PERU: A Self-Critical Farewell

September 25, 2007

Historian Alberto Flores Galindo, one of Peru’s most gifted left intellectuals, died of cancer in March of last year at age 40. His work on the pre-Columbian and colonial past (especially Buscando on Inca) and his critical appraisal of Peruvian Marxism (La agonía de Mariátegui) had enormous influence on both the study of history in his country and the course of the Peruvian Left. His dedication to scholarship was as uncompromising as his insistence on making history accessible to a wide audience, a commitment to the future as well as the past.

In this final statement, an open letter written a few weeks before his death, “Tito” Flores projects a vision that is critical, yet optimistic: There is a future for socialism, but it means breaking the molds and beginning again, perhaps with something as simple as solidarity among friends.

Dear friends,

On February 3, 1989, I was struck down unexpectedly by a rare type of cancer, a multiform glioblastoma on the left side of the brain, which required treatment outside of Peru. Thanks to my friends, I was able to travel for two months of treatment at Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Later, I had to return for another week.

You can imagine how expensive it all was. In spite of the good will of some public officials, we got only promises from the Peruvian social security agency. Nearly every day for months, we had to show up at their offices to track down the right forms. Some of our paperwork got lost; the rest made the bureaucratic rounds and, idiotically, so did we. This, of course, is not unusual; the system seems to relish making things as difficult as possible.

But friends are a different story. They helped me to travel, get medical attention, and confront this ordeal. Friendship here was not just an abstraction. Many people stepped forward. Some gave a lot of money; others just pocket change. Some came to visit; still others sent words of encouragement.

Help came firm Spain, France, England, Germany and the United States, making me feel not only Peruvian, but a citizen of the world. At a time when everything seems to be falling apart in Peru, this warmth and solidarity showed me other facets of my country. I would have liked to thank everyone personally.

It doesn't matter that the cancer is incurable. I lost. We lost. The end will come in a few weeks, more or less. What stands out is the display of support which still sustains my treatment and my family, which accompanies my wife Cecilia and my sons Carlos and Miguel at the most difficult moments. Friends watched over me during my stay in the hospital. They stood by my wife and helped take care of my sons. All this has forced me to put aside my habitual pessimism, to discover the power of solidarity.

Critical Thinking and Outrage

Although many of my friends no longer think the way they used to, I continue to believe that the ideals which gave rise to socialism are still valid: justice, freedom, humanity. The degradation and destruction to which capitalism dooms us is still evident, but so is our refusal to become a replica of a North American suburb. Socialism has been dealt a blow in other countries, but here it could still have a future, if we are capable of rethinking it, of imagining new scenarios. This means going against the tide, opposing those who worship death and those who think only of repeating the recipes of other countries. The creative challenge is enormous. (Can we do it?)

Between 1980 and August 1989, 17,000 Peruvians met violent deaths. Property owners, workers, the unemployed, peasants—all had names and faces, though we'll never know them. This happened in a "democratic" country, with silence from the Right but also inaction from the Left. Too many of us ended up as spectators. We face, then, not only economic challenges, but ethical demands.

We must face the consequences of our own incorporation into the establishment. Indeed, as the country sinks ever more deeply into poverty, many of us on the Left have seen our living conditions improve. Thanks to foundations and research centers, I must admit we have done quite well; some of us even became consumed by the most vulgar economic determinism. On the other extreme, there are the impoverished intellectuals, many of them from the provinces, who must be filled with resentment and even hatred.

What will cost us most dearly, however, is to have separated morality from culture. Socialism is the product of another morality, other values. For the most part we learned to accommodate ourselves to authoritarianism and murder. The majority of our intellectuals and far too many leftist political leaders, myself included, became immune to indignation. We heard of countless incidents like the one in Molinos, where the armed forces took no prisoners and left no wounded. Of the 62 dead rebels, the MRTA [Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru] recognized only 42 as their combatants. These were executions. Yet no one protested; no one became outraged.

There are many other cases like this one. We have become accustomed to living like this. No one dares to say that many people are being murdered, that there are innocent victims executed by the forces of repression. One cannot say this in public without transgressing the "democratic order." But if it is not said, things will get worse. We must not accept the armed society which the military wishes to impose. We have also become accustomed to the crimes of the other side.

Admittedly, there is not much here that we should hold out as a model for the young. Quite the opposite. Perhaps I exaggerate, but we too should be the object of some critical thinking. I don't exclude myself from this. What happened to the Left occurred without discussion or debate, much less introspection. I'm afraid that our generation is held in too much esteem by a certain sector of middle-class youth. I hope that the next generation will recover what we have lost: the ability to feel outrage.

The Poor Do Not Belong to the Left

In Peru, we envision only one route to communism, ignoring those that were defeated but were perhaps worthy of discussion. The idea is not to look for yet another formula, but to create one for ourselves, to persist with every bit of our imagination, We have to return to the essence of critical thinking, even when this is at odds with making ourselves acceptable or finding a profitable niche.

Socialism is not just one path. Nor is it a beaten path. We're used to reciting and repeating, to quoting correctly. But if we aspire to a future, now more than ever we have to overcome our fear of creativity, to recover the utopian dimension of socialism.

Socialism in Peru is a difficult encounter between the past and the future. This is an ancient country. We have to rediscover the most distant traditions, but to do so we will have to think in terms of the future. We have to find new paths, lose our fear of the future, renovate the way we think and act. This is perhaps impossible without breaking with those leftists who are overly eager for power and barely interested in what's really happening around them.

