José Carlos Mariátegui and Cultural Studies

Juan E. de Castro

Colorado School of Mines


Despite being recognized as the foremost Latin American Marxist, the writings of José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930) have generally been ignored in current critical debates. (1) Lack of interest in the Peruvian Marxist contrasts with that shown in other canonical Latin American essayists such as José Martí and José Vasconcelos, who have been "naturalized," in the INS meaning of the word, by well-known Mexican American intellectuals of both the "left" and the "right," such as José David Saldívar, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Richard Rodriguez. (Vasconcelos, for instance, is a central influence on the "theoretical" reflections to be found in Anzaldúaís Borderlands/La Frontera and Rodriguezís Days of Obligation; and José Martí is one of the acknowledged sources for Saldívarís Dialectics of Our America). Moreover, this North American interest in thinkers from Spanish America and Brazil is not limited to those who are generally considered to be part of the regionís literary and critical canon. The Argentine anthropologist Nestor García Canclini is, for instance, a major voice in current theoretical discussions.

Nevertheless, the case can be made that out of the "classic" Latin American essayists--the already mentioned Vasconcelos and Martí, as well as Eugenio María de Hostos, Gilberto Freyre, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Fernando Ortiz, among others--Mariátegui is one of the most relevant to the current intellectual climate. At the core of Mariáteguiís continued significance lies the centrality of culture in much of our intellectual discourse, as well as the importance given to "cultural politics" and the political import assigned to cultural products, in particular those associated with the mass media. In other words, I am arguing that Mariátegui can be seen as both a precursor and a foil to contemporary cultural studies.

My assertion of a connection between Mariátegui and cultural studies may puzzle even those who have read his essays. After all, one cannot imagine him celebrating the subversive character of Rap or Madonna. In his writings, for instance, he refers in negative terms to the new popular music of his time, jazz. (2) And, as a critic, he is surprisingly indifferent to contemporary developments in popular Peruvian culture. He shows no interest in Afro-Peruvian culture, instead dismissing it in the strongest possible terms. (3) The first and, arguably, greatest flowering of coastal criollo music is never mentioned in his mature writings. Despite his well-known interest in Peruís indigenous population, he refers to their culture in only the most general and superficial terms. (4) Nevertheless, one can find in his essays an analysis of the social and political role of "culture" that can easily be extended to the fields of popular and mass culture.

Around forty percent of Mariáteguiís writings are dedicated to topics that can be classified under the rubric of the "cultural." Among these one can include literary criticism--the best known example of which is the last of the Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, "Literature on Trial"--film criticism--the cinema is the one mass art on which he writes--as well as miscellaneous articles and passages in his essays dealing with cultural practices such as religion or the celebration of Christmas. (5) But what links Mariátegui with todayís cultural theorists is his belief in the central role cultural production plays in the development of progressive (or regressive) social and political change.

At the core of Mariáteguiís writings is this belief in the imbrication of culture and politics. His analysis of the Peruvian reality of his time can serve as an example of this. For him, the Peru of his time is characterized by the survival underneath republican political institutions of colonial social and economic structures. This fact is especially true in the case of the distribution of land where, as he writes, "The estate owning aristocracy of the colony, holder of power, maintained intact its feudal rights over the land and, therefore, over the Indian" (Siete ensayos 46). (6) This social inequality is simultaneously reflected and justified by the survival of colonial modes of thinking not only in politics, but also in art and literature. Therefore, for Mariátegui, the abandonment of colonial intellectual habits and artistic styles is more than the casting aside of an obsolete tradition. It is the required first step towards the rejection of an unjust social structure. In order to change the social reality of Peru it is indispensable to clearly see the injustice hidden and justified by prevalent colonial modes of thinking.

Mariátegui provides an example of this relationship between culture, politics, and social change (or lack thereof) in his analysis of José de la Riva-Agüero and the "Futurist Generation" in "Literature on Trial." According to Mariátegui, the Futurists, a group of conservative intellectuals influential during the first two decades of the twentieth century, provide an ideological justification for the survival of the colonial structures that had been placed under intellectual siege by the writings of the nineteenth century radical Manuel González Prada and his followers: "The Ďfuturistí generation makes use of [. . .] [the] nostalgia and romanticism in the serenade under the balconies of the viceroyalty, which is intended politically to revive a legend indispensable to the supremacy of the heirs of the colony" (Seven Interpretative Essays 226-27). By creating a romantic legend out of the actual injustice of the colony, the Futurists grant ideological justification to the social and economic structures that originated in that period. The elimination of the colonial economic structures, in other words, the latifundio, the large semi-feudal estates that dominated the countryside, is only possible if the "indispensable" ideological veil fabricated by the Futurists is removed. Thus Mariátegui, believes that social change is ultimately impossible without cultural change.

