Marxist thought in Latin America

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-ZA013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1. The problem of orthodoxy

The mechanisms for implementing Marxist orthodoxy were not clear when the ideology was first introduced and then began to take shape between the 1870s and 1920s. The newness of socialist and communist ideas led Marxists to view themselves as future-oriented and revolutionary thinkers. Among the best-known early Latin American Marxists were the Argentine Aníbal Ponce, the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui and the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella. Mella was a university student leader strongly influenced by the thought of the Cuban patriot José Martí. Ponce was involved in education and publishing, wrote on socialist humanism and from 1923–5 coedited, with the Argentine positivist philosopher José Ingenieros, the Revista de Filosofía, cultura, ciencias, educación (Journal of Philosophy, Culture, Science, Education) (1915–29). Ponce became sole editor after Ingenieros’s death in 1925.

Mariátegui, a journalist and social critic, was acknowledged as the most influential of the early Latin American Marxist thinkers. Author of Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) and editor of the journal Amauta: Revista mensuel de doctrina, literatura, arte, polémica (Amauta: Monthly Review of Doctrine, Literature, Art and Polemics) (1926–30), he developed a highly original position in Latin American Marxism by stressing the importance of ethnicity, or indigenous culture, in the construction of national identity. He did so by maintaining a flexible position with regard to the relationship of Marxism to the latest theoretical currents from Europe and the USA, namely Bergsonian philosophy, pragmatism and psychoanalysis (see Bergson, H.-L.; Pragmatism). He also rejected the notion of an essential antagonism between Marxism and religious thought, thereby breaking with the orthodox Marxist view that a materialist philosophy of history necessarily presupposes a materialist metaphysics. Mariátegui expounded his original ideas as part of his commitment to both a Leninist Marxism and the project of building a socialist society in Peru. As founder of the Socialist Party of Peru, he was criticized during his short life for some of his views by the Communist International. The ’errors’ in his ideas were especially criticized during the Stalinist era, until a resurgence of interest in his work took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

For the first generation of Marxists, orthodoxy was less of a problem than for succeeding generations, since their task was to forge the new political philosophy which was not without codification. Marxism’s link between theory and practice inevitably has raised the problem of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Marxism’s role is explanatory and predictive as well as conceptual. It is a theory whose goal is to create a determinate set of political effects. Its difficult aim is to construct a society without class exploitation.

Of fundamental historical importance to Marxism have been the questions of the scientific correctness of the theory designed to change the world and the correct political orientation of the leaders charged with developing and applying the theory in historical conditions, subsequent to those experienced by Marx and Engels. Depending on one’s critical approach, Marxist theory can range from a nonpolitical intellectual analysis and critique of various aspects of capitalism as they affect human life and society to a dogmatic exposition and defence of the main theses accepted collectively at Communist Party congresses.

Orthodoxy is a relative concept. A position is orthodox in relation to the dogmas, truths, or methods that are taken to be central to a particular doctrine or school of thought. A Marxist thinker may be a dissident with respect to one school of Marxism while representing an orthodox position in another. The degree to which a Marxist position is free from orthodoxy is determined by the extent of its ability to question the closest Marxist authority with which it is associated. Marxist politics tend to impose a collective discipline over an individual’s analysis of social reality. In cases where Marxist philosophy is practised within a socialist state that permits only one political party, the collective constraints over individual thought can be highly exacting. Although not all Marxists defend a one-party political system, those who do assert that the defence of the emerging socialist state against imperialism must take the highest priority.

Traditionally, Marxism relies on the methodologies of dialectical and historical materialism. From Hegel’s self-validating account of dialectical thinking, Marxists inherited the view that dialectics provide an insuperable scientific conception of reality (see Hegel, G.W.F.). Using the logic of dialectical materialism, orthodox Marxism holds that reality is material and that it changes by oppositional as well as by qualitative movements governed by dialectical laws known to the human mind. Marxist orthodoxy gave the name of ’scientific socialism’ to this perspective. Applying a dialectical and material concept of change to history, historical materialism posits that the development of history is caused by material (primarily economic) factors, that history progresses through stages and that the change from one historical stage to another takes place when internal contradictions lead the old economic structures to be phased out in favour of newer, stronger and more universal elements. Historical materialism postulates that at the point of qualitative change between capitalism and socialism there lies a social revolution that will dismantle the old class divisions within society and lead eventually to a classless society in which the exploitation of human beings by human beings ceases to exist.

As a political philosophy Marxism argued that such exploitation can only be overcome by a social and political revolution in which the working class plays the dominant and leading liberatory role. After Lenin, Marxism-Leninism broadened the class of revolutionary political subjects to include both workers and peasants, students and intellectuals, all of whom had the same revolutionary aspirations. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) called the revolutionary intellectuals who supported the social revolution ’organic intellectuals’. In Latin America this view influenced many leftist intellectuals to back popular revolutionary movements led by Marxist leaders, as in Cuba and Nicaragua. The Marxist-Leninist-Gramscian influence, augmented in the 1960s by the political impact of leaders such as Ernesto ’Ché’ Guevara, distinguished a wide sector of Latin American Marxism from Western European critical Marxism, whose intellectual roots were closer to Hegel, Marx, phenomenology, existentialism and critical theory (see Critical theory; Existentialism; Phenomenology in Latin America). In Western Marxism, the materialist view of the worker and peasant protagonists of history is downplayed while issues such as alienation, the individual and social justice and the combined effects of oppressive class, race, and gender relations in the critique of capitalist economics are foregrounded.

Despite the problem of orthodoxy which delimits the production of Marxist philosophy and social thought, as a critique of capitalism and capitalist social structures Marxism yields some important and original insights which are absent from bourgeois philosophy and ideology. Mariátegui’s focus on the construction of an Indohispanic socialism in Peru is a case in point.

Citing this article:
Schutte, Ofelia. The problem of orthodoxy. 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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