What is Peronism?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed May 31 18:07:28 MDT 2000


American Socialist, February 1958

A Review Article: What is Peronism?

by Bert Cochran

ARGENTINE UPHEAVAL, by Arthur P. Whitaker. Frederick A. Praeger, New York,
1957, $3.50.

THE author is described in the dust-jacket as a professor of Latin American
history at the University of Pennsylvania and "one of the most eminent
Latin American historians of era." Possibly this last is a bit of an
overstatement, though he is clearly acquainted with his subject matter but
like so many of his colleagues in the scholarly world, he has enrolled as a
technician of the American Empire and discusses, without the tremor of an
eyebrow, the most intricate social problems of our time, from the insular
assumptions of our State Department politicos and the vested interests of
our corporate bureaucrats. Indeed, Mr. Whitaker has been so roughly
conditioned in this sort of outlook, he does not even feel it necessary to
elucidate why egotistic American interests should be protected, or justify
U.S. interference into the affairs of a country six thousand miles away. No
sir, Mr. Whitaker is no fusspot. He has a job to do, namely, the unraveling
of the tangled skein of Argentine politics to enable our decision-makers to
more effectively formulate policies, and Mr. Whitaker doing his job without
needless circumlocution, rhetoric, or philosophizing.

He certainly writes of Argentine affairs with an expert’s competence. But
as his focus is delimited by his specialized commitments, it is quite
difficult for the general reader to discern the broad play of social forces
underlying the sequence of events that led to the military revolt of
September 16, 1955 which unseated the dictator, Juan Peron, and installed
in power a new military junta.

The Peron decade is something that has to be looked into. Argentina, the
leading Latin American country both culturally and economically, is
destined to renew its challenge to the United States for leadership of the
South American continent, as it did under Peron, and his type of
dictatorship is endemic to many semi-colonial countries of today and
excellently portrays the complex social and political tangle of their
affairs. American journalists have glibly described Peron as another
fascist fuehrer whose sympathy was with the Axis partners during the war.
This gives a totally false picture of the dictator both in his internal and
international roles, but it is a first-class illustration of the success of
American journalism in utilizing democratic jargon to make our public see
the world through the cockeyed spectacles of the State Department. The
Peron-type regime is a new proposition peculiar to the underdeveloped
world, and we have to know something of the social makeup of the country to
understand it.

ARGENTINA occupied traditionally the position of a semi-colonial country
under Britain’s suzerainty, although United States investments continued to
grow after the first World War until they almost equalled Britain’s on the
eve of the second. The dominant wheat and meat oligarchy— semi-feudal
landowners of fabulous latifundia—ran the country. In recent decades, there
grew alongside, a class of native capitalists, which, while lacking capital
by Western standards, was nevertheless the strongest of its kind in Latin
America and began to play an increasingly aggressive role in the country’s
affairs. This class decided to push its opportunity for all it was worth
when both Britain and the United States had their hands full with the war.
Britain had for years spread the propaganda that Argentina lacked resources
for the development of basic industry, but no sooner was she unable to
supply the country with steel products than the Argentine capitalists drove
ahead to exploit the coal and iron ore deposits of Salta and Jujuy. YPF,
the government oil corporation, went into an ambitious expansion, and
extensive road and rail construction was rushed. A frenzied
industrialization boom was on. At the same time, the Argentine government
made use of its blocked sterling credits in England to buy back its bonds
so that by 1947 the country was free of foreign debt.

Argentina was the only country in South America that felt strong enough not
to get into the war on the Allied side, but to maneuver between both war
blocs for maximum concessions (and to make sure to wind up on the winning
side). This was not because Argentina was more dictatorial-minded than the
other Latin-American countries, as it has so often been represented, but
because it was in a position to practice an independent policy —neutralism.
It is true that the army was German-trained, and both Mussolini and Hitler
had many admirers, especially among the higher officers. But naked,
calculating, national self-interest, not ideological preferences,
determined Argentina’s stand. (It had been neutral in the first World War,
as well.) In 1943, the army put through a coup d’etat, as it had done in
1930, ousted a corrupt and discredited government, and a military junta,
which included Colonel Peron, took over.

