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Ethnicity, The Indian Question, and the Communist International in South America

The political uses of ethnicity in Latin America have recently received significant scholarly attention (see, for example, Van Cott 2000). The manipulation of ethnic identities for political gain, however, is not a recent invention. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern) advocated the establishment of an Indian Republic in the Andean Region of South America. How and why did the Comintern come to hold this position? How did Indians in the Andes respond to the Comintern's political programs, and were they and their local leftist allies able to influence these policies? Were there implicit contradictions between the Indians' ethnic identities and the Comintern's concept of a class struggle? Through a reading of materials in Moscow where the Comintern assembled a substantial amount of documentation on Latin America which recently has been made available (Ching and Pakkasvirta 2000: 139), this research project will contribute an understanding of how the interactions between these different groups influenced each other's views of ethnicity. Rather than presenting a political interpretation of these events, this study will contemplate an interdisciplinary humanistic reading of the influence of divergent ethnic identities on these philosophical debates, particularly as they relate to the position of Indians in a class-based movement led by urban leftists. Based on my previous studies of popular movements in the Andes, I expect to find that Indians and their perceptions of ethnicity played a much larger role in these processes than has been commonly assumed.

The Comintern, which Bolshevik leaders established in Moscow in 1919, initially focused most of its efforts on Western Europe and the United States where it expected an industrial proletariat to lead a world revolution. Latin America, however, did not receive much attention because of its predominantly rural, non-industrialized population. It was not until the Sixth Congress in 1928 that Comintern leaders "discovered" Latin America. One of the most hotly disputed issues to emerge out of this congress was the role of racial and ethnic minorities within a country's larger revolutionary struggle. The Comintern resolved that Blacks in both South Africa and the United States comprised subject nations, and local communists were instructed to build alliances with these groups with the goal of organizing revolutionary national movements to fight for their self determination (Solomon 1998: 78-79).

Victorio Codovilla, the leader of the Comintern's South American Secretariat, instructed José Carlos Mariátegui to prepare a document for the First Latin American Communist Conference in Buenos Aires in June of 1929 analyzing the possibility of forming an Indian Republic in South America. Codovilla selected Mariátegui who was already well-known for his defense of Peru's marginalized rural Indigenous peoples (see, for example, Mariátegui 1968) for this task because of his "profound knowledge of the subject" (Mothes 1996: 95). Mariátegui asserted, however, that nation-state formation was too advanced in the Andes to build a separate Indian Republic. Scholars have often used his stance on this issue as an example of a South American willingness to confront centralized Comintern dictates (Vanden 1986: 90). Influenced by Mariátegui's ideas, leftist leaders in the neighboring countries of Ecuador and Bolivia discarded the idea of establishing separate Indian homelands and sought instead to foment peasant-worker alliances which would draw Indigenous peoples into class-based movements (Saad 1961). Through this process, though, communists in the Andes became known for their defense of Indians and their ethnic interests (Paredes 1987).

The complicated ramifications of building alliances across racial and class divides were similar in South America to those encountered in South Africa and the Southern United States, and raise similar issues of the construction of ethnic and national identities. Solomon's (1998) and Berland's (1999, 2000) examinations of the "Negro Question" establish a framework for understanding the role of ethnicity in the Comintern which this study will extend to Indians in South America. My previous research in Ecuador, summarized in my forthcoming book My Land is Cayambe: The Roots of Ecuador's Modern Indian Movement, demonstrated that rural Indian leaders established a reciprocal relationship with urban intellectuals, and that women played a particularly important role in this process. Did the Comintern similarly acknowledge their concerns and incorporate them into their policies, or did Moscow unilaterally dictate courses of action? Were debates over ethnicity unidirectional, or was there an active subaltern presence that made these discussions multivocal? If Indians, women and lower-class peasants were able to make their concerns known, did they do this directly or by speaking through intermediaries? More broadly, were the nature of the Comintern's relations and the types of issues they addressed unique to South America, as Vanden (1986) implies, or was this another example of Moscow's manipulation of local issues for their own institutional purposes, as many scholars (Klehr and Haynes 1995, 1998) believe was the case in other areas of the world? I will conduct a careful reading of the documentation within its cultural context in order to understand how these events influenced concepts of ethnicity.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the relaxing of restrictions on Russian archives in the 1990s provided scholars with new and significant opportunities to reinterpret international communist movements. Klehr and Haynes (1995, 1998) have published some of the most substantial findings that have emerged out of this new resource. Almost all of the recent work on international communism which is based on these new sources of information concerns the former Soviet Union, the United States, Europe, and Asia. Latin America and Africa have received much less attention. Notable exceptions are Spenser (1999), Carr (1998) and Ching (1998) who have conducted research on the countries of Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador. Already, their work has rendered early studies such as Alexander (1957) and Caballero (1986) obsolete. Their research interests, however, revolve around issues of state formation, international relations, and ideology, and for the most part have not extended into the South American Andes. Furthermore, ethnicity is not a topic that these scholars have broached, yet it was a significant enough topic that the Comintern asked Latin America's leading marxist theorican to pen a critique of the subject.

