Echoes of Revolution

Against the Current No. 227, November/December 2023

Marc Becker

The Latin American Revolutionary Movement:
Proceedings of the First Latin American Communist Conference
Translated and edited by Marc Becker
Brill, 2023, Haymarket, 2024.

WE ASKED TRANSLATOR and editor Marc Beckere to explain the significance of the proceedings to the first and only Latin American-wide communist conference.

WHY DOES A Communist Party conference held nearly a century ago in South America still hold significance for us today?

Surprisingly, the discussions and debates that took place during the First Latin American Communist Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from June 1-12, 1929, continue to resonate with our present issues related to organizational strategies, class struggles, and identity politics.

During this historic gathering, 38 delegates from across the Americas and as far away as Moscow convened to deliberate on a wide array of topics. Foremost on their minds was the global landscape, marked by the looming threat of a new world war.

Delegates grappled with the strategies and tactics needed to organize an effective anti-imperialist movement. They distinguished between revolutionary warfare against imperialism, exemplified by Augusto César Sandino’s battle against U.S. Marines in Nicaragua, and reactionary conflicts among imperialist powers and their satellite states.

The assembled comrades foresaw that Latin America, rich in natural resources, could not remain immune to global conflicts and would be directly involved. Beyond these external concerns, the conference delved deeply into Latin American political struggles.

Revolutionary Strategic Options

One of the most poignant moments of the conference involved a report on the banana plantation strikes the previous year against the United Fruit Company in Colombia. This event, famously fictionalized by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, was recounted in even more compelling eyewitness detail during the conference

The workers’ response to the army’s demand to disperse, with a defiant cry of “long live the strike,” was met with a brutal massacre, leaving hundreds dead and wounded. As organizer Raúl Eduardo Mahecha Caicedo, who had rallied 32,000 workers for higher wages and better working conditions, described the events:

“One last bugle call and a new shout from the striking workers in support of the strike was silenced by 300 soldiers firing their machine guns point-blank at the strikers. More than 600 of our compañeros were left lying on the ground, of which more than 200 died.”

In the end, Mahecha counted “1,004 dead, including men, women, and children; 3,068 wounded; more than 500 imprisoned compañeros and hundreds of comrades sentenced to many years in prison.”

Reading Mahecha’s account of the banana strike in Colombia alongside classic accounts of the Bolshevik revolution, such as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World or more recent treatments such as China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, gives a sense of how unpredictable the outcomes of popular uprisings can be.

Rather than mourning the dead — as Joe Hill famously mandated “don’t mourn, organize!” — the gathered delegates analyzed what they might have done differently.

More broadly, arguments for at least five perspectives on revolutionary strategies were under discussion: revolution from below, longterm political organization, welcoming repression with the hope that it would cause people to rebel spontaneously, resorting to what some criticized as terrorist activities, and electoral paths to power.

In 1928, Colombia was on the verge of a Bolshevik-style revolution that would have set not only that country but the entire continent on an entirely different trajectory. Instead, the conservative Colombian oligarchy gained the upper hand and for another century ruled the country as the region’s most faithful ally of U.S. imperial interests.

Mahecha was a dedicated organizer who was committed to mass action as a strategy that would lead to a socialist revolution. But he was also a fighter, and Comintern officials criticized him for being too quick to action. His “anarchist-putschist temperament” meant that he wanted to act rather than talk. Even so, he acted as a good comrade and vowed to comply with whatever the party ordered.

While Mahecha was quick to action, others argued for the importance of the preparation of a vanguard party that was better prepared to lead a large-scale movement. With better groundwork, the workers could not only have won the strike but also ushered in the first socialist revolutionary government in the Americas.

Mahecha and those on the frontlines of the strike lamented that political leaders, who remained removed in the distant capital city of Bogotá, failed to grasp the urgency and intensity of the situation on the ground, and hence refused to dedicate the resources necessary to assure immediate victory.

Even more so than Mahecha, the famed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was quick to resort to violence rather than engaging in the long and painfully drawn-out process of political organization.