I suspect that we do not have an unlimited amount of time. Since the sixteenth century, the excluded and embattled Andean cultures have managed to resist, change and continue. At the end of the eighteenth century, the indigenous Andean aristocracy was attacked and exterminated, but the peasant world endured. The twentieth century brought new confrontations: in the 1920s, the 1960s, and again today. Capitalism does not need that Andean world, knows nothing about it, and would just as soon destroy it. Now, liberal rhetoric is once again directed against traditional forms of organization, using instruments and possibilities unavailable before today.

It is not inevitable that tradition be destroyed. But to prevent it we must propose an alternative. The writer and novelist José María Arguedas warned us of this. Twenty years have passed since his death and the task for socialists remains keeping Andean tradition from being destroyed. What Arguedas proposed in his novel El Zorro de Arriba y el Zorro de Abajo was not a return to the past, but the construction of a new society. We must not limit our horizons of thought. Contrary to what many suppose, Arguedas' book does not refer to local problems, but to changing society as a whole.

The Left has not managed to meet this challenge. In a country like Peru, the revolution calls not only for reforms, but for the formation of a new type of society. Discussion has begun on the role of campesinos in this process. not as folklore, but as protagonists. We have to look at the issue of power, and not only with regard to production and markets and such, but where power lies, who holds it and how we can attain it. We must question the liberal line. Young people can do this. Many of us have grown old before our time.

The issue is posed only as a choice between advocating violence and opting for a legal route. There is a need for an alternative. Some believe that the formulas are already there, just waiting to be applied. But successful revolutions always have been, and always will be, unique.

Socialism came to power unexpectedly in 1917, a mere 70 years ago, in one of the most unlikely places imaginable. Years later, after the Second World War, it spread to other continents, Asia and Africa. Capitalism, on the other hand, has been expanding for several centuries. The doors to socialism are not permanently closed; we just have to find new ways to open them. A third, fourth, fifth way. A socialism built on new foundations, one that recognizes the dreams, hopes and desires of the people. A socialism with room for these needs.

Intellectuals have a role to play. But I lament the distance that exists now between intellectual and political activism. Some blame must also be placed on those who have been too caught up in short-term battles, sectarian politics, or petty power struggles. That's one way to grow stale. Rising to the occasion will not be easy, but it is possible. New voices will appear. Moreover, we have our children. Hopefully, they will stop admiring and respecting us so much, and will take responsibility for what we have not done. To have spent forty years in this country is to have made too many deals, compromises, silences, retreats. We have become domesticated.

New Kinds of Leaders

In every revolution an ultra-radical sector turns up at the last minute. Here, things have taken a different course. That extremely radical sector arose first, and, though it started out small, it managed to survive and grow. It has since degenerated into fanaticism, sectarianism and criminality. Its members have even taken to eliminating the leaders of grassroots organizations, just like the tactics of the Right. How horrible! The same people who called themselves leftists! And the rest remain silent.

Peru's political spectrum can be divided into three parts. On the one hand, we have the Right, represented by FREDEMO, an apparently homogeneous front made up of diverse and often competing interests. Then, we have Sendero Luminoso and the MRTA, one resorting to criminal actions, and the other lacking creativity and without a social agenda. Between the two extremes we have the United Left. This "official" Left, that participates in elections and the traditional routes to power, has isolated itself from the popular movement and is ethnically and culturally removed from the majority of the population.

Some on the Left imagined that the votes of the poor belonged to them automatically. But the poor and working classes think; they do not give blank checks.

The Right is advancing on all fronts, trying to stay prepared militarily while maintaining the illusion of a new discourse—a cynical one really, one which masks countless deaths. But this “Right" is still a heterogenous mix of individuals with private interests, often heavily dependent on connections abroad. It has no one program. Nevertheless, those well-mannered leftists who spend more time at receptions than at debates, have trimmed their sails to the breeze. In another part of the city, marches and aggressive street confrontations have become more frequent and beg urgent solutions. Are we looking for those solutions?

But the Left is not homogenous either. Out of a Left that a few years ago considered itself completely revolutionary, some groups have been breaking away and redefining themselves. Some move toward the Right or toward APRA [the social democratic Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana]. Apparently, the majority wants to remain doggedly in the center, insisting on reforms. Close to them, there is a smaller sector that wants to be revolutionary, not criminal, that wants to undo structures, not reform them, that has begun to face the problem of constructing an original socialism.

A fresh and solid revolutionary alternative doesn't yet exist, but the elements are there. Elements that must be built on, but not by middle class professionals. We have to make room for new kinds of leaders, for other social sectors and for the young. Young people today do not think and act the way we did twenty years ago. Things have changed.

All this should not be taken as criticism by someone who imagines himself above the fray. On the contrary, this is in part an autobiography. I have no intention of setting myself up as an example of anything. The fact is that we intellectuals have been quite numerous, but we have not been very creative. We have not been able to offer our country the possibility of a new Marxism. Intellectuals and politicians alike ignore the past, history, who they have been. We're too modern, incapable of pulling together a movement. The people I'm referring to are all my friends. Again, I insist that while socialism has been destroyed in many other Latin American countries, here it remains a force to be reckoned wioth. For the moment.

Many thanks to all my friends and, of course, above all to those who disagree with me. My style is always aggressive, but that shouldn't conceal the affection and gratitude I feel toward all of you, particularly toward those with whom I've disagreed the most. Disagreeing is just another way of coming together. And, naturally, when you rallied to my defense, you weren’t interested in knowing what position I had taken on culture or politics.

Un abrazo. ¡Qué buenos amigos!

—Alberto Flores Galindo

Tags: Peru, leftist, Alberto Flores Galindo, poverty

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