Peronism

Andy Daitsman adaitsma at mail.cc.trincoll.edu
Sat Feb 4 06:14:43 MST 1995


Jon Beasley-Murray wrote:

>As for Peronism... I hope to reply later to Juan Inigo's post.

And I hope to read it...  Even though LA labor history is one of my special
interests (I taught a class on it last year), I know Jon has read some stuff
more recently than I have, and he's also read some stuff I haven't gotten
around to yet.  So, do write it, Jon, and make sure you cite Danny when you do!

As to Juan's post, well diplomatically the best I can say is that he reminds
me why I eventually rejected structuralist Marxism.  Granted, Peronism
occurred at a particular moment in the history of Argentine economic
development, and you could even argue (persuasively in my opinion) that the
existence of that moment was essential to allow Peronism to come about, but
I for one don't see any reason at all why the phrase "ground-rent" should
even appear in a discussion of the specificity of *Peronism* as a populist
movement.  We're already deep, deep into ideology here, and economic
structures simply don't apply.  (Why Peronism, for example, and not
Varguism?  Or Iban~ecismo, for that matter?)

Why do people sometimes call Peron a fascist?  Well, maybe the fact that the
guy consciously modelled himself after Mussolini has something to do with
it.  From oratorical style to the institutions of the corporatist state,
Peron looked directly to the Italian model for inspiration.  (He had other
sources as well -- Vargas in Brazil a notable one.  His first wife Eva
Duarte was another.  More on her later.)  Maybe his choice for country of
exile has something to do with it too.  I think he arrived in Madrid in
1955, the same year he was overthrown, and he stayed there until 1972, when
the military finally allowed him to return to Argentina.

I agree with Juan that Argentina had an important labor movement before
Peron, but I would nevertheless go along with Jon's statement that Peron
"created" (I'm paraphrasing) Argentine labor.  Argentine
anarcho-syndicalists organized perhaps the continent's largest labor
movement in the 1910s, and were able to call out impressive numbers of
workers in the strike wave that began in 1917.  Following 1919's "semana
tragica," however, the strike wave fizzled out, and the anarchists' aversion
to creating stable organizations meant that very little remained in its
wake.  Unions did exist in 1943, but any national or even regional
confederations that may have existed were generally weak, and the labor
movement had been unable to win any official recognition from the state.
Which means that strikes remained illegal, and they were almost always
repressed by the state itself.

Peron, who as an obscure junior officer supported the reformist coup of 1943
and was awarded the unimportant Ministry of Labor in return, decided to
build a working class base to catapult himself into power.  It seems pretty
clear that he developed his political strategy in close consultation with
his partner Duarte (ok, Evita).  Some historians believe that the original
Peronist project was as much her creation as it was his.  That project
involved inverting the state's relationship with the working class.  In
place of repressing strikes, Peron's labor ministry sent soldiers to
guarantee the safety of picketers.  In place of exiling or jailing labor
leaders, Peron's ministers sat with them at the negotiating table and helped
them win favorable contract terms.  Unions were given official recognition,
and the state began providing important benefits to workers -- social
security, health care, vacation resorts, etc.  (The most important
redistributive projects were not actually realized until Peron himself took
power.)

The resulting enthusiastic support from workers made Peron the front-runner
in the 1945 presidential campaign, leading nervous reformist officers to
expel him from the government and place him under arrest.  That, in turn,
brought on a spectacular and unprecedented event -- the 17th of October,
1945.  Tens of thousands of workers spontaneously marched on Buenos Aires's
main square, which they occupied until Peron was released from jail and
brought to address them.  Although various participants claim to have
organized the rally, recent historical research has shown that workers
themselves took the initiative, rallying friends and neighbors to begin the
march at least a day before the scheduled event.  Peron himself had resigned
himself to defeat, and was resting in his room in pajamas awaiting his
flight out of the country as the square filled with angry, militant workers.
 Far from leading this movement in his name, Peron could only hope to
reassert some authority over it.

Once in power, Peron moved vigorously to implement his redistributive
program, and for the first five years or so of his rule workers did
tremendously well off state handouts.  But Peron clearly did not have
socialism on his mind.  A representative quote from 1944 directed to the
Buenos Aires Chamber of Commerce:

"It has been said, gentlemen, that I am an enemy of capital, but if you look
into what I have just said you will find no defender, we could say, more
committed [to capital] than I."

This attitude is borne out as well by his actions.  As Peron's
redistributions touched off an inflationary spiral by the end of the 1940s,
he abruptly shifted course.  Although his rhetoric continued to contain a
significant pro-worker core, by the early 1950s he had already embarked on a
fairly orthodox economic stabilization program.  Evita continued her
handouts to the "shirtless ones" up until her death in 1951 (political
theater is essential to understanding the whole period), but workers' real
incomes had already begun to fall.  By the time Peron was ousted by the army
in 1955, real incomes were less than they had been in 1943.  And inflation
was rampant, and would continue to destroy workers' purchasing power until
very, very recently.  When Menem's neo-liberal economics would replace
inflation as the prime threat to workers' well-being.

Andy

PS A little intro for new folks.  I used to write into this list every once
in a while last summer, but had to scale back when I got my new job here at
Trinity College (the one in Hartford CT).  I'm a Latin Americanist, a Ph.D.
candidate at the University of Wisconsin, writing a dissertation on artisans
in 19th-century Chile.  Never belonged to a party, but I was a fairly
orthodox Marxist until the mid-80s, when I began questioning traditional
explanations of the base-superstructure relationship.  Now I don't know.  We
need to reformulate theory, and I think this group helps do that.  Hi again...

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