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To the Beat of “The Walrus”: Uruguayan Communists and Youth Culture in the Global Sixties

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 363-392 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0023

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In the 1960s, a generation of Latin American youth entered political life inspired by a heroic view of activism that coincided, often contentiously, with the spread of new cultural trends from youth movements in Europe and the United States. This study focuses on how the notions of “being young” in circulation at the time affected the construction of political identities in Uruguay, particularly among the different branches of the Uruguayan left. I am especially interested in analyzing the relationship between the cultural representations of youth and the requirements for activism as conceived by these Uruguayan leftist groups.

A close examination of the spaces occupied by youth affiliated with the Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU) is particularly helpful in understanding the connections between leftist activism and youth culture. As I hope to show in the following pages, it is only by analyzing popular culture and politics together, by connecting ideological stances and activist practices to attitudes toward pop and mass cultural expression, that we can understand the increasing appeal of this political option to young people in the 1960s. Specifically, this article seeks to illustrate the political and cultural tensions that determined not only the birth of the youth sector in the PCU in the mid-fifties, but also the party’s effort to make sense of the emergence of student activism in the late sixties and its decision to create a supplement in the party’s daily newspaper devoted exclusively to the expression of the new youth trends. That publication, which occupies a central place in this analysis, focused especially on musical trends, and, starting with the title itself—La Morsa (The Walrus), from the 1967 song, “I am the Walrus”—paid homage to The Beatles and their significance on the global stage.

Consistent with recent studies of the PCU, my approach in this article makes it possible to highlight specific features of Uruguayan communism within a regional context. An initial path is through the deliberate search for “counter-hegemony” in the sense that studies of international communism have called “the Italian style.” But it is also important to note the relatively wide margin for the expression of different tastes, habits, and customs by the various groups of activists, even within what was an undeniably strict, hierarchical, and homogenizing political culture and partisan structure. This article contributes to the current literature by its dual focus on how the new youth culture influenced the behavior of Uruguayan communists and the latter’s role in the development of a cultural arena (and to a certain extent, a market) in which youth, for the first time, played a leading role.

This approach emphasizes the multiple paths to change that made it possible for sectors of the “old left,” at least in Uruguay, to continue to offer themselves as viable models for activism for the thousands of young people who joined protest movements in the 1960s. Likewise, my approach questions the excessive attention that studies of the 1960s in Latin America have paid to ideological and doctrinal schisms that characterized the rise of a “New Left,” generally associated with groups that practiced or promoted armed struggle—those who displayed, in Greg Grandin’s words, “a will to act.” Until relatively recently, that way of thinking about schisms on the left, perhaps by focusing too much on armed groups such as the Movement of National Liberation-Tupamaros (MLN-T), limited the growth of studies on the role of Uruguayan communists in the years leading up to the 1973 coup.

Contributing to a change in focus, and inspired by studies of the United States that successfully analyze the connections between political dissidence and cultural rebellion, this study aims to show how deeply certain aspects of the “cultural revolution” pervaded the entire spectrum of the Uruguayan left, even the most traditional branches such as the PCU. However, in contrast to those studies of the United States in the 1960s, which seek to restore political meaning to a decade that has been reduced to a fashion and a market phenomenon, my aim is to show the importance of cultural aspects in shaping the left in Latin America. This makes it possible to include, as Eric Zolov has proposed...


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