New Formulation

February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1

Anarchism and the Argentine Labor Movement:
Two New Studies

Review by Fernando López

Anarquistas: Cultura y Política libertaria en Buenos Aires, 1890-1910
Anarquistas: Cultura y Política libertaria en Buenos Aires, 1890-1910
By Juan Suriano
Buenos Aires: Manantial, 2001
La Estrategia de la Clase Obrera 1936

La Estrategia de la Clase Obrera 1936
By Nicolás Iñigo Carrera
Buenos Aires: Pimsa-La Rosa Blindada, 2000.

Few new works on the history of the Argentine anarchist movement have appeared in the last decade, despite the fact that this movement was one of the most significant in the world (together with those in Spain, Italy, and North America). One can only mention the work of Jorge Etchenique(1) and some re-editions of the already classic works of Osvaldo Bayer. This is why Juan Suriano’s book produced a sense of excitement prior to its appearance: it was presented as the definitive work about the period (in which the author is a renowned academic specialist). Nicolás Iñigo Carrera is also a renowned academic researcher, although his specialty is not anarchism but rather the Argentine workers’ movement, in whose history anarchism occupies a significant place. Both authors offer a distinct—and problematic—approach to the relationship between anarchism and the Argentine labor movement.

Suriano’s investigation into the anarchist movement from 1890 to 1910 is both arduous and complex. It is complex because it is not limited to the relationship between the workers’ movement and anarchism, like the well-known texts of Bilsky, Oved, Abad de Santillán, Solomonoff, Zaragoza Ruvira and others,(2) but also focuses on analyzing anarchism’s “cultural apparatus”: its specifically anarchist propaganda, its rationalist schools, its local associations, libraries and cultural centers, theater, the characteristics of its press, its enormous publishing endeavors, the organizational methods used in the formation of affinity groups, and the conditions and particularities of its ideological discourse.

The introductory chapter, which describes the specific conditions of anarchist propaganda at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, shapes the core chapters that examine the diverse aspects of the anarchist “intervention”: “the anarchist interpellation” is an analysis of the structure of the anarchist movement’s public discourse; “Pamphlets, Books, Conferences, Militants and Propagandists” studies its publishing efforts and cultural penetration in popular environments; “Free Time, Parties, Theater” explores the use of popular recreation as a tool for constructing a sense of identity and awareness; “The Anarchist Press” offers a more detailed examination of anarchist journalistic initiatives, particularly those of the of La Protesta newspaper; “Anarchism’s Educational Practices” explores attempts at extending rationalist education, “The State, Law, Homeland and Anarchism’s Political Practices” is a more than complex discussion of the anarchist movement’s concrete practice and ideological assumptions. The book concludes with a chapter with a title that contains a whole definition in itself “Anarchist Rites and Symbols.”

These dimensions of the movement are hardly glimpsed in earlier works, although one should stress that some young authors in the academic environment have been studying the anarchist movement’s distinct discourse, its worldview, and something of the daily life of its militants, and also that some methods of propaganda circulation and the production of anarchist discourse were already examined in works by Golluscio de Montoya y Barrancos.(3)

But the work is also arduous because it implies the meticulous consultation of a profuse number of pamphlets and the reading of an enormous quantity of publications. Indeed, Suriano points out the poverty of Argentine archives and expresses gratitude for the opportunity he had to consult Amsterdam’s Institute of Social History.

In this enormous quantity of documentation Suriano believes he finds the key to how the tactics and strategies of this movement were elaborated, without ignoring the relation with the workers’ movement, but keeping it outside of his specific focus. He explores the specificity of the anarchist interpellation, the peculiarities of its ideological discourse, and the definition of “sender” and “recipient” within its discourse. He presents a rich image of its most distinguished militants in the chosen period, and of its itinerant orators, lecturers, propagandists, and even its rituals and symbolic systems, in order to conclude with the thesis he advanced in the introduction: that the anarchist movement experienced an inexorable decline in the face of reformist and integrative practices generated by the state to confront the conflicts produced by the anarchist movement. Suriano argues that these mechanisms of statist integration were set into motion in the first decade of the century and sent the anarchist movement into a permanent decline.

