Edited by Kevin A. Young

Making the Revolution: Histories of the Latin American Left

Cambridge University Press, 2019

302 pages


Reviewed by Teresa Martínez Chavez

Making the Revolution: Histories of the Latin American Left examines original studies on Latin American left social movements from before and after the Cold War. This temporal framing saw a paradigm shift from which scholars theorized and drew sharp distinctions of collective action from “class” to “identity” politics. Editor Kevin A. Young critiques academic approaches that consider the primacy of one over the other. Young posits that traditional social movement literature lays important foundations for understanding the context and object of political contestation. However, Young points out that scholars have failed to make visible the shifts in alliances, informal networks, and conflict among the different opaque actors involved. The actual implications of subaltern players within Left movements, including worker-peasants, Indigenous peoples, women, immigrants, intellectuals, and religious leaders, have played vital roles in shaping the mechanism of contestation and the desired goals these movements demanded. Making the Revolution brings together ten case studies from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile. Collectively they offer different explanations for the emergence and outcomes of many short-lived yet impactful leftist movements by emphasizing the manifold alliances between different actors involved in Latin American leftist movements. This volume’s contributors address the region’s diverse orthodox Marxist movements had to interact with non-Marxist ideologies and adapt to national political cultures to succeed.

In the introduction, Young sets out the book’s two primary objectives. First, he debunks several stereotypes associated with Latin America’s left as movements “silent on questions of ethnicity and race.” Young suggests that many leftist social movements “struggled against class, exploitation, and imperialism while also confronting racism, patriarchy, and other oppressions…while seeking to build more democratic organizations and societies.” Second, Young emphasizes how scholars have noticed that in Latin America, “rank-and-file actors and external constituencies, not simply top leaders played vital roles” in leftist social movements. The coalitions of these social movements have formed beyond class, race, national, and gender identity politics.

The volume is divided into four general periods. The first extends from the 1900s to the 1930s, when the rise of communism became influential around the world. One of the most striking features of collective action during this period was the unexpected interethnic and interclass alliances that formed between Communist revolutionaries, Meztisos, and Indigenous peasants. Forrest Hylton’s analysis of the greatest Indigenous insurrections in Bolivia and Marck Becker’s account of Ecuador’s Indigenous mobilization confirms that Indigenous insurrections survived even under severe state repression. The coalitions that formed between Indigenous peasants, artisans, intellectuals, and Mestizos who had access to resources allowed for the success of these regional movements. The second periodization covered in this volume is characterized by state repression starting in the mid-1930s and ending in the 1950s. The authors in this collective uncovered the complex coalitions that formed between communists and other actors that helped shape the political practices of the period. Barry Car’s case study advances Young’s observation concerning the complex alliances that formed between self-identified Marxists with other sectors who supported leftist mobilizations while also advancing their own agendas. Car’s study on Cuba demonstrates how Black Caribbean immigrants forged radical alliances with Cuban communists to condemn racist anti-immigrant xenophobic policies that permeated the society during the 1930s. Likewise, Margaret Power’s study on Puerto Rico analyzes these same unanticipated relationships that forged between the self-identified Left and the informal left. She shows how Puerto Rican Nationalists and Communists worked together to aid victims of political repression seeking national liberation. Kevin Young’s research in Bolivia makes the same argument. The personal relationship and the interethnic collaboration that forged between rural and urban anarchists, Youngnotes, was essential in pushing forward the education and labor rights demands of Bolivian oppressed groups. Lastly, Aldo Marchesi considers the mobilization movements in the Southern Cone from Argentina to Uruguay, tracing the evolving relationships that forged between nationalists and communists. Together these collective case studies demonstrate that despite Marxist rigidity elsewhere, some flexible and adaptive scientific Marxist thought emanated from the region during this era.

The third period begins at the end of the Cold War and the Cuban revolution. This period opened opportunities for collective action and contentious politics involving a great variety of groups and organizations. Michelle Chase and Diana Carolina Sierra Becerra center their analysis of women’s participation in social movements in Cuba and El Salvador respectively. Their analysis provides us with a much-needed systematic comparative analysis of how the inclusion of women opened new opportunities for more pluralistic changes to emerge. Betzy Konefalt’s study of Guatemala is unique in shedding light on the participation of neglected studied actors in leftist social movements. In her case, Konefalt’s study analyzes the relationship forged between Indigenous peasants and religious activists during the country’s revolutionary moment. Lastly, the fourth period encapsulates more recent, popular movements that have emerged to denounce political corruption, impunity, and the lack of protection against violence generated by organized crime and economic crises alike. O’Neill’s Blacker Hanson’s documents how in Guerrero, Mexico teachers and students applied Marxist ideologies to their local context to denounce the brutal cruelty generated by the drug war. Taken together, all the alliances among these movements have given rise to contentious intertwined class and politics through innovative dynamics, repertoire, and technologies. Transcending the binary accounts of social movements in the pursuit of grounded analysis of multiple politics is a challenging task, yet the book succeeds in shedding light on the activism of multiple actors and the holistic revolutionary causes they fought. These new narratives of social movements are appropriate for scholars as well as introductory students interested in Latin America’s left, social movements, protest, and collective action.   

The book does a superb job critiquing the dangers of describing leftist social movements with binary narratives. The authors do not mention, however, that the strict categorizations in which social movements have previously been described in the academic literature also involve a lack of interdisciplinary work covering social movements. This bookthus misses an opportunity to be embedded in current debates proposing the need to build networks beyond academic boundaries that treat social movements in Latin America. Overall, Kevin Young marshals together a fantastic group of scholars who have seriously treated the topic of the Left in Latin America in non-reductive terms. Each author attests to the need to pay attention to the multisectoral, cross-class alliances that form between revolutionary movements whether they self-identify as leftist, socialist, anarchist, feminist, and so on. Making the Revolution shows that ideological differences and the different actors’ varying positions in social movements are not always counterproductive.