History of the World Crisis

Lecture 1: 
The World Crisis and the Peruvian Proletariat

Delivered to the “Gonzales Prada” People’s University,
at the Peruvian Student Federation hall, Lima, on June 15, 1923.



Translated by: Juan R. Fajardo, 2016.
Source of the text: Translated from Historia de la crisis mundial, in Obras Completas, volume 8, https://www.marxists.org/espanol/mariateg/oc/historia_de_la_crisis_mundial/index.htm
Editorial Note: This text is available in print as part of:  José Carlos Mariátegui, History of the World Crisis and Other Writings, Marxists Internet Archive Publications (2017); ISBN 978-0-692-88676-2.



In this lecture – let us call it a conversation rather than a lecture – I will limit myself to laying out the course’s program, as well as some thoughts on the need to spread knowledge of the world crisis among the proletariat.

Unfortunately, in Peru there is a lack of an educating press which will follow the development of this great crisis with attentiveness, intelligence, and an ideological conviction; likewise, there is a lack of university professors, of José Ingenieros’ sort, capable of being passionate about the ideas of renewal which are currently changing the world, and of freeing themselves from the influence and prejudices of conservative and bourgeois culture and education; there is a lack of socialist and syndicalist groups, in possession of their own instruments of popular culture, and thus capable of making the people interested in studying the crisis. The only popular educational institution, with a revolutionary spirit, is this institution-in-formation, the People’s University. It thus falls to it, beyond the modest plane of its initial work, to present contemporary reality to the people, to explain to the people that it is living through one of the greatest and most transcendental times in history, and infect the people with the fruitful restlessness which currently moves the other civilized peoples of the world.

In this great contemporary crisis, the proletariat is not a spectator; it is an actor. In it the fate of the world proletariat is to be resolved. From it – according to all odds and predictions – the proletarian civilization, the socialist civilization, will emerge, destined to succeed the declining, decadent, moribund capitalist, individualist, and bourgeois civilization. Now, more than ever, the proletariat needs to know what happens in the world. It cannot know it by way of the fragmented, occasional, homeopathic reports of the daily cable – in most instances, badly translated, and worse written – coming always from reactionary agencies charged with discrediting the Revolution’s parties, organizations, and men, and of discouraging and disorienting the world proletariat.

In the European crisis the destinies of the workers of the world are in play. The crisis’ development should thus interest Peruvian workers and the workers of the Far East alike. The crisis has Europe as its primary theater, but the crisis of European institutions is the crisis of the institutions of Western civilization. And, Peru, like the other countries of the Americas, moves within the orbit of that civilization, not only because we are dealing with countries which are politically independent but economically colonial, tied to cart of British, or American, or French, capitalism, but also because our culture is European, and our institutions European are of the European type. And, it is precisely these democratic institutions – which we copied from Europe – and this culture – which we also copied from Europe – which, in Europe, are now in a period of definitive, total, crisis. Above all, capitalist society has internationalized humanity’s life. It has forged material bonds between all peoples which establish an inevitable solidarity between them. Internationalism is not an ideal, it is a historical reality. Progress causes the peoples’ interests, ideas, customs, and regimes to unify and comingle. Peru, like other American countries, is therefore not outside the crisis; it is within it. The world crisis has already echoed amongst these peoples, and, of course, it shall continue to echo. A period of reaction in Europe will also be a period of reaction in America. A period of revolution in Europe will also be a period of revolution in America. Over a century ago, when humanity’s life was not as unified as it is today, when there did not exist the means of communication which exist today, when nations did not have the immediate and constant contact they have today, and when we were but distant spectators to European events, the French Revolution gave birth to the War of Independence and the emergence of these republics. This memory is enough for us to realize the speed with which the transformation of society shall be reflected in American societies. Those who say that Peru, and America in general, live far removed from the European revolution, have no notion of contemporary life, have no – not even an approximate – understanding of history. These people are surprised that Europe’s most advanced ideals should make it to Peru; but, by contrast, they are not surprised that the airplane, the ocean liner, the wireless telegraph, the radio – in short, all the most advanced expressions of Europe’s material advance – make it. There would be the same reason for ignoring the socialist movement as there would be for ignoring Einstein’s theory of relativity. I am sure that it would not occur to the most reactionary of our intellectuals – almost all are impenetrable reactionaries – that the new physics, of which Einstein is the most eminent and greatest representative, ought to be banned from study and dissemination.

