Peronism: not a model for socialists

Submitted by AWL on 18 September, 2019 - 10:36 Author: Eduardo Tovar
peronism

In an interview featured in Tim Alberta’s new book American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump, President Donald Trump compared Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Eva Perón.

Specifically, Trump remarked that Ocasio-Cortez has “talent”, but “doesn’t know anything”. This alludes to how Eva Perón went from popular radio and film actress to powerful symbol for the political movement spearheaded by her husband, Juan Perón. The latter was President of Argentina from June 1946 to September 1955, and again from October 1973 until his death in July 1974.

In response to a New York Post report on Trump’s remarks, on 7 July 2019 Ocasio-Cortez turned the comparison into flattering one by quoting Eva Perón approvingly on Twitter:

“I know that, like every woman of the people, I have more strength than I appear to have.”

“I had watched for many years and seen how a few rich families held much of Argentina’s wealth and power in their hands.

“So the government brought in an eight hour working day, sickness pay and fair wages to give poor workers a fair go.”

Although it is easy to see why these statements and other aspects of Eva Perón’s life would make a positive impression on Ocasio-Cortez, approvingly quoting a prominent figurehead of Peronism is not only misguided: it is actively harmful to building genuine socialist politics.

This is because, whatever the material gains of the impoverished descamisados (“shirtless ones”) under Perón, Peronism was a thoroughly nationalist and Bonapartist movement that consciously inhibited class struggle. Juan Perón himself sympathised with fascism at least until 1942, even going so far as to describe Nazi Germany as “an organized state for a perfectly structured community, for a perfectly structured population: a community where the state was the tool of the people, whose representation was, under my view, effective”.1

In other words, Peronism is precisely the kind of movement that socialists should avoid presenting uncritically.

Admittedly, Ocasio-Cortez is far from the first socialist to say or imply that Peronism is worthy of left-wing admiration or support: even revolutionary socialists have done so. Moreover, Peronism spent decades as the dominant ideology in the Argentine labour movement. This gives us ample reason to undertake a critical examination of Peronism.

In Marxist terminology, “Bonapartism” denotes a situation where there is a stalemate in the class struggle and the state gains an unprecedented level of political autonomy from the ruling class. This typically takes the form of a military regime headed by a strongman: what Marx in 1858 evocatively called “The Rule of the Praetorians”. This temporary placement of a militaristic state “above” the ruling and working classes is to keep the class struggle suspended. That is, it inhibits class war bringing together sections of the military, the national bourgeoisie, and the labour movement, often drawing on nationalist ideology. In Trotsky’s words:

“[P]recisely this is the function of Bonapartism: raising itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order. It suppresses civil war, or precedes it, or does not allow it to rekindle.” 2

Although the capitalists lose much of their political power under Bonapartism, they retain their social power and the Bonapartist regime still works to protect their interests in the long run. As Trotsky put it:

“The sabre by itself has no independent programme. It is the instrument of ‘order.’ It is summoned to safeguard what exists. Raising itself politically above the classes, Bonapartism, like its predecessor Caesarism, for that matter, represents in the social sense, always and at all epochs, the government of the strongest and firmest part of the exploiters.” 3

It should be easy to see why I describe Peronism as “Bonapartist”. Juan Perón had a long career as an Argentine military officer and participated in General Arturo Rawson’s 1943 coup against President Ramón Castillo.4

This is how Perón came to serve in the 1943-46 military government as head of the Labour Department.

From this position, Perón began to form the political links with sections of the labour movement that would become key to his electoral victory in 1946 and the ‘Judicialist’ state he would establish. In Alejandro Dabat and Luis Lorenzano’s words, “[i]n the political sphere the major change was the formation of the new, benevolently authoritarian or paternalist state, based on an alliance of the army (half of the new government’s first two budgets was devoted to it), the new labour unions and an emerging ‘bureaucratic’ industrial and commercial bourgeoisie (‘bureaucratic’ because of its structural dependence on state subvention and protection)”.5 As Luis Velasco summarised it in 1947, “the totalitarian dictatorships of [Getúlio] Vargas and Perón [...] confront the tempestuous awakening of the working masses, absorbing and channelizing it, sometimes with a policy of social reforms and fascistic demagogy”.6

Although Velasco overstates matters by describing the Peronist regime as “totalitarian”, Perón still replaced the older, more militant, and historically anarchist trade union movement with one substantially under his control.7

Moreover, the suspension of class struggle central to Bonapartism was a prominent feature of Peronist ideology. In his 1944 May Day speech, Perón said he aimed to “abolish struggle between classes, and get a just agreement between employers and employees.” That same year, he gave the following assurances to Argentine employers:

“[Having trade unions] is the best way to avoid the boss having to fight with his workers [...] It is the means to reach an agreement, not a struggle. Thus strikes and stoppages are suppressed, though, undoubtedly, the working masses obtain the right to discuss their own interests at the same level as the employers’ organisations, which, on analysing it, is absolutely just [...] We do not want unions which are divided in political fractions, because the dangerous thing is, incidentally, a political trade unionism.”8

This is not to say that workers made no gains under Perón or that they were merely his dupes. Real wages rose by 22% between 1945 and 1949, and — in proportional terms — wages went up from 41% of the national income in 1946-48 to 49% in 1952-55.9 Trade union membership increased from 500,000 in 1946 to 2.5 million in 1955. Perón introduced a minimum wage, paid holidays, medical insurance, and other significant welfare measures.

