Dictionary Marxism in America

Image: Marcelo Guimarães Lima


After half a decade of collective work, a work is published that brings back the historical memory of the first Marxists in the Americas

O Dictionary of Marxism in America is a work of historical recovery of the memory of the first militant-thinkers who, from the theoretical framework of historical materialism, were willing to reflect and face the social, political and economic problems of the new American nations, initiating the development of thinking- Marxist struggle on the continent.

An educational and critical work of unprecedented characteristics, especially in Portuguese, the project is coordinated by the Práxis Center for Research, Popular Education and Politics at the University of São Paulo – an organization dedicated to political and popular education activities – and currently involves almost a hundreds of volunteer researchers from different countries in this archaeological investigation into the origins of Marxism in the Americas.

The first volumes, planned for more than a thousand pages, contain entries that cover biographies and essays on the ideas and political praxis of about 150 Marxists who lived, wrote and acted in American countries - in a period that ranges from the 1970th century (training of Marxism on the continent), until the XNUMXs (when the capitalist structural crisis worsened and Marxisms multiplied).

For the time being, after half a decade of collective efforts, the Marxist dictionary is gradually starting to be made public: its entries can be freely read online, in the form of “articles”, available each week on the Núcleo Práxis-USP portal and at then republished by prominent partner portals. This preliminary tasting – of the first volume, relating to the period of formation of Marxism in America – will last throughout the year, aiming both at popularizing the work (whose objective is not only theoretical, but educational), as well as providing space for critical readings and possible improvements to the texts, before coming to the public in book format.

Expected soon, the complete publication is in charge of Editora Expressão Popular, in co-edition with the label Edições Núcleo Práxis, and will have two editions: a printed one (at popular prices) and a digital one (free).

Beginnings of the work

In 2015, the founders of Núcleo Práxis-USP, between political meetings and debates of the Study Group on Marxism (one of their first projects), began to consider expanding the collective's activities towards popular education. It was a difficult time, when the coup d'état was in the making, which took effect the following year. In this context, two new projects are being considered: a discussion forum on social rights (which was set up a little later, in partnership with associations and communities in the city of São Paulo); and an anthology, both critical and didactic at the same time – that brought together essays on prominent Latin American Marxists, in order to offer students and workers an overview of Marxist theories and practices developed in our America.

In this process, the general coordinator of the Práxis Nucleus, Yuri Martins-Fontes, in a meeting at the USP Laboratory of Political Economy and Economic History, related to his doctorate, presented the idea to Professor Wilson do Nascimento Barbosa, who directed the entity's research . In an afternoon of dialogue, the idea was refined and expanded. Instead of another anthology, with complex articles, which would tend to be restricted to the academic territory – it was pondered: why not gather more efforts and produce a larger work, an educational publication, of reference, with shorter texts but that managed to present the great diversity of problems and currents of Marxism developed over more than a century throughout the continent – ​​a book that could serve not only secondary and university studies, but the political training of young socialists?

The seed was planted. The project was even written and presented to a prestigious publisher, which required an entry, as an example. The coordinator responded to the request, writing a first text about Mariátegui, based on the model he had recently developed in his thesis on Latin American Marxism (later published as marx in america). The editorial approved the publication, although emphasizing that at that juncture it could not engage in the production of the project. The national reality – economic, social, cultural – which was not favorable, soon deteriorated. The Núcleo Práxis-USP then had just over a dozen members, few of whom were willing to take on the adventure. Without material or at least structural support, the plan was shelved.

The Renaissance

In 2018, Núcleo Práxis experienced a period of growth, as a result of the movement around its projects – especially the Study Group (which at the time read The capital, by Marx), the collective translation History and Philosophy (selection by Caio Prado Júnior, published in 2020), and the Forum for Political Formation of Popular Leadership (whose regular conversations brought together educators and community leaders). Many militants – researchers from different areas, universities and countries – join the collective.

With this expansion movement, the organization gains courage and arms to consider new actions. Meetings on possible directions followed one another, until the plan to build a periodical publication was approved: a political magazine with a popular bias, which would offer students and workers a dissonant voice in that fascist environment that reverberated in the country – a time of growing irrationality, if not supported, consented by the mainstream media and other neoliberal forces, irritated by the (basic) social reforms of popular governments.

Our experience with periodicals was small – limited to that of a few members, who in the 2000s had edited the tabloid for a few years. The Latin Word. On the other hand, the good moment of the collective was shown in the very intention, manifested by several of the participants, to get involved in a periodic project – of breath.

