One of the great problems of social theory in Latin America, according to the Argentine scholar Maristella Svampa, is a ‘deficit of accumulation’, due not only to cycles of political repression but to a recurrent ‘blurring’ and ‘forgetting’, a certain scorn for the discussion of ideas.footnote1 These problems of transmission, she argues, are generational as much as regional, accentuated by the habit of burying debates that played a crucial part in the critical thought of earlier epochs. With the resurgence of the right across the continent—Macri in Argentina, Temer in Brazil, the mud victory in Venezuela’s legislative elections—these questions have gained fresh urgency, as a new season of theoretical debate in Latin America has sought to explain the turning of the ‘pink tide’ and evaluate its legacy. Svampa’s new book joins the debate with gusto, combining a historical survey of Latin American social theory with her own reflections on some of the central questions facing the continent today.

Svampa is well placed to enter this terrain. Born in the small Argentine city of Allen in 1961, she was educated at Córdoba’s Universidad Nacional and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and now teaches Latin American social theory at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, while also working as a researcher for the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas. She has become one of the leading intellectuals of Latin America’s critical left, having published a series of books on Argentine politics and social life since the early 1990s. Svampa’s choice of subjects has ranged from the metamorphoses of Peronism to the protest movements inspired by Argentina’s economic meltdown at the turn of the century. Cambio de época (2008) was her first move towards a broader regional analysis, tracing the contradictory tendencies of continuity and rupture that could be identified in the new era of Latin American politics and offering a panoramic view of social movements across the continent (and their often tumultuous relations with progressive governments of one kind or another). In recent years Svampa has scrutinized extractive capitalism, dispossession, and peasant and indigenous politics, all the while maintaining a parallel career as a novelist.

Debates latinoamericanos, seven years in the making and almost six hundred pages long, is without question her most significant work to date. Svampa’s introduction sets out her ambition to recover the history of radical thought in Latin America, and to overcome the ‘erasure’ and ‘epistemic blindness’ that have hampered the development of a shared intellectual tradition. She identifies multiple barriers, from the ruptures imposed by dictatorship and exile, to the varying development trajectories of Latin American states, and a persistent inferiority complex towards the centres of intellectual production in Europe and the us. The phenomenon Svampa describes is not uniform across the continent, and she recalls a productive stint teaching in Mexico during the genesis of the book. That country’s status as a place of refuge for many left intellectuals during the dictatorships of the Southern Cone and Central America’s counter-insurgent wars helps explain why it has generated such a vibrant left-wing publishing scene, and why scholars based at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México have done much to help nurture a broad Latin American perspective.

The book is divided into two parts, each composed of chapters that pivot around the same four themes—the indigenous question, development, dependency and populism—from the respective standpoints of intellectual history and sociology; much of the first part is dedicated to the reconstruction of past debates. Svampa begins with an overview of what she calls the ‘fields of tension’ that have traversed the politics of indigeneity in four Latin American countries. Bolivia and Peru have a particularly high indigenous component in their total population; Mexico’s proportion is smaller, but large in absolute terms and politically significant (it also has the most important tradition of historical and anthropological inquiry into indigeneity); while Argentina’s indigenous minority is notoriously small as a result of the so-called Conquest of the Desert, the country’s foundational late-nineteenth-century genocide. In spite of such variations, Svampa identifies an indigenist moment common to them all, stretching roughly from 1900 to 1960, followed by an indianist moment that has lasted to the present day. For Svampa, the umbrella term of indigenism includes various overlapping currents, but fundamentally entails an external understanding of indigenous populations from the vantage point of white-mestizo elites, whereby the former are to be mobilized for the shifting purposes of the latter. Indianism, by contrast, is characterized by the emergence of indigenous movements as self-organized, autonomous political actors, mobilizing on their own behalf and for their own ends. The indigenist moment was often marked by a pseudo-scientific, biological conception of race and a fearful attitude towards the region’s different gradations of racial mixture (mestizo, cholo, mulatto and so on). However, Svampa also sees Mexico’s state mythology of mestizaje or mixed-race national identity as a form of twentieth-century indigenism; in Peru, the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (apra) of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre promoted a similar conception. This romanticism placed a folkloric indigenous identity at the heart of the national imaginary, while erasing the lived experience of indigeneity and exalting mestizo hegemony in the present. A challenge to racial positivism and indigenous romanticism alike was posed by what Svampa calls ‘social indigenism’—exemplified in the heterodox Marxism of Peru’s José Carlos Mariátegui and his Bolivian contemporary Gustavo Navarro (better known by his pen-name, Tristán Marof), for whom the indigenous community was a living organism, not a relic, and a source of inspiration for the socialist future.

