[Marxism] Voting with feet, not commendable in Argentina Re: China's high speed rail plans

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 6 06:58:07 MDT 2009

Néstor Gorojovsky wrote:
> The day you overcome your liberal-progressive worship of those
> "national" movements that, in fact, seek to destroy larger national
> movements that tend to supersede imperialist domination, that day, you
> will begin to understand something in this terrain.
> In the meanwhile, learn.

Juan Perón

Coming to terms with Juan Perón is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, 
Perónism remains an important element of Argentine politics today, 
especially in the labor movement. Secondly, in many ways Hugo Chavez is 
a Perón-like figure. For Marxists, such figures present a significant 
challenge. If we are for socialism, what is our attitude toward figures 
struggling against imperialism but who are not socialists? For some 
socialists, however, Perón was not in a progressive struggle with 
imperialism. He is seen as some kind of Bonapartist caudillo at best, or 
fascist at worst.

Before attempting to address the question of what Perón stood for, it is 
necessary to review the economic problems that faced Argentina prior to 
his ascendancy. By the early 20th century, Argentina had already become 
dominated by a coalition of the local ruling classes based on the 
ranching, grain growing in the pampas; and the import-export and 
financial sectors in Buenos Aires, which supported the agrarian economy. 
The city's proximity to the pampas made it the political and commercial 
hub of the country, just as New York City was for the USA. These local 
fractions of the bourgeoisie had developed a very close relationship to 
Great Britain that relied on Argentina for its agricultural exports. The 
emergence of refrigerated ships ensured that meat could arrive in 
British seaports without any loss. Prior to this technical innovation, 
you had to ship livestock that naturally lost weight during the arduous 
trans-oceanic voyage.

While this arrangement made Argentina relatively prosperous and allowed 
an upsurge of immigration, the economy was ultimately dependent on Great 
Britain. It also stunted local industrial growth since the relationship 
with Great Britain implied favoritism toward imported British 
manufactured goods. Local industry remained somewhat primitive and wage 
labor tended to be of an unskilled and part-time nature.

The Radical Party mounted the first challenge to the entrenched class 
relationships. Their social base was in the petty proprietors, 
shopkeepers, intelligentsia, professionals and labor aristocracy of the 
cities and towns. The leadership, however, came mainly from landed 
interests that were shut out of the Argentina-England connection. 
Hipólito Yrigoyen, the Radical who became president in 1916 and again in 
1928, was himself a small landowner.

Despite the name Radical, the party was incapable of breaking completely 
with the pre-existing class system. Basically, it sought to extend both 
geographically and socially the system that had defined Argentina's 
past. As long as the economy continued to expand, the Radical Party did 
not pose a threat to the status quo. The dominant ranchers and bankers 
probably understood that the system needed loosening up for it to 
survive over the long haul. With such a low level of class struggle in a 
period of rising economic expectations, it is no wonder that some 
segments of the labor movement developed reformist illusions. Corradi 

"The undisputed economic hegemony of the landed elite throughout this 
period of middle-class government is even more clearly revealed by the 
vicissitudes of the Argentine socialist movement. That movement was born 
in the 1880's when inflation devoured the incomes of the incipient 
working class. With the subsequent expansion of Argentine exports, the 
favorable terms of trade stabilized the currency. Thus, the success of 
the elite's economic program won for them the support of the socialists, 
who from then on sought reform and not revolution. Social mobility also 
contributed to the bourgeois tendencies of the socialists. Eventually 
they became junior partners of the establishment. These are the 
historical roots of a spectacle that would puzzle some observers in 
1945, when socialists and communists demonstrated against Perón in the 
company of reactionary landlords."

After Yrigoyen's re-election in 1928, things changed radically. With the 
stock market crash, the prices of meat and grain fell. Consequently, 
Argentina's gold reserves flowed outward to pay for imported goods. 
Multiplier effects worsened the economy overall and before long 
Argentina was in a deep social and economic crisis comparable to the one 
being suffered today. General discontent provoked the dominant landed 
and banking sectors to back a military coup against Yrigoyen and on 
September 6, 1930 General José Felix Uriburu came to power.