THUS far, we are dealing with a familiar set of components of a
semi-colonial country trying to extricate itself from the grip of foreign
imperialism. There is the entrenched landowning aristocracy with strong
ties to outside imperialism and united with the latter in keeping the
country as an agricultural preserve. There is the growing middle class
which aims to lead the nation in its anti-imperialistic aspirations, but
which unlike its counterparts in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, is not a social revolutionary, but a conservative class. Coming
so late in the historical calendar, it finds itself subject to too many
contradictory canceling pressures. It hates the rich and powerful
imperialist outsiders, but it fears to lay strong hands on their property
lest it upset respect for its own property rights and ambitions. It wants
to use the mass nationalist sentiments to blackjack concessions from the
imperialist powers, but it fears the growing ambitions of the working
classes. It is often in conflict with the landowners over tariffs and other
economic questions, but this is over-ridden by the community of interest in
maintaining social stability. Consequently, the middle classes are animated
by the philosophy of a Mirabeau, not a Marat. Because the nation is thus
fragmented, and no class can rise above its parochial interests and command
all-national support, the upper class military officer cliques take over
time and again as self-appointed arbiters of national conflicts. They have
stepped in on more than one occasion to run the government show.

As neither the industrial middle classes nor labor have been strong enough
to take charge of the nation’s destiny, Bonapartist figures have arisen in
a number of the more advanced under-developed countries to fill the vacuum
of leadership. Such a figure was Peron. Similar types were Vargas in
Brazil, and now Nasser in Egypt.) His political technique consisted in
manipulating the contending classes. His social policy was a forced march
toward industrialization. His foreign affairs were directed toward a more
assertive challenge to imperialism. Here was not simply another Latin
American "strong man" pressing down the lid with a bayonet while rifling
the treasury. This was the emergence of a social dictator who tried to
realize the country’s aspirations by modernization and anti-imperialism
without an internal social overturn.

HOLDING the twin jobs of Minister of War and Secretary of Labor and Social
Welfare in the 1943 junta, Peron introduced something new in Argentina
politics. He proceeded to build up the labor unions under government
tutelage and eventually as semi-government organizations. From a membership
of some 260,000 embracing mainly skilled workers, they swelled under his
patronage until they finally numbered practically the whole wage-earning
force. When the military clique grew panicky at the new empire he was
carving out and tried to dump him in 1945, it was already too late: the
descamisados publicly flexed their muscles and triumphantly restored him to
power.

For the next ten years, the confederation of labor (CGT), with its
derivatives, the Peronista party and Peronista women’s party, plus the
military, were to be his principal institutional bases of power. Deftly, he
seesawed between one and the other of these hostile forces utilizing one to
keep the other in check. He tried to keep a firm hold on both by staffing
the labor organizations with his faithful servitors, and by purging the
officers’ clique time and again to ensure its loyalty. This Bonapartist
technique was made possible by Peron’s aggressive program both at home and
abroad.

The previous efforts at building native industry appeared pale in
comparison to his own. He bought out the British railroads and utilities,
the I.T. & T., the ports and grain elevators. He boosted tariffs,
instituted monetary controls, altered shippings rates and created an
important merchant fleet. He nationalized foreign trade in farm products
using profits to promote state and private industries. Such a program
called for war on the old feudalistic aristocracy, and Peron waged it,
symbolized by his suppression of the Jockey Club and his seizure of La
Prensa owned by the richest landholding clan—although war may be too strong
a word for it. While his policies favored the industrialists, he never
touched the latifundia, and agrarian reform never got very far during his
rule. The social status quo was never upset

Industrialization and urbanization have been headlong in Argentina. The
last national census showed over 60 percent of gainfully employed in
manufacturing or services, 10 percent in government bureaucracy, and only a
quarter in farming, forestry and fishing. In the decade 1943-53, industrial
production increased 40 percent, with industrial output accounting for
roughly half of national production as compared with 40 percent contributed
by agriculture and livestock. Although Argentine industry is primarily
light, beginnings have been made in manufacture, metals, machinery,
vehicles. And as is true of other colonial countries, there is a strong
trend toward nationalization of sectors of the economy, because native
capitalists are too weak and lacking in capital to be able to finance the
industrialization projects. It case of Argentina, the nationalized sector
includes the central bank, railways, air services, merchant marine, oil,
telephone, port facilities, grain elevators, Buenos Aires transport and gas
works. The government also runs military factories and DINIE, a group of
expropriated German metallurgical, chemical, and pharmaceutical plants
factories.

IN the course of this forced marched, Peron gave the labor masses more than
just demagogy, although to be sure, there was plenty of that. Especially in
the first few years before inflation took its heavy toll, the workers made
important strides in higher wages and social security benefits.
Furthermore, even under the Peron-dominated CGT, labor won a sense of
strength, dignity, and influence which will have an important bearing on
the future history of the country—and which survived the dictator’s fall.

Utilizing the special circumstances of the war and Argentina’s
extraordinary boom, Peron gave the country's traditional anti-imperialist
policy several additional twists. He asserted Argentine leadership up and
down Latin America and challenged United States hegemony both in economic
and political matters. It was this pretension to leadership that aroused
the righteous indignation of our State Department, not Peron’s affinity to
European fascism.

