José Aricó. Marx and Latin America. Translated by David Broder. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. 152 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-60846-411-1.
Reviewed by Jake Slovis
Published on H-Socialisms (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Marx on Latin America
It is well documented that Karl Marx produced far fewer works about Latin America than works focused on the European working class. Such an “exclusion” of Latin America has thus provided fodder for modern critics to brand Marx as largely “Eurocentric,” and therefore limited in his ability to understand the Latin American independence movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Marx and Latin America (originally published in 1982), José Aricó (1931-91) challenges these critics by working to dismantle the notion that Marx was primarily concerned with Europe. He argues that such a view of Marx stems from narrow perceptions that rely heavily on canonized texts like The Communist Manifesto (1848) and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)—texts that tend to relativize the European experience in order to lay the foundation for Marx’s theories. Marx’s later writings, however, expand these theories to a global scale. Aricó therefore urges readers to consider Marx’s thought through his entire oeuvre, as Marx’s later work exposes contradictions in his canonized texts.
What makes Aricó’s plea successful is that he is able to clearly describe the origins of the “Eurocentric” label by historicizing Marx’s work to show how it has been canonized. For example, Aricó argues that late nineteenth-century European social democracy viewed “Marxism” from “a strongly positivist perspective” that was meant to “systematize Marx’s thinking along clear ‘scientific’ lines.” This perspective was “shaped long before the totality of his [Marx’s] oeuvre was known” (p. 13). In other words, the “Eurocentric” brand of Marxist thinking ossified without consideration for Marx’s later works. The result is a view of Marx that treats his writings on India, Ireland, and Russia as comparatively marginal texts that are primarily “circumstantial” (p. 14). Likewise, such a reading suggests that Marx’s ideas did not develop over the course of his career, and ignores the influence of imperialism and colonialism on global capitalism.
Aricó also argues that such readings of Marx tend to conflate Marxism with Marx’s own stance. Aricó therefore asks for a “contextual” reading of Marx that separates the man from popular interpretations of his theories. This appeal helps to legitimize his investigation of Marx’s lesser-known writings, and invites his readers to consider how these writings might reshape his earlier works. One of Aricó’s most convincing cases is demonstrated through the example of Russia, in which he argues that Marx’s investigation of peasant and rural societies problematizes the idea of a linear social progression posited in works like The Communist Manifesto. Aricó writes that the “‘Eurocentric’ residues in Marx were effectively overcome when he ceased to identify capitalist development and the presence of an internationally homogenous working class” (p. 38). This is to say that the possibility of revolution in peasant societies expanded Marx’s view beyond the European model. Furthermore, it suggests revolution is case specific, and that “the theoretical and political presuppositions from which the ‘autonomy’ of the Latin American region could have been understood, then, did exist in Marx’s thought” (p. 38).
Of course, Aricó is not blind to the fact that few of Marx’s writings deal with the Latin American experience. However, he is able to effectively account for Marx’s “exclusion” of Latin America by examining how Marx’s hostility toward Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) prevented him from successfully historicizing Latin American liberation movements. According to Aricó, Marx viewed Bolívar’s military role in Latin American independence movements as a quest to expand authoritarianism. Aricó writes that Marx “repudiated” Bolívar so strongly that he saw him as “an imitation of Napoleon III, or, more precisely, some sort of Bonapartist dictator” (p. 54). Although some might equate the rejection of Bolívar’s role in Latin American independence movements with a demeaning view of Latin American nationalism, Aricó argues that such hostilities were not vested in the condescension of Latin America, but rather rooted in the view that Bonapartism (and Bolívar’s leadership) was counterrevolutionary. In this way, Aricó suggests that Marx’s exclusion of Latin America might be symptomatic of false hostilities that deprioritized Latin America because it lacked relevancy toward a global revolution. The result is a reading of Marx that is not “Eurocentric,” but one that instead faults the German thinker for his failure to apply his theories properly to the Latin American experience.
While Aricó’s argument is well organized and translated clearly by David Broder, it is not without flaws. Aricó leans heavily on the implicit, which can at times be read as subjective or speculative. Furthermore, blaming Marx’s failure to evaluate Latin America based on his personal biases seems like a convenient argument that protects the integrity of his larger theoretical ideas. But on the whole Aricó’s work is thorough, as he not only accounts for why Marx’s ideas are often misrepresented but also points to how a reconsideration of these ideas is useful when analyzing the modern Latin American state. Furthermore, it shows why it is important to critique literary canons, which proves useful in evaluating how works like The Communist Manifesto conflict with Marx’s full oeuvre, and how canonization tethered Marx too closely to a European context. However, what might be the greatest benefit of Marx and Latin America is that it explains why Marxism is not a static field of study. According to Broder’s introduction, the work does well to reject “the attempt to transform Marx’s analysis of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory that predicts the development of all societies” (p. xlv). This is to say that Aricó steers Marxism away from a theory of “linear progress,” toward a conversation that grants “autonomy” to the development of non-Western societies. The result is a book that enfranchises scholars to broaden the scope of Marxist discourse with respect to the non-Western world.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
Jake Slovis. Review of Aricó, José, Marx and Latin America.
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