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Machete and Sickle

One hundred years ago, the Third International inspired the creation of communist parties across Latin America. Yet only its demise would liberate them from stifling Russian control.

José Carlos Mariátegui with Peruvian friends, including Artemio Ocaña, in Rome, February 1922. Wikimedia

Latin America has written beautiful pages in the history of socialism. The Cuban Revolution, Salvador Allende’s thousand days in power in Chile, and more recent movements in Bolivia and Venezuela have long placed it at the center of Marxists’ attentions. The bind between powerful worker and peasant movements and resistance to US imperialism have also made Latin America a fulcrum of internationalist exchanges.

Nonetheless, this vast region plays a marginal role in most histories of the Communist International. Founded in March 1919 in the hope of spreading revolution around the globe, the Comintern was from the outset a largely European phenomenon. Most delegates to its First Congress were exiles from the old continent who already lived in Moscow; there was some Asian representation, but none from Latin America or Africa.

Yet even if Brazil or Peru stood geographically and politically far from Russia, the Comintern was not simply aloof from Latin America. The foundation of Communist parties in Mexico and Argentina in 1917–18 was soon followed by the attempt to build sections of this “world party” across the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, as anti-imperialism took on an increasing role in Comintern affairs.

Through the Comintern’s existence from 1919 to 1943, Latin America never assumed the geopolitical centrality that it would in the Cold War era. Yet the challenge to imperialism in the US’s “backyard” had begun even in the nineteenth century and found a powerful new ally in the world Communist movement. Yet the Comintern’s main success was in spite of itself, as it laid the bases of a distinct Latin American Marxism.

The Search for the New World

It may seem paradoxical to suggest that the Communist International, from the outset a Russian-headquartered and dominated organization, was itself a force for Latin American unity. Bodies created to rally the continent’s communists were consistently led by (or, at least, together with) Europeans, and the consistent reference to Russian tactics and means of organization often sat at odds with more local realities.

The Comintern as a whole drew little on Latin American input. The Indian Manabendra Nath Roy attended the Second Congress to represent communists in both his own homeland and Mexico (where he had spent two years), while Argentina was represented by Russians. Only in 1924 was Latin America represented by one of its own children (the Argentinian José Penelón) on the Comintern executive.

That said, the Bolshevik inspiration for Latin Americans was not simply “Eurocentric,” given the rupture that October 1917 represented in a world dominated by empire. For the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, “what first drove me to believe in Lenin and the Third International was not communism but patriotism”; and in Latin America, like southeast Asia, October 1917 offered anti-imperialist as well as class-war lessons.

In the late nineteenth century, anarchism had enjoyed considerable cultural sway in Latin America’s labor movements, notably thanks to the efforts of Spanish and Italian immigrants in Mexico and Argentina. Yet the Bolshevik-led revolution energized a new idea of political action. Not only had workers and peasants seized power in a major European state, but their alliance offered the model of a broad-based process of social change.

The rupture in the capitalist world sparked the creation of small Communist groups calling themselves bolcheviques, but also drew on forces which stood at a distance from the traditional labor movement. Such was the case of the Federación de Comunidades Indígenas de Argentina, Bolivia y del Perú. Despite its more anarchist positions, in 1921 this latter sought affiliation to the Comintern.

For this federation of indigenous groups, the International represented a “millennia-long revolutionary tradition” — not just a Russian experience to be exported but one that connected with a history of subaltern struggles in the lands once colonized by Spain. Indeed, from the outset the Comintern faced the question of how central the “European” (white or mestizo, industrial) proletariat would be to the revolution in Latin America.

Insofar as the first Communist parties were built on the social-democratic movement that had emerged before World War I, the early Comintern was focused on the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina) and Mexico, and relatively less on the other Andean states. Argentina and Mexico both had Moscow-aligned parties by January 1918 and Brazil by 1922, but Peru not until 1928 and Bolivia not until 1940.

Yet the Comintern did not only transplant a European model. From the Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 it sought to mobilize an anti-imperialist revolt transcending the labor-capital clash and indeed it found a new “East” in Latin America. Among its many bureaus covering groups of countries, the Comintern’s structures for Latin America were rare in uniting Communists across a whole continent.

Indeed, whereas in Europe the new Communist parties largely emerged from the left wing of Social Democracy, in Latin America this process was complicated both by the need to create new organizations from scratch and by the bid to collaborate with other pan-continental bodies united by anti-imperialism. Yet to characterize Latin American realities as “oriental” often offended militants who had imbibed the European Marxist experience.

Ties That Bind

Unlike its predecessors, this “Third” International originated as a single world organization which then established national sections, rather than by aggregating existing parties. The Comintern was more diversely composed in Latin America than elsewhere, though at the same time the International’s extension from the Rio Grande to the Straits of Magellan brought an unprecedented unity among its labor and peasant movements.

