom Mariátegui at one point tremendously overrated, and even in Seven Essays treats him at unusual length) are all addressed cogently by De Castro. Preeminent here is in the treatment of Mariátegui’s contemporary and rival, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre. Haya was a far more practical politician than the theoretically inclined Mariátegui, and the Apra party that he founded later became a rather nondescript party of the center. But De Castro points out that at the beginning of his career Haya saw his party as a Leninist revolutionary vanguard. At times, the difference between the two men seems simply lexical, as Haya de la Torre refused to use the word socialism; at others, there seems to be a fundamental gap between the two thinkers’ models of thought and action, a divide further explored in the great work by the late Eugenio Chang-Rodríguez, Pensamiento y acción en González Prada, Mariátegui, y Haya de la Torre.

De Castro’s book brings Mariátegui alive in the Anglophone world in an unprecedented manner and reminds us of the cogency of a thinker whose struggles to reconcile bread and beauty, the material base and the cultural superstructure, are still relevant today as we face the resurgence of the rightist authoritarianism that Mariátegui saw in Mussolini’s Italy. In this light, Mariátegui is not just an interesting regional thinker, but a still-reverberating global force.

Fascism, neoliberalism and the murder of Orlando Letelier

If we can speak of a twenty-first century Fascism, that term is complicated by the emergence of neoliberalism, which, with its rhetoric of freedom, choice, and idiosyncrasy, seems divergent from the mass conformity that Fascism overtly sought to promulgate. Yet, albeit by different means, neoliberalism, with its habit of, in the words of Federico Finchelstein, “undermining democratic diversity and equality” (Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019, p. 4) has stood in the way of the genuinely just society that Mariátegui so ardently sought. The link between fascism and neoliberalism can be found in the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship of Chile. McPherson’s book on the September 1976 murder of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean Ambassador to the U.S., and his colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt, makes the point that we should also see the Pinochet regime as a pioneer of state-sponsored global terrorism. McPherson indeed points out that the Letelier-Moffitt murders were the first acts of state-sponsored murder carried out by a foreign power on U.S. soil and “the only state-sponsored assassination ever in Washington” (8). In other words, whereas at the time the killings were seen as an isolated atrocity perpetrated by a despicable regime, today they seem more a portent of catastrophes to come, from the September 11, 2001 attacks to the transnational Right as a force of terror and, by extension (though McPherson’s book was published in 2019), the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, DC. Ariel Dorfman in 2001 linked the two September 11s, those of 1973 and 2001; McPherson’s book threads this relationship even more closely.

McPherson’s book, though, is largely narrative, and indeed contains some scenes worthy of a Mario Vargas Llosa or, even more, a Roberto Bolaño novel. Chief among these is that when Letelier was Pinochet’s superior in the Defense Ministry of Chile, Pinochet was fawningly deferential to his civilian superior, the same man whom a few years later he would ruthlessly assassinate. The Allende administration simply did not see Pinochet coming., This was perhaps due to Pinochet perpetrating a con job on his civilian superiors with displays of “obsequiousness” (29) and to right-wing forces in Chile that galvanized around Pinochet, transmuting him into a force far worse than he initially seemed. Allende’s trust on his military chief up until the very last minute indicates his vulnerability to such a treacherous strategy. Whatever the truth, that the two men worked together so closely is an irony that would have seemed contrived as a fictional plot device . Compounding this irony is that “Pinochet” and “Letelier” both had French names and came from families of “longtime French immigrants who had done well in Chile” (30).

Ironies like this are juxtaposed to the humanity that McPherson’s narrative accords the victims. While not putting Letelier on a pedestal—McPherson makes clear his flaws and inconsistencies—McPherson movingly conveys the final message Letelier gave to his wife Isabel on the morning of September 21, 1976, that he had a surprise for her. Isabel, of course, never was able to find out what the surprise was, as Orlando died shortly thereafter. McPherson portrays Ronni Moffitt as a promising and idealistic young woman whose passing left an irreplaceable gap in the lives of her husband and parents. Among the benefits of the long timespan in McPherson’s book is not only more temporal perspective than earlier accounts of the Letelier-Moffitt murders, but also a chronicle of the lengthy search for justice for the victims and the long arc of mourning for the bereaved. McPherson relates the investigative and juridical process by which responsibility for the murders was traced to DINA, the Chilean intelligence agency, through the immediate means of its unsavory American operative, Michael Townley. But he also gives a sense of the trauma experienced by the Letelier and Moffitt families, the way their suffering was not just in the moment but continued for many decades, and was never truly over. Townley’s conviction brought justice, but not resolution or restitution, which can never come in the same sense. McPherson’s account thus gives a sense of what the legal system can and cannot give victims of terrible crimes.

It would have been inspiring if one could say that the murders in Sheridan Circle in 1976 were roundly denounced across the political spectrum. This was far from being the case. Indeed, without the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter and strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the investigation would have never gotten seriously underway. McPherson shows how the American Right systematically tried to underplay the urgency of the crime, to reassign blame, and to defame the victims. They alleged, falsely, that Letelier and Moffitt were having an affair and that Letelier was killed by Marxists. This last falsehood was amplified by none other than Ronald Reagan, who, in a radio broadcast of the late 1970s when he was preparing his 1980 presidential run, speculated that the Left might have killed Letelier “to create a martyr” (160). Critics of the Trump administration often drew a rhetorical contrast between the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump and a sunnier, more principled time under Reagan. McPherson’s account argues against such a contrast. Indeed, along with the two September 11s we might think of the two 1980s—of Reagan’s election and the constitutional referendum engineered by Pinochet that kept him in power for eight more years and that only the defiance of the Chilean people prevented him from remaining in power for far longer.

In August 1980, when I was fifteen years old, I had the honor of briefly meeting Isabel Letelier. My father, as founding director of COHA, worked closely with the victims of human-rights violations by dictatorships. l He had a cordial acquaintance with Isabel, and introduced me to her at a reception, perhaps sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), on a sunny summer afternoon. Isabel Letelier could not have been more cordial to me or a better listener. Reading the full story, as portrayed in McPherson’s book of the tragedy she experienced, leaves me even more impressed by her courage and perseverance. Letelier also had four sons, Cristián, José, Francisco, and Juan Pablo, whose process of coming to terms with their father’s loss is vividly rendered by McPherson. McPherson makes sure we never lose sight of the human ravages of authoritarian persecution.

Had José Carlos Mariátegui lived to the age achieved by his rival Haya, he would have seen the Pinochet coup which at once would have confirmed his sense of the obstacles facing social reform in Latin America and diminished his hope for thoroughgoing political transformation in the region. Letelier and Mariátegui were people of different aptitudes and emphases. But they surely both would have rejoiced to see the December 2021 election of Gabriel Boric to the Chilean Presidency: the first time since Allende’s era that a leftist President will sit in La Moneda. McPherson’s and De Castro’s accounts embody how the hopes of the past can still give sustenance to the future.

Juan E. De Castro, Bread and Beauty: The Cultural Politics of José Carlos Mariátegui. Leiden: Brill, 2021, 246 pp. 978-90-04-4412-85-9. The book is also published in paperback by Haymarket.

Alan McPherson, Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 392 pp. 78-1-4696-5350-1.

Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker, José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology. August 2011, Monthly Review 9781583672457


Nicholas Birns teaches at New York University and has published many books and essays of literary criticism, including on Mario Vargas Llosa and Roberto Bolaño.