Despite being thrust into power by the old agrarian ruling class, the 
military junta was forced willy-nilly to address Argentina's underlying 
economic weaknesses. This led to the adoption of public works projects 
of a Keynsian nature. It also forced Argentina to begin a policy of 
national industrialization based on what is commonly known as "import 
substitution". This policy is associated with the name of Raul Prebisch, 
an Argentine economist who strongly influenced the dependency theorists 
of the 1950s, including Andre Gunder Frank and Samir Amin. While the 
junta began moving fitfully in this direction, it required the strong 
nationalist hand of Juan Perón to fulfil it.

Basically, the junta created a contradiction. While fostering the growth 
of local industry and a skilled modern proletariat, it was not ready to 
embark on a full-scale revolutionary nationalist path that would risk 
confrontation with its imperialist benefactors. Symptomatic of this 
failure of nerve was the 1933 Roca-Runciman Treaty which granted the 
British government import licenses for 85 percent of Argentine beef 
exports, while Argentina retained only 15 percent.

There is little in Perón's background to suggest that he would launch an 
ambitious drive to break with Argentina's past. He was born on October 
8, 1895 in the town of Lobo, about sixty miles from Buenos Aires. His 
father was of Italian descent and name was probably shortened from 
Peróni, the same name as the Neapolitan beer that you can find in many 
delis. He entered the military where he developed a rather unexceptional 
career, reaching the rank of captain. According to Robert Alexander, 
Perón first took an interest in social problems when he observed the 
poverty of many of the conscripts who came into the army each year.

For conventional bourgeois social scientists and their co-thinkers on 
the left, the key to understanding Perón's future trajectory was the two 
years he spent in Germany and Italy as part of an army training 
delegation. He studied the fascist system in Italy and was impressed 
with Mussolini's oratorical hold on his followers and the role of the 
state in organizing the economy. Of course, if he had been sent to the 
USA instead, he probably would have been just as impressed with FDR's 
talents in this direction. According to Alexander, whose account is 
generally hostile, Perón was not interested in simply copying Mussolini. 
He writes:

"Years later Perón claimed while talking with me that he had learned 
from what he thought were the mistakes of Mussolini, and he said that he 
had had no intention of repeating those mistakes. He argued, among other 
things, that Mussolini had erred in trying to impose a corporative state 
structure on Italian society, an attempt which Perón saw as having been 
a failure."

Additional "proof" of Perón's fascist sympathies was his ties to the 
military junta of the 1930s, which had a pro-Axis tilt. Additionally, he 
became a member of the GOU (Group of United Officers), a lodge of 
military men who gathered together during WWII to discuss military and 
political questions. When the GOU eventually seized power in 1943, they 
allegedly based themselves on a document that predicted an Axis victory. 
After the world was divided into spheres of influence, Argentina would 
dominate Latin America. If this was all there was to Perón, then perhaps 
his detractors would have a point.

Instead, he embarked on a strongly leftist and pro-labor path. Shortly 
after the coup took power, Perón persuaded his fellow officers to name 
him Secretary of Labor. Using this department as a battering ram, he 
challenged all the old dominant classes in Argentina and promoted the 
class interests of the workers and the nascent industrial bourgeoisie.

The concessions made to the workers were only possible as a result of 
the "primitive accumulation" regime of the 1930s, which had imposed a 
draconian limit on wages in order to finance industrial expansion. By 
1943, elements of wartime prosperity and prior capital accumulation made 
it possible for the creation of an ambitious welfare state that dwarfed 
similar efforts in the USA.

In conjunction with his wife Eva, who had been a labor activist herself, 
Perón aligned himself with the most important labor unions in the 
country. He forced employers to recognize and bargain fairly with new 
unions in the packinghouse, metal and textile industries. In addition, 
he built strong ties with older unions, including the railway and 
telephone. Again, we must turn to the hostile Robert Alexander for an 
account of what took place:

"When Perón went out to the town of Berisso, near La Plata, at the 
height of a packinghouse workers' strike and was seen to confer publicly 
with the leader of the walkout, Cipriano Reyes, it was no longer 
possible for the large foreign-owned packinghouses to refuse to 
negotiate with Reyes and his colleagues. Once and for all, an end was 
put to the age-old system of labor spies, to dismissals of any workers 
who joined a union, and to the beating up of labor militants. In its 
place came a strong union with collective bargaining between union and 

"What was true of the 'frigoríficos,' or packinghouses, was also true of 
the other large industrial enterprises in the metropolitan area. 
However, Perón's union-fomenting efforts were not confined to the Buenos 
Aires region. With his help the sugar workers of the northern provinces 
of Tucuman and Salta were unionized, as were the vineyard and winery 
workers of Mendoza and other mountain provinces. Even the workers on the 
great cattle and grain estancias were brought into a union."

