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Liborio Justo and Argentinian Trotskyism


From Revolutionary History, Vol.2, No.2, Summer 1989. Used with permission.

A look at Justo’s major works: Estrategia Revolucionaria: Lucha por la unidad y por la liberacion nacional y social de la America latina (1957) and Leon Trotsky y el fracaso mundial del Trotskismo (1959).


Argentine Trotskyism arose in a political culture very different to that of either Europe or of the much less developed countries to its north. While working class immigrants brought the organisational forms of Syndicalism and Social Democracy with them from Spain, Italy and Russia, the workers’ movement, which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, had to operate in a vastly different social context to that of their countries of origin. Although Argentina had won independence from Spain in the 1830s the state was not really consolidated until the 1880s.

Until 1916 the country was ruled by an oligarchy of landowners who operated a parliament on a restricted suffrage. The economic boom which followed the development of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s and 1890s made Argentina a magnet for immigrant workers comparable to the United States or Australia, but it did not produce an industrial bourgeoisie, using wage labour to accumulate capital by the export of manufactured goods on the European model. Yet the country was clearly capitalist, as were the great landowners. The oligarchy had a very harmonious relationship with the imperial powers, particularly Britain, but was not so concerned to aid native manufacturers to develop an industrial base by excluding goods from the countries to which its meat was exported. Later, nationalists were to argue that Argentina was a semi-colony and that other concerns must be subordinated to the struggle for national independence.


The first challenge to oligarchic rule came from the misleadingly named Radical Party, originally a fraction of the landlords excluded from the spoils of office, who organised the middle class, particularly in Buenos Aires, to claim a share of the wealth, power and patronage. Hipolito Yrigoyen, who led the Radicals from the 1890s till 1930, had a policy of demanding genuine elections and promoting insurrections to encourage the oligarchy to grant them. The party developed a municipal machine similar to the Democratic Party in the United States, which distributed patronage. The Radicals finally were elected to office in 1916 on a programme with little social or economic content. Though they did not have the oligarchy’s family and business links with the foreign interests which dominated economic life, they had no plans to challenge their role or to restructure Argentina’s economy.

The Socialist Party, founded by Juan B. Justo in 1896, was hardly more of a challenge to Argentina’s rulers. Formally modelled on European Social Democracy, it was in fact an extremely moderate body, which resembled Australia’s Socialists in being more a cross-class alliance than a working class party. It had less influence on the trade unions than the Anarchists or Syndicalists, and it merely demanded a fairer distribution of wealth rather than a transformation of the economy. It was strongly committed to free trade, and the Radicals saw it as an ally of the oligarchy. The inability of any political force to offer a way forward was reflected in the University Reform movement of 1919, which was to have an influence outside the universities, both in the Argentine and elsewhere in Latin America.

The Bolshevik revolution had its effect on the Argentina. The Anarchists, some Syndicalists and Left Socialists were inspired by it and a Communist Party was formed in 1921. However, the revolution had an even stronger effect on the right. Upper class circles imagined that the country was overrun by Bolshevik agitators. A strike early in 1919 was followed by bloody police repression and the formation of an ultra-right nationalist organisation, the Liga Patriotica, which launched pogroms against Russian Jews, whom they alleged were plotting a revolution. Radical Party activists joined in the pogroms and the Radical Party panicked and gave support to what was, effectively, a proto-Fascist movement. The Radical Party survived the events, which became known as the ‘Semana Tragica’, and even retained a base in the working class. As the later recession weakened the unions, the Radicals, using tactics later adopted by Peron, were able to form groups aimed at getting worker support based on dispensing charity.

The Stock Exchange Crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression was more catastrophic for the Argentine than for most other countries. Its narrowly based economy was terribly vulnerable to protectionist measures, particularly by Britain. The military, led by generals Uriburu and Augustin P. Justo, removed Yrigoyen in September 1930 and implemented a policy of spending cuts which hurt the workers and the middle classes, while securing the position of the landed oligarchy by preferential trade deals with Britain. These deals in turn hurt local industry. The Radicals were never to recover from their failure in office, the oligarchy had lost the ability to manipulate a parliamentary system, and the weak and divided working class movement was unable to offer significant resistance. Justo, who was installed as President from 1932 to 1938 as the result of rigged elections, was far from sharing the taste for Fascist ceremony of later dictators. His mission was to defend the position of the oligarchy. If a civilian government could have done that he would have left it in place. His attachment to Britain and the USA, and his desire that Argentina should enter the Second World War on the side of the Allies, was demonstrated in August 1942, when Vargas the Brazilian dictator joined the war: Justo flew to Rio to volunteer as a soldier in the Brazilian army.


Anarchists and Syndicalists were unable to fashion a political strategy adequate for the Argentine. The Communist Party was very weak to start with and was soon destroyed as a revolutionary force by its subservience to Stalinism. As elsewhere, Trotskyism arose as a reaction, by a handful of Communist Party members, to the lunacies imposed on the party by the Communist International. After a number of years with constant splits and very few members or influence, they were joined by Liborio Justo, a most colourful figure, and the most prominent Trotskyist in the Argentine for a number of years. During an eight-month stay in the United States in 1934, he was in contact with the American Trotskyists, but appears to have been a sympathiser of Oehler’s ultra-left organisation. Surprisingly, on his return, he joined the Argentine Communist Party, which he left in 1937, opposing its Popular Front policies. Within Argentine Trotskyism he was in a minority in arguing that the first task of revolutionaries was to achieve national liberation, rather than to proceed to a Socialist revolution. He argued that those, then the majority of Argentine Trotskyists, who said otherwise, were not merely mistaken, but agents of Wall Street. Justo’s style of argument relied heavily on personal abuse and his advocacy of the Stalinists’ theory of stages seems a curious basis for joining the Trotskyists. However, Argentine’s Communist Party had an impossible task at this time in trying to construct a Popular Front in support of Stalin’s alliance with Britain and the USA. The people who were likely to support such a front, and its concrete expression, which was Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbour’ policy, were conservatives such as Justo senior and the very pro-British Argentinian upper classes. Middle class radicals were more likely to be attracted to Fascism.

