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New Left Review 70, July-August 2011


Bolívar Echeverría (1941–2010) was one of the leading radical thinkers in Latin America, both an imaginative interpreter of Western Marxism and practitioner of its critical methods, which he applied to the continent’s realities. Born in the highlands of central Ecuador—at the foot of the Chimborazo volcano—he grew up in Quito, where he paired a philosophical education with a political one, reading Sartre, Marx and Heidegger while listening to broadcasts from revolutionary Havana. In 1961 he went to study in West Berlin, where he forged links with the student and Third World solidarity movements. In 1968, a few months before the crushing of student protests at Tlatelolco, he moved to Mexico City, and began teaching philosophy at unam. He was to work there until his death, playing a significant role in intellectual life, notably as a founding editor of the Marxist journal Cuadernos políticos (1974–90). Echeverría also translated into Spanish key texts by Marx, Sartre, Brecht, Horkheimer and Benjamin—‘The Author as Producer’ (2004), ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (2005). While much of his early work focused on Marx—a translation of the 1844 manuscripts (1974), El discurso crítico de Marx (1986)—Echeverría is best known for his engagement with the question of Latin American modernity. In a series of elegant essays—notably those in Las ilusiones de la modernidad (1995), La modernidad de lo barroco (1998), Valor de uso y utopía (1998) and Vuelta de siglo (2006)—he argued that modernity in the Americas was characterized by a ‘baroque ethos’, distinct from the ‘realist’ one that marked the advanced capitalist world. It had emerged in the 17th century among the indigenous population, who after the destruction of their own civilizations had to adopt, or better imitate, the cultural forms of the colonizers; a practice of ‘cultural mestizaje’ in which ‘victorious forms are reconfigured through the incorporation of the defeated ones’. The essay translated here appeared in Spanish in the spring of 2010, to mark the bicentenary of Latin American independence. Published only a few weeks before Echeverría’s death, it similarly asks if the region’s nation-states—the hollow forms of an oligarchic capitalism—might be remade from below, reclaimed through the dynamism of a protean popular identity.

bolívar echeverría


Reflections on Latin America’s Bicentenary

There is no little irony in the fact that the national republics established in Latin America in the 19th century ended up, despite themselves, behaving precisely in line with a model they claimed to detest: that of their own modernity—a baroque modernity that took shape in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the hope of ‘modernizing themselves’, the continent’s powerful strata abandoned their own model for one that was more commercially successful—if not the Anglo-Saxon model, then the modernity that originated in France and was imposed on the Iberian Peninsula by Enlightened Absolutism. This compelled them to set up republics or nation-states that did not, could not, turn out as they wanted them to, as copies or imitations of European capitalist states. They had to be something else: representations, theatrical versions, mimetic repetitions of the latter; constructions in which, in unmistakably baroque fashion, the imaginary tends to take the place of the real.

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Bolívar Echeverría, ‘Potemkin Republics’, NLR 70: £3

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