The Left and Nationalism Monthly Series: “The Comintern and the Question of Race in the South American Andes” by Marc Becker

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H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the fifth post of its “The Left and Nationalism Monthly Series”, which looks at the relationship between nationalism and left-wing movements and thinking in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Marc Becker (Truman State University), inquires into the role of race and nationalism in the working of the Comintern with regard to the South American Andes.


In the 1920s, the Moscow-based Third or Communist International (Comintern) advocated the establishment of “independent native republics” for Blacks in South Africa and the United States. The Comintern recognized the revolutionary potential of anti-colonial struggles and, building on Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin’s interpretations of the national and colonial questions, defended the rights of self-determination for national minorities, including the right to secede from oppressive state structures. These discussions on the role of race and nationalism in a revolutionary movement soon extended to Latin America with the Comintern’s proposal to carve an Indian Republic out of the Quechua and Aymara peoples in the mountainous Andean Region of South America where Tawantinsuyu, the old Inka empire, flourished before the arrival of the Spanish in 1532.

The persistent question of whether a people’s oppression was primarily an issue of class, race, or nationalism came to a head at a conference of Latin American communist parties in Buenos Aires in June of 1929. At this meeting, the Peruvian marxist intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui contributed a lengthy treatise “El problema de las razas en la América Latina” (The Problem of Race in Latin America) that adamantly maintained that the “Indian Question” was fundamentally one of class relations in which the bourgeois oppressed a rural proletariat, and that this situation could only be addressed through structural alterations to the land tenure system.

Firmly grounding his discussion in a class analysis, Mariátegui argued that race disguised underlying class exploitation rooted in an unequal distribution of land:

In Latin American bourgeois intellectual speculation, the race question serves, among other things, to disguise or evade the continent’s real problems. Marxist criticism has the unavoidable obligation of establishing it in real terms, ridding it of all sophistic or pedantic equivocation. Economically, socially, and politically, the race question, like the land question, is fundamentally that of liquidating feudalism.

For Mariátegui, the Indian problem in Latin America was an economic and social issue that for Indigenous peoples meant an agrarian problem, and it needed to be addressed at the level of land tenure relations.

Mariátegui’s paper was part of intense debates among communist activists worldwide as to whether marginalized and impoverished ethnic communities comprised national or racial minorities, and what the relationship of their identities to the larger class struggle should be. Mariátegui concluded that the Comintern’s policy of establishing Native Republics would not lead to the material improvement of the subaltern masses, but removing them from existing nation state structures would only ensure their increased poverty and marginalization. Instead, Mariátegui argued that the best way to achieve liberation for the Indian (and African) masses would be for them to join workers and others in a struggle for a socialist revolution. Liberating the race without addressing underlying class issues would lead to an Indian bourgeois state as exploitative as the current white-dominated one. The categories of race and class are interlinked–one cannot be understood without the other–and both need to be engaged to understand diverse, multi-cultural countries like Peru.

Whereas Mariátegui criticized a Comintern proposal to create an Indigenous republic in the Andes, his counterparts in neighboring Ecuador embraced the language of Indigenous nationalities and made it a key part of their struggle. More than anyone else, Ricardo Paredes was associated with, and helped define the direction of, the revolutionary marxist tradition in Ecuador. Although he never gained the international stature or renown of his contemporaries José Carlos Mariátegui in Peru or Julio Antonio Mella in Cuba, he was known as the “Apostle of Ecuadorian Communism” and played a similar role in organizing and consolidating the Communist Party in Ecuador.

Paredes attended the 1928 sixth Comintern congress where he contributed ideas that led to an embrace of interpreting Indigenous communities as comprising oppressed nationalities who should have the rights of independence to the point of separation from the current nation-state:

The revolutionary problem is linked up with that of the oppressed masses such as the Indians of Latin America. In some countries, Indians constitute the biggest section of the rural population; they suffer much more than white and half-caste workers from the exploitation of the landed proprietors. Indians who are considered an inferior race are treated more brutally. All these factors have created among the Indian workers and peasants a spirit of solidarity and a class spirit of the exploited. Therefore, Indians are very revolutionary elements. I think this problem of oppressed races must be dealt with in the program.

Even before the Comintern dictated that local parties should work with oppressed populations, Communists (with Mexico taking the lead) developed strong connections with peasant movements.

Although Paredes lacked Mariátegui’s intellectual stature, he did contribute something that his Peruvian counterpart could or did not offer. Confined to a wheelchair in his house in Lima on the Peruvian coast, Mariátegui lacked direct knowledge of Indigenous lives in the rural highlands. Paredes, similar to Salvador Allende and Ernesto Che Guevara, was a medical doctor who had direct knowledge of human suffering. Paredes traveled frequently throughout the country, and gained immediate experiences of oppression that Mariátegui lacked. Whereas Mariátegui critiqued his Peruvian reality from an intellectual perspective, Paredes approached Ecuador as a political grassroots organizer. Inevitably, these different perspectives influenced their critiques of the Indigenous question and how they viewed the issue of “oppressed” nationalities. Activists in Ecuador subsequently assumed this discourse, and used it to construct a powerful movement for social justice. Inadvertently, in following centralized Comintern dictates, Ecuadorian Communists contributed the ideology of Indigenous nationalities on which this movement was built.

Ideologically, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian marxists, as well as those elsewhere in the Andes, were not that far apart on how they viewed the Indigenous question. Paredes and Mariátegui both agreed on the revolutionary potential of the Indigenous masses, and believed that they were capable of leading themselves to liberation in alliance with a class-based party. Nevertheless, over the course of the twentieth century Indigenous organizing efforts took radically different directions in the two countries. Following Mariátegui’s lead, Peruvian marxists pursued a class-based approach that downplayed ethnic identities. In accordance with Comintern dictates, their Ecuadorian counterparts appealed to the discourse of Indigenous nationalities. Over time, Indigenous peoples claimed this language as their own, and used it to build one of the strongest social movements in the Americas.