2/2/11

Hispanic America

Frida Kahlo / Autorretrato para Trotsky
Francisco  Sobrino  / Especial para Gramscimanía

When we speak about reception, we should keep in mind what Walter Benjamin considered in his studies about it. He sought to replace the “old, dogmatic and naive” idea of reception with a “new and critical” one.1 The former stressed the influence of a certain work on its contemporaries. The latter stresses the historical constellation between texts from the past and the prevailing interests and preoccupations of the present.2 In the case of Karl Marx, a question then arises: What makes Marx's texts a challenging legacy for us in Latin America today?

In the 80s and 90s, neoliberalism prevailed in nearly all the countries. The Latin American left appeared to be exhausted, doomed as it was by the End of History. But the neoliberal wave with its vicious pro-market reforms failed to extinguish social resistance. Resistance in fact grew. Not only workers, but also indigenous people, small peasants, the unemployed, and women joined its ranks. In the late 20th century, neoliberal policies began to wither, as the resulting crisis devastated the population and triggered unrest, revolts and government collapse. As a result, the new century witnessed an unforeseen landscape, with its so-called “left turn of Latin American.” New administrations in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela share, despite obvious distinctions, a common critical view of neoliberal policies.


This move, as well as the eruption and development of the current world economic crisis, has affected the intellectual arena in various ways. At the same time, the traditional reading of Marxian texts was enriched by new theoretical contributions, partially due to the different social agents getting involved in current developments.

We shall survey the various countries in alphabetical order, but we must first briefly mention Spain, given the significance of Spanish translators and scholars in the publication of Marx-Engels Collected Works in our language. New editions of the Werke by the Fondo de Cultura Económica de México (edited by Wenceslao Roces) and Manuel Sacristan's version in Grijalbo España (called OME: Obras de Marx-Engels) are currently interrupted, because of the respective directors' deaths - Roces in 1992, Sacristan in 1985. Today, in the Spanish-speaking world there are no critical, philologically grounded Spanish editions of Marx-Engels works in progress. The Spanish version of Capital by Pedro Scaron,3 despite having corrected a number of widely-known mistakes from Roces' translation,4 is considered by some researchers as only “partially critical,” because Scaron did not take into account, for example, the French edition of Capital which had been corrected and modified by Marx, who viewed it as an “independent” work from the original German edition, with a scientific value of its own.

In Argentina, since the coup d'état of 1976 a brutal dictatorship was imposed that lasted until 1983, repressing any resistance and trying to wipe off any traces of Marxism and for that matter, any other body of critical ideas. With the restoration of democratic regimes and the return of many exiled intellectuals, there was a revival of cultural activities. The emerging intelligentsia was heavily influenced by European and North American trends: postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism and the like. Few scholars and researchers remained devoted to Marx's ideas. José Sazbón stood out among them. Some of his last essays (he died in 2008) were published in his book Historia y representación.5 The interest in Marx began again to grow in the late 20th century, incarnated in a growing minority of young scholars and researchers. New translations of Marx-Engels works have appeared: Escritos sobre literatura (Marx-Engels),6 Manuscritos económico-filosóficos de 18447 and El manifiesto comunista.8 These books are direct new translations from German by Miguel Vedda and a team of translators, and include critical notes about each text.

Nicolás González Varela, an Argentine scholar residing in Spain since 2002, recently translated Marx's notebooks on Spinoza, of which he has written a study soon to be published in Barcelona.9 Nestor Kohan, another young author devoted to Marxian thought, has writen several books on Marx and his work,10 stressing his relevance for our days. Oscar del Barco has republished his El otro Marx.11 Independent Marxist journals have appeared (and, regrettably in some cases, also disappeared) in the last two decades: El rodaballo, Herramienta, Cuadernos del sur, Doxa, Razón y Revolución, Periferias, and El nuevo topo. Herramienta also publishes Marxist books and is currently sponsoring a seminar on Marxism at the University of Buenos Aires. Some leftist parties and groups have also published theoretical-political Marxist journals: Cuadernos Marxistas, Socialismo o barbarie, Socialismo libertario, Lucha de clases, En defensa del Marxismo, Tesis 11. Both the Instituto del Pensamiento Socialista “Karl Marx”and the Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas are academic and archival institutions, engaged in the dissemination of Marx's ideas, teaching, researching and preserving Marxist publications and books.

