skip to main contentskip to main menuskip to footer Universität Bielefeld Play Search
  • InterAmerican Wiki

    © Universität Bielefeld


Socialism advocates the social ownership of the means of production and the placing of human needs above the interests of capital. Although originally conceptualized in Europe in the nineteenth century as a way of organizing advanced industrial societies under worker control, in the Americas socialism has received the most interest in peripheral and dependent export-oriented economies that have long struggled with persistent problems of high rates of poverty and extremely unequal socio-economic systems. Although with the fall of the Soviet Union some observers thought interest in socialism had largely come to an end, socialist governments returned to the Americas with a vengeance at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Socialist Thought

Nineteenth-century socialism was divided into three general currents. Marxism was based on the writings of Karl Marx, placing the working class as a key agent of social change. In contrast, utopian socialism pointed to intellectual arguments and enlightened ruling class interests, rather than the working class, as the agent of change. Edward Bellamy's 1887 novel Looking Backward is an example of this trend. Finally, anarchism held a strong influence in the labor movement, with the International Workers of the World (IWW) as its best known organizational expression. All three trends sought to destroy capitalism, but were divided over the roles of the working class and government structures in achieving that goal.

Many of the most significant radical influences during this period came from Italian and other European immigrants who brought with them their anarcho-syndicalist influences to the Americas. A rally on Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1886, and the subsequent hanging of four anarchists for their alleged role in a bomb-throwing incident led to the celebration of May Day as the International Workers' Day. The highly controversial murder trial and execution of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927 similarly resulted in an international support for the anarchist cause.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which led to the removal of dictator Porfirio Díaz was the first successful twentieth-century revolution. Scholars have subsequently debated whether the revolution represented the culmination of a nineteenth-century liberal bourgeois reform movement, an anti-imperialist nationalist movement, a disorganized rebellion, a peasant revolt, or a failed socialist revolution. Ricardo Flores Magón and his brothers Enrique and Jesús were noted anarchists and social reformers who strongly influenced the ideology of the revolution.

Communist International

Despite anarchism's early significance, its political importance was eclipsed with the 1917 October or Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. John Reed, a journalist from the United States, recorded these events in Ten Days That Shook the World. The success of using government structures to change society inspired many anarchists to join with Marxists in the 1920s to create communist parties throughout the Americas. The Third or Communist International (Comintern) formed in 1919 with its base in Moscow and with its goal to organize a single, centralized party to lead a world revolution. The Comintern initially focused its efforts on Europe and Asia, and it was not until its Sixth Congress in 1928 that it "discovered" Latin America as a potential area of revolution.

Initially, European immigrants and their descendants dominated the communist parties, excluding indigenous peoples and African descendants. In the late 1920s, the Comintern instructed local parties to work for black and indigenous liberation even to the point of separation. Although attempts to create indigenous and black republics in the Andes, Brazil, Cuba, and the southern United States failed, it did lead to a close association of communists with their liberation struggles. In Peru, José Carlos Mariátegui wrote passionately on indigenous issues. In the United States, the communist party came to the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Alabama in 1931. In 1943, the Comintern disbanded as part of an attempt to build unity with the United States in a battle against fascism in Nazi Germany.


After the various socialist tendencies had briefly unified in the 1920s to create communist parties, the Marxist left soon diverged once again into several different trends. A reformist wing identified with social democracy opposed vanguardist politics and preferred to work within electoral systems. A socialist wing remained strongly Marxist and revolutionary in its orientation, often taking more radical stances than the Communists, but opposed subjugating their work to an international movement, instead favoring to root their efforts in local realities.

Supporters of the Russian Revolution split into Stalinist, Trotskyist, and Maoist camps. The first remained as the orthodox communist parties that contended that due to a lack of capitalist development the objective conditions were not right for a socialist revolution, and sometimes as a result engaged in United Front alliances with bourgeois parties. Followers of Leon Trotsky opposed the repressive and dictatorial aspects of Stalinism, and instead pursued an ideology of permanent revolution. Although a Soviet agent killed Trotsky in Mexico in 1920 where he had sought refuge, except for some presence among labor leaders in Bolivia and the United States his ideology did not gain much traction in the Americas. Followers of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung preferred a peasant strategy of taking power by circling the cities with rural forces.