Mid-twentieth-century nationalist regimes in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru promoted a strategy of assimilation, whereby the indigenous was to be subsumed by the peasant, and the peasant by the mestizo nation. The allegiance of the peasantry to the ruling national-populist coalition was secured through extensive land reform. As the material base of these coalitions was undermined by the exhaustion of import-substitute industrialization, their assimilationist project towards the indigenous populations also began to fracture. New movements such as the Bolivian Kataristas contested the monocultural stereotypes of populist nationalism, and indigenous peoples began to emerge as autonomous political actors who were not content to be ventriloquized by non-indigenous politicians and intellectuals. Paradoxically, this coincided with a regional turn towards neoliberal economics; state managers and ngo technocrats did their best to respond to indigenous rebellion by artificially separating the struggles for land, territory and cultural emancipation into discrete elements. Svampa’s articulation of these complex strands is impressive, but somewhat hampered in the cases of Peru and Bolivia by a compressed historical time-frame; in those countries, the heritage of the great Andean uprising in 1780–82 continues to structure the indigenous question in the present day.

The following chapter is much less inspired, and easily the weakest section of the book, failing to distinguish between a generic concept of ‘development’ and the specific tendencies and contradictions of capitalist development as experienced by Latin America. Svampa gives a very sympathetic account of ‘post-development’ thinkers like Mexico’s Gustavo Esteva and the Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobor, whose philosophical anti-modernism is almost equally at odds with Marxism and the World Bank; Marx’s philosophy of history is reduced in a footnote to a belief in the forward march of productive forces as the engine of historical change (Svampa herself gives the lie to this caricature elsewhere in the book, with a nuanced reading of Marx’s late work and its reception in Latin America). The remaining sections of the book’s first part are much sharper. Svampa convincingly argues that the years between 1965 and 1979, when dependency theory was at its apogee, were one of Latin America’s most intellectually fertile periods. Brazil, Chile and Mexico take pride of place in this story: the first was the country of origin for many of the classical theorists, its universities and seminars the place where dependency theory took flight, while the latter two successively offered refuge for exiled leftist thinkers after much of the continent fell under the sway of military dictatorships. The dependency school broke with the economic structuralism of mainstream Latin American institutions, and with the stodgy theoretical dogmas and political pragmatism of the Stalinized Communist Parties, looking instead to the Cuban Revolution and Chile’s abortive road to socialism under Allende for alternative political models. Dependency theory was a master framework of the era that carved open a space for pan-continental debate, creating ‘the possibility of speaking of Latin America as a historical-political unity, beyond the evident internal differences’.

Svampa provides a subtle, appreciative portrait of the key works published by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, whose Dependencia y desarrollo en América Latina was probably the single most influential text in the field, and of the debates they engaged in with other theorists. She also supplies a concise and critical account of Cardoso’s subsequent rightwards trajectory (although the text must have been finalized before his supportive role in the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff became clear). There is a full and serious treatment of André Gunder Frank’s oeuvre, even if Svampa ultimately concludes that Frank’s version of dependency theory was the crudest and most mechanical on offer. Vânia Bambirra, one of the few women to achieve renown in the field, is also restored to her rightful place in the story. Bambirra belonged to the revolutionary wing of the dependency school, along with Ruy Mauro Marini, a Brazilian theorist who became a militant in Chile’s Revolutionary Left Movement (mir) before fleeing again to Mexico after Pinochet’s coup; this political orientation put Bambirra and Marini at odds with Cardoso. The latter accused Marini’s work of combining economic reductionism with political voluntarism; whereas Marini stressed the necessity of working-class independence and revolutionary rupture, Cardoso put his trust in a peaceful road to socialism founded on multi-class alliances. Overall, the power of Svampa’s work on dependency derives less from any novel interpretative advances than from her talent for synthesis and historical contextualization of these debates.