Marxist thought in Latin America

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-ZA013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Ethics, religion and culture

The concept of human nature articulated by Mariátegui included a blend of existential, pragmatist, and Marxist influences (see Existentialism; Pragmatism). It was best characterized by a rejection of Cartesian rationalism and positivism (see Rationalism). He followed the Italian idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce in holding that, without a set of moral principles, specifically a principle condemning human exploitation, Marx’s critique of capitalist economy would not make sense (albeit that Marx was not interested in developing a moral philosophy). Influenced by the French labour theorist Georges Sorel, Mariátegui argued that socialism had an ethical function, which was to create a ’morality of producers’ in the process of struggling against capitalism. Therefore, Mariátegui was interested in articulating a work ethic based on socialist principles which would raise the moral consciousness of workers as they aimed to transform the exploitative conditions of class society.

Mariátegui departed from a ’scientific’ dialectical materialist account of social change by representing the proletariat, or working class, as an affirmative rather than a negative, social and political force. In his early writings Mariátegui argued that the characteristic gesture of the bourgeoisie was to negate, while that of the working class was to affirm. He counterposed bourgeois nihilism and decadence with working class optimism and confidence. In the Hegelian version of the dialectic, negation (rather than affirmation) was the process which moved history forward. This led Marxism to emphasize revolution as the negation of a previously established political order. However, in his account of Peruvian history, Mariátegui argued for socialism on positive grounds. Peruvian capitalism was described as weak and unable to undo the power of the rural conservative sectors, which retarded economic development. Socialism was depicted as the one solution that would incorporate the benefits of capitalism (creativity, discipline, productiveness) while accommodating the communitarian interests of the indigenous population.

In the light of Mariátegui’s portrayal of the workers and indigenous peasants as positive social forces, it could be argued that his concept of ethics, with its connection to socialism, was as close to Nietzsche’s idea of a superior morality as to Marx’s concept of social revolution. Mariátegui saw the advent of socialism as resulting from its own vigorous and undisputed success, not as a result of a class war. The work ethic he advocated contained a forceful and explicit rejection of what Nietzsche called a ’slave morality’, a moral system which was reactive rather than self-initiated in its positing of moral principles and/or practices (see Nietzsche, F. §8). Mariátegui also rejected the notion of a teleological end-state after the achievement of which history would end and all oppression would cease. He declared that no revolution can foretell a subsequent revolution, despite the fact that seeds of political change may have been planted. Like William James, Mariátegui attributed to human beings a basic ’will to believe’. However, he also held, after Sorel, that the object of the will to believe need not be a religion as traditionally understood: it could be a belief in social revolution. Such a belief, like religion, would satisfy the human hope for a better world. Mariátegui therefore subscribed to an open-ended concept of revolution, which favoured an adaptation of Marxist ideas to new historical circumstances, including new trends in theory beyond those with which Marx was acquainted, such as Hegelian philosophy.

Mariátegui’s views have been of interest to religious leftists, particularly Christians, motivated by a belief in a just and nonexploitative society, such as those committed to a theology of liberation (see Liberation theology). In the Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) he claims that it is a fundamental error for Marxists to attack the clergy and the church as if these were the principal obstacles to socialist change when the real enemy is the socioeconomic structure of society. He argued that the will to believe is a basic factor of human existence and that historical materialism as a theory of historical development should not be confused with philosophical materialism as a comprehensive theory of all reality. This view, conjoined with the view that, according to myth Indians regard the land as their common mother, contributed to Mariátegui’s most important theses that the exploitation of the Indians was due to the land tenure system of Peruvian society and that their liberation could only take place through a socialist structure respectful of the Indians’ ancient relationship to the land and the inherited collective practices of working it. His position suggested that the acceptance of modern Western standards of development should be tempered by respect for the forms of communal organization and bonding which characterize the lives of Peruvians whose cultural legacy is of pre-Columbian (non-Western) indigenous origin.

Mariátegui united his defence of an Indohispanic Peruvian socialism with a strong Marxist anti-imperialist statement. He argued that as long as imperialism exists, a Latin American society cannot be nationalist unless it is socialist. The economic and political structure of imperialism prevents the full realization of nationality in countries whose economic development is locked into a weak and backward capitalist structure controlled by foreign economic interests. He noted that imperialism implies racism in that the cultural values imposed by an imperialist north-over-south continental order were the values of a white bourgeois class, imported into the south by the white privileged classes of Latin America. The latter, he claimed, failed to question their own involvement in an exploitative and racist system. Mariátegui challenged capitalism in terms that emphasized class, race and a nation’s dependent status on the world market without promoting divisiveness or separatism.

Although Latin America has produced some well-known Marxist academic philosophers, including the Heideggerian Marxist Carlos Astrada (1894–1970) and the Marxist aesthetician Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1915–), it is José Carlos Mariátegui, a self-educated working class mestizo intellectual, to whom most contemporary scholars turn when the subject of inquiry involves the articulation of a specifically regional, that is Latin American, Marxism.

Citing this article:
Schutte, Ofelia. Ethics, religion and culture. Marxist thought in Latin America, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-ZA013-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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