Cuban Revolution

The victory of Fidel Castro's guerrilla troops over the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959 was the single most important event for socialist movements in the Americas in the twentieth century. Chief ideologue Ernesto Che Guevara contended that its triumph proved that a vanguard based in the countryside could overcome superior military forces and create the objective conditions necessary for a revolution, although scholars subsequently debated these interpretations. Attempts throughout the 1960s to create new guerrilla armies to repeat Cuba's success failed, including Guevara's execution in Bolivia in 1967 when he attempted to lead one such insurrection.

With armed paths to power seemingly off the table, socialist Salvador Allende won the presidency of Chile in 1970 with a plurality of the vote. Allende, a close ally of Cuba, was the first democratically elected Marxist president in the Americas. He declared that he would build a Chilean road to socialism, drawing on domestic structures and traditions. A United States-backed military coup removed Allende from power in 1973, raising doubts as to the viable permanency of peaceful roads to socialism.

In 1979, Sandinista guerrillas defeated the pro-United States Somoza family dynasty in Nicaragua, seemingly repeating the triumph of the Cuban Revolution twenty years earlier. As it had done with previous socialist revolutionary attempts, the United States armed members of the previous regime into a counter revolutionary force. Attacks on "soft" non-military targets destroyed the Nicaraguan economy, finally leading to the electoral defeat of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in the 1990 presidential election. Together with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Sandinista defeat seemed to indicate a shift away from interest in socialism.

Pink Tide

During the 1990s, oligarchical forces throughout much of the Americas implemented neoliberal policies of privatizing social functions which seemed to halt socialist advances. In 1998, however, Hugo Chávez won the election in Venezuela, reinvigorating interest in socialist paths to change. In quick succession, much of South America and parts of Central America also elected leftist governments, several of them referring to their programs as socialism for the twenty-first century. These governments appeared to swing in many different directions, ranging through the left-populist Peronism in Argentina with first Néstor Kirchner and then his wife Cristina Fernández, Chile’s neoliberal socialism with Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, Uruguay’s middle-class social democracy with Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica, Fernando Lugo’s liberation theology in Paraguay, Rafael Correa's progressive Catholicism in Ecuador, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s trade unionism in Brazil, guerrilla socialists including (once again) Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Maurcio Funes in El Salvador, Bolivia’s Indigenous socialism with Evo Morales, and Venezuela’s state-centered socialism of Hugo Chávez as well as that of Raúl and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Despite the plurality of voices and perspectives, socialism was firmly back on the agenda.


Throughout the long twentieth century, socialists have debated a series of issues that continue to be present throughout the Americas. These include whether goals of social justice are best achieved through gradual reforms or rapid revolutionary changes; whether a vanguard party should lead a movement or if it should be based in a mass popular movement; whether an armed, electoral, or mass movement will best lead to permanent and lasting change; whether charismatic leaders will rule in the interests of the people or only reinforce their personal concerns; whether to engage in broad class alliances or emphasize the working class; whether to base a struggle in rural or urban areas; and what the proper role of government structures is in making desired changes. Despite occasional reverses, socialism remains a very real presence throughout the Americas.

Marc Becker

Please cite as:
Becker, Marc. 2012. “Socialism.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Aguilar, Luis E., (Ed.) 1978. Marxism in Latin America. Revised edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Barrett, Patrick S. / Chavez, Daniel / Rodríguez Garavito, César A. (Ed.) 2008. The New Latin American Left: Utopia reborn. London: Pluto.

Caballero, Manuel. 1986. Latin America and the Comintern 1919-1943. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carr, Barry / Ellner, Steve (Eds.) 1993. The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika. Boulder: Westview Press.

Castañeda, Jorge G. 1993. Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American left after the Cold War. New York: Knopf.

Sándor, John S. 2009. Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent revolution in the Andes. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Liss, Sheldon B. 1984. Marxist Thought in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Löwy, Michael / Pearlman, Michael (Eds.) 1992. Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present: An anthology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press.

Sader, Emir. 2011. The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left. London: Verso Books.

Vanden, Harry / Becker, Marc (Eds.) 2011. José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Wilpert, Greg. 2007. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. London: Verso.

back to top