“Unintelligible gibberish” is how I once heard a colleague, in utter frustration, refer to the esoteric aspects of the writings of Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre. Not so, proclaims Notre Dame historian Fredrick Pike whose provocative, but flawed, intellectual biography of Haya reveals for the first time the spiritual and mystical dimension of his thought.

Pike’s thesis is that Haya represented a peripheral version of the general revolt in the West against reason, as epitomized by positivism whose philosophical tenets had underpinned the steady advance of capitalism and the bourgeois ethic. One manifestation of this reaction was spiritualism, which Pike defines as not just “people assembled in darkened rooms attempting to make tables rise,” but “the quest for ‘wholeness’ … and the rediscovery of an ‘ancient wisdom’ that reveals, purportedly, how to assert the powers of mind and spirit over matter” (p. 1).

In Peru, as in other parts of Latin America, Western spiritualism, Pike claims, encountered a cultural milieu already permeated with such sources of indigenous spiritual power as animism and shamanism of Indian and Afro-American origins as well as traditional forms of Hispanic-Catholic mysticism, not to mention Andean millenarianism. Sensitized by the contradictions of his homosexuality which deepened his psychic and social need for wholeness, Haya, according to Pike, embraced both at home and in his travels in Europe spiritualist ideologies which he infused into the Aprista movement. He founded the APRA, as much a religious cult as a political party, to lead the disoriented and dislocated Peruvian masses in a great spiritual regeneration with strong millenarianist overtones. Thus, Pike seeks to demonstrate the parallels between Aprismo and popular religious movements, such as early Christianity, with Haya the charismatic prophet bent on leading his followers in quest of the utopic dream of a Peru, indeed a world, reborn.

This is not a portrait that reformers, revolutionaries, or their sympathizers (Aprista or non-Aprista), will take kindly. Like many conservatives, Pike seeks to emphasize the utopian and visionary side of those who would change society in any radical or profound way. This view runs diametrically counter, of course, to the Marxist or neo-Marxist proposition that revolution is a response to longstanding material and objective conditions of social exploitation and oppression. It also fails to offer an understanding of the enormous difficulties faced by leaders like Haya who seek to mobilize a historically oppressed mass to challenge the traditional structures of society, often requiring extraordinary personal sacrifice, including, as with many early Apristas, loss of life itself. Finally, this perspective tends to trivialize those leaders as somehow mad or deranged (in this case Haya’s early flirtation with spiritualism and the occult)—thereby easting grave doubts on the seriousness of their potential leadership and project for societal change.

On another level, Pike has an unfortunate tendency throughout the book to indiscriminately lump together categories of analysis and systems of thought and belief. Although he marshalls to his argument the tenets of Jung, Erickson, Bergson, Nietzsche, shamanism, Saint Teresa, Marx, Catholicism, esotericism, and others, the book fails to produce a coherent picture of Haya the “aristocrat” and reformer, the modern spiritualist, the secret homosexual in a inachista society, and the charismatic leader and pragmatic statesman.

Nevertheless, Pike has written a challenging book that will elicit a good deal of comment and debate for some time to come.