If the proletariat in general needs to learn about the great aspects of the world crisis, this need is even greater in that socialist, Labourite, syndicalist, or libertarian part of the proletariat which makes up its vanguard; in that more combative and more conscious, more fighting, and more prepared, part of the proletariat; in that part of the proletariat which is in charge of the leadership of the great proletarian actions; in that part of the proletariat to which falls the historical role of representing the Peruvian proletariat in the present social moment; in short, in that part of the proletariat which, whatever it particular credo, has class consciousness, has revolutionary consciousness. I dedicate my dissertations, above all, to this vanguard of the Peruvian proletariat. No one needs to study the world crisis more than the vanguard proletarians. I have no pretensions of coming to this free rostrum, of a free university, to teach them the history of that world crisis, but to myself study it with them. I do not teach you from this stage, comrades, the history of the world crisis; I study it with you. I have, in this study, but the very modest merit of bringing to it personal observations from three and one-half years of European living, in other words, of the three and one-half climactic years of the crisis, and the echoes of contemporary European thinking.

I specially invite the vanguard of the proletariat to study the process of the world crisis with me, for several very important reasons. These I will briefly enumerate. The first reason is that the revolutionary preparation, the revolutionary culture, and the revolutionary orientation of that proletarian vanguard have been formed on the basis of the socialist, syndicalist, and anarchist literature from before the European war, or prior, at least, to the climactic period of the crisis. Generally, it is outdated socialist, syndicalist, and libertarian books that circulate among us. Here, a little is known of the classic literature of socialism and of syndicalism. The new revolutionary literature is unknown. Revolutionary culture here is a classical culture, aside from being – as you well know, comrades – a new, very unformed, very disorganized, very incomplete culture. All that pre-war socialist and syndicalist literature is now being revised. And that revision is not one imposed at the whim of theoreticians, but by the force of events. That literature, therefore, cannot be used without the benefit of an inventory. Naturally, it is not that it is no longer exact in its principles, it its foundations, in all that there is in it that is ideal and eternal, but that it has often ceased to be exact in its tactical inspirations, in its historical considerations, in all that means action, procedure, or means of struggle. The workers’ goal remains the same, what have necessarily changed, due to the latest historical events, are the roads chosen to arrive at, even just approach, that ideal goal. It is from this that the study of these historical events and of their significance becomes indispensable to workers who are militants in class-conscious organizations.

Comrades, you know that the European proletarian forces are divided into two great camps: reformists and revolutionaries. There is a reformist, collaborationist, evolutionist Workers’ International, and another maximalist, anti-collaborationist, revolutionary Workers’ International. Between the one and the other, there has attempted to emerge an intermediate International, but it has ended up by making common cause with the former against the latter. On one side or the other there are various hues, but there are clearly and unmistakably but two sides. The side of those who wish to bring about socialism by collaborating politically with the bourgeoisie, and the side of those who seek to bring about socialism by seizing political power entirely for the proletariat. Of course, the existence of these two sides comes from the existence of two different views, two opposed views, two antithetical views, of the current historical moment. One part of the proletariat believes that the moment is not a revolutionary one, that the bourgeoisie has not yet played out its historical role, that, on the contrary, the bourgeoisie is still strong enough to hold on to political power; that, in short, the hour of social revolution has not yet arrived. Another part of the proletariat believes that the current historical moment is revolutionary, that the bourgeoisie is incapable of rebuilding the social wealth destroyed by the war, and incapable, therefore, of solving the problems of peace; that the war has brought about a crisis whose solution cannot be but a proletarian solution, a socialist solution, and that, with the Russian Revolution, the social revolution has already begun.