There is a back-and-forth of proposals, debates, until the plan Dictionary is removed from the drawer. Partially reworked, it is presented to interested parties, in a meeting that takes place in a theater in the center of São Paulo, bringing together members of Núcleo Práxis who orbited the idea of ​​publication, in addition to guests attracted by the idea. There the project was reborn.

Thinking Marxism in America

The following year, at its General Assembly, Núcleo Práxis-USP elects a new direction, starting to rely on the strength of new comrades who have long worked in training courses and in the collective's publications (didactic material, Marxist translations, collaborations with the independent press). Paulo Alves Junior (Secretary-General) and Solange Struwka (Vice-Coordinator) join the General Coordination of the entity; in parallel, Pedro Rocha Curado takes over the newly created Political Communication Coordination – whose function would be to disseminate our editorial and popular education works, including in the digital environment that was in turmoil.

The debates around the Dictionary they intensify, they become more regular, but so much energy still needed to be systematized. For this, the Marxist Thought in America Seminar was created – whose participants aimed to investigate and select the most prominent Marxists on the continent, so that their stories, thoughts and political actions could be analyzed, recorded and disseminated to the public. As a strategy to better organize the work, the seminarians are divided into five subgroups – each responsible for studying the history of Marxism in the nations of their respective region: Brazil; Southern Cone; Andes; Mexico and Central America; North America and the Caribbean. It began – now in practice – the editorial odyssey.

In its initial formation, the Seminar adds a dozen researchers, which soon doubles. However, during the course of the studies, this number was found to be insufficient, as the complexity of the task was better understood – as, for example, the difficulty in accessing information about certain fundamental historical characters. A work of this size needed more co-authors, collaborators, coordinators.

To this end, the Political Communication Coordination was reinforced – now also counting on Joana Aparecida Coutinho and Felipe Santos Deveza –, with the purpose of extending our political networks with social and academic movements, establishing connections that would support both the basic structure of the project, as the recruitment of the intellectual workforce necessary for its production.

It is worth remembering that at this time, the beginning of 2020, the health situation has worsened in the world, starting the period of confinement due to the pandemic. In view of the restrictions, the face-to-face meetings and political debates that Núcleo Práxis promoted had to adapt to the remote model (as in the case of political training activities, in 2021 carried out by videoconference). Despite the coldness and even precarious dialogue characteristic of digital relationships, this sudden technical impulse allowed the collective to multiply links – forming ties, sometimes quite distant, but which proved to be consistent.

With the launch of the Seminar's research and the entry of new coordinators, the Editorial Coordination of the Dictionary: team responsible for the general organization, distribution of tasks, schedules, deadlines, agreements and publication conditions, and for the critical review and final editing of entries and documents related to the project. Previously formed by the three representatives of the General Coordination, it would then include the three members of Political Communication.

A meeting with historical Marxists

This is how, for about two years, meeting monthly, the members of the Seminar carried out a historical-archaeological research that was dedicated to unveiling the memory of the Marxist characters of the nations under the auspices of their respective working groups, making an effort to if for recognizing not only these protagonists, but the conditions, the intricacies of the history in which they were immersed – the context of their ideas and actions. Every month, new names of communist thinkers appeared, unveiled by readings centered both on the author's own handwriting and on that of his scholars. Biographical information, political polemics, theoretical texts were slowly excavated in libraries and in forays into archives, sometimes private.

But it was especially our focus on dialogue – on listening to the historical subjects of each nation – that led us to the most valuable clues, which came about through the seminarians' quest to obtain direct information. Oral or written interviews were conducted with social leaders and militants from communist, socialist, and labor parties in several countries, in addition to intellectuals and humanities academics from several national universities. With this local knowledge, resulting from the network of international contacts that was established, we were able to gather more lively opinions about Marxism and the main Marxists in each country. This, added to our previous studies – bibliographical, generalist – allowed the research and selection process to become more democratic and diversified.

To complement this foundation of content, prior to the writing process, we also investigated the historical context of each nation in the period in question, as well as historiographical and philosophical, particular and universal aspects of Marxism developed by its representatives.

At the end of the first year of the seminar, the members of each subgroup began to expose their discoveries to the other participants, at which point we began to collectively discuss the result of each research. Based on this dialogic practice, the names of almost a hundred historical Marxists were listed, evaluated, collated and chosen – who have left their thoughts recorded in some way (books, articles, manifestos, transcribed speeches, interviews, correspondence) –, the which would come to compose the volume relating to the period of formation of Marxism in America.

