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 writes:
"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 management.
"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 Argentina.
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 Edelstein.
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)