This contrasted with the Second International, which split along national lines in 1914, as its main parties backed their own governments in World War I. The Bolshevik revolt against this, followed by October 1917, established a definitive connection between the rejection of reformism and an embrace of internationalism. This divide was reproduced even in countries which had little or no involvement in in the conflict itself.

The left wing of the Argentinian Socialists split away in January 1918 and joined the Comintern together with the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). This latter at first leaned heavily on Soviet representative Mikhail Borodin, a Belarusian Jew who had arrived via the United States in his unsuccessful bid to sell the Romanov crown jewels. Co-leader of the PCM in early months was another foreigner, the Indian communist M. N. Roy.

Latin America’s new parties established not only “vertical” ties to Moscow, but also “horizontal” ones with other sections. Peru’s José Carlos Mariátegui attended the foundation of the Italian section in 1921, and M.N. Roy soon became leader of a bureau spanning Latin American countries. Mexico City (and indeed exile circles in New York) simultaneously served as an organizing hub for Communist parties across the Caribbean.

As David Mayer notes, Borodin’s travels in the Americas also highlighted the tension in early Soviet diplomacy between the role of the Comintern (a “world communist party” opposed to all ruling classes) and Moscow’s bid to find allies among “anti-imperialist” states and their “national bourgeoisies.” This would also include (often-difficult) ties to such figures as Mexican president Venustiano Carranza (and later, Lázaro Cárdenas).

International exchanges also proceeded via other bodies, from the Comintern’s trade union federation Profintern to the (autonomous) Liga Antiimperialista de las Américas (LADLA) led by Julio Antonio Mella (Cuban Communist Party co-founder in 1925). Until 1928 LADLA united Mella’s comrades with noncommunist internationalist forces, notably Mexico-based Peruvian Víctor Raul Haya de la Torre’s reformist aprista current.

In this vein, LADLA and its organ El Libertador prided themselves on their “Hands off Nicaragua” campaign in support of the Sandino uprising. This was also backed by the anti-imperialist congresses staged by the Comintern’s European bodies, though at the International’s Sixth Congress in 1928 its leader Nikolai Bukharin upbraided the US Communists’ weak reaction against American involvement in the Central American country.

At that same congress, nine years into the organization’s existence, Bukharin announced with some satisfaction that Latin America had “entered the orbit of Comintern influence for the first time.” Yet if the Congress emphasized immediate class-war possibilities in the West, it instead considered the Latin American revolution through a specifically “anti-imperialist” lens, reducing it to an “Oriental” framework.

Mariátegui

The notion of the tie between Latin America and the “East” was a product of both the Comintern’s weak roots in the continent and its own organizational practice. M. N. Roy had not only founded one of the first Communist parties outside the Russian Empire in Mexico, but also took part in the development of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East and Indian Communist Party, as well as work in China.

At the same time, Comintern activity cohered a specifically “Latin American” outlook. Beyond exerting influence in LADLA, in 1925 the Comintern formed a South American Bureau under the leadership of Victorio Codovilla. After the Sixth Congress, he organized a continental trade union conference in Montevideo in May 1929, and then a First Congress of Latin American Communists in Buenos Aires in June.

Notwithstanding the general centralization of the Comintern under Stalin’s leadership and Codovilla’s role as a direct link between Moscow and the Communist parties, the June 1929 meeting in the Argentinian capital saw among the most open strategic debates that could still take place in the Stalin-era Comintern. This opening was also a brief one, to be snuffed out in 1930 as the “Latin American Congress” moved to Moscow itself.

Central to the strategic perspective outlined by Codovilla was the division of the continent into different areas of work. In this approach, while the Communists in Southern Cone countries would adopt an anti-social-democratic “class-against-class” line akin to that adopted in Germany or France, the Comintern would elsewhere focus on what Bukharin termed “the revolt of the Indians in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.”

In the buildup to the June 1929 Buenos Aires congress, Codovilla entrusted Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui with writing a document on the creation of an indigenous republic. An Italian immigrant to Argentina, who lived in that country from 1912 onward, Codovilla is often accused of a disregard for the realities of Latin America, blindly imposing a Moscow-derived Sixth Congress line across vastly different national conditions

Yet it is important to highlight that Mariátegui’s response against Codovilla was itself a defense of a certain kind of Leninist orthodoxy.  Latin America’s greatest interwar Marxist, Mariátegui was notable (and himself accused of “Eurocentrism”) precisely for his insistence that his Peruvian homeland should not be seen through the prism of differentness, but in terms of how the Russian and local experience could be linked.

Mariátegui especially opposed the Sixth Congress’s idea that the “colonial and semi-colonial countries” would have to first undergo a “bourgeois-democratic,” “national” revolution before the industrial proletariat could itself become the protagonist of history. He rather emphasized peasants’ and indíos’ potential to carry through revolutions which would not need to pass via the stage of “indigenous” capitalism.

This clashed with the Comintern’s perspective for colonial and subject nationalities. As Lance Selfa notes, while in the United States the call for a “Black Belt” republic at least had the merit of highlighting racial oppression, in Latin America an emphasis on “national” issues risked establishing a Chinese wall between peasant and indigenous questions and the anticapitalist tasks regarding a still-tiny working class.