It should not surprise, therefore, that Mariátegui assigns to contemporary cultural movements a central role in the eradication of the obsolete and exploitative social structures of the Peru of his time. For instance, in the presentation of his journal, Amauta, Mariátegui writes about political and cultural movements in a manner that makes clear the interrelationship between these two fields: "This journal does not represent a group in the intellectual arena. It represents, rather, a movement, a spirit. A current of renewal, ever more vigorous and well defined, has been felt for some time in Peru. The supporters of this renewal are called vanguardists, socialist, revolutionaries, etc" ("Introducing Amauta" 74). In this list of those contributing to the intellectual renewal of his country, Mariátegui includes both political and artistic movements. For the Peruvian critic, the artistic and literary avant-garde is participating together with the political left in the eradication of colonial modes of thinking.

But Mariáteguiís analysis of the political function of cultural production is not limited to Peru. He believes that in Europe, the avant-garde is playing a similar progressive role insofar as it unmasks the ideological bases of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. As Mariátegui writes in "Art, Revolution, and Decadence": "The revolutionary aspect of these contemporary schools or tendencies is not their creation of a new technique. Neither is it the destruction of the old technique. It is the repudiation, the removal, the taunting of bourgeois universals" (171). By undermining the intellectual foundations on which, he believes, capitalism is grounded, Mariátegui identifies a progressive, he even calls it revolutionary, function in art.

While the examples above have emphasized the revolutionary role played by the avant-garde both in Europe and America, it must be noted that Mariátegui identified similar progressive functions in other literary and artistic movements and genres. Indigenismo, what he calls Proletarian Realism, and even a popular and mass art form as Chaplinís cinema are described by Mariátegui as helping to prepare the ground for democratic and socialist social change both in Peru and throughout the world. (7) Nevertheless, one can argue that his interest and close contact with the avant-garde is of extreme importance in the development of Mariáteguiís ideas about culture. (8) As several critics, have pointed out, one of the aims of the avant-garde was the integration of art and everyday life. Art, it was believed, could modify the ways people experienced reality. Mariátegui took this insight of the avant-garde and incorporated it into a Marxist analysis of the role of culture and cultural production in social change.

It must be noted, however, that Mariátegui does not automatically identify avant-garde art forms as progressive. In "Art, Revolution, and Decadence," Mariátegui argues that "not all new art is revolutionary" (170). In fact, the "revolutionary" or, on the contrary, "decadent" qualities of a work of art are directly related to the degree in which they question and, therefore, undermine the ideological bases of capitalism (and, one can surmise, in the case of Peru, colonial structures). But Mariátegui's most profound insight in this essay is that "decadence and revolution, in the same way that they co-exist in the same world, so they coexist in the same individuals" (170). And, one can add, without in the least betraying his thought, that "decadent" and "revolutionary," politically and socially progressive and regressive, elements can co-exist within the same work of art.

It should be clear that Mariáteguiís identification of a work of art--or an aspect of a work of art--as "progressive" has little to do with the explicit political ideology of the individual artist. Artists aligned with fascism, such as Luigi Pirandello, or indifferent to social causes, such as James Joyce, are singled out by Mariátegui for their "revolutionary" virtues. Thus, he writes about the author of Ulysses: "On the desk of a revolutionary critic, independently of any hierarchical consideration, a book by Joyce will always be more valuable than one by any neo-Zola" ("Populismo literario y estabilización capitalista" 35). Here Mariátegui is close to Marx and Engels who saw in the representation of 19th century capitalist society found in Balzac's novels a debunking of bourgeois social myths, despite the French authorís explicit support of the monarchist restoration. (9) The Peruvian author sees in Joyce, Pirandello, and the avant-garde, a similar "realistic" representation of twentieth century reality, which now includes an unconscious dimension "discovered" by Freud. (10) If ideology is identified with the incapacity of seeing things as they really are, Balzac, for the founders of Marxism, and the avant-garde, for Mariátegui, fulfill a revolutionary function by showing the mystifications elaborated by the bourgeoisie for what they are and, therefore, eliminating part of the cultural resistance to political and social change.

