Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui

Image: Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)


Commentary on the Book of Yuri Martins-Fontes

In 2020, 90 years without José Carlos Mariátegui and 30 years without Caio Prado Jr. were completed, but the exceptional context of the pandemic did not favor celebrations that revived, within the scope of the new generations, the essential ideas and analyzes of those who figure among the greatest Latin American Marxists. In this context, it is worth saluting the new edition of the book by Yuri Martins-Fontes.

Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui brings an overview of the training and work of both Marxists, analyzing both their contributions to historiography, focusing on the national question, and the contributions to philosophy in the strict sense, presenting their perspectives on central principles of Marxism.

In the difficult and troubled contemporary scenario, we have observed in Latin America a profound setback in relation to the possibilities of improving the living conditions of the working class. From hopelessness with “progressive” governments, to the limits imposed on the “democratic order” – due to elections of representatives of the extreme right –, a fairer and more humane society does not appear on the near horizon.

The scenario does not look encouraging. However, in order to recover the progressive threshold, which helps us to find the paths of social change, it is necessary to dialogue with intellectuals who, with critical pen, were responsible for showing how in Our America the interests of the uprooted can be observed and placed as the primacy of all human action. Among these intellectuals, Caio Prado Júnior and José Carlos Mariátegui have a prominent place.

In this way, marx in america helps us to envision some possible paths. Without hesitation, the work has a “philosophy of praxis” coming out of its pores, resulting, above all, from the critical verve of the author, Yuri Martins-Fontes, who presents us with an accurate reading of these two great intellectuals. Appreciation for critical and revolutionary thinking is printed on its pages; the deep knowledge of Marxism and philosophy, permeated by a light and adequate treatment of the vernacular – which allows us to wander about two true exegetes of the Latin American Revolution.

The importance of Caio Prado Júnior (1907-1990) and José Carlos Mariátegui (1892-1937) for the formation of revolutionary thought in Latin America is notorious.

Regarding Caio Prado, heir to a wealthy family of landowners, the book shows us how Marxism is, for the Brazilian thinker, the great force that “consists in favoring the possibility of human intervention in History”. It is this interpreter of Brazil who carries out the first and expressive interpretation of the country's historical processes, anchored in the Marxist tradition: whether in Brazil's political evolution (1933), a unique reading of the historical, social and economic consolidation of the country; whether in his work of greatest impact, Formation of contemporary Brazil (1942); or even in Brazil's economic history (1945); in addition to settling accounts with the interpretations of the Brazilian revolutionary process, systematized in The Brazilian Revolution (1966), in which he highlights the “mistakes on the part of the Soviet CP”, especially the “dogmatism” resulting from Stalinism.

Such works are all duly explained and inserted in the core discussion of the text by Yuri Martins-Fontes, that is: the philosophy of praxis as a method of interpreting the Latin American reality.

As for José Carlos Mariátegui, the depth of the author's analysis is not far behind. He recovers the arguments of works in which he characterizes the peculiarity of his thought: a “socialist romanticism”, in opposition to “dehumanized modernity”. It is about the search for a revolutionary energy, found – along the lines of victorious Bolshevik socialism in 1917 – in a perspective that Yuri calls “romantic-realist”: creative, innovative, and which engenders new “myths” (concrete, libertarian) that can strengthen Indo-American emancipatory action.

In this sense, Mariategu's classical work Seven essays on the interpretation of Peruvian reality (1928) is essential. His assessment breaks with the attempt to deal “mechanically” with the reality of the continent – ​​the result of the theoretical stumbles of the VI Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in March 1920, which affected countries in Latin America with regard to the interpretation of issues national. Mariátegui becomes a socialist around 1919; he came into contact with Marxism during his stay in Europe (1920-1923); upon returning, initially, he approaches the embryonic labor movement in Peru; and in 1926 he founded the impressive magazine amauta.

The two thinkers discussed in Yuri's text are critical both of the Second International's parliamentary passivity (of a social-democratic line) and of the hardening of communism in the Third International after Lenin's death (which would culminate in Stalinism). The issue that both pose as central is that of unveiling the unique, peculiar character of the Latin American Revolution.

Thematizing about the reality of their countries, in a bias that opposes the Eurocentric analyzes that then predominated in Marxist thought, Caio Prado and Mariátegui converge in several of their conclusions, such as with regard to the incomplete nature of the national revolutions of their countries – carried out “by the top”, interrupted.

They refute the idea that in Latin America the historical and political evolution should be similar to that of Western Europe – which was, until then, the standard model of many economic and political-revolutionary analyses. According to these interpretations marked by Eurocentrism, our countries, before dedicating themselves to promoting the socialist revolution, should have to eliminate supposed “feudal” elements; and this would happen through a previous passage through the capitalist regime, a process that would imply the need for submissive alliances between the workers and the bourgeoisie (against the so-called “rural aristocracy”).