Siqueiros had fought with Venustiano Carranza’s constitutional army during the Mexican Revolution a decade earlier, and later attempted to murder the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He was less interested in organization or ideological preparation than moving quickly to armed actions.

Mass Movement

Jules Humbert-Droz, the head of the Latin Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) in Moscow who participated actively in the conference, pushed back against these so-called accelerationist approaches of “the worse things get, the better for us.” Rather, he urged agitating for, and accepting, gradual reforms with the attitude that if we want to move left, we need to move left.

As Che Guevara would also later state in his classic text on guerrilla warfare, Humbert-Droz rejected “individual terrorist acts that are detached from mass action as a replacement for the mass movement.”

The removal or execution of a repressive leader would only lead to that person’s replacement with another similar (or worse) tyrant, not the much larger and urgently needed structural changes. A military coup d’état that rearranges the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship should not be mistaken for the thoroughgoing societal transformations that a socialist revolution would introduce.

Delegates also cautioned against relying on what they called “caudillos” or autocratic leaders to lead the masses. Leaders, they believed, would not save them. More important was to engage in a longer and more difficult process of building a movement from the base up. The importance of formulating a strong grassroots organization as the foundation for a revolutionary movement was continually reinforced.

Problems of Electoral Politics

As with today, dedicating limited resources to the electoral process was a controversial and contentious topic. At one point, the Colombian labor organizer Mahecha blurted out that he thought “participation in elections is stupid, because even if we have a million votes we will not be able to seize power.”

Zacharij Mijailovich Rabinovich, a Young Communist International representative to the South American Secretariat, and Victorio Codovilla, the secretary general of the South American Secretariat, responded in unison, “You can never seize power through elections, compañero!”

They recognized that it is one thing to win an elected office, and something else entirely to make a social revolution that transforms the government and introduces new institutions. Miguel Contreras from Argentina complained about parties that had been reduced to a meaningless nucleus “whose only concerns are limited to the most comfortable and harmless electoral and parliamentary actions.”

Humbert-Droz similarly cautioned that a party “will suffer parliamentary degeneration if it limits its role just to electoral activity” rather than “mobilizing the broad masses of workers.” The left today continues to recognize the limitations of attempting to implement progressive policies through the electoral process.

Comintern representative Humbert- Droz advocated fighting for incremental political gains wherever and however necessary. This included a strategy that assumed a strategic approach to running candidates in elections, even while maintaining an organized presence on the streets to force changes through to fruition.

A continual theme was the importance of grassroots organizing, particularly among workers, to lay a solid foundation for a revolutionary movement.

“Union work is hard,” a representative from the Profintern (the Red International of Labor Unions) commented. “It does not have its bright spots like other tasks. It is an invisible and dark job that demands much personal sacrifice and a lot of perseverance. Even so, it has the value of being a very important political factor for the victory of the proletariat.”

Discussing Race, Class & Gender

Delegates at the conference discussed racial problems head-on. While many Brazilians had internalized the idea of their country as a democracy where race did not matter, Black delegates spoke of the persistence of racism.

Brazilian delegate Leoncio Basbaum acknowledged that “racial problems in Latin America are a matter of fundamental importance.” He recognized that color prejudice existed in Brazil and that the party needed to fight against it, but claimed that “true racial hatred” as existed in the United States was not present in the country. Rather he encouraged a class, not race, struggle.

The Afro-Cuban delegate Sandalio Junco in contrast emphasized the importance of confronting racism, though the methods for doing so remained a contentious issue. He pointed out that no party had properly studied the issue, and that many members denied the problem existed.

Junco proceeded to detail the miserable conditions that Blacks faced throughout the hemisphere. “The problem exists,” he insisted, “and impels us more and more imperiously to deal with it and to determine the line that we communists must follow regarding it.”

Nevertheless, how to solve these problems was and remains a contentious issue because, as Humbert-Droz commented, “not only do racial problems exist in Latin America, but they are also extremely complex.”

Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui connected racism to underlying structural issues of economic exploitation and argued that it needed to be addressed on that level. “The problem is not racial but rather social and economic,” he contended — in a fashion that Adolph Reed and others would subsequently proclaim. “But race has a role in it [social and economic exploitation and oppression] and the methods of confronting it.”

