Biographical sketch

José Carlos Mariátegui

By José-Carlos Mariátegui-Ezeta¹ and Javier Mariátegui-Chiappe-In Memoriam²

José Carlos Mariátegui is considered one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th Century in Latin America whose significance accrues and evolves over time. Within his brief life-span of twenty years, he successfully defined his distinctive character as a thinker and a producer of an original and fundamental corpus of work that reflect on Peruvian reality from a global perspective.

José Carlos Mariátegui experienced a childhood of hardships. Due to a chronic illness, he was deprived of a formal education – both at school and at university. However, an early stimulating environment made him an autodidact as he transformed his lack of studies into an advantage. He developed a self-teaching capacity, which made him a voracious reader of everything he had at hand, contributing to mature promptly, as he would later say, from an “ephemeral childhood” to a “premature adolescence”.

His work at newspaper “La Prensa” began with humble practices, starting as messenger, transiting then to become a linotypist’s assistant and then as proofreader, making his way to the news room and becoming an acclaimed and respected columnist before the age of twenty. His writing as a journalist went through literary, artistic, social and political topics which allowed him a vast mature interpretation of social reality. Such a comprehensive journalistic practice also allowed him to have a deep understanding of work practices on editorial and journalistic enterprises, which he later developed for his own endeavors, such as the journal “Nuestra Epoca” (1918) and the newspaper “La Razón” (1919). Being an uncomfortable figure to the Augusto B. Leguía’s government, in 1919, he was obliged to travel to Europe as a propaganda agent to the Peruvian government in Italy; a subtle way of deportation. He lived first in Italy and then in Germany, where he immersed himself in the systematic study of Marxism while also understanding the dynamics of fruitful editorial-intellectual enterprises, such as Gramsci’s L’ordine Nuovo, Gobetti’s La Rivoluzione liberale or Barbusse’s Clarte. His time in Europe also helped him to develop a characteristic literary style to communicate his ideas, less rhetoric than during his youth, yet with an elegant and distinctive prose.

Mariategui returned to Peru in 1923 with the idea of ​​founding a newspaper. Although this project did not materialize, a few months later, in October, he assumed the interim direction of the “Claridad” journal and in November he started to advertise what later would become “Amauta”, one of the greatest journals of Latin America (1926-1930). “Amauta” gave an account of the work from the young Peruvian and Latin American intelligentsia in literature, social sciences and art, as well as international contributors.

The facet of José Carlos Mariátegui as a cultural entrepreneur is relatively unexplored. These activities summed up his editorial practice, through the publication of books and

journals, which he channeled in various directions seeking to complement them with cultural, educational and political projects which could prompt a true social, ideological and cultural transformation in Peru. Fundamental to this pursuit was the establishment and articulation of a network across the country, even in small localities in the country which formed an extended “capillary tissue” of collaborators and distributors that allowed him to understand the true national reality directly from its actors: intellectual, educators, workers, among others. Thus, Mariátegui’s work covered all aspects comprising editorial work, right from the written action all the way up to its printing and circulation. For Mariategui, intellectual autonomy required the development of an integral editorial and production infrastructure. Along with his brother, Julio César, he founded Minerva Publishing House in 1925, dedicated to the publication and sale of books, and acquired a printing press machine that allowed him to carry out his editorial endeavors with few restrictions.

Marxism for Mariátegui was a tool for the analysis of Peruvian reality that allowed him to maintain intellectual autonomy. Without a pretense of orthodoxy, he recourses to the writings of Marx, Engels and Sorel, in an open manner, far away of dogmatic rigidity that most of the left in Latin America followed at that time. Such an overt perspective on socialism stated a bottom up approach –a socialism that comes from organized social groups, or as Gramsci stated, “a socialism over capital”–. Mariategui’s views on Marxism reflect an active practice that engaged with theory through all his endeavors: as a writer, as a political philosopher, as a social activist and as a cultural entrepreneur. Mariátegui was one of the first intellectuals to produce a post-colonial critique that remains valid to this day, questioning the different existing forms of modern dominance and how its system governs people’s life. The colonizing scheme in Latin America was not only intolerant to understand the “other”, but sought to sojourn the evolution of what local population had already developed in their own system. However, neither did it mean the replacement or incorporation of technologies that would allow a modernization nor did it have a dialogue with traditional knowledge that may have created new production models. Such a critique is particularly relevant today as there is still a persistent struggle of global domination, especially among the new world powers, regardless of their ideological line, markedly abusive and exploitative in their capacity, but by new types of colonization manifested not only on geographical usurpation, but by the new global information and consumerist capital.

During his life he only published two books, mainly brought out from the selection of his articles published in local magazines at that time.  The Contemporary Scene (La Escena Contemporánea) was published in 1925 and gave a global perspective of his European experience by bringing thoughtful analyses of the key world actors and historical events at that time. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana), is considered the most important contribution to the social study of Peruvian reality to this day, portraying an original way of applying and thinking of the Marxist method from a local perspective. During this prolific time, he also founded the Socialist Party and the General Workers’ Confederation of Peru (CGTP).

Thus, Mariátegui may be considered as a panorama man, not only because he was thrice an activator, an analyst and an interpreter, of both local and world reality, but also because he understood how intertwined intellectual autonomy and intellectual production are, and how important it was to generate a vast network of collaborators. This happened at the heart of his public life, in a moment of intellectual fertility, few months before his intended move to Buenos Aires, tired of the adverse working conditions under the Government of Leguía, at the same time making it evident that he could contribute in thinking not only in his own country but also internationally.

However, as it has been with the case of other renown intellectuals such as Gramsci or Gobetti, the active life of Mariategui ceased the 16th of April of 1930, few months before reaching his thirty sixth year, succumbing to prevalent chronic ill health. Several articles that he left as editorial projects were published after his death as anthologies and the books about him count more than six hundred in more than twenty languages.

Mariategui was an exceptional man. Perhaps we must see him not just through his successful enterprises in his short lifetime, but more significantly as a man of brilliance who had the intellectual and executive strength to guide a new epoch in the ideological evolution of Peru and Latin America, becoming a milestone in his own right in the history of ideas of the 20th Century.

[1] Director at José Carlos Mariátegui Archive, Lima (

[2] Javier Mariátegui Chiappe was a Peruvian intellectual and psychiatrist and the last of the children of José Carlos Mariátegui.