National Question and Marxism in America

Image: Guillaume Meurice


Some fundamental contributions on the national question by Latin American thinkers

At the beginning of the 1917th century, the transforming spirit of the Russian Revolution (1920) radiated around the world and moved societies across America. During the 1919s, communist parties were organized in several nations on the continent. In the midst of this organizational process, the Third International (Communist International, of XNUMX) placed the American nations on its agenda, starting to promote reflections on their respective national issues.


Latin American thinkers

In this essay, we present some of the main contributions on the national question by Latin American thinkers who would stand out as the most relevant Marxists of the last century, who, in dialogue with the critical-dialectical tradition of their time, helped to shape and consolidate historical materialism in our America. Among the most expressive intellectual-militants of this period, we treat here some ideas of the following: the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella (1903-1929), the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930) and the Brazilian Caio Prado Júnior (1907-1990).

It is worth noting that the intellectual production of this period is not a feat of the genius of isolated individuals, but expresses the collective disputes and social achievements fought in American countries, and driven by the international context, such as: the deepening of the contradictions generated by the advance of power in the United States , which subjugates Latin American countries; the University Reform of Córdoba (1918), the organization of workers into unions and the creation of socialist and communist political parties; the autonomous organization of native peoples and the alliances made with urban workers (miners, railway workers, etc.); and the vigorous echo of the Russian Revolution, whose impact would soon become universal, especially through the creation of the Communist International (CI) – a process that, from a Latin American perspective, would culminate with the Communist Conference of Buenos Aires (1929).

These events were decisive for the construction of support networks, political and intellectual solidarity, mass communication, and militancy between popular movements and socialist parties of different stripes.

By focusing on the analysis of this small group of original militant thinkers – who emerged from the labor, political and critical intellectual movement – ​​we do not intend to suggest that there is theoretical homogeneity among them. Our intention is, rather, to relate their ideas, their radical and broad interpretations regarding our social realities, to underline certain concepts that converge in fundamental points and that became decisive in the insurgent processes that sought and continue to seek the construction of less unequal and more sovereignties and on the American continent.


National question and consolidation of Marxist thought

With the impacts of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Communist International was created, which would have a central mediating role in the debates held since then in the field of Marxism. Consequently, discussions focused on the reality of the peoples of America deepened, in which some great critical thinkers played a fundamental role. These are the first efforts to conceive these societies in an authentic, proper way, analyzing them through the Marxist method – according to the dialectical conception of history.

In the initial post-war period – when American communist parties began to be built – the Third International was led by Lenin, playing a leading role in consolidating reflection on the national issues of the peoples of America. Two documents from the Communist International, pioneers on the subject, impacted the debate in the field of Marxism, namely: “On the Revolution in America: a call to the working class of the two Americas” (1921); and “To the workers and peasants of South America” (1922/1923).

In them, the unity between the proletariat and the peasantry is conceived as being the revolutionary strategy in the American countries; Furthermore, the idea is defended that a worker-peasant vanguard party should lead the struggle for socialism of the Latin American peoples, who are not very industrialized and dependent, so that such nations would dispense with passing through the supposedly previous historical stage of a “national” and “democratic” capitalism. In addition, it is important to emphasize that these documents do not speak of “feudalism” – a controversial idea that populated several Marxist debates –, but refer to the problem of struggle in the countryside as a crucial clash against “agrarian capitalism”. Furthermore, the texts – surprisingly avant-garde – highlight the complicity that had been established between the native, internal bourgeoisies and imperialism, which denied the idea of ​​the existence of a supposed “national bourgeoisie” (a mistaken thesis that during Stalinism would gain centrality in the American communist parties).

At this time, when an authentic communist thought was being formed in America, some Marxist-oriented intellectuals – such as Julio Mella, JC Mariátegui and Caio Prado Jr. – develop ideas related to this questioning line of thought, then promoted by the Communist International. However, such a current of interpretation of our national issues took a while to gain some theoretical hegemony, which only began to occur in the 1960s, with the effort of a new generation of Latin American Marxists, from the serious setbacks that the socialist field would suffer in countries across most of the continent.

