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Argentina’s anarchist past: Paradoxes of Utopia

Posted on October 20th, 2010 in AK Book Excerpts

We are proud to present one of our newest titles to readers of Revolution by the Book. Paradoxes of Utopia was written by Juan Suriano and published in Buenos Aires in 2001. Chuck Morse translated the English edition, putting the final touches on it in early 2010. The following excerpt is lifted from Juan’s introduction. Enjoy.

In this work, I analyze the anarchist movement as a cultural, political, ideological, and social movement. I do not focus on the anarchist movement’s relationship to the labor movement, which other scholars have treated extensively, but rather examine institutions directly linked to the anarchist movement, such as its circles, press, and schools, within which anarchists defined their political and cultural strategies. I focus my investigation on the city of Buenos Aires during the two decades between 1890 and 1910, although I privilege the latter of the two, because that is when the anarchist movement was most interesting and developed.

Why restrict the study to Buenos Aires? First, because the anarchist movement’s national reach was very limited. Though it is true that there were groups and activists throughout the country, anarchists were mostly irrelevant in areas where more traditional social relations prevailed. It was in the large, economically dynamic cities along the coast that they had a meaningful presence: there, they had an influence on foreign-born and native workers who were swept up in the modernization process and provided them with a network of labor, political, and cultural institutions. Anarchists’ much greater impact in the cities than in rural areas makes the movement of the period an eminently urban phenomenon. And although anarchists had an effect on numerous towns and cities in the Pampa region, there is no doubt that movement reached its greatest magnitude in Buenos Aires, which was and is the country’s political center, its most important port city, and the site of much of its wealth, industry, services, and commerce. Deliberately or not, anarchists essentially selected this metropolis as the arena in which to mobilize and disseminate their ideas, and it was there that they evolved with the greatest vitality, which is not to deny their enormous influence in Rosario.

The temporal limit is also deliberate. The study begins around 1890, when the social effects of the modernization process began to make themselves felt and libertarian propaganda began to produce tangible results. It was at this time that anarchists started forming groups, publishing periodicals, and defining the strategies that the mature anarchist movement would pursue a decade later. I do not mean, by concluding the investigation in 1910, to suggest that the anarchist movement disappeared then, only that this was when its decline began. Indeed, while the broader public continued to imagine it as a dynamic social actor, its practical relevance—in political, social, and cultural terms—started to shrink inexorably by the end of the first decade of the century.
Primary sources from the period—not only those produced by the libertarian movement but also those of other tendencies—indicate anarchists’ influence and deep roots among workers. There was anarchist control of the Argentine Workers’ Federation (which became the Argentina Regional Workers’ Federation in 1904 [FORA in its Spanish acronym]; their immense May Day mobilizations; the momentum and leadership that they provided to numerous labor conflicts, including some general strikes; anarchists’ strong ties to the dispossessed populations such as tenants; and of course the government’s worries. All of these things underscore the libertarian movement’s vitality and significance. And while government reforms undermined the movement’s attractiveness for workers, it must be seen as an early trigger of the state’s concern with labor and an inadvertent source of reformist perspectives in government.

Urban society at the beginning of the twentieth century was a rapidly changing, chaotic product of the modernization process that had begun in the 1870s. This process led to the formation of a workers’ sphere constituted by an incipient working class employed in small factories, workshops, assorted businesses, and the service sector (the port and transportation, principally). A social order of this sort had features strongly favoring the establishment of vigorous oppositional tendencies: the most significant was likely the constant mobility, both horizontal and vertical (ascendant and descendant), within the social body, which permitted some workers to become well-off while consigning a large portion to destitution. Complicating this was the state’s inability to address workers’ most pressing problems. An Italian observer noted bluntly that the workers’ plight was truly catastrophic thanks to “the state’s disinterest in—if not aversion to—workers’ demands.” He saw no mechanism for mediating the differences between capital and labor, either legislative or otherwise. “The government of this country of immigrants,” he said, “lacks the very idea of addressing issues that the working class finds important, just as it lacks a sense of decency with regard to foreigners. It responds to economic and social conflicts without realizing that sometimes it is just a matter of equity and justice.”