One objection to his work has to do with the divide between the workers’ movement and the anarchist movement. How should one describe the abundant trade union periodicals in the Resistance Societies, whose discourse is so clearly libertarian, in contrast to that of specifically anarchist publications? How to separate, and in what manner, anarchist culture from the workers’ culture? Does there exist a genuine workers’ culture that is not “ideological” or defined by the Left, the Right, or religious? This is especially problematic when one takes in account that the FORA(4) —which anarchists led without opposition until 1915— defined its activity as the struggle for “anarcho-communism” in its declaration of principles.

A second objection has to do with the pertinence of the temporal divide. Suriano affirms that from 1910 anarchism fell into an inevitable decline as a consequence of the advance of an oligarchic reformism, an advance that definitively ended the absence of the state in the social (and one that would have made possible the extension of the anarchist movement had it been maintained).(5) Although leaving to one side the leading participation of anarchists in the social struggles that would be denominated the “tragic week” of 1919, their leadership in the Patagonian strikes, and the intense social conflicts that took place until the 1930 military coup of Uriburu, it is certain that Suriano never offers an exposition of this decline which he presents as a fact.(6) Wouldn't it be necessary to explain this decline before elaborating the hypothesis that it explains?

The appearance of oligarchic reformism could be an indirect proof, but he does not present an exposition of the oligarchic intervention either. The blunt affirmation advanced by Suriano in his initial hypothesis is striking, when the same person, in earlier works, plays down this intervention of the oligarchic state, limiting it to the level of the good intentions of a reduced group of reformers, whose efforts “resulted in an apathetic and disinterested response of the hegemonic political sectors.”(7) This position coincides with that of other studies, such as those of Falcon(8) and Zimmermann.(9)

And with respect to the electoral opening of 1912: what was the magnitude of proletarian participation in the elections staged by the oligarchic regime or its Radical continuator?10 No one has worked on this question seriously. And, apart from praises that establishment academics would direct to the oligarchic reformism after the return of democracy in 1984 (as the founder of a democratic, “citizens” tradition), I suspect that workers’ participation was infinitesimal until the years of Peronism. In fact, one can say that the oligarchic state and its Radical continuator only dealt with the workers movement by means of repression, and in this sense their legislative initiatives were exhaustive.

It is impossible to understand the temporal limit advanced by Suriano except as a subterfuge used to elude the complexities that anarchism will assume when the workers’ movement begins to transform itself after the First World War. Fortunately some texts have appeared in recent years—such as those of Etchenique11 e Iñigo Carrera(12)—that shed light on this question (this has hardly explored in academic works, with the sole exception of Bayer’s writings.(13))

In Strategy of the Working Class, Nicolás Iñigo Carrera is rightly amazed that the mass movement that produced the construction workers strike of 1935-36 is not present in academic studies. One could advance hundreds of conspiracy theories about the existence of this “forgotten history” and perhaps the explanation would not be more than negligence, carelessness, and a bureaucratic conception of the historians’ job that falsely repeats old dogmas for fear of innovating or contradicting established opinions. This is the only way it possible to comprehend the fact that events such as those narrated by Carrera are absent in the analyses made by historians like Hugo del Campo or Matsushita.(14) But, worse still, no professional historian will question this significant exclusion during the last twenty years. Carrera argues that the omission of this history is intentional and reflects the fact that the contemporary focus on “ethnic or cultural movements” discourages the study of the working class as a central actor in the evolution of Argentine society.

Carrera’s point is very pertinent. To found a citizens’ tradition in a country such as Argentina, governed since its foundation by exclusionary oligarchies and devastated by ferocious military dictatorships, it is necessary to hide the true and only resistance that fought the all-embracing domination of those dictatorships for more than one hundred years: the workers’ movement. This movement has been led by anarchists, socialists, communists, syndicalists or Peronists, and is invariably hostile to the Radical demo-liberalism.

