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The Limitations of Ideology in the Early Argentine Labour Movement: Anarchism in the Trade Unions, 1890—1920

  • Ruth Thompson

The origins of the labour movement in Argentina, which date from a period when the country was developing rapidly and had an important place in the world economy, have received little close attention from historians. Generally, the years before 1930 have been neglected in favour of the study of developments associated with Perón and Peronism. Such secondary literature as does exist consists largely of personal memoirs, whose authors were, understandably, parti pris. The more general studies tend to underestimate the extent, variety and sophistication of trade unionism before 1930, and also to contrast the style and ideology of the unions with that of the Peronist labour movement. Most notably, Argentina is widely quoted, along with Spain, as one of the countries where anarchist and/or anarcho-syndicalist ideology and practice dominated the labour movement.

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1 Anarchist, socialist and syndicalist activists all wrote important accounts: these are, respectively, Diego, Abad de Santillán, FOR A. Ideología y trayectoría del movimiento obrero revolucionario en la Argentina (Buenos Aires, Proyección, 2nd ed., 1971);Jacinto, Oddone, Gremialismo proletario argentino (Buenos Aires, Libera, 2nd ed., 1975); and Sebastián, Marotta, El movimiento sindical argentino: su génesis y desarrollo (Buenos Aires, vols I & II Lacio, vol. III Calomino, 19601970), and of these Marotta's provides by far the most comprehensive and accurate narrative account. The most fanciful partisan account is that of the Argentine Communist Party in Partido Comunista Argentino, Esbozo de historia del partido comunista de la Argentina (Buenos Aires, Anteo, 1947). The most useful secondary work not falling into this category is Hobart, J. Spalding, La clase trabajadora argentina: documentos para su historia 1890–1912 (Buenos Aires, Galerna, 1970), but the bulk of this consists of edited relevant documents.

2 See Samuel, L. Baily, Labor, Nationalism and Politics in Argentina (New Brunswick, Rutgers UP, 1967);Alberto, Belloni, Del anarquismo alperonismo (Buenos Aires, Peña Lillo, 1960);Alfredo, López, Historia del movimiento social y la clase obrera argentina (Buenos Aires, Peña Lillo, 2nd ed., 1974), and many others.

3 Not only in the works in note 2 above, but also in Gerald, Brenan, The Spanisb Labjprinth (London, Cambridge UP, 1971);James, Joll, The Anarchists (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964) and elsewhere.

4 See Juan, Pablo Fusi, Poitica obrera en el país vasco, 1880–1923 (Madrid, Turner, 1975) and Gerald, H. Meaker, The Revolutionary Left in Spain, 1914–1923 (Stanford UP, 1974).

5 La Razón, Anuario 1924, p. 4 and Cole, G. D. H. and Page Arnot, R., Trade Unionism on the Railways (London, Fabian Research Department, 1917), p. 13.

6 Inferences from information in ElFerrocarril(interpreted in an appropriately conservative way, given the likelihood that quoted figures were rather exaggerated), La Vanguardia and the Review of the River Plate; for Britain, see Clegg, H. A., Alan, Fox and Thompson, A. F., History of British Trade Unionism since 1819 (London, Oxford UP, 1964), p. 468, and for France, Elie, Fruit, Les syndicats dans les chemins de fer en France, 1890–1910 (Paris, Les éditions ouvriÈres, 1976), p. 167.

7 Estimates suggest that about 11 % of Buenos Aires workers were paid-up union members in 1907 (Spalding, op. cit., p. (330), rising to perhaps 24% by late See David, Rock, Politics in Argentina 1890–1930: the Rise and Fall of Radicalism (London, Cambridge UP, 1975), p. 191. This compares with a figure for the whole of France in 1912 of around 10%: Bernard, H. Moss, The Origins of the French Labor Movement, 1830–1914 (University of California Press, 1976), pp. 149–50).

8 Jorge, N. Solomonoff, Ideologias del movimiento obrero y conflicto social (Buenos Aires, Proyección, 1971).

9 Patrick, Renshaw, The Wobblies (New York, Anchor Books, 1968), p. 20;James, Joll, The Anarcbists (London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964), p. 218. There is a very extensive literature on the A. F. of L.

10 Solomonoff, op. cit., p. 33.

11 Darío, Cantón, E1eeciones y partidos politicos en la Argentina (Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, 1973), pp. 4,Gino, Germani, ‘Mass immigration and modernisation in Argentina’, in Horowitz, I. L. (and others, ed.),Latin American Radicalism (London, Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 333;Hobart, J. Spalding, op. cit., p. 412.

