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Latin American Marxisms

by Chris Hesketh on October 21, 2019

A new book edited by Peter Baker, Irina Feldman, Mike Geddes, Felipe Lagos and Roberto Pareja, entitled Latin American Marxisms in Context: Past and Present, brings together chapters from both established and early-career scholars to offer an excellent contribution to understanding both historical and contemporary aspects of Marxism in Latin America. Following the 2007-8 financial crisis and its subsequent ramifications, Historical Materialist perspectives have enjoyed a global renaissance, but, the authors argue (correctly in my view), ‘that this trend has acquired meaningful contours in Latin America.’ The volume’s express purpose is thus to ‘appraise the state of Marxism’ within the continent.

Divided into three sections, Part One of the book broadly deals with questions of political economy. It opens with a thought-provoking intervention from Lorenzo Fusaro, exploring the issue of underdevelopment via a dialogue (and critique) of two major perspectives on the role of capitalism within Latin America, namely Dependency Theory and Political Marxism (most notably here the work of Robert Brenner). The key point of contention between these two perspectives lies in understanding what forces are responsible for the underdevelopment of the continent (namely, the existence or non-existence of capitalism), as well as how we define what actually constitutes capitalism itself. Fusaro offers a via media between these two perspectives through a return to Marx’s General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, arguing that such a turn allows us to maintain the centrality of class exploitation (pace Political Marxism) whilst preserving an analysis of capitalist modernity that includes a dialectic of development and underdevelopment, as stressed by Dependency theorists.

Carol Muñoz Nieves’s chapter moves on to investigate the role of commodification in Cuba’s telecom and wireless sector, thereby offering a Marxist political economy of communication. The chapter traces the manner in which the state has utilised the commodification of mobile and internet services to capture hard currency, most notably in the context of the tourist boom. Mike Geddes closes the first section of the book by exploring the role of megaprojects in Latin America and their connection to neoliberalism and financialisation. Contemporary megaprojects are situated historically in relation to older twentieth-century forms under Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI) when the state tended to play the dominant role (with private financing minimal in comparison to today). The chapter notes the problems with forming nationally-articulated opposition to such projects and also queries whether progressive megaprojects could be feasible. The struggle over the TIPNIS project in Bolivia is highlighted to answer this question in the negative (although here it would have been useful to engage with Álvaro García Linera’s counter-arguments in Geopolítica de la Amazonía: Poder hacendal-patrimonial y acumulación capitalista.)

Part Two of the book shifts to engage with issues relating to state, space and civil society. It begins with a detailed and engaging overview by Britta Katharina Matthes regarding the struggle for autonomy and the attempt to forge a truly pluri-national state in Bolivia. The chapter offers a helpful addition to recent contributions (such as the excellent new book by Nancy Postero) to understanding the difficulties involved with the construction of an indigenous state in Bolivia. Such difficulties include the tension between consolidating the economic base of the state (via hydrocarbon exploitation) and the proposed social-communitarian model that would respect indigenous territorial claims and plural forms of economy. Matthes concludes her discussion by examining what these struggles in Bolivia might mean for different iterations of Marxian state theory. The chapter therefore adds to some outstanding recent discussions of how we should assess the class character of the Bolivian state, as well as past debates about situating the state as the centre of accumulation in Latin American revolutionary projects.

Nicolas Lema Habash ends the second section by offering a superbly original chapter exploring the role of space in the work of José Carlos Mariátegui, demonstrating how, in many ways, Mariátegui’s concerns prefigured those of Henri Lefebvre (who is widely considered to be the most important thinker on Marxism and questions of space). The chapter explores the production of spaces of closure (in the form of haciendas) and the broader situating of Peru in relation to the world market.  It is argued that Mariátegui can be thought of as a ‘geo-political activist’ whose emancipatory project was tied to the overcoming of insularity by transforming the material spaces that subaltern actors occupy.

Irina Feldman and Roberto Pareja go on to explore a dialogue between Liberal and Marxist traditions in Bolivia via an exploration of the work of Franz Tamayo and Fausto Reinaga. The latter is the author of the hugely important book, La Revolución India (published in 1969), that did much to inspire the revolutionary indigenous consciousness that informs major movements today. Further exposure of Reinaga’s ideas to an Anglophone audience are therefore highly welcome. However, for those not so familiar with Bolivia, some wider biographical details on the two thinkers might be necessary to understand their respective roles within national history.

The second section closes with a superb chapter by Felipe Lagos Rojas concerning the work of one of Latin America’s most original Marxist thinkers – Rene Zavaleta. Zavaleta’s most important work, Lo Nacional Popular has recently been translated into English for the first time, and this chapter will hopefully further aid in providing a wider reception for his ideas. Lagos Rojas focuses on one of Zavaleta’s key concepts – abigarramiento (or motley society) – to explore the coexistence of multiple modes of production and hence also the possibility of radical heterotemporality during periods of crisis (e.g. alliances between indigenous, peasant and working class formations, precisely as we saw in Bolivia during the years 2000-2005).

Part Three of the book moves on to consider issues of culture and emancipation. Gwendolen Pare opens the section with a chapter on Argentine essayist Pedro Lemebel and his seminal ‘Manifesto: Hablo por mi diferencia’. Lemebel was an openly homosexual militant in the Chilean Communist Party during the years of resistance to General Pinochet. He frequently used performance art to advance critique and raise consciousness of social issues (especially of those issues side-lined within broader leftist traditions). This chapter offers an important contribution to how queer theory and gendered struggles have played a role within Latin American Marxism, forcing us to reflect on the multiple categories of oppression and thus the task of socialist emancipation. Given the caricatured image of machismo often associated with Latin America, this is an important corrective.

The book closes with another exploration of the work of José Carlos Mariátegui, this time by Laura Lema Silva. This chapter, however, is concerned to explore Mariátegui’s role in relation to Latin American literary criticism. In particular, the chapter makes the case that the work of Mariátegui offers a way of thinking about the ‘aesthetics of liberation’ –  how works of art can provide emancipatory potential – that can ‘go beyond the limits of decolonial literary criticism’. It is argued that the major difference Marxism has from the latter, is that decolonial literature emphasises the importance of a local sense of space for emancipation, whereas Mariátegui deconstructs the difference between local and global.

Overall, the book offers a combination of original empirical chapters exploring contemporary issues of political transformation, exploitation and resistance and wonderful theoretical chapters, highlighting the contribution of key Latin American thinkers to the furtherance of Marxist debates. No text can cover all subjects, but some discussion of the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil or the Piqueteros in Argentina would have been highly welcome additions. Nevertheless, the book will work well as an introduction for those looking to discover the historical and contemporary relevance of Marxism for the region as well as providing standalone chapters that offer rich contributions to individual thinkers or areas of concern.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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