Carrera systematically studies the genesis and formation of the Argentine working class in order to explore the structure and composition of Argentine society in the mid 1930s, particularly the actions of the Argentine working class during the general strike of January 7th and 8th, 1936, which was declared in solidarity with the already-striking construction workers. This strike had insurrectional characteristics in the view of the contemporary observers. Carrera mentions the theory of “cycles” with which our historiography classifies this history: there is one insurrectional and anti-statist cycle until 1910, and this would open a second cycle of citizens’ integration, and end with the “Cordobazo” in 1969.(15) The first objection Carrera advances is that insurrectionalism covers all the cycles, with peaks in the “tragic week” of 1919, the solidarity strike of 1936, and the Cordobazo. And of course he does not mention—because the book appeared earlier—the social explosions of December, 2001 that resulted in the resignation of president De la Ruá. Although surely working class participation in the events of 2001 was more diffuse than in previous explosions, all these episodes are worthy of the title insurrectional.

Carrera also rejects any description of the dominant economic structure as proto-capitalist in the first decades of the century. He highlights its entirely capitalist character and rejects the classification of the proletariat of the epoch as artisanal. He also argues that there is always an articulation of an economic struggle as well as a political struggle, thus discrediting the thesis that anarchist “anti-politicism” was apolitical. He also picks up on the emergence of a large middle class that, in a certain way, helped stimulate a political opening (embodied in the Radical Party’s assumption of power). But likewise he emphasizes that the repression of the workers’ movement was invariably the Radical policy, with bloody landmarks like the repression of January 1919, the executions in Patagonia, the repression in La Forestal in Santa Fe, Ingenio Las Palmas in Jujuy, and in Chaco. Thus Carrera shows how the Radical governments of the time “incorporated” the working class socially or institutionally.

Carrera clarifies the social and economic context from which the 1936 strike would emerge. He reviews the expansion of industry from the 1920s and also the growing democratization of political sphere, although in reality these processes will only really unfold in the second half of the 1940s. In the meantime there is the “Infamous Decade:” the repression, the executions, the first desaparecidos, the systematic practice of torture, until the state of siege in 1932. The growth of industrial activity also had an important expression in urban life, where mounted concrete industrial techniques were diffused with the rationalist architecture. Workers’ neighborhoods grew in previously uninhabited zones of the capital and these neighborhoods would later be the primary sites of sabotage and confrontation with the police and state during the January strike.

Carrera searches to identify the participants in the strike (those involved in the arson of trains, public buses that had not joined to the strike, municipal garbage trucks, etc). He wants to see the social sectors involved and notes the leading role of youth, who were the most affected by the unemployment crisis that had existed since 1930. He documents the various acts of corruption and injustices of the Justo government: the assassination of the anarchist maritime leader Antonio Morán, the trial of the prisoners of Bragado, the assassination of the socialist José Guevara, and the government support of the English-owned Corporación de Transportes. An anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist sentiment rapidly spread throughout the working class and other social sectors. Solidarity with the construction workers’ strike reached a national level and was expressed in civil disobedience, attacks against symbols of the state and concretized by armed confrontations with the police forces, with victims on both sides.

In the middle of the general solidarity strike with the construction workers an internal conflict in the workers’ movement came to a head. Syndicalists, communists, and socialists—who were pushing for the growth of industrial unionism—were aligned on one side. And, on the other side, were members of FORA, who wanted to conserve craft unions, direct action as the only tactic, and direct discussion with the employer, and did not recognize the state’s growing intervention in employer/worker relations. Regrettably the FORA decided to reject the strike and thus suicidally isolated itself from the workers’ movement. In general, the majority of its members left the group for specifically anarchist groups, such as Comité Regional de Relaciones Anarquistas (Regional Committee of Anarchist Relations) first and then its heir, the Federación Anarco-Comunista Argentina (Argentine Anarcho-Communist Federation) and also the Grupo Spartacus (Spartacus Group).