12 Richard, J. Walter, The Socialist Partj of Argentina, 1890–1930 (Austin, U. of Texas Press, 1977) provides the first modern published history of the Argentine Socialist Party, but is not strong on the relations between the party and the trade unions. There is substantially more material, particularly useful for the years up to 1910, in Michael, F. Mullaney, ‘The Argentine Socialist Party 1890–1930: early development and internal schisms’ (Ph.D. Thesis, Essex University, 1983), pp. 75108; see also pp. 22–5, 198–9, and 307–17. The analysis in my D.Phil. thesis, ‘Organised labour in Argentina: the railway unions to 1922’ (Oxford, 1978), pp. 101–3, 206–13 provides a starting point.

13 Abad de Santillán, op. cit., p. 142.

14 John, Quail, The Slow-Burning Fuse (London, Granada, 1978), p. 234.

15 Iaacov, Oved, El anarquismo y el mouimiento obrero en Argentina (México, Siglo XXI, 1978). Oved's work is valuable because it is thorough and painstaking. However, it relies almost exclusively on La Protesta Humana (from November 1903, La Protesta) and other anarchist materials from the Nettlau archive at the Institute of International Social History in Amsterdam, with very little critical cross-referencing to other working-class sources, or the establishment press. For a cynical, socialist view of the anarchists' organising ability, see Oddone, Gremialismo, pp. 66–7.

16 ‘Manifiesto dcl CE del PSA a raíz de las acciones anarquistas en el Rosario, enero 1902’, quoted in Spalding, op. cit., pp. 312–14.

17 Oved, op. cit., pp. 173–6. La Protesta (Humana), published weekly from 1897 and daily from February 1904 – eighteen months before its socialist rival La Vanguardia moved to daily publication – was influential among workers of varied ideological standpoints all over the Southern Cone. More information is in Oved, op. cit., pp. 66–71, 332–3, 425–8 and passim; Fernando, Quesada, ‘La Protesta, una longeva voz libertaria’, Todo es Historia, no. 82 (03 1974).

18 La Vanguardia, 14 06 1902.

19 On the Residence Law see Oved, op. cit., pp. 272–7; Sebastián Marotta, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 146–7; Jacinto, Oddone, Historia del socialismo argentino (Buenos Aires, La Vanguardia, 2 vols. 1934), vol. II, pp. 923. On the five states of siege, see Oddone, , Socialismo, vol. II, pp. 9–10, 31–9, 40–3, 7281.

20 Meaker, op. cit., p. 176, suggests that, in Spain, the more extremist leaders and modes of action gained status and popularity when state repression was particularly severe. This would help to explain the violence of the Semana Trágica of January 1919 – see below.

21 Boletín of El Ferrocarril, 12 1905; La Vanguardia was suppressed from 8 10 1905 to 8 01 1906, and La Protesta for even longer. El Ferrocarril's print run was 12,000 in 1903.

22 El Ferrocarril, 15 04 1905.

23 La Protesta, 13 02 1906.

24 La Vanguardia, 21 01 1905. 28 01 1905; La Protesla, 22 01 1905; El Ferrocarril, 15 02 1905. See also Ruth Thompson, loc. cit., pp. 52–3.

25 La Vanguardia, 19, 21, 26 09 1907, 19, 25 01 1908; Boletín del Departamento Nacional del Trabajo, 31 03 1908, p. 76.

26 Marotta, op. cit., vol. I, 309–13.

27 A useful collection of the writings of revolutionary syndicalists exists in Spanish in Georges, Sorel y otros, Sindicalismo revolucionario (Madrid, Ediciones Júcar, 1978); Joll, op. cit. is another useful source. See also the founding resolutions of the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo in 1910 (reproduced at length in Maximiano Garcia, Venero, Historia do los movimientos sindicalistas españoles (1840–1933) (Madrid, Ediciones del Movimiento, 1961), pp. 34 ff.

28 Abad de Santillán, op. cit. is especially misleading in this respect, and his account has been too widely accepted elsewhere.

29 The railwaymen declared that: ‘The Rosario strike, while it deserves the sympathy of every worker, does not demand the support of the workers of Buenos Aires… since this aspiration has not manifested itself collectively from the trades. Instead, the strike declaration is more the work of councils and committees which can in no way arrogate to themselves the right to interpret the sentiments and desires of working people' (El Ferrocarril, 02 1907).