Moreover, as Daniel James notes, Argentine workers found political motivations for supporting Perón that went beyond immediate economic benefits: “Peronism was, perhaps, most enduringly for them a vision of a more decent society in which they recognised for themselves a vital role, a vision couched in a language with which they could identify”.10

In other words, many working-class Peronists saw themselves as participating in a larger project to create a juster society and appreciated Perón’s acknowledgement of their importance to this project.

Nevertheless, as Ronaldo Munck and his collaborators acknowledge in their historical study of the Argentine labour movement, “Perón never deviated from [his] essentially corporativist vision of social affairs and his ‘revolutionary’ image in a later period […] was never reflected in practice”.11

The Peronist government established an employers’ organisation called the Confederación General Económica (CGE) in 1952 so that industrialists and businessmen could collectively bargain with both the government and the unions. Strikes began to fall in the early 1950s, and the unions were brought under the state’s wing in a manner that strengthened their bureaucracies and purged their most militant activists.

Perón’s handling of the 1948 strike by the Tucumán Worker Federation of the Sugar Industry (“Federación Obrera Tucumána de la Industria del Azúcar”/”FOTIA”) further illustrates his corporativist labour strategy. He allowed the strike to drag on and conceded a few demands, only to have the strike leaders accused of communism and sacked. This allowed him to present himself as on the workers’ side and, at the same time, rid the unions of their most effective organisers.

Eva Perón played a key role in sustaining this corporativist strategy. She addressed workers over the radio and in the factories, union headquarters, and dockyards to convince them that her husband was a friend of the working class. The Eva Perón Foundation, established in 1948, became a cornerstone of the regime’s popular appeal, generously funding welfare projects like the construction of schools and the distribution of medicine.

The central purpose of such charitable acts was public relations. The Foundation raised much of the money for such grandiose displays of benevolence via a compulsory levy on union members and Eva is believed to have diverted as much as $700 million into overseas accounts. In addition, Eva nepotistically used her central role in the Perón regime to put numerous relatives in positions of power, with her brother becoming Juan’s private secretary.

In light of all this, why did so many socialists, including several Trotskyist tendencies, still support Peronism? The short answer is that it stems from a poorly founded view of the Peronist regime as “anti-imperialist” and of Argentina as “semi-colonial”. As Velasco observed in 1947, many Trotskyists in Argentina, including those organised around the periodical Octubre, proclaimed Peronism as “the realization of the democratic bourgeois revolution, not only in Argentina, but in the whole of Latin America”.12

In a manner that strongly echoes the later “dependency theory” perspective on former colonies in the “Third World”, this characterisation of Argentina rested on the view that the extent of foreign investment was such that the country was still not genuinely independent.13 Indeed, the British still owned large parts of Argentina’s infrastructure before Perón’s nationalisation projects. Although one can question how representative Octubre was of the contemporary anti-Stalinist left, after Peronism became hegemonic and marginalised the socialist organisations, more Trotskyists turned from describing Peronism as fascistic (as leftists often did in the 1940s) to viewing it as “anti-imperialist”.

Argentina was a key exporter of agricultural products to Britain, and importer of British investments, until the First World War. In 1916, Lenin described Argentina as politically independent but a British “trade colony”. “Economic dependence upon British banks, indebtedness to Britain, British acquisition of [its] railways, mines, land, etc., enable Britain to ‘annex’ [Argentina] economically without violating [its] political independence”.14

Nevertheless, to follow Octubre’s example and describe Argentina in the late 1940s as still a “feudal semi-colony” is to see “feudalism” where there was capitalist landlordism, and greatly to underestimate the extent to which the World Wars had allowed Argentina to create its own reserves of capital. In other words, Argentina had not only established political independence via its 1810-18 war against Spanish colonial rule: it had come to establish significant economic leeway as well. Indeed, Argentina’s economic dependence on Britain had drastically weakened in the 1930s before Perón’s rise to power.

Moreover, by the time of Perón’s first term as President, the Argentine bourgeoisie was already beginning to expand its regional power in Latin America. As Velasco observes:

“The Argentine-Chile treaty [signed by Perón and intended to establish an eventual customs union] gives enormous advantages to Argentina, reducing Chile to a dependency. Peron pays $13 Argentine for 100 kilograms of wheat, selling it to Chile for $35 Argentine and bringing about a Chilean selling price of 100 to 500 Chilean pesos. The Chilean producer receives from the state only 195 to 205 Chilean pesos for the same product. This same relationship obtains for all products.”15

This strongly suggests that “Peron’s expansionism [was] not a struggle of the Argentinians against imperialism, but an expansion of the Argentine bourgeoisie which [strove] to dominate the continent and establish a local “sub-imperialism”‘.16

Sub-Imperialist

By failing to grasp the sub-imperialist character of the Argentine state, the international left risks putting an “anti-imperialist” or even “socialist” gloss on the nationalist-autarkic manoeuvres of a regional power seeking to expand its own sphere of influence.