In the conclusion, where Carrera searches zealously to discover the strategy of the working class, he finds that three alternatives are expressed by its politicized sectors. One is the FORA’s alternative, which is a guild-oriented, pre-industrial unionism. The second alternative he finds “tries to overcome the form of existing organization, claim the struggle of the whole of the working class and direct action without disdaining the use of the instruments of the institutional system.”(16) And the third alternative proposes that workers are directly integrated into the existing social order as “citizens.” If the construction workers and their long conflict appear set on the right road in this third option, the general movement of solidarity that shaped the general strike of January 7th and 8th seem nevertheless to find its bearings in the second alternative. The general strike brought to light the limits of simply fighting for wage increases and raised the conflict to the larger political plane.

But the general strike of January 7th and 8th indicates another strategy that would not prevail, that of an alliance between the working class and the Peronists in the mid 1940s. For Carrera, the working class becomes present in the political scene with the general strike of 1936 and creates the conditions by which the organized workers’ movement is a conduit for class alliances and ultimately agrees to extend capitalism by integrating itself into the institutional framework of the state.

In other words, the struggle that aims to transcend capitalism actually improves it. And it is this tendency that obliges the most lucid members of the ruling class to give ground to the workers in order not to lose everything. For Carrera, the 1936 strike demonstrates a historical tendency of the Argentine proletariat to repeat insurrectional actions that contain, embryonically, the improvement of the existing system. This tendency is hidden in traditional historical accounts, which only perceive a tendency toward democratization and social integration. Democratization and integration—we would add—are not irreversible processes, as demonstrated by the social disintegration and marginalization that has occurred in Argentina over the last twenty years.

The last two decades have seen the surge of an impressive body of historical literature about the birth of “citizenship,” the existence of early electoral campaigns, and “democratic” practices. This body of historical literature selects as its subject a diffuse conglomeration of social groups—because of the evident aversion to speaking about classes. Its advocates argue that its approach is a more “scientific” and “serious” than that which takes the working class as the object of its study and searches for the elements that transform it into a historical subject. But in spite of its presumed scientific discourse, the work of this intellectual claque is nothing more than an ideology, and a politics, specifically one that geared toward founding a “historical tradition” in the early 1980s for this novel “democracy without adjectives.”

We were speculating in the beginning of this essay about the origin of this “forgotten history” and now it is possible to see that the neglect of this history is not an innocent act. It is clear that two ways of doing history have been presented here, neither of which is or can ever be innocent or naïve. This is because historical research—in its questions, selection of sources, and many other ways—demonstrates a choice in the face of the world, and thus necessarily takes a position. If we were to use the metaphor of the barricade that Michel Onfrai applies so successfully to illustrate the social conflicts of today, it would be very clear on which side of the barricade stands one or the other investigator.

Translated from Spanish by Chuck Morse and Shanti Salas.

1. Jorge Etchenique, Pampa Libre: Anarquistas en la Pampa Argentina (Buenos Aires, Amerindia y Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2000).

2. Edgardo Bilsky, La FORA y el Movimiento Obrero: 1900-1910 (Buenos Aires, CEAL, 1985); Oved, Iaácov, El Anarquismo y el Movimiento Obrero en la Argentina (México, DF: Siglo XXI, 1978); Diego Abad de Santillán, La FORA: Ideología y Trayectoria del Movimiento Revolucionario en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Nervio, 1933); Jorge Solomonoff, Ideologías del Movimiento Obrero y Conflicto Social (Buenos Aires, Tupac, 1988); Gonzalo Zaragoza Ruvira, Anarquismo Argentino: 1876-1902 (Madrid, Ediciones de la Torre, 1996).

