Derek Wall offers a political biography of Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco.

Hugo Blanco is an extraordinary figure with a lifetime of revolutionary struggle in his native Peru and across Latin America. For well over 60 years (he is now 84) he has led by example whilst also contributing to the field of ideas with creative and (for the most part) non-dogmatic interventions in the ongoing ideological debate among activists and revolutionaries.

Derek Wall has produced a passionate, well-documented and very readable biography of a man whom he clearly admires and who in recent years has become a personal friend. He admires Hugo’s dedication and self-sacrifice, but also his ability to adapt to a fast-changing world and, without abandoning his revolutionary commitment, to recognise how the ecological struggle has become crucial and has fused with the social, political and economic issues which dominated the mid-20th century. It is Hugo’s conversion to ecosocialism, beginning some three decades ago, which is clearly what makes him so important to the author.

Born in 1934 near Cusco, the historic centre of Inca Peru, Hugo Blanco came from a family which could be described as middle class but lived in very modest – truthfully, poor –  circumstances. From an early age he revolted against the brutal injustice of what was still a system of feudal and racist oppression of the indigenous peasant majority.

Moving to Argentina to study agronomy, the young Hugo soon joined a Trotskyist party, abandoned his studies and went to work in a meat-packing factory. From this time onwards he became more or less a professional revolutionary, continuing to work in factories after returning to Peru three years later. Before long he left the urban environment of Lima and returned to his rural roots; by 1958 he had re-invented himself as a peasant (specifically, a sub-tenant farmer) in the area known as La Convención. It was here that he became involved in rural labour organisation and became, in effect, a leader of peasant revolt.

In 1962-63 Hugo Blanco gained national fame as leader of an armed insurgency which successfully occupied land in La Convención and inspired similar movements elsewhere in the country. Captured and imprisoned for seven years, his reputation spread far beyond Peru.

While his international fame owed much to the activities of global Trotskyist networks, it was his personal valour in resisting brutal treatment and subsequent exile in 1970 which really gained him recognition. Over the next two decades he led a peripatetic existence between Peru, Chile, Sweden, Argentina, Nicaragua and elsewhere, always involved in political struggles and frequently in great personal danger.

Heroic as all this undoubtedly was, it was far from unique among Latin American revolutionaries. What would make Hugo Blanco truly original and significant for the present era was his move to Mexico and encounter with the Zapatistas in the early 1990s.

Identification with indigenous and ecological principles, and with the radical grassroots democracy of the Zapatistas, transformed Hugo Blanco’s revolutionary career. While traces of this outlook can be found in his earlier views, before the move to Mexico it was overshadowed by Trotskyist workerism. The notion of creating alternative parallel institutions, of creating power from the bottom up rather than seizing the State, would change the character of revolutionary struggle. It was not unique to Hugo Blanco or to the Zapatistas: somewhat similar ideas were emerging from the Workers’ Party and Movement of the Landless in Brazil and the Radical Cause in Venezuela which had a significant influence on Hugo Chávez. But Hugo Blanco would become one of the most consistent and radical advocates of such an ideology from the mid-1990s to the present.

Blanco’s personal development was not met without difficult or obstruction. Derek Wall meticulously documents the challenges Blanco faced, including the internecine struggles between rival Trotskyist groups that would dog much of Blanco’s career. Nevertheless, such struggles were less important than might at first appear to be the case. Other Latin American revolutionaries influenced by orthodox Communist (‘Stalinist’) or national-popular ideologies (such as the Peruvian APRA) underwent somewhat similar transformations: from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chávez, the Sandinistas and many others. All have come to accept, in varying degrees, the need to move towards ecosocialism, radical democracy and popular power.

As recognised in the final chapters of this book (both by Derek Wall and Hugo Blanco himself) the old debates and fierce divisions between followers of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao are no longer as relevant as they once were. In the struggle against ecocidal global capitalism, only the broadest possible dialogue with respect, commitment and unity may (conceivably) save humanity. Wall’s book is a valuable contribution to the current debate on political strategy in these near-apocalyptic times.

Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary Life

Derek Wall (Resistance Books, 2018)