There are, then, two proletarian armies because there are within the proletariat two opposing views of the historical moment, two different interpretations of the world crisis. The numerical strength of one or the other of the proletarian armies is dependent on whether or not events appear to confirm its respective historical view. It is because of this that thinkers, theoreticians, studious men of one and the other proletarian armies struggle above all to delve deeply into the meaning of the crisis, to understand its character, to discover its significance.

Before the war, two tendencies shared predominance among the proletariat: the socialist tendency, and the syndicalist tendency. The socialist tendency was, mostly, reformist, social-democratic, collaborationist. The socialists thought that social revolution’s hour was far off, and fought for gradual conquest through legalistic action and governmental, or at least legislative, collaboration. In some countries this activity excessively weakened the revolutionary will and spirit of socialism. Socialism was considerably bourgeoisified. As a reaction against this bourgeoisification of socialism, we had syndicalism. Syndicalism countered the political activity of the socialist parties with the direct action of the unions. The proletariat’s most revolutionary and intransigent spirits found a home in syndicalism. But, deep down, syndicalism also turned out to be collaborationist and reformist. Syndicalism also was dominated by a union bureaucracy lacking a true revolutionary psychology. And, syndicalism and socialism showed themselves to be more or less in solidarity and conjoined in some countries, such as Italy, where the Socialist Party did not take part in the government and remained loyal to other formal principles of independence. Such as it is, the more or less contending, or more or less close tendencies – depending on the country – were two: syndicalist and socialist. It is to this period of social struggle that the revolutionary literature which has fed the minds of our leading proletarians belongs.

But, the situation has changed after the war. The proletarian camp, as we have just recalled, is no longer divided into socialists and syndicalists, but into reformists and revolutionaries. First, we have witnessed a schism, a split, in the socialist camp. One part of socialism has held fast in its social-democratic, collaborationist course; the other part has followed an anti-collaborationist, revolutionary course. And, it is this part of socialism which, in order to set itself apart from the other, has adopted the name of communism. The split has also taken place in the same way in the syndicalist camp. One part of the unions supports the social-democrats, and the other supports the communists. The shape of European social struggle has, therefore, shifted radically. We have seen many intransigent pre-war syndicalists head toward reformism. We have, by contrast, seen others follow communism. And – as comrade Fonkén[1] recalled in a conversation not long ago – among these can be counted the greatest and most illustrious theorist of syndicalism: the Frenchman, Georges Sorel. Sorel – whose death has meant bitter mourning for the French proletariat and intelligentsia– gave his allegiance to the Russian Revolution and to the men of the Russian Revolution.

Thus, here, as in Europe, the proletarians have to divide, not into syndicalists and socialists – an anachronistic classification – but into collaborationists and anti-collaborationists, into reformists and maximalists. But, in order for this classification to take place clearly and coherently, it is indispensable that the proletariat knows and understands the broader features of the great contemporary crisis. Otherwise, confusion is inevitable.

I hold to the opinion of those who believe that humanity is living through a revolutionary period. I am convinced of the approaching decline of all social-democratic theses, of all reformist theses, and of all evolutionist theses.

Before the war, these theses were understandable because they corresponded to different historical conditions. Capitalism was in apogee. Production was superabundant. Capitalism could still allow itself the luxury of making successive economic concessions to the proletariat, and its margins of utility were such that the formation of a middle class, of a petty bourgeoisie which enjoyed a comfortable life-style was possible. The European laborer earns enough to eat modestly, and in some countries, such as England and Germany, he could satisfy some needs of the spirit. There was not, then, an atmosphere for revolution. After the war, everything has changed. Europe’s social wealth has, in great measure, been destroyed. Capitalism, which was responsible for the war, needs to rebuild that wealth at the expense of the proletariat. It, therefore, wants socialists to collaborate in the government, in order to strengthen democratic institutions; but not in order to make progress down the road of socialist fulfillment. Previously, socialists collaborated in order to gradually improve the workers’ living conditions. Today they would collaborate in order to renounce all proletarian conquests. In order to rebuild Europe the bourgeoisie requires that the proletariat agree to produce more and consume less. And, the proletariat objects to one thing and the other and says to itself that it is not worthwhile to consolidate in power a class that is guilty of the war and destined, fatally, to lead humanity to an even crueler war. The conditions for collaboration by the bourgeoisie with the proletariat are, by nature, such that collaborationism must necessarily, bit by bit, lose its current widespread proselytism.