A basic point to start approaching this debate is the understanding that at no time in our history did the so-called “national bourgeoisies” exist in our America, that is, the elites that were supposed to have “nationalist” intentions.. On the contrary, our bourgeoisies have always been allies – minority partners, incidentally – of imperialism; although often mestizos, they had and still have the pretense that they are “white”, believing that they descend from an ethnic group that is as “European” as it is “pure”; and what is more serious, they identify with Western-European values ​​and culture, despising their own people and culture.

Let us see certain characteristics of the interpretation of the national question by these three important thinkers, Julio Mella, José Carlos Mariátegui and Caio Prado Júnior – concepts elaborated in the heat of the Bolshevik Revolution and the organizational consolidation of American communism.


Julio Mella and the national question

Julio Antonio Mella McPartland was one of the founders of the student movement in America. He studied philosophy, law and worked as a journalist. His Marxism was strongly aimed at the example of Lenin – “a man of iron and light of Red Russia”, “a superman who knew how to give a powerful impetus to the transformation of a civilization with the power of his genius” (MELLA, 1999, translation our). “The cause of the proletariat is the national cause” – he affirms in “Los nuevos Libertadores”, when criticizing the surrender Platt Amendment: “mortgage” with which Cuba submitted to the United States to achieve its independence from the Spanish metropolis.

The proletariat – he says: “is the only force capable of fighting with chances of triumph for the ideals of freedom, in the current era”; thus, like a “new Spartacus in the fields and in the cities”, he rises to “fight for all the ideals of the people”, his objective being the construction of “a regime of men of the people”, because the proletarians know that this it is the “only guarantee of social justice”. For Mella (1999), therefore, the purpose of the political organization of workers is to “socialize” wealth, according to the “principles” that Karl Marx “erected into theoretical axioms”, and that Lenin developed as “magnificent monuments of beauty and justice” – a transforming process that only “fossilized professors” and “brainless bourgeois fight”.

In a perspective view – through which time offers us a more accurate angle for understanding the historical whole –, it is important to perceive Mella as a fundamental piece that constitutes the Cuban “revolutionary continuity”, which began with the idealist socialism of José Martí, and that would triumph almost a century later with the revolution led by Fidel Castro Ruz (MELLA, 1975).

At the First Revolutionary Congress of Cuban Students, organized by Mella himself during his university days, the Cuban Marxist vehemently condemns imperialism, praises the Russian Revolution, and expresses support for African and Asian national liberation movements. Together with other important Marxist fighters, such as Carlos Baliño (worker), Miguel Pérez (teacher) and Alfonso Bernal (psychologist), he founded the first Cuban Communist Party in 1925 (SILVA GARCÍA, 2016).

In his short-lived work, the following writings stand out: “The class war in Cuba”, and “The proletariat and national liberation”. The first of them, from 1926, is a vehement protest against the killing of several of his comrades, workers' leaders, by agents of the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado; at the beginning of this text, in view of the class struggle that was intensifying and of a Cuban bourgeoisie that showed itself to be an ally of imperialism, it states that the “class war exploded brutal, violent, bloodthirsty”: “There is no more homeland”, but only “ enemy classes”.

About Gerardo Machado, his analysis is that the tyrant is nothing more than an “incomplete tadpole”, a member of a “national class that has not yet been born”; that uses “fascism” as a conservative instrument, a “temporary remedy” against democracy – a practice however incapable of solving the Cuban “social evil”. He also observes that, despite his reactionary doctrine, he is not able to stop the march of events: “blood is the fertilizer of freedom”. In this historical process, Mella invokes the socialist “heroic past” that serves as a “guide” for the proletarian class, from the “cry of the victims immolated in the ditches of the 1871 Commune”, to the “world outcry of the 1917 revolt” of the Bolsheviks (MELLA , 1971).