Thus Mariátegui shares with today's cultural theorists a belief in the centrality of culture in the development of progressive political change. However, the differences between his approach to cultural analysis and that of cultural studies should be evident. Despite the fact that given the numerical expansion of the audience, he sees in popular and mass arts, such as Chaplinís films, the possibility of fulfilling, what he calls, "the hedonistic and liberating function of art" in a greater numerical scale than ever before, Mariátegui's analysis opposes cultural studiesí frequent identification of mass cultural products as almost always progressive ("Outline of an Interpretation of Chaplin" 194). In fact, as we have seen, cultural analysis is, for Mariátegui, the identification of "progressive" and "regressive" elements in the work of art (whether belonging to the "high" or "popular" cultural fields). But this act of judgment is linked to the political and social in a way that is intrinsically different from that generally practiced by cultural studies.

Despite the difficulty in making generalizations, it can be argued that the kind of progressive politics implicit in cultural studies bears no relation to notions of systemic social change. For instance, some cultural theorists celebrate consumption as the locus of resistance as the individual finds new, ironic, or, possibly even, subversive meanings in pop songs or soap operas. Others believe that popular art can reject, even short-circuit the homogenizing and totalizing tendencies of late capitalism. Others, basing themselves on revisionist interpretations of Bakhtin, identify progressive social change with the proliferation of alternative discourses to the white/male/heterosexual/bourgeois discourse of capitalism. Still others believe that popular art can interpellate the individual from different positions to that hegemonic in capitalism. But given the loss of faith in "grand narratives," of which socialism was the "grandest," in all of these examples, the progressive aspect of popular arts does not deny capitalism as the ultimate social horizon. Social change has been, what could be called, "culturalized" and freed from its moorings in the modification of economic structures. For instance, the celebration of the subversive qualities of rap, does not imply a belief in the genresí link with possible change in structures of exploitation, but, rather, in the fact that itís associated with specific communities and/or subcultures--young black urban, frequently male, always marginalized--and thus reflects points of views and experiences outside the hegemonic mainstream. (11) In fact, this emphasis on cultural difference has been given a new twist during the recent Eminem controversy, when the well-known cultural critic Nelson George justified the artistic and social validity of the rapperís work by pointing out that he was expressing ideas and feelings characteristic of disenfranchised young white males. (12) Thus, in spite of its frequent sexism, homophobia, nihilism, and advocacy of random violence, Rap is valorized for its refusal to repeat hegemonic discourse, for bringing into popular discourse the points of view of hitherto ignored group. Heteroglossia and heterogeneity, rather than equality, is the goal of cultural studies.

Mariátegui, as befits a critic who despite his heterodoxy can still be classified as Marxist, has a more concrete definition of what "revolutionary" means. For despite the fact that not all of the works he celebrates are explicitly socialist or "progressive," they are, in one way or another, seen as undermining the ideological justifications underlying systemic class exploitation be it capitalist or, in the case of Peru, partly pre-capitalist. Even in his analysis of Chaplinís films where he, prefiguring current critical theories, identifies bourgeois discourse and ideology as being "neo-Quaker," by which he means sexually repressive, Puritan, White, male, etc., and Chaplinís counter-discourse as "hedonistic and liberating," the progressive nature of the latter is linked to its demystifying of Western capitalist society and, therefore, to its political function ("Outline of an Interpretation of Chaplin" 194).

It is thus possible to see in Mariáteguiís writings an implicit criticism of current cultural studies. Where cultural studies emphasizes the necessarily progressive effect of the proliferation of discourses, Mariátegui reminds us of the need to analyze the relationship of these varied discourses with social and economic structures and their possible democratization. But one can also argue that the value of Mariáteguiís cultural criticism is ultimately dependent on the possibility of social change. The evaluation of the relevance of his cultural criticism to our contemporary reality, or lack thereof, will depend to a great degree on whether one believes that the options for systemic social change have been temporarily or permanently closed.


(1). Aníbal Quijano declares Mariátegui to be the "greatest Latin American Marxist"; Carlos Monsiváis concurs by stating that "The most important Marxist theorist of Latin America is José Carlos Mariátegui [. . .] [the] author of an exceptional book: Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (133); Roberto González Echevarría calls him "the Walter Benjamin of Latin American Letters" (34). (In the case of the quotation of Monsiváis, as in the other texts in the bibliography in Spanish, the translation is mine).

(2). For instance, in his essay "Art, Revolution, and Decadence," Mariátegui mocks "poets who think the jazz band is a herald of the revolution" (172).

(3). Mariátegui unjustly describes the culture of Peruvian blacks in extremely negative terms: "The contribution of the Negro, who came as a slave, almost as a merchandise, appears [. . .] worthless and negative [. . .] . His condition [. . .] did not permit him to help create culture" (Seven Interpretative Essays 280).