30 On the strikes of 1919, 1920 and 1921 in the Chaco see Gastón, Gori, La Forestal (Buenos Aires, Proyeccion, 1974), pp. 161–93; On the strikes and repression in Patagonia, there is the monumental work of Osvaldo, Bayer, Los veagadores de la Patagonia trágica (Buenos Aires, Galerna, 3 vols. 1972, 1974).

31 Useful works are Julio, Godio, La semana trdgica de enero de 1919 (Buenos Aires, Granica, 2nd ed. 1973) and David, Rock, ‘Lucha civil en la Argentina: La semana trágica de enero de 1919’, Desarrollo Económico, no. 42, 03 1972. Accounts in Oddone, , Gremialismo, pp. 403–1, and Marotta, op. cit., vol. II are also helpful; but all these accounts have the fault. of tending to treat the Semana Trágica out of context.

32 Contact between sections serving different companies' personnel was good. There are many instances of workers refusing to take on work which one company, in the throes of a strike, sought to contract to another not in dispute; the first clear instance of this occurred in the 1906 strike at the Great Southern Railway's Talleres Banfield (La Vanguardia, 28 02 1906).

33 La Vanguardia, 10 09 1918.

34 For example, see Demetrio, Figueras in El Obrero Ferroviario, 09 1918.

35 Meaker op. cit., p. 150.

36 Corruption and opportunism among union leaders and bureaucrats – a feature frequently associated with Peronist unions – was a problem even in this early period, and not only in the divisionist sindicatos. A notorious case was that of Bautista V. Mansilla, temporary secretary of FORA IX in December 1915 and of the FOF from February 1917 to May 1918 – during the national rail strike of spring 1917 and the subsequent unrest. Mansilla had once been a railway worker, and was a member of La Protesta's editorial board before FORA IX renounced anarcho-communism in 1915 (a move he denounced at the time). Despite this early anarchist militancy, Mansilla seems quickly to have seen which way the wind was blowing, and was a key figure in the FOF's negotiations with the Government in 1917 and early 1918. He, along with his associate Juan Giordano (who was also employed by the FOF despite his activity as organiser of a company union in 1913), was dismissed by the FOF in May 1918 for pressing ahead with the declaration of a national rail strike against the wishes of the membership. It seems probable that this failed coup was Government-inspired, and an attempt to destroy the FOF: Mansilla was given a job by the Minister of Public Works almost at once, and was campaigning for the radical governor of Córdoba by November 1918 (details in Ruth, Thompson, loc. cit., pp. 113–14; La Prensa, 4–7 05 1918; La Vanguardia, 19 11 1918). A less well-documented case concerns a divisionist organiser, Manuel Vázquez. He was one of the anarchists bought off by the Compañía Argentina de Tabacos to end the workers' boycott of that company of 1914–15, but this did not prevent him from playing an important role in the Rosario sindicatos opposed to the FOF and FORA IX from 1917 to 1922 (Oddone, , Gremialismo, pp. 14–6; La Protesta, 27 08 1922). Those labelled as anarchists were not the only culprits: Manuel Sumay and José San Sebastian of La Fraternidad, and José Basanta of the Confraternidad (FOF's successor) were socialist adventurers in this period, and – even before 1925 – there were cases of corrupt Communist trade unionists, such as Ramón Cuello of Cañada de Gómez (Ruth Thompson, loc. cit., pp. 109, 209–10, 215). In short, there is enough material on this aspect of labour organisation for a separate study.

37 For example, the two-month strike at Rosario-Pérez on the Central Argentine Railway in 1921–2, and the three-month strike on the Central Northern Railway following the Semana Trágica in 1919 (Ruth Thompson, loc. cit., p. 202).

38 Comisión Directiva, de La Fraternidad, Memoria y Balance (1918), p. 5.

39 Abad, de Santillán, op. cit., pp. 258–9; Bayer, op. cit.

40 Juan, Pablo Fusi, Poíltica obrera en el pals vasco, 1880–1923 (Madrid, Turner, 1975), 94104.

41 Bob, Holton, British Sjndicaiism 1900–1914 (London, Pluto Press, 1976), pp. 104–5.

42 The history of the general railway union's achievements is told in Ruth Thompson, loc. cit., pp. 91–188.

43 La Protesta, 2 09. 1922, quoting La Protesta Humana, 25 06 1899.

44 In the US, 14.7% of the population was foreign in 1910, compared with 30% of the Argentine in 1912–13: Germani, loc. cit., p. 332.

45 Juan, F. Marsal, Hater la América: auiobiografía de un inmigrante español en la Argentina (Buenos Aires, Di Tella, 1969).

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