Circumstances such as these created an auspicious environment for anarchism and ensured the centrality of crisis and confrontation in local social relations. The battle between Buenos Aires’s emerging working class and business owners and the state became violent on numerous occasions, heightening the ambience of discord. Indeed, the Centenary celebrations were the climax of a symbolic clash between the dominant groups and the most radicalized sectors of the population. The Italian commentator quoted above also noted that the Socialist Party was unable to enlist the workers, among whom, nurtured by anarchism, “instincts of violence and rebellion” prevailed. Anarchism, whose defining feature was not reflection but action, became an integral part of the culture of conflict and flourished in arenas disregarded by the state and other governing institutions. These factors, combined with problems like inadequate housing, job insecurity, unemployment, low salaries, poor working conditions, and political exclusion made the libertarian project a compelling, credible, and appealing alternative for workers.

To understand this, we must bear in mind the alienation, exploitation, and marginalization of a sizable percentage of workers. The vast majority of them were new to the city, being either immigrants or migrants, and thus lived among strangers in an unfamiliar setting. Most had come to Buenos Aires with dreams of ascending the social ladder, only to find that their aspirations were much harder to realize than anticipated. With their direct links to their homelands, families, and traditions severed, they were immersed in a hostile society in which neither the church nor the state nor other national institutions played a cohering role, with the partial exception of mutualist associations. For the most part, workers could rely on little more than their capacity to work, their hopes, and their will to survive.

The need for an arena for addressing social conflicts became clearest when aspirations for upward social mobility were frustrated. Unions attempted to act on the most pressing economic demands, and the centers and circles were spaces in which to meet and socialize, places of belonging and participation where individualism was diluted and collective endeavors formulated. It was in these places, especially during moments of turmoil, that anarchists and workers encountered one another, and in which the discourse of the former seemed plausible to the latter, even if convincing workers to embrace the anarchist project was another matter. It was hard for anarchists to include workers organically in the framework of an alternative culture, primarily because of obstacles inherent in the construction of an efficient system of symbolic exchanges between anarchists and workers. Although anarchists intended to educate them and make them aware of the need for a vaguely defined universal emancipation, what they found was thousands of workers more inclined to fight for social and economic improvements than emancipation as such.

Anarchists’ impact upon workers grew, especially in the eyes of outside observers, as social conflicts intensified and the harsher effects of the modernization process became most visible. And indeed, it was not merely a matter of perception: there was a large number of anarchist militants. Disregarding data furnished by anarchists, who doubtlessly exaggerated their own numbers, police estimated that there were 6,000 anarchists in the country in 1902. Two years later, the Interior Minister calculated that there were “more than 4,000” anarchist activists in the Federal Capital alone. Anarchists’ use of the streets and central public plazas to express themselves and mobilize their supporters probably made them seem more numerous than they actually were. Nonetheless, it was at this time that elites were most worried and the movement’s dimensions (and potential) were at their greatest.

Elite concerns were not simply a question of incendiary rhetoric; the threatening social character that anarchists could imprint upon the workers’ movement and protest generally also alarmed them. Every May Day and during large strikes, they watched as thousands marched through city streets with their red flags, banners, and vocal dedication to social change. This was the most radical expression of the social conflict and a logical consequence of the process of economic growth and social transformation, even if not all the actors saw it that way.

These political-ideological developments among labor did not disturb the typically circumspect newspaper La Nación, which defended workers’ right to display their symbols. But in 1905, halfway between the approval of the Residency Law and the Social Defense Law, the government banned the exhibition of the red flag, which it saw as “a symbol of war and disassociation” between foreign-born parents and their Argentine children. “On what grounds,” asked Interior Minister Rafael Castillo, “can we embrace this collision of colors, in which some assert that the red flag represents their demands and rights, while their children need simply to recognize the flag of the Fatherland?” Anarchists’ rigid opposition to the state and any type of political integration found its counterpart in Argentine ruling groups equally resolute dedication to excluding them.

Nonetheless, the creation of an integrative strategy in the form of tentative state reforms, the expansion of suffrage in 1912, and the emergence of syndicalism, which seemed more resonant with workers’ demands, caused a rupture between workers’ expectations and libertarian premises.
This work treats the period in which libertarians had the strongest ties to Argentine workers up to the dissolution of their mass influence. I argue that the very attributes that enabled the anarchist movement to grow in fin-de-siècle Buenos Aires later became obstacles that, along with various structural factors, led to anarchists’ marginalization. It was Argentine anarchism’s dual, contradictory identity— which expressed as much individualism and collectivism (or communism) as its European counterpart—that allowed it to expand. And although I use the term movement when referring to local anarchists, it should be clear that I am speaking of a conglomeration of tendencies (groups and individuals) and a veritable chaos of doctrines (individualism, collectivism, vitalism, etc.). Indeed, multiple forms of anarchism converged into a movement whose only common feature was a shared commitment to negating state authority.