The other text mentioned, from 1928, is a critique of populist nationalism, a trend that gained popular force throughout America through the influential APRA of Haya de la Torre. Mella reiterates his idea that there is no Latin American “national bourgeoisie”, since such native elites are partners and, therefore, allies of imperialism. In his argument, he cites a passage by Lenin (from a thesis to the II Congress of the International) in which the Bolshevik states – in opposition to naive “leftism” – that in “backward countries and colonies”, the International should rather support “national movements”. of liberation", emphasizing on the other hand that such an alliance should only take place "temporarily" and that the proletarian movement should not "merge" with "bourgeois democracy", which would be to compromise its autonomy, but always safeguard "expressly its independence ”.

This opinion of Lenin on the “united front” – says Mella – shows him as the most “practical and exact interpreter of Karl Marx”. For Mella (1971), the “united front” proposed by the APRA, by not explicitly establishing the political role of the proletariat, is reduced to an “abstract” proposition: and therefore “no more than the single front in favor of the bourgeoisie”, this class always “traitors of all national movements of true emancipation”. And he adds categorically: if imperialism is the “foreign thief”, the bourgeoisies in Latin America are the “national thieves”.


mariategui and the national question

Another influential thinker on the American national question – and one of our most universal Marxists – was José Carlos Mariátegui La Chira. Specifically about the Russian Revolution, he wrote dozens of writings, in which he deals with themes ranging from the political situation, to the process of institutional organization, passing through the analysis of Bolshevik revolutionary characters – such as Lenin, who he considers a leader of “panoramic vision and right" who understood well the "direction of contemporary history".

Mariátegui sees the Soviet Revolution as an example to be followed, not as a “model” (to be copied), but as a “guide” in making decisions that each people must make for itself. In possession of this compass, he polemicized with revisionists, with the reformist social-democracy of the Second International (paralyzed by its evolutionary “static pacifism”) and, later, with the Eurocentrism that he found in some theses of the Third International.

Even though he supported and participated, until his death, in the Communist International – to which the Peruvian Socialist Party is linked, of which he is a founder –, Mariátegui rejects the conception of this organization, according to which communists should promote the creation of “independent native republics” (MARTINS-FONTES, 2011). In this thesis, he sees a mistaken reading of Lenin's theses on the self-determination of peoples. For him, the problem in Peru was in fact the unresolved “agrarian question” (MARIÁTEGUI, 1971; 1989). The Peruvian reality was very different from the European one, and different from the more industrialized nations of America (such as Brazil and Argentina).

In his Andean country, three quarters of the population were indigenous; therefore, he asserts, these people, mostly peasants, have to be protagonists of the revolutionary process. The revolution, he says, is the new “myth” of the contemporary, the “antidote” to “bourgeois nihilism”, the “hope” that raises and animates the people, the indigenous: a concrete utopia. With this, Mariátegui rejects the “mechanistic” idea – which was gaining dimension at the time – that Peru had to promote a bourgeois-democratic revolution. With abundant and precise argumentation, he dismantles the hypothesis of the existence of a “national bourgeoisie”: the Peruvian bourgeoisie had failed in its time in carrying out the revolutionary task that fell to it, so that now it is the task of the socialist movement of rural and urban workers take this process forward.

In these reflections, he also emphasizes certain historical characteristics of the Inca people, who built a mode of production that he conceptualizes as “agrarian communism”, defending that the Peruvian Revolution could give a direct passage (without the capitalist stage), which would take that economy even quite communitarian and little attached to Western individualism, to a communist society – an idea similar to that of Marx, in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich, a text that, however, Mariátegui had not read (MARTINS-FONTES, 2018).


Caio Prado and the national question

Finally, let us see some notes on the theme of the national question present in the work of the historian and philosopher Caio da Silva Prado Júnior, a critical thinker who was one of the greatest exponents of Brazilian Marxism, and a pioneer in developing a theory contrary to the etapist and allianceist conception that, from the 1930s onwards, it prevailed in the debates of the International (and, consequently, of the communist parties all over the world).

