Saturday, July 22, 2017

My book review of the biographical study of a leading Argentine Communist intellectual

Los intelectuales del partido comunista: Itinerario de Héctor Agosti (1930-1963). By Laura Prado Acosta. Raleigh, NC: A Contracorriente, 2015. Photographs. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. 137 pp. Paper, $19.95.

Published in the Hispanic American Historical Review (August 2017)

Relations between Communist intellectuals and their respective parties have always been characterized by a degree of tension, especially in cases like the highly doctrinaire Communist Party of Argentina (PCA). In this meticulously researched account of lifelong PCA intellectual Héctor Agosti, Argentine historian Laura Prado traces these relations  throughout five stages in the party’s history: international communism’s “third period” of the early 1930s, when Communists stressed class warfare; the popular front years; the amplified popular front period that spanned World War II; the first Peronist government, which coincided with the outbreak of the Cold War; and the years immediately following the overthrow of Perón in 1955 that saw the rise of the Peronist-influenced New Left. In each of these periods, Agosti avoided the extremes of sectarianism, on the one hand, and assimilation into mainstream thinking, on the other, at the same time that he respected party discipline with regard to its official positions. Prado does an excellent job of documenting the interplay of Agosti’s intellectual output, longstanding issues of national debate such as nationalism and liberalism, and contextual factors including Soviet policy.  

Prado points out that the anti-fascist experience of the popular front and World War II years had a profound formative influence on young Communist intellectuals, as was the case with Agosti who “became interested in diverse traditions of thinking and entered into relations with figures representing different political formations” (p. 62). In contrast to the “third period” when intellectuals were disparaged as a “‘petty bourgeois’ social sector” (p. 44), the anti-fascist period was characterized by a party leadership that valued their role in helping build bridges with non-Marxist currents in favor of a common cause. Subsequently, some Communists in Argentina were reluctant to abandon the anti-fascist strategy as it had brought “good results” (p. 101) and indeed represented a golden era for the communist movement throughout the world. Others, however, criticized the deviations known as “Browderism” (after U.S. Communist chief Earl Browder), which in Argentina led to an alliance that involved U.S. diplomat Spruille Braden in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Perón in the presidential elections of February 1946. The electoral results, the outbreak of the Cold War, and Perón’s own nationalistic and progressive social policies set off a process of introspection and revision within the PCA.

Prado traces the changes in Agosti’s thinking on Argentina’s liberal tradition, as typified by the nineteenth-century literary figure Esteban Echeverría (whose contributions Agosti helped celebrate as did other members of the Comisión de Homenajes a Esteban Echeverría). During the anti-fascist years, in reaction to the discourse coming from the right combining “anti-communist conceptions with anti-liberal conceptions” (p. 55), Agosti joined intellectuals of diverse political tendencies in lauding Argentina’s nineteenth-century liberals and their twentieth-century heirs. Agosti’s efforts to define and identify with a “national history” served to counter “the accusation by nationalistic sectors that communists promote foreign ideology” (p. 75). Nevertheless, his interpretation of the nation’s mainstream history with its heavy component of liberalism and positivism was hardly uncritical. His critique became more pronounced after 1946, when the PCA revised its position on the anti-liberal Peronist movement, and after 1955, when Agosti moved even closer to Preronism.

Agosti’s reassessments presented him with ideological and personal challenges. One was the argument formulated during Perón’s rule that Argentine Communists had turned their backs on the pro-democratic principles of the popular front period. Agosti rejected the notion that those who championed democracy should submerge other goals in order to concentrate on resistance to Peronism, a plea which Agosti called “‘political blackmail’” (p. 107). In the early 1960s, Agosti’s party discipline was put to the test (as it had been in the past). A group of young Communists, including future scholar Juan Carlos Portantiero who Agosti considered his “disciple” (p. 117), defended heterodox ideas associated with Argentina’s nascent New Left. Agosti as in the past refrained from distancing himself from the PCA beyond a certain threshold of “tensions with the party leadership” (p. 11). According to Prado, 1963 marked the “closing of a stage” (p. 12) in Agosti’s thinking that was distinguished by a degree of originality and innovation. For this reason, she ends her “intellectual biography” (p. 9) in that year, as opposed to 1984 when Agosti passed away.  

Prado eschews stereotypes and preconceived notions regarding the communist movement at the same time that she presents an independent, critical and scholarly analysis. The book represents a contribution, not only for what it tells us about a leading Communist intellectual, but also the impact of international and national developments on intellectual thinking in Argentina over a period of three decades. In addition, the work will be of special interest to scholars of intellectual history for the light it sheds on the relationship between scholarly inquiry and political commitment.   

Steve Ellner

Universidad de Oriente -  Anzoátegui campus (Venezuela)


At August 1, 2017 at 2:24 AM , Blogger Katia said...

Dear Steve, I wrote a paper on Venezuela where I am citing your work "Does the process of change in Venezuela...?". I would like to send you a copy per email, but I can find your email. Mine is


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