3. Eva Golluscio de Montoya, "Círculos Anarquistas y Circuitos Culturales en la Argentina de 1900” Caravelle, Number 46, (1986). See also Jean Andreu y Maurice Fraysse, Anarkos: Literaturas Libertarias de América del Sur 1900 (Buenos Aires: Corregidor, Buenos Aires, 1990). Dora Barrancos, Anarquismo, Educación y Costumbres en la Argentina de Principios de Siglo (Buenos Aires: Contrapunto, 1990); “Anarquismo y sexualidad,” in Mundo Urbano y Cultura Popular, ed. Diego Armus (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1990); La Escena Iluminada: Ciencias para Trabajadores, 1890/1930 (Buenos Aires: Plus Ultra), 1996.

4. The FORA was the largest labor federation in Argentina during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

5. Oligarchic reformism refers here to projects of political and social inclusion, such as mandatory, free, and universal educational and the cooptation of middle class sectors through electoral practices. These activities were carried out to expand the hegemony and legitimacy of state.

6. The Patagonian strikes were led by anarchists in the 1921 and 1922 in southern Argentina. This insurrectional movement is described by Osvaldo Bayer in his four volume work La Patagonia Rebelde (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1995). “The tragic week” refers to an insurrectional movement that developed in Buenos Aires in January 1919. A popular movement overcame police forces—who lost control of the streets—and raided police stations and armories. Bourgeois order could only be reestablished after the army intervened and carried out a fierce slaughter. The true number of victims remains unknown to this day.

7. Juan Suriano, “El Estado Argentino Frente a los trabajadores urbanos: política social y represión 1880-1916,” Anuario, Number 14 (1989-90).

8. Ricardo Falcón, “Izquierdas, Régimen Político, Cuestión Étnica y Cuestión Social en Argentina: 1890-1912,” Anuario, Number 12 (1986/7).

9. Zimmermann, Los Liberales Reformistas (Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1995).

10. In Argentina the term radicalism or radical refers to the Radical Civic Union Party, which holds a political identity diametrically opposed to a progressive or left perspective.

The electoral opening of 1912 refers to the moment when the vote became universal, obligatory, and secret. This change in electoral practices enabled the election of the Radical party. Traditional historiography emphasizes this as a key moment in the expansion of citizenship and the incorporation of previously excluded classes.

11. Etchenique, Pampa Libre, 2000.

12. Nicolás Iñigo Carrera, La Estrategia de la Clase Obrera 1936 (Buenos Aires, La Rosa Blindada-PIMSA, 2000).

13. Osvaldo Bayer, La Patagonia Rebelde (4 Volumes) (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1995); Also, Los Anarquistas Expropiadores (Buenos Aires, Legasa, 1986), y Severino Di Giovanni: El idealista de la Violencia (Buenos Aires, Planeta, 1999). These themes were explored in Jornadas de Historia de la Izquierda (Conference on the History of Left) that took place at Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas in Buenos Aires at the end of 2000, during which there was a roundtable on the anarchist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Various papers were presented that at least managed to put in parentheses Suriano’s blunt assertion that the anarchist movement basically disappeared after 1910. This talks will soon be available in digital format.

14. Hugo del Campo, Sindicalismo y Peronismo (Buenos Aires: Clasico, 1983). Hiroshi Matsushita, Movimiento Obrero Argentino 1930-1945 (Buenos Aires, Hyspamérica, 1986). Both authors focus exclusively on this period of the labor movement and their works are considered authoritative on the subject.

15. The Cordobazo refers to an insurrectional movement that unfolded in Cordóba in between May 29th and May 31st of 1969 against the military dictatorship of 1966-1973. The conflicts expanded from industrial centers in Córdoba to Corrientes, Mendoza, Tucumán, Rosario, and Corrientes. It became a movement of such national significance that it cased the fall of General Onganía and the beginning of the retreat of the regime.

16. Carrera, La Estrategia de la Clase Obrera 1936, 282.