For Mariátegui, eliminating racism without addressing class would leave intact “all the internal and external contradictions of the bourgeois state.” A more wealthy and privileged strata of Indigenous and Black peoples would not solve anything, even while he fully recognized the persistent and pernicious nature of racial discrimination.

It became readily apparent to the assembled delegates that various forms of oppression needed to be fought on all levels simultaneously. Reading through their debates one hundred years later presents a foreshadowing of what later came into vogue as intersectionality — but this less in the sense of how Kimberle? Crenshaw subsequently constructed it but more along the lines of how Marxists such as Barbara Foley have theorized an understanding that race, class, and gender cannot be reduced to similar modes of oppression.

Foley has written that “although intersectionality can usefully describe the effects of multiple oppressions … it does not offer an adequate explanatory framework for addressing the root causes of social inequality in the capitalist socioeconomic system.” To do that, we need to “move past the discourse of ‘rights’” and instead examine the ownership of the means of production. In truth, race, class, and gender operate so differently and address such fundamentally distinct issues that in truth they cannot “intersect.”

Working through Problems

The communist parties desired to be grounded in the working class, which raised issues of what to do with intellectuals who inevitably were attracted to their revolutionary movements. Some of the peasant delegates at the meeting wanted to evict all intellectuals, whereas others urged the valuable contributions of “honest intellectuals.”

Likewise, a significant rural-urban divide emerged. Most of the leaders lived in cities, even as the majority of people who formed the base of their revolutionary movement lived in the countryside. How should they “go to the masses,” as Lenin urged?

The organizers also struggled with how to get members to commit to paying dues and how to organize immigrant populations.

From the very beginning of organizing for the conference, one agenda topic was to be women’s issues, but all the delegates were men. Although the Comintern’s South American Secretariat circulated resolutions on women’s issues, presenting a clarion call for gender equality and women’s rights, the lack of women’s attendance highlights the gap between ideals and lived realities.

Oddly enough, a transcription of the discussion was not included in the published proceedings — unlike for the other themes.

Urged to “study fighting; fight studying,” conference organizers sought to merge theory and practice. By studying their experiences, drawing lessons from past mistakes and successes, they could raise the ideological level of their parties.

It is inspiring and instructive to see how the delegates assembled in Buenos Aires in June of 1929 came together to grapple with these important and persistent issues. In large part that remains the value of reviewing the content and nature of their debates nearly a century later.

The meeting had flaws and gaps that still plague leftist organizers today. Tempers would flare, misunderstandings needed to be clarified. Anyone who has had fallings out with fellow comrades more over personalities than policy issues will recognize some of the tensions at the meeting. The delegates were humans just like the rest of us. But at the end they all came together to sing “The Internationale.”

Recovering the Record

Organizers optimistically labeled their gathering as the first international conference of Latin American communist parties, implying that there were more to come. In reality, it would be the last — a brief moment when Latin American revolutionaries were able to dialogue with the representatives of the Comintern.

The First Latin American Communist Conference continues to serve as a valuable historical reference for contemporary discussions. It highlights the enduring relevance of debates on organizational strategies, class struggles, and identity politics.

While the specific context has evolved, the fundamental questions posed during that conference continue to inform and shape the struggles of our time.

From the very beginning of organizing for the conference, one agenda topic was to be women’s issues, but all the delegates were men. Although the Comintern’s South American Secretariat circulated resolutions on women’s issues, presenting a clarion call for gender equality and women’s rights, the lack of women’s attendance highlights the gap between ideals and lived realities.

The South American Secretariat of the Communist International published the debates from this historic conference in a book sold at cost so it could be widely distributed. The Secretariat similarly published the conference resolutions in its periodical La Correspondencia Sudamericana.

The organizers hoped that those publications would contribute to theoretical and strategic debates in revolutionary circles across the Americas and beyond. But for the first time, these debates and resolutions are being published in an English translation as part of the Historical Materialism book series with Brill. Haymarket Books will follow up with a paperback edition in 2024.

November-December 2023, ATC 227

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