According to him, the reading that affirms that the Latin American colonial economies have a “feudal” character is wrong. In a 1933 correspondence with the Trotskyist Lívio Xavier, Caio Prado argues that in the historical evolution of Brazil there were no conditions to establish a feudal regime, in view of the sparse population of colonial Brazil. This dialogue takes place during the beginning of the elaboration of one of the main theses of Caioprada – that of the “historical sense” –, a theory systematized and deepened in classic works such as, among others, Political Evolution of Brazil (1933) and Formation of Contemporary Brazil (1942), and which would be the object of several controversies within the scope of the PCB and the International. This conception, currently considered one of his greatest contributions to Marxism, states that Brazil, since its inception, was organized as an enterprise aimed at meeting the demands of the European market. In his words: “a vast commercial enterprise” destined to “exploit the natural resources of a virgin territory” (PRADO JÚNIOR, 2000; 1980).

This thesis was later extended to Latin America as a whole, in an article – little known due to copyright obstructions – entitled America's Tropical Zones (PRADO JUNIOR, 1936). In this text, Caio Prado states that “Latin America”, after “four centuries of evolution”, still remains, as in the beginning of colonization, a “tropical appendix”, that is: “the economic complement of the temperate regions where they are located”. the great industrial powers” ​​(MARTINS-FONTES, 2018).

Enthusiast of the Russian Revolution – even though he has criticized Soviet positions on certain occasions – he understands that the Bolsheviks offered socialism and the world an “accumulated experience”, which, contrary to what is often claimed, does not constitute a “recipe”. or “dogma”, but rather “an experience guiding [social] transformation” (PRADO JÚNIOR, 1967).

Thus, in debates on the “Brazilian Revolution”, already in the 1930s, he disagreed with certain theses of the PCB about the supposed prior need for a “bourgeois revolution” in Brazil: because what was valid for Russia, would not be valid for us. In a letter to the Central Committee of São Paulo of the PCB – unpublished in Portuguese, but published in a recent Castilian anthology of his work –, Caio firmly states that he did not see any “imminence” or “symptom” of a “bourgeois revolution” in Brazil, such as supposed his party (PRADO JÚNIOR, 2020). Decades later, in the polemics on the subject in the 1960s – after the 1964 military coup –, he declares that the PCB’s position of having supported a “national revolution” whose social base was the “bourgeoisie” was an error (SECCO, 2020) .

According to Caio Prado, it is not up to a people to copy ideas and external historical models, but based on victorious revolutionary experiences, each nation must build its own interpretation of the historical process, and in the most accurate way possible, since that way it will be possible to “mobilize” to a sufficient degree the “true forces” and “revolutionary impulses” of its people (PRADO JÚNIOR, 1966).

In short, in addition to denying the assumption that there were still “feudal remnants” in Brazil – given that our reality prior to the consolidation of capitalism was “slavery” and not “feudal” –, the Brazilian Marxist also asserts that foreign and national capital in our country and in Latin America were historically “combined”, in such a way that a “national bourgeoisie” did not exist, nor does it exist. In other words: there is no supposed “nationalist”, “anti-imperialist” portion of the ruling classes, as imagined by the majority theory about our Brazilian Revolution


Considerations about the present

In addition to the Marxists dealt with here, other unavoidable thinkers from our America would follow the same path of denying the thesis of a “national bourgeoisie”, as is the case of the Argentinean Sergio Bagú, considered by Florestan Fernandes (1981) as one of the greatest American intellectuals, alongside by Caio Prado and Mariátegui.

However, even if today such a conception has lost a lot of space in theoretical-scientific analyses, in the XNUMXst century, with the decay of the worn out neoliberal regimes, it would resume its influence on the policies of social-developmentalist governments that, despite having promoted reforms in their countries essential and of humanitarian urgency, ended up being displaced – at the first strong headwinds – by their excessive confidence in the “good intentions” of less conservative sectors of the bourgeoisie, with whom alliances were sewn that were too “subaltern”, which ended up hindering the awareness of class and popular organization necessary for an effective overcoming of the system.