Regarding Bolivia some background remarks are necessary. In 1946 the Bolivian labor movement adopted the Theses of Pulacayo, a political platform based on Trotsky's conception of permanent revolution. Armed miners paraded through the streets of La Paz in the 1950s. All this nurtured the legend of a deeply committed Marxist revolutionary working class. Nonetheless, in the early 21st century, the socialist views of most of the Bolivian population (as well as of the Bolivian government and intelligentsia) are shaped much more by indigenism than by the ideas of Marx. Early Marxism in Bolivia was rooted in the modern sector of the working class - miners and industrial workers - and was greatly influenced by the rationality of capitalist modernization. Dogmatic manuals with their reductionist views were adopted by the various Marxist parties, which thus denigrated the overwhelming Indian and peasant population of the country, ignoring what Marx himself had written on that topic.12 The later decline of Bolivian mining, and hence of the trade unions, coincided with the rise of Indian and social movements, which were nearly totally alien to these Marxist groups and intellectuals.13 At the same time, new critical Marxists emerged, reflecting a more appropriate view of the indigenous and communal subject.14 This new trend seeks to reconcile indigenism with Marxism, in order to link domestic with universal knowledge production. Among the books of this critical Marxist current are El fantasma insomne. Pensando el presente desde El manifiesto comunista,15 De demonios escondidos y momentos de revolución. Marx y la revolución social en las extremidades del cuerpo capitalista,16 and La potencia plebeya.17

In Chile, General Pinochet's coup (1973) and subsequent repressive dictatorship dealt a strong blow to the academic and intellectual body. Despite the subsequent democratic restoration, study of Marx and Marxist theory has been severely reduced. An exception is Jorge Larraín's El concepto de ideología - Carlos Marx.18 The Centro de Estudios Nacionales de Desarrollo Alternativo (CENDA) is organizing seminars on Marxist economic and social issues. There are some seminars devoted to Marxian ideas: a “Hegel-Marx Permanent Seminar” in the University of Chile and “Marx Vive” International Seminar in the Arcis University.

Of all Latin American countries, Colombia is perhaps the one where the intelligentsia and the academic world have moved furthest to the right since 1989. The only exception was a commemoration of the 150thanniversary of Communist Manifesto, organized by Jairo Estrada, a professor in Colombia's National University, and entitled (as in Chile) “Marx Vive.” Six follow-up meetings have been held in subsequent years. There have been no domestic editions of Marx's works, except the Manifesto, in the last decade. According to a Colombian Marxist author, the most important shortcoming of Colombian leftists today is that “nobody reads nor studies, because they are only devoted to electoral participation, hence their theoretical orphanhood.”19

Cuba is of course a special case, given the firmly established revolutionary commitment of its ruling party. Two major journals reflect the range of thought and debate among Cuba's leading intellectuals. One is Marx Ahora, led by Isabel Monal;20 the other is Temas, led by Rafael Hernández. The former is, as its name suggests, the more explicitly focused on Marx, but the latter is significant as an expression of the scope of critical discussion currently taking place in Cuba, which has broadened significantly over the past decade.21 Both in these journals and in its book-publishing, Cuba has served also, for several decades, as a forum for Marxist writing from all over Latin America.

Of course, some Marxian texts are mandatory in Cuban universities, but their reception is mixed. While a segment of Cuban opinion, under the guise of being apolitical, has an implicit pro-capitalist orientation, the major part of the intellectual spectrum ranges from those who identify closely with the state and its institutions to those who, although strongly critical of the state, adhere firmly to socialist and democratic principles.22

Two factors have remarkably increased the number of Marx's readers in Ecuador: the generalized capitalist world crisis and ensuing search for answers, as well as a new interest in socialism since President Rafael Correa avowed his affinity with “21st-century socialism,” following his Venezuelan colleague, Hugo Chávez. Nevertheless, no book on Marx has been published in these last ten years, and there are no domestic publications of the Collected Works of Marx-Engels, perhaps due to the limited dimensions of domestic publishing industry. Espacios, led by Francisco Hidalgo, is the most important Marxist journal. Interestingly enough, in 2004 a bilingual version of the Communist Manifesto, in Spanish and in Quechua was published by the PCMLE (Ecuador's Marxist Leninist Communist Party). This is probably the first translation of this famous text into the most important indigenous language of South America (spoken also in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina).