Contrary to this prevailing strategic orientation, both explain quite coincidentally that the Latin American bourgeoisie was never “national”: it never identified with its people, nor was it concerned with the formation and emancipation of the nation; on the contrary, our elites have always been subordinate allies of international capital.

Caio Prado demonstrates, through detailed theoretical and empirical analysis, that interpretations such as those that pointed to the existence of a local version of European feudalism do not fit for Brazil. Mariátegui brings to the forefront of communist debates the centrality that the peasant population (especially the indigenous people, in the Andean case) holds in the process of national emancipation.

The political consequence of these analyzes is that workers cannot ally themselves with the bourgeois class, nor entrust it with the conduction of the revolutionary process – as predicted by the then majority theses of stageism and allianceism.


Accurately interpret reality, to transform it

What marx in america shows us in a blunt way is that both thinkers refuted the mechanistic readings about their societies: in Marxist analyzes there should not be mere theoretical transpositions, but always interpretations mediated by the historical realities themselves.

Among the particularities of the revolutionary intellectuals investigated by Yuri Martins-Fontes, the strength that brings them together is the “national question” in Latin America, a theme that appears as a current theme in the work under review. If in the first and second chapter the author seeks to historicize the theme, presenting the theoretical and political formation and the work of the two Marxists, in the third and fourth, the emphasis is on the issue of method (first in a theoretical-historiographical section, and then philosophically). ).

This expands the horizon of the work of Martins-Fontes who, in addition to Prado and Mariátegui – and of course, Marx and Engels themselves – dialogues with Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, Florestan Fernandes and even István Mészáros, among others: great thinkers who developed historical-materialism, who took the Marxian tradition as the “touchstone” of their incursions into social theory.

Far from defending a university hype, which today is dominated by theoretical asepsis, we have in the book not only an expedient reduced to linguistics, but a conception that seeks to assimilate the unity between theory and practice.

Thus, the “philosophy of praxis” developed by Yuri Martins-Fontes does not merely have the function of giving academicist gloss to the book, but rather of inserting it in the tradition that goes back to the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, in which Marx sentences: “Philosophers just interpreted the world in different ways; however, what matters is to transform it” (in the german ideology).

According to the philosophy of praxis, reflection cannot disconnect from the reality of being; if you do, you run the risk of falling into the sinister valley of meaningless abstraction. Knowing the risk, the philosopher of praxis leaves no room for interpretive failures with regard to the revolutionary nature of the studied authors:

In their historical interpretative process, they used the dialectic methodology with sophistication – in the evaluation of the perennial conflicting relationship of the whole. Aiming to capture the concrete social totality, they expanded the Marxist dialectic analysis, in order to cover a wide range of knowledge perspectives (history, economics, geography, sociology, psychology). Thus, they transposed the hermetic specialties that deviate knowledge from its purposes and reduce the contemporary individual – removing him from universalizing criticism and historical protagonism (marx in america, P. 320).

The use of Marxism to assess the Latin American reality allows overcoming the analytical limitations pointed out by Yuri Martins-Fontes: hermeticism and reductionism. This is because the dialectical unity between the specific and the universal, which brings Caio Prado and Mariátegui together, brings with force the possibility of revolutionary interpretations of society.

In this way, it is not accidental that most thinkers who deal with this methodological position reach the following conclusion: the Revolution in Latin America will be socialist, or it will not be (M. Löwy, Marxism in Latin America).

A fundamental work for the advancement of Marxist studies in Latin America, with easy and pleasant reading, Yuri Martins-Fontes joins the group of intellectuals who point to a path of studies of the most intellectually refined.

That said, there is a caveat here: the author could provide the reader – who knows now, in the second edition of the work – with a chronology of both theorists at the end of the volume, which would help future researchers on the subject in the comparison process; not only in the comparison between Caio Prado and Mariátegui, but also among those many who resort to Latin American radical thought to identify the heuristic key that will be able to provide us with the sap that will bring Our America for its path in the history of humanity: a place of primacy for the “assault on heaven”.

those who read marx in america will get to know, in a wealth of conceptual and historical details, the trajectory of two great thinkers of our “Big Homeland”. And understand why the author considers that with Marx “there is the effective entry of consciousness into the history of humanity”.

*Paulo Alves Jr. is a professor of history at the University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusofonia (Unilab-BA).


Yuri Martins-Fontes. Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui. São Paulo, Alameda/Fapesp, 2018.


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