If the epistemological approach of the work gave preference to authors who developed authentic Marxist reflections – either in relation to the historical analyzes with which they investigated particular national issues, or in a more strictly philosophical scope (universal, totalizing concepts) –, nevertheless, those militants were also valued. who, having developed the theoretical aspects of the materialist conception of history with less originality, dedicated their lives to the political tasks proper to a communist: organization, popular awareness, dissemination of Marxist thought-struggle through grassroots work (education, trade unions, independent journalism ).

Furthermore, among other criteria on which we rely for the election of Marxists to be biographed, we prioritize emphasizing diversity, with attention both to gender and to the ethnic groups that make up the American peoples: indigenous people, black people, women. And this, if not in each country (given the restrictions of the time), at least in each region of the continent. We also made an effort to include Marxists from as many countries as possible in America (and from various parts of Brazil) in the volume, so that in the end we managed to have representatives from all regions of the continent and from almost all countries - although not all, since in this period some nations were still in formation, or were subjugated colonies.

Get to work

The time had finally come to focus on writing, on organizing accumulated learning. The activity of mass elaboration of the texts begins, a delicate task that should be guided by our specific entry model – didactic and critical –, which, although with the purpose of obtaining social capillarity, also included analyzes and deepened essential topics , not limited to descriptions. The quest to maintain this uniformity and quality would require more steps than expected, in a process that started with the authors of the first version, went on to the reviewers (in terms of form and content), and even, sometimes, to additional editors and translators, before reaching the editors – who evaluated the entry as a whole, eventually having to return it to an earlier stage.

It does not take long to become clear that a project of such magnitude – and without institutional resources – would end up extending too far, if it did not attract volunteers to engage with the team, still small in relation to the size of the undertaking. To solve the limitation, in 2021, Núcleo Práxis-USP opens a public notice with a view to selecting new co-authors for the execution of the work. As requirements, candidates should have studies in human sciences or philosophy, with an emphasis on Marxism or political and social issues specific to American nations, preferably having produced research that demonstrates thematic affinities with the project.

Widely publicized, published in the independent media and disseminated through the social networks of the various parties involved, the call for proposals was a surprise: in one month, nearly fifty entries were reached. The analysis of the candidacies was carried out by the Editorial Coordination, based on: first, a letter of intent that required the interested party to suggest, among the list of Marxists raised, one about whom he would like to write, explaining his reasons in a succinct essay; and then, a “political-academic” curriculum describing experiences in the areas in question, especially work related to Marxism, education, history of the Americas and writing itself, as well as academic training and political and professional activities. The selection process was successful, both in terms of quantity and quality. Among those enrolled, three quarters were already integrated into the group in a short time, which at least doubled the number of workers in the Dictionary.

At the same time, we researched international experts on the work of some of the Marxists listed for the volume, who generally had the same nationalities as the biographers. Based on remote interviews – which allowed the editors to better understand the trajectory and work of each intellectual contacted, in addition to assessing their interest –, we made specific invitations, obtaining the engagement of more than a dozen co-authors.

With more people involved, and more tasks arising, specific committees were created to respond to new demands, namely: extra research that proved necessary; and the ever-present works to improve the texts received – such as adapting the writings to the foreseen model, previous editing, translation and additional writing (if necessary), general revision, text preparation and final editing.

In addition to the Committee for Research on Marxism in America (which derived from the Seminar), special committees were created, dedicated to executive tasks related to the text itself: committees responsible for translations, for the various stages of revision, and for supporting editorial work. .

On the other hand, with the intention of putting our production to the test beforehand, the Critical Advisory Council was constituted, made up of activist-intellectuals with already recognized works, political trajectory and contribution to Marxist communism. Invited from various parts of the world, these advisors have the optional function of, whenever they see fit, criticize, suggest and propose modifications to the entries in press – a kind of final touch for the improvement of the work.

Verbetes: a didactic-critical model

At this point in the project, in addition to the content, we started to worry about the form of the entries. the intention of Dictionary it was communicating, dialoguing, attracting supporters – but without failing, in certain key passages of the exhibition, to delve deeper into the polemic, the contradiction, the concept. The pedagogical aspect of a text, after all, cannot be dissociated from necessary – and stimulating – moments of analytical depth. A work aimed at initial Marxist education should address, without manual reductions or dogmatism, the central principles and concepts of historical materialism; I could not fail to mention topics such as dialectics, praxis, structure, class struggle, work, modes of production, primitive accumulation, theory of value, alienation, and above all dealing with the different conceptions and paths already thought and tried for concrete utopia of the revolution – and without falling into sectarianism.