In México, a number of researchers and scholars, such as Miguel Angel Porrua. Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez,23 Jorge Veraza,24 Pedro López Díaz,25 Ecuadorian-born Bolívar Echeverría (who had recently edited and translated the 1861-1863 Manuscripts26, and deceased on early June, 2010) et al, have recently written books on Marx's ideas and influence in the Latin American context. Marxist journals include: Dialéctica, edited by Gabriel Vargas Lozano, Bajo el volcán, led by John Holloway, Sergio Tischler and Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, and Memoria, led by Héctor Díaz-Polanco. One may mention here Eugene Gogol, a US researcher on Hegel's and Marx's ideas on Latin America, who resides mostly in México. Gogol published the Spanish version of his work, El concepto del otro en la liberación latinoamericana.27 Enrique Dussel, an Argentine-born philosopher, resident in Mexico since the 70s, has written well-known works on Marx,28 including one suggesting that Marx wrote four drafts of Capital.29 A devotee of “philosophy of liberation,” Dussel continues to write on Marx and his works. His essays from 2007, “Las 'Kategorias' in Marx” and “Descubrimiento definitivo de la categoría de 'plusvalor'” [on surplus value] are available on the Internet.30

Peru's José Carlos Mariátegui, described by Michael Löwy as “the true founder of Latin American Marxism,”31 wrote in 1928, “We do not want socialism in Latin America to be an imitation or a copy. It must be a heroic creation. We must inspire Indo-American socialism with our own reality, our own language. That is a mission worthy of a new generation.”32 His warning went largely unheard, for at that time the Latin American Communist movement was strongly influenced by Stalinism. But nowadays his perspective is widely shared by Marxist intellectuals throughout the continent. Despite the undeniable and persistent influence of Mariátegui in his home country, Peru was also hard hit by the developments in the 80s and 90s, weakening the domestic Marxist intelligentsia. Very few scholars now identify with Marxism. Notable among them is Aníbal Quijano, who coined the concept of "coloniality of power" to denote the structures of power, control, and hegemony that have emerged during the modern era, the era of colonialism, which stretches from the conquest of the Americas to the present. We should also mention Guillermo Rochabrún, who recently wrote Batallas por la teoría. En torno a Marx y el Perú.33

In Puerto Rico, because of its intellectual and cultural isolation, the one notable researcher on Marx is Georg Fromm, who has written “Hegel y el joven Marx: Análisis del trabajo enajenado” [on alienated labor];34“Hegel y el joven Marx: 'El hombre como ser natural humano'” [on man as a natural being];35 and “Empirismo, Ciencia y Filosofía en La ideología alemana.”36

In Venezuela, as a consequence of the Chávez administration's campaigns,37 the publication of Marxist and Marx Engels' books quadrupled between 2004 and 2010. Twenty percent of this production was by private publishing houses: Vadell Hnos,  Alfadil Editores and Ediciones B. The remaining 80% was published by the Venezuelan State. Of more than 72 million books published in these last six years, nearly 20% are works of Marx or Marxist authors. There are cultural and academic think tanks dedicated to spreading such works, such as the CIM (Centro Internacional Miranda).

Let us consider now again Latin America by and large. Since the early diffusion of Marx's articles and books in late 19th Century, the reception on his work has historically developed through various stages. Furthermore, as we have succinctly seen above, Marx has gained an uneven reception in the different countries we have considered in this chapter. Nevertheless, it could be said that there is something in common in all them - the drive to what we could name a Latin American reading of Marx's ideas. A reading among whose ingredients are heterodoxy, anti-imperialism, cultural concerns, voluntarism, self-criticism of the former dependence on Stalinist dogmas and a rejection to the so called euro-centrism; in short, in Mariategui's already quoted words, “nor an imitation neither a copy”. As Omar Acha and Débora D'Antonio affirm, “former polarities are now being rethought: reform/revolution, national/international, class/race or class/gender, democratic/revolutionary, state/civil society, and so on. (...) No local experience (like the current ones of Bolivia and Venezuela) aspires to prevail as a continental model.”38 Nonetheless, these experiences have an effect on the rest of the continent, shaping by this way the Latin American reception on Marx's ideas as a whole.