Answering those who would argue that Perón's efforts were solely 
designed to build up corporatist type unions, Donald Hodges finds 
Argentine nationalism rather than European fascism of much more 
explanatory value. In particular he looks to the Radical Orientation 
Forces of the Argentine Youth (FORJA), which was founded by Radical 
Party youth leader Arturo Jauretche on June 29, 1935. The nationalism of 
the FORJA was predicated on a "revisionist" interpretation of Argentine 
history, one that saw the Europeanizing influence of Buenos Aires as an 
obstacle to future national development. In particular, they looked at 
the work of Raúl Ortiz, who attacked British imperial policy in much the 
same manner as Alejandro Bendaña's dissertation that formed the basis of 
my first post. Another key FORJA figure was Manuel Ugarte who was 
expelled from the Socialist Party for nationalist deviations. It is 
significant that Jauretche, Ortiz and Ugarte all went to work in Perón's 
first administration. It should remind of us how some former guerrilla 
fighters went to work for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

When the old landed gentry figured out what Perón was up to, it didn't 
take long for them to organize a coup just like the kind that failed in 
Venezuela. It also failed in Argentina for the same reasons. The working 
people figured out that it was in their class interests to retain the 
nationalist movement in power. Just as occurred with Chavez, the 
military coup of October 1945 took Perón to Martin Garcia island where 
he was held incognito. When the trade unions discovered what had taken 
place, they mobilized the ranks to march on Buenos Aires against the new 
regime of General Avalos. After hundreds of thousands of workers took 
control of the streets, the junta relented and Perón was returned to 
power. He ran for office in the following year and became President of 

Now that he had the full mandate of the nation, Perón embarked on an 
ambitious program of social welfare and industrialization. He 
nationalized the railways and seized control of Axis property. Inside 
his administration you could find "moderates" and "extremists". (George 
Lambie uses these terms in his 1983 MA dissertation on Perón. I am not 
sure whether he coined them or whether they were operative in 1946. In 
any case, there seems to be no reason to disagree with them as broad 
categories.) The two camps differed mainly on the pace of the social and 
economic reforms that were designed to break the hold of imperialism and 
the landed gentry on the country.

The most prominent "extremist" was Miguel Miranda, who as head of the 
Economic Council advocated rapid industrialization under state control, 
financed by high prices for agricultural exports. Although the Perón 
government specifically rejected the Soviet model and invited US 
investment in the country in a bid to break free of British domination, 
the USA remained hostile. Since Great Britain was the USA's main ally 
against the Soviet threat, any upstart country had to be taught to obey.

Great Britain was clever, however. Rather than making a frontal assault 
on Argentina, it would try to figure out how to exploit differences 
between "moderates" and "extremists". When Argentina launched a 
five-year plan for economic development, Great Britain sought ways to 
slow down its implementation. The USA saw things the same way. In 
November 1945, Spruille Braden, who attempted unsuccessfully to tarnish 
Perón as a fascist in the recent elections, made a speech in which he 
denounced any development policy designed "not to promote an increased 
productivity and a higher real income, but to serve the purposes of 
autarchy, neurotic nationalism and military adventure." (Cited in 
Lambie). It was clear that Argentina was the "neurotic nationalism" he 
was warning against.

Key to Argentina's success was the ability to buy American capital goods 
such as farm machinery, machine tools, electronics, etc. Since WWII had 
devastated Europe and Great Britain, the Yankees were the only game in 
town. In 1946, Argentina's future looked bright since it had accumulated 
150 million British pounds in the form of promissory notes with the Bank 
of England. Perón hoped that the English currency would be convertible 
into dollars, which would allow him to buy American equipment.

Great Britain refused to allow Argentina's notes to be converted into 
dollars. As Lambie points out, "The dollar shortage gave both the US and 
Britain a powerful lever by which to delay the diversification of the 
Argentine economy. By undermining Miranda and the Five Year Plan and 
encouraging ["moderate"] Bramuglia and a policy of slow 
industrialization under a system of free enterprise, it would be 
possible for the US to force Argentina to forgo its own economic 
development to contribute instead to Britain's economic recovery."