(4). Throughout his writings, Mariátegui is more interested in the correlation he finds between indigenous cultures and socialism, than in Quechua and Aymara cultural specificity or cultural production.

(5). The only one of the collections of Mariáteguiís essays on cultural topics published during his lifetime is La escena contemporánea (1925). Posthumous collections of his cultural essays include El alma matinal (1950), Signos y obras (1959), Peruanicemos al Perú (1970), Temas de educación (1970), and El artista y la época (1979),

(6). This passage comes from a section titled "Sumaria Revisión Histórica" that was added posthumously to the Spanish-language editions of the Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana. The "Sumaria Revisión Histórica" is not included in Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, the English language version of Mariáteguiís masterwork. The translation is mine.

(7). In "Entre la revolución y la fantasia: la crítica literaria de José Carlos Mariátegui" I have analyzed Mariáteguiís reflections on Indigenismo and Proletarian Realism as "revolutionary" art forms. See 233-38.

(8). According to Vicky Unruh, Mariátegui "drew on a multitude of contemporary experimental movements to form his own ideas about art and his own program for Peruís cultural renewal. The complex connection between Mariáteguiís aesthetic thought and social agenda were both manifested in and shaped by his response to the postulates and practices of the avant-gardes" (46).

(9). An example of the high opinion in which the founders of Marxism held Balzac is the following statement by Engels: "Balzac [. . .] gives us in his Comédie Humáine a most wonderfully realistic history of French Ďsociety,í almost year by year from 1816 to 1848" (49).

(10). Mariátegui believed that Psychoanalysis complements Marxism. In his Defensa del marxismo, he argues "In their respective fields, Freudianism and Marxism have a family resemblance, even if the disciples of Freud and Marx are not able to notice or understand this fact; not only because their theories "humiliate," as Freud states, humanityís idealist conceptions, but also in the method used when analyzing their specific problematics" (80).

(11). Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, in their conclusion to their balanced analyses of rap, "Rap, Rage, and Racial Difference," note that: "with its heavy emphasis on color, rap music calls attention to the importance of racial difference and focuses attention on whiteness as well as blackness. Rap thus troubles and problematizes the system of racial difference whereby blackness is marginalized, silenced, and excluded from the cultural dialogue and whiteness is assumed as the norm and the normal."

(12). On "Rap Industry Watchers," a roundtable discussion on Februay 21, 2001, on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Nelson George argued "Eminem speaks for - to some degree -- a community of males, particularly young teenage males -- white males for that matter -- who are notÖ who have a rage, who feel alienated from the kinds of comforts of the last ten years, the economy doing well."


Best, Stephen and Douglas Kellner. "Rap, Black Rage, and Racial Difference." Enculturation 2.2 (1999). October 9, 2001. <>.

de Castro, Juan Enrique. "Entre la revolución y la fantasía: la crítica literaria de José Carlos Mariátegui." Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 24.2 (2000): 234-46.

Engels, Friedrich. "Realism and Didacticism." Marxism and Art: Writing in Aesthetics and Criticism. Ed. Berel Lang and Forrest Williams. New York: David Mc Kay, 1972. 48-54.

González Echevarría, Roberto. The Voice of the Masters: Writing and Authority in Modern Latin American Literature. Austin: U of TX P, 1985.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. "Art, Revolution, and Decadence." The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui. Trans. and Ed. Michael Pearlman. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1996. 170-72.

---Defensa del marxismo. Lima: Amauta, 1981.

---. "Introducing Amauta." The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui. 74-76.

---. "Outline of an Interpretation of Chaplin." The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism. 189-94.

---. "Populismo literario y estabilización capitalista." El artista y la época. Lima: Amauta, 1980. 32-36.

---. Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality. Trans. Marjori Urquidi. Austin: TX UP, 1971.

---. Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana. Lima: Amauta, 1981.

Monsiváis, Carlos. Aires de familia: Cultura y sociedad en América Latina. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2000.

Quijano, Aníbal. [1988] 1995. "Modernity, Identity, and Utopia in Latin America." Trans. Michael Aronna. The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America. Ed. John Beverley, José Oviedo and Michael Aronna. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. 201-16.

"Rap Industry Watchers Discuss Controversial Grammy Nominee

Eminem" Nelson George, Oliver Wang, and Ray Suarez Feb 21, 2001. Transcript. < bb/entertainment/jan-june01/eminem_02-21.html.> Accessed on 10-20-2002.

Unruh, Vicky. "Mariáteguiís Aesthetic Thought: A Critical Reading of the Avant-Gardes." Latin American Research Review 24.3 (1989): 45-69.