The study of Marxism in Latin America presents several unique problems: sources are scarce and usually biased; rhetoric is abundant, and Marx’s influence, beyond one or two quotations, difficult to trace in many authors. Liss therefore deserves some praise for addressing, if not overcoming, these problems in Marxist Thought in Latin America.
The author, who describes himself as a “nonsectarian socialist” (p. 1), begins by stating that “no book of this kind has ever been written and little of what is examined between these covers has been translated in the United States where Marx is more talked about and misquoted than read” (p. 11). Despite such an immodest proclamation, his book is rather disappointing.
Liss offers no historical background on the authors he analyzes, and no clear criteria in selecting those he considers Marxist pensadores, an obsolete word in today’s Latin American culture. He also relies heavily on secondary, mostly Communist sources. Out of twenty-four footnotes on Che Guevara, for example, only three refer to Guevara’s own writings (pp. 328–329); on Mariátegui, out of forty-two footnotes, four refer to his works, only two to his basic book. Liss also omits facts that do not support the image he offers of some authors. Citing the arrest of Brazilian Luís Carlos Prestes, whom he treats as a Marxist pensador, he asserts that “The government captured Prestes in 1935 and the following year sentenced him to forty-six years in prison” (p. 109). Prestes, Secretary General of the Communist party, was also involved in a conspiracy against Vargas’s government, and when released in 1945, obeyed the party in proclaiming his support of the Vargas regime. Liss mentions neither fact.
In Colombia, Liss writes, Father Camilo Torres demonstrated his belief that the church should not be anti-Communist “by accepting the support of Colombia’s Communist party for the Army of National Liberation, which he helped lead . . .” (p. 159). In fact, the Communists rejected Torres’s appeals for unity, and refused to cooperate with the Army of National Liberation, a group they had labeled “adventurist.” Camilo Torres never helped to lead the group. He was killed as a simple fighter six months after joining the guerrillas.
Quite often the author disregards well-known texts to insert personal and quite debatable Marxist interpretations. While not mentioning Marx’s publicized contempt for Bolívar, and Mexicans and the Latins in general, he affirms that Marx, who believed that some who disagreed with him did not make immoral judgments . . . would be horrified by the rigidity that at times exists on the Left in Latin America (p. 286). Ideological rigidity is hardly limited to the Latin Left, and the image of a benevolent and tolerant Marx might be disputed by many of his biographers.
The replacing of careful and balanced research by personal insights (“Castro and his comrades proved Marx, Engels and Lenin wrong.” p. 239) results in several mistakes. Liss’s claim that “Marxist thought did not arrive in the Americas until more than two and a half centuries after Columbus” (p. 31), would make Marx a contemporary of Voltaire. The name of the Chilean writer whom Liss identifies as José Victoriano (p. 72) is José Victorino Lastarria. Francisco Bilbao never fought in the Paris barricades of 1848 (p. 32). And José Martí’s criticism of Marx went well beyond accusing Marx of offering “no remedies” for social problems (p. 240). Many other problems plague the book.
A basic weakness is Liss’s selection of authors. By treating each nation as a separate entity and rarely acknowledging the unavoidable influence of the Communist parties and the Comintern, he limits himself to favorite authors, and those of his listed sources. Argentine Marxist-oriented writers like José Ingenieros and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada are not studied. Mexican Arnaldo Córdova, whose book La ideología de la revolución mexicana (1973) is recognized as one of the best contemporary Marxist interpretations, is not mentioned. Liss lumps together as pensadores authors as diverse as Emilio Frugoni and Victorio Codovilla. The concept of pensador, however, implies a certain freedom to interpret the world. Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, Colombian Diego Montana Cuéllar (expelled from the Communist party precisely because of his “independence”) might fall into that category. But Victorio Codovilla, Blas Roca, or Luís Carlos Prestes remained loyal members of their respective parties and disciplined spokesmen of Moscow’s changing strategies. Their writings are more ideological propaganda than expressions of original thought.
Liss’s failure to study Marxism within Latin American historical framework, and to distinguish between true nineteenth-century pensadores, twentieth-century Marxist-oriented intellectuals, and Communist party spokesmen might explain his final conclusion. “Latin American Marxist pensadores, whether they prefer a program of socialism advocated by Recabarren, Palacios, Mariátegui . . . Camilo Torres, Che Guevara, or combinations or variations of the many themes mentioned in this volume, continued to fight an up-hill battle against their governments and their fellow citizens who have become one-dimensional, are unable to think dialectically, and are conditioned to accept less than the best possible state of being” (p. 290; italics added). Most Latin American Marxists would probably reject this sweeping and rather unfair generalization.