Capitalism cannot make concessions to socialism. In order to rebuild themselves European states require a regimen of rigorous fiscal economy, increase in work hours, lowering of salaries; in short, the re-establishment of economic concepts and methods abolished in homage to proletarian will. Logically, the proletariat cannot consent to this reversal. It cannot consent to it, nor does it wish to. All possibility of rebuilding the capitalist economy is thus eliminated. This is the tragedy of today’s Europe. In the European countries, the reaction is canceling the economic concessions made to socialism; but, while on the one hand, this reactionary policy cannot be sufficiently energetic and effective as to re-establish the bled-dry public treasure, on the other hand, the proletarian united front is slowly preparing itself against that reactionary policy. Fearful of revolution, the reaction thus cancels, not only the masses’ economic conquests, but moves also against political conquests. Thus, in Italy, we bear witness to the fascist dictatorship. But the bourgeoisie thusly undercuts and saps and mortally wounds democratic institutions, and it loses all its moral strength and all its ideological prestige.

Moreover, in international relations, the reaction places foreign policy in the hands of nationalist and anti-democratic minorities. These nationalist minorities saturate that foreign policy with chauvinism. With their imperialist leanings, and their fight for European hegemony, they block the re-establishment of an atmosphere of European unity which would allow States to agree on a program of cooperation and work. The work of that nationalism, of that reactionism, is evident in the occupation of the Ruhr.

The world crisis is, then, an economic and a political crisis. And, it is also, above all, an ideological crisis. The affirmative and positivist philosophies of bourgeois society are, from long ago, undermined by a current of skepticism, of relativism. Rationalism, historicism positivism, irremediably decline. This is undoubtedly the deepest aspect, the gravest symptom, of the crisis. This is the most definite and deepest indication that what is in crisis is not only bourgeois society’s economy, but capitalist civilization, Western civilization, European civilization in its entirety.

Well, now. The ideologues of Social Revolution, Marx and Bakunin, Engels and Kropotkin, lived at the time of the height of capitalist civilization and of historicist and positivist philosophy. Consequently, they could not foresee that the ascendance of the proletariat had to occur by virtue of the decadence of Western civilization. The proletariat was destined to create a new type of civilization and culture. The economic ruin of the bourgeoisie was also to be the ruin of bourgeois civilization. And, socialism would find itself with the need to govern, not in a time of plenty, but in a time of poverty, misery, and scarcity. Reformist socialists, accustomed to the notion that the socialist order, more than a mode of production, is a mode of distribution, believe they see in this the sign that the historic mission of the bourgeoisie is not yet played out and that the moment is not yet ripe for the realization of socialism. In a report for La Crónica I recalled those phrases to the effect that the tragedy of Europe is this: Capitalism can no longer, while socialism cannot yet. This phrase, which does in fact give one a sense of the tragedy of Europe, is a reformist’s phrase, it is a phrase saturated with evolutionist mentality, and impregnated with the notion of a slow, gradual, and beatific movement, without convulsions or tremors, from individualist society to collectivist society. History teaches us that every new social state has taken shape on the ruins on the preceding social state, and that between the emergence of one and the downfall of the other, there has, logically, been an intervening period of crisis.

We are witnessing the disintegration, the agony of a worn-out, senile, decrepit society, and, at the same time, we are witnessing the slow and restless gestation, the formation, the creation, of the new society. All of us who are bound to the new society and separated from the old by sincere ideological affinity, must profoundly fix our gaze on this agitated and intense transcendental period in human history.



[1] Adalberto Fonkén, an anarchosyndicalist textile worker and strike leader in the 1919 movement for the 8-hour workday in Lima. Mariátegui may be referring to Fonkén’s participation in the People’s University movement in the Lima suburb of Vitarte. - Trans.