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Radical Thought in Central America.

Radical Thought in Central America is the third of Sheldon Liss's examinations of the radical or socialist intellectual tradition in Latin America and is, in many ways, a fitting addition to his earlier works: Marxist Thought in Latin America and Roots of Revolution: Radical Thought in Cuba. Like these two earlier books, Radical Thought in Central America is an intelligent and informative discussion of the writings and thought of many of Central America's most important pensadores, both living and dead.

Liss provides an introduction in which he discusses the role of radical thought in the social and political development of Central America, the roots and nature of the Marxist intellectual tradition in the region, and gives a definition of "radical thought" in the Central American context. This introduction is followed by a chapter on each of the five Central American countries which include short historical surveys and separate discussions of four or five pensadores. In the conclusion Liss ties together the various currents of thought discussed earlier and reiterates the importance of, and position of, these radical thinkers in Central American society.

Liss concentrates on twentieth-century radicals; indeed most of his subjects are still active academics, politicians, and writers. Of particular interest in Liss's survey is the importance he places on the links between thought and action among these various pensadores. Indeed, for Liss it is this determination "to blend theory and practice" in the struggle for social change and against imperialist domination that most distinguishes "radical" thought from reformist. Liss demonstrates his consummate mastery of the radical intellectual tradition in Central America and the book reflects an enviable familiarity with the writings of most of Central America's important thinkers. The chapter on Nicaragua is particularly effective, with discussions of Ruben Dario, Sandino, Carlos Fonseca Amador, Ernesto Cardenal, and Jamie Wheelock.

However, for the four other countries discussed, the concentration on a narrowly defined "radical" stream of thought and on modern, even current, writers makes this study less effective than it could be. In the chapter on Guatemala, for example, three of the four writers discussed emerged with the "revolution" of 1944-54, and the fourth is Edelberto Torres Rivas. It is especially noteworthy that none of the "generation of 1920," who served as an inspiration for many young radicals during the revolution, was mentioned. While it is probably true that few of that generation would fit into Liss's definition of "radical," surely Miguel Angel Asturias had a greater impact on the development of Guatemalan thought, even radical thought, than some of those discussed here. Similarly, in the chapter on El Salvador, Alberto Masferrer, although mentioned in the historical survey, is not included as a subject. While it could well be argued that Masferrer was not "radical," many of the people included in Liss's study admitted they had been profoundly influenced by his ideas; his ideas deserve more consideration than is given in this study.

The tendency to concentrate on only modern pensadores contributes to some other problems in the book. Part of the strength of Liss's earlier study of Cuba was the sense of progression which emerged as he discussed the development of Cuban thought from Marti to Castro; there was a sense of historical evolution which permeated the book. To a lesser extent this is what makes the chapter on Nicaragua so effective. By and large, this is missing from the other chapters in Radical Thought in Central America. By omitting the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics who contributed to the development of later "radical" thought, Liss gives us a study that at times seems strangely static. With little sense of the way radical thought has developed since independence, the book has the air of a catalogue; a listing of the major ideas of a series of critics with few connections to earlier writings or even Central American history.

The major way in which the connections among the writers and with Central American history is apparent is the emphasis of these writers on anti-imperialist thought. But, even here, because virtually all of them believed a major reason for Central American underdevelopment was its position within an imperialist world order and there appeared to be little change in their condemnation of imperialism over time, the discussion of the anti-imperialist element of their thought becomes little more than a litany attacking the policies of the United States in the region.

Expanding his discussion to include more non-Marxist and earlier pensadores and making the "history" of the evolution of that thought more apparent would have made Liss's study much more useful. Nontheless, this book is an important contribution to our understanding of radical thought in Central America. It should serve as the introduction for students to the thought of many of these critics for years to come. It should also help them understand better the intellectual roots of the struggle for social justice in Central America.
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Author:Handy, Jim
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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