This investigation requires travel to Moscow to conduct research in the Comintern collection of the Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial'no-politicheskoi istorii (RGASPI, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, previously known as the Rossiiskii tsentr khraneniia i izucheniia dokumentov noveishei istorii [RtsKhIDNI], Russian Center for Preservation and Study of Records of Modern History). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, these archives have been opened to the public and this is an appropriate time to pursue this research. The Center for the Study of Russia and the Soviet Union (CSRSU) at the University of California, Riverside will facilitate my affiliation with this archive. I have familiarized myself with regulations governing use of the collections and available finding aids to locate documents in the archives. Grimsted's (2000) up-to-date and extensive guide to Russian archives has been particularly useful in this regard. I am aware of the inherent difficulties in conducting research in Russian archives, and have confirmed the feasibility of this project with scholars who have previously conducted research in this archive. According to Ching and Pakkasvirta (2000: 142), the archive contains 19 files on Ecuador, 42 files on Peru, and four files on Bolivia, the three countries of principal concern for this project. Ching and Pakkasvirta also note that the records for these countries tend to focus on local affairs, which will facilitate the type of research I wish to conduct.

The Comintern maintained translations of its most important documents in the major Indo-European languages. Given the subject matter of this investigation, most of the documents will be in Spanish, a language in which I have gained fluency through formal training and extended residency in Latin America. Certain internal documents as well as finding aids will be in Russian. To prepare for this research project, I am currently attending a Russian language course at my university. By the beginning of the tenure of this fellowship, I will have achieved sufficient familiarity with the language to navigate the archive.

I am at the beginning stages of this investigation, which is the first research project that extends significantly beyond my dissertation. I have familiarized myself with the secondary literature on the topic, and have begun to construct the theoretical framework that will inform the study. I intend to develop this study into a book, and Jonathan Brent, the editor of the the Annals of Communism series at Yale University Press, is interested in publishing the results of this work. This project will challenge existing understandings of ethnicity and the role the Comintern played in South America, and will be of concern to scholars interested in ethnic identity and conflict, and international communist movements.


Alexander, Robert J. Communism in Latin America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

Berland, Oscar. "The Emergence of the Communist Perspective on the "Negro Question" in America: 1919-1931, Part One." Science and Society 63, no. 4 (Winter 1999-Winter 2000): 411-32.

________. "The Emergence of the Communist Perspective on the "Negro Question" in America: 1919-1931, Part Two." Science and Society 64, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 194-217.

Caballero, Manuel. Latin America and the Comintern 1919-1943. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Carr, Barry. "From Caribbean Backwater to Revolutionary Opportunity: Cuba's Evolving Relationship With the Comintern, 1925-34." In International Communism and the Communist International, 1919-43, Tim Rees and Andrew Thorpe, eds., 234-53. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Ching, Erik. In Search of the Party: The Communist Party, the Comintern, and the Peasant Rebellion of 1932 in El Salvador." The Americas 55, no. 2 (October 1998): 204-39.

Ching, Erik and Jussi Pakkasvirta. "Latin American Materials in the Comintern Archive." Latin American Research Review 35, no. 1 (2000): 138-49.

Grimsted, Patricia Kennedy. Archives of Russia a Directory and Bibliographic Guide to Holdings in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

Klehr, Harvey, John Earl Haynes, and K. M Anderson. The Soviet World of American Communism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Klehr, Harvey, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov. The Secret World of American Communism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. "El problema del indio." In 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana. Lima: Biblioteca Amauta, 1968.

Mothes, Jürgen. "José Carlos Mariátegui Und Die Komintern: Documentation Aus Dem KI-Archiv Moskau." The International Newsletter of Historical Studies on Comintern, Communism, and Stalinism 3, no. 7-8 (1996): 83-100.

Pakkasvirta, Jussi. Un continente, una nación? Intelectuales latinoamericanos, comunidad política y las revistas culturales en Costa Rica y en el Perú (1919-1930). Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1997.

Paredes, Ricardo. "Acerca de la nacionalidad y el estado ecuatoriano." In Los comunistas en la historia nacional, Domingo Paredes, ed., 59-80. Guayaquil: Editorial Claridad, 1987.

Saad, Pedro. "Sobre La Alianza Obrero Campesina." Bandera Roja 1, no. 3 (May 1961-December 1961): 28-56.

Solomon, Mark I. The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Spenser, Daniela. The Impossible Triangle: Mexico, Soviet Russia, and the United States in the 1920s. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Vanden, Harry E. National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Maríategui's Thought and Politics. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1986.

Van Cott, Donna Lee. The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

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