Peronism—essentially a pragmatic maneuvering between social classes at home
and between rival powers abroad, concocted into a pseudo-ideology by
grandiloquent rhetoric and noisy demagogy—contained a hard kernel of
nationalist achievement, material progress and social reform. That is why
Peron managed to split every party and political formation from the extreme
Catholic Right to the Communist Left and line up the dissidents behind his
banner. As Carleton Beals wrote, his leading opponents had nothing to offer
except to complain of the lack of civil liberties. Their cry for freedom
was somewhat suspect, however, as they had never respected it when in office.

Any half serious study makes clear that it is apocryphal to call the Peron
dictatorship fascist unless one decides to promiscuously dump any and all
dictatorships into a pot labelled "fascism." All dictatorships, whether of
Czar Nicholas I or Diocletian the Emperor, Pope Julius II or Genghis Khan,
Hitler or Stalin, have certain similarities. But it is only in the
consideration of the different social backgrounds, class purposes and
political aims that is illuminated the makeup of the regime and the history
of the period.

The fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy came to power through the
deadlock of labor and capital, by mobilization of the lower middle class
elements, and with the benign neutrality or outright support of the
propertied classes. Once in power, they smashed, first, all Left and labor
organizations; then, all independent political and social formations—to
rule society as an omnipotent police regime. Peron, in contrast, took power
in a more or less legitimate election in which he won a majority, and his
ensuing dictatorship rested on the twin pillars of a government-controlled
labor movement, and the army; with the regime oscillating between these two
essentially hostile forces. Monopoly capitalism strengthened its grip on
the economy under both Mussolini and Hitler while social difficulties
continued to be solved by a combination of repression and war preparations.

Under Peron there took place the growth of a variety of nationalized state
capitalism, an elimination of foreign investors through staying out of the
war and bargaining with both belligerents. Nationalism was used by
Mussolini and Hitler as a handmaiden of imperialism. It was used by Peron
as a weapon of anti-imperialism. Fascism could be said to represent the
rule of modern condottieri who slipped into power with the backing of the
big monied interests to safeguard the status quo by the rule of the sword.
Peronism was the rule of a Bonapartist dictator imposing his will by
manipulating the social classes on behalf of industrializing an
underdeveloped country and challenging dominant American imperialism. In a
word, there is a substantial difference between the two types of
dictatorship, and it muddles our comprehension of important lines of social
cleavage to identify the two.

DESPITE its considerable elan in the first few years, Peronism pretty much
exhausted itself by 1953. The country was starved for capital with which to
follow through its expansion. Inflation took on runaway proportions, wiped
out the gains of the wage earners, and was cutting into living standards.
After the war, the United States mounted an implacable offensive which in
rapid order swept Argentina out of its economic bases on the South American
continent. Pretty well stymied on all fronts, his popularity in heavy
decline, Peron, by 1953, was swinging away from the CGT, whose ranks were
growing disgruntled, and rested increasingly on the military. His crusade
against el imperialismo yanqui had also pretty much ground to a halt and he
was by this time trying to fix up a new deal with the United States to get
much needed capital and loans. This capitulatory swing was climaxed in his
last year with the attempt to sign away oil rights in Patagonia to a
subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of California, which would have
created an independent state in an area three times the size of
Massachusetts. Many believe that this attempted agreement which outraged
Argentine public opinion was as important as any other cause in bringing
down Peron. When the military cliques moved against him in 1955, Peron
tried to overawe them with a repetition of the performance of ten years
before. But his deals with the United States had tarnished his reputation
as the nationalist Sir Galahad, and the descamisados were no longer the
enthusiastic supporters of yore.

The military cliques have always had close ties with the landowning nabobs
and the new military junta headed by Major General Aramburu has tried to
swing things back in their favor. The junta has returned La Prensa to its
former owners. It has modified some nationalist regulations. It broke
several general strikes last year. But it is no simple matter to turn the
clock back to the status quo ante. The new industrialized Argentina is a
fact. The CGT remains a power that no government can ignore. And the
pervading anti-imperialism can be flaunted by any government only at its
own peril.

After much hedging and several postponements, elections are finally
scheduled for late February. The country is in for hectic times, as the
economy is starved for capital, and the Wall Street crowd hasn’t changed
its spots (even though it has jazzed up its public relations). It will not
unloosen the old purse strings until it gets its pound of flesh—first of
all, the cancelled oil concessions. The prolonged inflation has made
Argentine labor restive, the Socialists and Communists are making strong
progress again, and Peronismo remains a potent political force two years
after the dictator’s exile.

The Peron regime has to be viewed as a stage in the battle of Latin America
for economic independence. It did not realize its proclaimed goals, nor
could any regime that left the oligarchic social structure of the country
undisturbed; but it could boast of some achievements. The next attempt will
start from this higher ground.


Louis Proyect
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