As Dabat and Lorenzano put it:”The theory of ‘neo-colonies’ [...] seeks to equate the financial and diplomatic dependence of politically independent countries and of semi-colonies by giving overwhelming priority to certain economic features, in particular the role of direct foreign investment by transnational companies. Direct foreign investment, associated with other forms of ‘penetration’, is supposed to turn the different countries into semi-colonies, although it is never clear which are to be included in this definition. [...] According to this line of reasoning, bourgeois nation states would be progressive and anti-imperialist merely by opposing foreign investment, increasing customs duties and reducing the balance of external trade, or by linking themselves economically to the ‘Socialist Bloc’. Marxism, however, regards such ‘anti-imperialism’ and such ‘defence’ of the principle of national self-determination as nothing more than an attempt to cover up competitive manoeuvres by capitals of different national bases, particularly by “weak” monopoly capitals.”17

Instead of painting Peronism as the completion of an anti-colonial bourgeois revolution worthy of socialist support, one should take the view that Juan Rey put forward in 1948:

“Revolutionary working class socialism in South America combatting Peronism and Stalinism must oppose the arrogance and domination of Yankee Imperialism, forming a third front of authentic national and social emancipation in Latin America.”18

Lastly, one should be cautious not to read too much into the material gains of Argentine workers under the Perón regime. Prior to the First World War, Argentina was, by GDP per head measures, one of the richest countries in the world. Many workers migrated from Italy to Argentina then because wages were higher in Argentina than in Europe.

Argentina continued to be a relatively rich country until it slumped in the Great Depression. It experienced a small boom during the Second World War, followed by a long period of stagnation. By the end of the Peronist era, Argentina was already significantly behind most Western European countries and Australia.

This is in large part because of the major long-term change in Argentina’s economic orientation under Perón. Before 1930, Argentina had an economy based on agrarian exports and dominated by the landed oligarchy. The landed oligarchy was ruined by the Great Depression and by Peron’s deliberate shift towards a domestically-oriented and industrialised economy.

According to Angus Maddison’s figures, Argentina’s exports were scarcely bigger in 1950 than in 1913, and much smaller than they had been in 1929. Both in 1913 and in 1929, Argentina’s exports were significantly bigger than Brazil’s; by 1950 they were only 60% of Brazil’s, by 1973 only 42% of Brazil’s.19

As in Ireland under Éamon De Valera, the nationalist, protectionist economic course had wide support, but was economically regressive. There were meaningful social reforms in Argentina under Perón, but then were also meaningful social reforms in boom years in Spain under Francisco Franco and in Eastern European countries under Stalinism. We would not accept these reforms as reasons to treat these regimes as deserving of political support.

Overall, much like Cárdenas’ Mexico before it and Chávez’s Venezuela after it, socialists should treat Perón’s Argentina as a stark lesson in what happens when we take at face value the nationalisation projects, social-welfare measures, and pro-worker rhetoric of a regime founded upon a civic-military alliance that actively suppresses the militancy and independence of organised labour.

More to the point, Peronism illustrates the danger of conceptualising socialism primarily in terms of economic redistribution rather than the self-emancipation of the working class: a danger of which Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters should take heed.

[1] Felipe Pigna, Los Mitos de la Historia Argentina 4: La Argentina Peronista (1943-1955)” (Buenos Aires: Editorial Planeta, 2008), p. 28.
[2] Leon Trotsky, German Bonapartism” (1932)
[3] Leon Trotsky, “Bonapartism and Fascism” (1934)
[4] At the risk of sounding as though I am excusing a military coup, I feel obliged to note that Castillo obtained his presidency via electoral fraud.
[5] Alejandro Dabat and Luis Lorenzano, Argentina: The Malvinas and the End of Military Rule (London: Verso, 1984) p.21.
[6] Luis Velasco, "A Latin American Manifesto: A Path of the Colonial Revolution” (1947)
[7] For a historical overview of this transformation of the Argentine labour movement, see: Ronaldo Munck with Ricardo Falcon and Bernardo Galitelli, From Anarchism to Peronism: Workers, Unions and Politics, 1855-1985 (London: Zed Books, 1987),
[8] ibid, p. 132.
[9] James W. McGuire, Peronism Without Perón: Unions, Parties and Democracy in Argentina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 53.
[10] Daniel James, Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 40.
[11] Munck et al (1987), p. 132.
[12] Velasco (1947).
[13] Dependency theory dates back to Paul A. Baran’s book “The Political Economy of Growth” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957). It argues that “Third World” nations are underdeveloped because of a parasitic drain of surplus to the economically and industrially advanced countries. A full critical analysis of dependency theory is beyond the scope of the present article.
[14] V.I. Lenin, “What is Economic Analysis?’ in A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism (1916)
[15] Luis Velasco, (1948)
[16] ibid.
[17] Dabat and Lorenzano (1984), p. 8-9.
[18] Juan Rey,
“The Totalitarian Reaction in South America” (1948)
[19] Angus Maddison, The World Economy (2006), OECD, p.360

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.