We therefore consider it essential to expose some more erudite principles and terms, but always seeking to situate the use of erudition, explaining something about the complex concept that was presented, and in an accessible language. This would certainly have to be done with great attention to the naive vice of the verbose – an easy but imprecise way out that affects some theorists unaccustomed to life beyond the walls of the academy. Avoiding technical hermeticisms, speaking a language that sought dialogue, refraining from complexifications beyond what was necessary would prove to be among the most costly tasks of the work's editors.

The aforementioned entry model (tried in the beginning, in 2015) was then called into question. According to this first model, the text would have three parts: the first, biographical-descriptive, in which the historical context and aspects of the Marxist's life, his studies, political formation, professional activities and militancy would be presented; then, an analytical, essayistic item, which would deal with the author's thinking based on his works and achievements; and finally, a bibliographical list relating the works read for the composition of the entry (by the author himself and by commentators). If this model had interesting aspects and worked well in academic works, on the other hand, its central part was somewhat open, which could give rise to theoretical digressions not always palatable to a learner.

So, with the aim of facilitating the understanding of the essential tenor of the thought of each subject, it was decided to keep the initial item, and to divide the second item into two parts: the first, consisting of a brief essay on the Marxist conception of author, would seek to encompass his fundamental theoretical and practical contributions, highlighting the main political ideas and concepts he contributed to Marxism; the second, simpler to understand (and which could be read partially independently of the others), would have a bibliographic and descriptive content, dedicating itself to presenting the author's work, stimulating its reading through a review of the themes contained therein – ideas , developed concepts, controversies, political positions defended in each writing. Finally, as an appendix, a fourth item (of this new model) would bring a list of books and texts produced on the Marxist: both the references used in the production of the article, and some recommendation for an introductory work.

As a result, the entries produced showed an interesting diversity of authors – with their own stories and perspectives. Observing the concerns expressed in the texts of the time, emphasis is given to the importance given to practical aspects, such as the organization of the working class, the articulation of international networks connecting social movements and parties from the various countries of America, the defense of the improvement of living standards of the population and the fight against inequalities.

In particular, in the interwar period, we see the growth in the number of Marxist-inspired parties and unions, driven by events such as the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the activities of the Communist International in the American continent. Translated books multiply, and the Marxist philosophical tradition enters the universities. Original publications appear, dedicated to the understanding of national political and economic characteristics. Topics such as the particular character of those social formations raised from the rubble of European colonialism, the role of indigenous and African components in the mode of production, imperialism and the struggle for an authentic emancipation of nations become part of the subjects debated in newspapers (independent, mostly), universities, social movements and parties.

However, it would be wrong to imagine that the spread of Marxist thought occurred without setbacks and internal frictions. The crusade of local governments against the creation of socialist-inspired parties and unions meant that, in several cases, their activities took place underground, subject to arbitrary prohibitions, persecution of militants, arrests and murders. On the other hand, the formation of rival Marxist tendencies reverberated in the American continent; Furthermore, important interwar events, such as the financial crisis of 1929 and the rise of fascism in Europe, contributed to stress the process of defining party strategies, opposing those who preached the parliamentary way to the proponents of the revolution.

Here is the brief history of this unique work that now gradually reaches the public, even though its production continues and is far from being finished (if there is an end to works like this).[1]

*Yuri Martins-Fontes is a professor and doctor in Economic History (USP/CNRS). Author, among other books, of Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui (Alameda).

Joana Aparecida Coutinho is a professor of political science at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA). She authored, among other books, A Guerra Ideológica (Ed. Crítica e Sociedade).

Solange Struwka is a professor of Psychology at the Federal University of Rondônia. She is the author, among other books on mental health in times of a pandemic: the imperatives of the extreme situation and the tasks of psychology (LavraPalavra).

Pedro Rocha Curado is a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Defense at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Paulo Alves Junior is professor of Historiography at the University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusofonia. Author, among other books, of An intellectual in the trench: José Honório Rodrigues, interpreter of Brazil (Ed. Dialética).

Felipe Santos Deveza is a professor and doctor in comparative history (UFRJ/UNAM).


[1] The authors of this presentation text are coordinators of the Praxis Nucleus-USP, and make up the Editorial Coordination of the Dictionary Marxism in America.

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