This historic error has already been accused by great Marxist thinkers, as shown here, but it was not taken seriously enough by many rulers in the social-progressive field. Well, for about a decade this carelessness has been taking its toll on the misery of the lands and people of our America.

The problem can be summarized by a binomial, from which the fragile political situation we are currently experiencing derives: (i) on the one hand political alliances that, electorally necessary, in practice exaggeratedly subjected the interests of workers to those of less reactionary portions (but never " national”) of the internal bourgeoisies, thus making urgent structural economic transformations impossible (agrarian and urban reforms, etc.); (ii) on the other hand, the negligent distance between popular governments and workers' organizations in the countryside and in the city, bases which could not be resorted to, consequently, when the political betrayal of the elites took place.

As we have known for a long time: it is important to observe history not only to think about the past, and with this to know ourselves better, but to apprehend from it lessons pertinent to the urgent task of transforming the present, reorienting our historical sense – with a view to concrete utopia required by the future.

*Yuri Martins-Fontes holds a PhD in economic history (USP/CNRS). Author, among other books, of Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui (Mall).

*Solange Struwka PhD in social psychology from USP.

*Paulo Alves Jr., doctor in sociology from Unesp, is a professor of history at Unilab (BA).

Revised version of book chapter The cultural dimension in integration processes between Latin American countries (Prolam-USP).



CASTRO, Joshua. Geopolitics of Hunger. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1951.

FERNANDES, Florestan. Power and Counterpower in Latin America. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1981.

HOBSBAWM, Eric. Nations and nationalisms since 1780. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1991.

LENIN, Vladimir Ilich. Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. Sao Paulo: Global, 1987.

LENIN, Vladimir Ilich. Selected Works. São Paulo: Alfa Omega, 1986.

MARIATEGUI, Jose Carlos. ideology and politics. Lima: Amauta, 1971.

MARIATEGUI, Jose Carlos. Seven essays on the interpretation of the Peruvian reality. Lima: Amauta, 1989 [1928]

MARTINS-FONTES, Yuri. “Mariátegui and the philosophy of our time”. In: Defense of Marxism: revolutionary polemic and other writings (trans. Yuri Martins-Fontes). São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011.

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

MARTINS-FONTES, Y. STRUWKA, S.; ALVES Jr., P.. "Critical thinking and the national question in interwar Latin America”.. In: SUZUKI; NEPOMUCENO; ARAÚJO (org.). The cultural dimension in integration processes between Latin American countries. São Paulo: PROLAM-USP/FFLCH-USP, 2021. Available at:

MARX, Carl. Capital: towards the critique of political economy (Book I, volume II). Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 2013.

MELLA, Julio. “coronated Lenin. Contracorriente, year 5, 1999, pp. 224-225.

MELLA. “The cry of the martyrs”. In: MELLA. Men of the revolution: Mella. Havana: Impr. Univ., 1971, pp. 17-24.

MELLA. Julio. “Glosas on the thoughts of José Martí”. In: IHMCRSC – “Mella: Documentos y Artículos”, Editorial by C. Sociales, Havana, 1975, pp. 267-274.

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. The Brazilian Revolution. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1966.

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. Caio Prado Júnior: History and Philosophy (org. Yuri Martins-Fontes). Rosario (Argentina): Editorial Último Recurso/Núcleo Práxis-USP, 2020.

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. Political Evolution of Brazil. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1980 [1933].

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. Formation of contemporary Brazil. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 2000 [1942].

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. The world of socialism. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1967 [1962].

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. “Tropical zones of America” (11/07/1936). In: Fundo Caio Prado Jr. (File IEB-USP), reference CPJ-CA024a, p. 89-117 (handwritten notebook).

SECCO, Lincoln. “Preface to the Argentine edition”. In: PRADO JÚNIOR, C. Caio Prado Júnior: History and Philosophy. Rosario/Argentina: Ed. Last Appeal/Núcleo Práxis-USP, 2020, pp. 23-36.

SILVA GARCIA. JA “Mella: walking between two revolutions”. Heraldos Negros, Jul. 2016. Disp: Access: 19/May/2017.


The site the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters. Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table