Arnold Toynbee was a British historian, professor at the London School of Economics, widely read and quoted in Latin America in the mid-twentieth century. As the twelve volumes of his monumental A Study of History (1933-1961) were being edited, Toynbee made several trips to Latin America and the Caribbean. This part of the world helped him to conceive his work as a culmination and, at the same time, a closure of the tradition of the morphology of civilizations and cultures.
That tradition had taken shape in the work of historians such as Jacob Burckhardt and, above all, Oswald Spengler. Toynbee, as Fernand Braudel, the most resolute critic of that school, observed, tried to broaden the occidentalist and cyclical framework of Spengler’s “decadence” by approaching the cultures of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. But his approach, well grounded in the “relativity of historical thought”, abused an analogical imagination that led him to misinterpret civilizations that, unlike his teachers, he did not consider “inferior.”
Toynbee visited Mexico in 1954, on a research trip financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, with the purpose of studying the Mexica and Mayan civilizations. But, like any good historian, the British scholar did not close his eyes to the country’s present. His interest in the Mexican Revolution was central and his meeting with President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines at Los Pinos was decisive in outlining a vision of post-revolutionary Mexico, which he set out in an article in El Nacional, organ of the PRI, on March 28, 1954.
In that article Toynbee argued that, contrary to what great Mexican historians such as Jesús Silva Herzog and Daniel Cosío Villegas had been writing for years, the Mexican Revolution was still alive. More than 40 years after its outbreak, that Revolution was a State that advanced in the integration of society through a series of reforms, such as the agrarian, labor and educational reforms. An eternal revolutionary State, with a set of laws and institutions that guaranteed its perpetuity.
According to Toynbee, all the great modern revolutions had been thus, in Great Britain, France or the United States, in China or Russia: secular processes to build a lasting state. Toynbee’s account reproduced, uncritically, the official narrative of Ruiz Cortines and the PRI and clashed with the intellectual criticism of the liberal or socialist, Cardenist or Trotskyist left, which since then and, above all, since the beginning of the Cold War, claimed that the Mexican Revolution was dead or had become “frozen” and bureaucratized.
Toynbee’s idea of the eternity of the revolutionary state reformulated the very American myth of the “last revolution”, that is, of a historical process that cancels the possibility of any other revolution. Or, in other words, which imposes the dogma that any other revolution against the Revolution is nothing more than a counter-revolution. A few years later, in 1962, in the midst of the entrenchment of the Cold War in the Caribbean, Toynbee returned to Latin America. By then, his idea of the Latin American revolutionary tradition had changed.
Toynbee was invited by the rector of the University of Puerto Rico, Fernando Benítez, to give a series of lectures in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The topics of Toynbee’s talks in Río Piedras were in tune with the high tensions of the Cold War: “The Western Hemisphere in a Changing World”, “The Current Revolution in Latin America” and “The Problem for the United States”. Toynbee naturally started from the Cuban Revolution, but he lucidly understood that event as part of a second continental revolutionary wave, which involved all of Latin America and went beyond the Mexican paradigm.
José Gaos, the Spanish philosopher exiled in Mexico, attended those conferences in San Juan and summarized them in the magazine Cuadernos Americanos. With the Cuban Revolution and its subsequent alignment with the Soviet Union, the “problem of Latin America,” as opposed to the “problem of our time” formulated by his teacher José Ortega y Gasset, was “communism.” In Cuba was taking place a profound alteration of the Latin American revolutionary legacy, as it had been staged before in Mexico, Bolivia and Guatemala, which opened, however, a promising opportunity.
With a lucidity that is surprising in a philosopher who generally avoided political issues, including those of Spain, Gaos derived from Toynbee’s lectures the urgency of inventing a socialism different from liberal democracy and communist totalitarianism. The “ideal of liberal democracy,” Gaos said, “can no longer be exactly the same as it was, because it has lost all possibility of visible and foreseeable realization.” But, at the same time, “socialism should want to continue to differentiate itself from communism, as long as the latter is not liberalized.”
The topicality of Gaos’ words is impressive, but also the validity of his call to avoid the comfortable analogies between revolutions. Unlike Toynbee, Gaos thought the time of the Mexican Revolution had run out and it was not the time to lament that the Cuban Revolution had destroyed the reference of the old Latin American revolutionary nationalism. To think critically about a Revolution, it was necessary to understand it in its own terms, without trying to establish analogies, but, also, without accepting everything it said about itself. To demand a democratic socialism from the Cuban Revolution was, according to Gaos, an act of coherence for the Latin American left.