If anything, Codovilla’s weakness — or at least, the reason he antagonized Mariátegui and his comrades — was a tendency to essentialize the differences between Latin American countries, seeing Argentina or Chile through the prism of the labor movement while assuming the other Andean countries to be “further back” on the march of progress and thus ready for “national” and “democratic” rather than “socialist” revolution.

Stalinization

What united both elements of Codovilla’s approach, consonant with the voluntarist line of Depression-era “Third Period Stalinism,” was a conviction in the imminence of revolutionary upheaval, whether of a specifically “proletarian” or else “national” character. This repeatedly led the Comintern into bloody blind alleys, though also often tallied with the putschist sentiments of the small vanguards aligned to the International.

This turn was above all, erratic. It partly owed to events in China, where the nationalist Kuomintang had in 1927 broken the united front and bloodily crushed Mao’s Communists. Over in Brazil, Swiss Comintern agent Jules Humbert-Droz termed the PCB’s own “Worker-Peasant Bloc” a “Kuomintang” containing dangerous “petty bourgeois” ideas, and the party turned toward harsh internal purges, even as it faced state repression.

In countries where democratic structures were weak or nonexistent and the organized working class was small, the idea of a Bolshevik-style discipline able to create hardened combat forces, could certainly seem attractive to Latin America’s Communists. Events like the insurrectionary general strike in Argentina in January 1919 had drawn clear Russian inspiration but faced only bloody repression.

In both its “Third Period” and subsequent popular-front guises the Latin American agencies of the Comintern sponsored doomed military uprisings. The first, a peasant revolt in El Salvador in 1932 in which the Communists were peripherally involved, ended in some 25,000 deaths. More directly Comintern-organized was the soldiers’ rising in Brazil in 1935, a desperate and failed bid to break out of conditions of illegality.

There were also splits among the communists. In Bolivia, exiles from the opposition within the Chilean Communist Party, together with writer Tristán Marof (a romantic devotee of “Inca communism”) founded a para-Trotskyist party before any official Communist Party was declared. Yet in most countries the Communists’ failures only intensified their binds to Moscow, an ongoing source of both prestige and control.

A New International?

The Comintern’s record in Latin America was doubtless very mixed. An internationalism inspired by both the October Revolution and the anti-imperialist fronts of the 1920s fueled the exchange between the new Communist parties and their European counterparts, but also with noncommunist forces active in the Latin American left. These latter would be key to the future alliances built by the region’s Communists.

At the same time, the Comintern did not itself prove an enduring vehicle able to cohere Latin American communists. The conference held in Buenos Aires in 1929 was an exception, compared to the strong centralization in the other continents. Yet the slow Stalinization process in Latin America also owed to the long-weak state of its Communist parties, and spaces of autonomy were closed down over the 1930s.

LADLA was marginalized in 1929 following the murder of Cuban communist Mella in Mexico City, and Mariátegui died in 1930. As these stars of Latin American Marxism died, the continent’s parties were increasingly drawn into a Russian orbit, including through their members’ attendance at the “Communist University for the Workers of the East,” originally intended for cadres from the USSR’s own Eastern republics.

At the moment of the Comintern’s dissolution in 1943, Latin America was geopolitically marginal. It was the single continent least involved in World War II, and its politics were also irreducible to the fight between Nazism and antifascist resistance movements which raised Communist parties to such prominence around Europe. Yet in the Cold War period it would become a center of a new communism, not simply directed by Moscow.

The divide proceeded in fits and starts; communist attempts to ally with reformists like Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala (or later, Salvador Allende in Chile) were bloodily crushed, while leading anti-Stalinist parties (e.g., Bolivia’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party) were drawn away from revolutionary politics. But the Cuban Revolution in particular created a new beacon of revolutionary communism in Latin America.

There was not to be a replacement of the Comintern, simply substituting Moscow’s leadership with Havana’s. Yet Castro’s government united the anti-imperialists of the postcolonial world in the Tricontinental and supported the revolution from Nicaragua and Chile to South Africa and Vietnam, even as the USSR’s own international role dimmed, especially following its botched bid to site missiles on Cuba itself.

At the same time, the rise of far-right dictatorships created a steady flow of exiles around the Latin American continent, negatively “united” by a common experience of repression. The kind of tactics sponsored by Cuba, not least the Guevarist guerrilla struggle or foco operations, could often end in disaster, and strategic analyses drawn from the Comintern era continued to bear their effect. But Latin American subalternity to Europe had ended.

The Comintern of 1919 to 1943 had not spread the revolution to Latin America, and nor had the region’s Communist parties played a key role in the International as a whole. Yet its regional organizations had brought to the fore figures who would continue to inspire exiles and revolutionaries throughout the Cold War era. The Comintern had met an uninspiring end in Latin America. But communist internationalism had not.