Lambie's scholarship around these issues is very important. Even on the 
left, there is a tendency to look at the collapse of the Perón 
experiment simply in terms of a failure to confront the local 
bourgeoisie. For example, Corradi writes:

"In the absence of agrarian reform, no incentive had been offered to 
agricultural production. The country's most strategic productive 
activities were in fact penalized under the operation of the state 
trading and multiple-exchange-rate systems, which denied the producers, 
that is, the landowners, the benefits of high external prices without 
crippling their capacity to rebound as a pressure group either, and 
without diversifying agricultural production. In consequence of this, 
and as a result of the significant rise in the standard of living of the 
urban masses mobilized by Perónism, a steadily increasing domestic 
consumption of meat and other foodstuffs inevitably reduced the 
country's exportable surpluses. The specter of dependency arose once 
more, even though the nature of dependency had changed. The development 
of consumer goods industries had reduced consumer imports.

"But the ability to maintain existing industries depended upon the 
import of indispensable fuels and raw materials and imports of capital 
goods for industry and transport. As a result of Perón's policies 
Argentina had an established "light" industry but was not in a position 
to promote its development without outside aid. One thing then became 
apparent: the utilization and direction of investment had been Perón's 
worst blunder. Nearly 74 percent of the total increase in fixed capital 
had gone into non-productive activities. To give a striking example: 
between 1945 and 1946, over 50 percent of real investment of the 
national government was applied to national defense. Between 1947 and 
1951 defense expenditures were reduced, but they still represented an 
extravagant 23.5 percent. The cost of living began to rise more rapidly 
than money wages, so real wages began to decline. At this time,

"Perón began to rely more on the redistribution of income between 
industries and occupations, thus reducing wage differentials between 
skilled and unskilled workers. Political patronage caused wages to rise 
substantially above output per worker. Government policies resulted in a 
redistribution of the labor force into the least productive sectors of 
economic activity. All these developments had serious implications for 
economic growth: it was simply a failure. At the end of Perón's regime, 
per capita gross product was only 5.9 percent higher than in 1946. Perón 
tried to salvage what he could. There was a shift in agricultural policy 
in the fifties. Perón made friendly gestures toward foreign investors. 
He began sacrificing the two pillars of the regime: social justice and 
economic independence.

"When the internal contradictions of his experiment forced an option 
between radicalization or reaction, he opted for the latter, but could 
not escape the political and institutional pressures he had created. 
Opportunism proved self-defeating. When hard times arrived Perónism 
revealed its deepest conservative impulses. After all it had attempted 
to develop a populist labor policy within the institutional framework of 
capitalism. Laborism had been the strategy of its revolutionary phase. 
It had provided Perónism with working class support. But it contradicted 
the requirements of capitalist accumulation which Perón had not once 
challenged. Perón had now to stabilize the hybrid system he had created: 
he began instituting repressive controls and freezing the class struggle 
by setting up corporativist institutions. In brief, he tried to build a 
power apparatus in order to free himself from the reactionary and 
radical cross pressures in the society."

When the forces of reaction began to bear down on Perón, there was only 
one class force capable of resistance. Imperialist pressure and hostile 
class forces in Argentina had taken their toll, however. Perón was 
unwilling to turn to the same working-class forces that had come to his 
aid in 1945. After a military coup had unseated him in 1955, Perón asked 
his sympathizers in high government positions and trade unions to resign 
in order to keep the peace. He also permitted the military to seize the 
CGT's (pro-Perón trade union) arsenal of 5,000 rifles and revolvers.

In an emotional speech to the nation on July 15, 1955, he said:

"The Perónist Revolution has ended; now begins a new constitutional 
stage without revolution … I have ceased to be the leader of the 
National Revolution in order to become President of all the Argentines."

In my next and final post on the collapse of Argentina, I will try to 
explain why a revolution in Argentina cannot reflect the interest of 
"all the Argentines."


1. chapter on Argentina by Juan Eugenio Corradi in Latin America: the 
struggle with dependency and beyond, edited by Ronald Chilcote & Joel 

2. George Lambie, "The Failure of Peron's Economic Policies in the 
Immediate Postwar Years: a Case of Internal Mismanagement or 
International Manipulation" (MA dissertation, 1983)

3. Donald C. Hodges, "Argentina 1943-1976: The National Revolution and 
Resistance" (U. of New Mexico, 1976)

4. Robert Alexander, "Juan Domingo Perón: a History" (Westview, 1979)

More information about the Marxism mailing list