Justo, correctly, points out that his ideas of a two stage revolution were eventually adopted by his factional opponents. Ramos became a Peronist theoretician, while Moreno accepted most of the Peronist ideology while maintaining a certain organisational independence. Curiously, Justo himself never did accept Peron. Justo’s importance in the development of Argentine Trotskyism can hardly be denied, yet European Marxists might find it difficult to come to grips with this exasperating figure. Sherry Mangan, the delegate of the Fourth International, thought Justo was insane, a view that must have been common. His adherence to his version of Trotskyism was fairly brief (1937-43), yet almost all the Trotskyist tendencies which had originally opposed his political line later adopted it.

The problems facing Marxists in Latin America differed in important respects from those in Europe, Asia or Africa. It would be fascinating to read an examination of the specific problems which confront Marxists in a continent where state and society developed in a very different way from those in the areas described by Marx, Engels and Lenin. Those interested in the nature of Argentine capitalism, or the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the state, will find little of interest in Justo’s ideas, as expounded in Estrategia Revolucionoria, published in 1957, but largely composed of articles and factional documents written in the early 1940s. Justo thought that, as the bourgeoisie had failed to win genuine independence, the working class was the force which would carry out national liberation. He made no analysis of the specific conditions of Argentina, nor of how it differed from a country like India, with a mainly peasant population and precapitalist social relationships. Justo never deals with the relationship between democratic rights, land reform, etc, which form the background to most discussions on the question of national independence.


Much of the book consists, not of analysis, but of abuse of the comrades who disagreed with him. Factional opponents are routinely described as crooks, idiots, pinheads, monkeys and agents of Wall Street or the FBI (Estrategia Revolucionoria, pp.82, 86, 138). It is not clear whether he believes that those who disagree with him are actually being paid by the FBI or Wall Street, and he would probably have regarded such a distinction between police agents and political opponents as unnecessary hairsplitting. Sherry Mangan is described as a fat fool, ‘Oliver Hardy’, and of being a direct agent of imperialism (pp.105, 138, 187). Marc Loris (Jean van Heijenoort), the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Fourth International, is ‘a professor of vulgar Marxism’ (p.154) and is pictured as writing from a centrally heated office, heedless of the dangers endured by revolutionaries in the Argentine (p 153). Justo’s abusive tone is particularly obnoxious when polemicising with Marc Loris, where this spoilt son of the Argentine dictator is clearly fighting above his weight. The American Socialist Workers Party is described as ‘...a rachitic, routinist, centrist organisation, essentially petty bourgeois, led by a fossilised bureaucracy, discredited among the proletariat, having social democratic political positions, lacking Bolshevik organisation, without roots in the American population (according to Clarke 40 per cent of its members are Jews) whose existence is confined to two or three districts of New York and Minneapolis’ (p.216).

In Leon Trotsky, written in 1959 and republished by Peruvian Maoists in 1974, Justo had moved towards a more consistent theory of Trotskyism as an imperialist plot, and Trotsky as an agent of Wall Street. The substance of his argument is composed of the allegations common to Stalinists and accepted by most of the left intelligentsia up to the time of Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin. Trotsky wrote for the bourgeois press, offered to give evidence before the Dies Committee of the American Congress and set up a commission, which included people such as the American philosopher Dewey, to investigate Stalin’s allegations that he, and the other old Bolsheviks, were agents of imperialism: therefore he was an imperialist agent. Justo’s allegations are familiar, but there are two variations which differentiate his case from the orthodox Stalinist one. The most surprising is his use of arguments drawn from the ultra-left groups, with which he had been involved prior to his adherence to the Communist Party. Such groupings were, of course, more vehemently opposed to the concepts of national liberation than were the Trotskyists. Justo’s second variation on the Stalinist theme was because LDT was supposed to serve Wall Street exclusively, Trotsky thus remained free to attack rival imperialisms and this at least lightened for him the crushing labour of simultaneously serving British, French, German and Japanese imperialisms which the orthodox Stalinists maintained.

Therefore Trotsky’s stay in Mexico was probably arranged by US imperialism as a strategy to derail the Mexican revolution (p.125). An unnamed Mexican bourgeois told Justo that the country’s rulers had brought Trotsky there to help them combat Communism. He had become ‘the guard dog of Yankee imperialism’ (p.177). The case for this is based on his support for Mexico’s nationalisation of its oil fields. The nationalised concerns had belonged to British companies, so Trotsky could hardly fail to support a measure which would benefit US interests by weakening one of its competitors. Those Fourth Internationalists in Mexico who thought Trotsky too conciliatory to Cardenas, the Mexican President, pointed out that Mexico remained capitalist and that Cardenas attacked the workers’ movement, did not adopt Justo’s theory: their criticism of Trotsky on the question of ‘national liberation’ was precisely the opposite of his.

Curiously, Justo says little about Peronism, which was, after all, the specific form which Argentinian anti-imperialism took, except to note that several of his factional opponents ended up as supporters of Peron. He complains justifiably that such people stole his ideas without acknowledgement. However, his reaction to attempts to make amends was typically ungenerous. In 1955, when a former opponent, Nahuel Moreno, and Miliciades Pena, a pair of ‘political petty thieves’, asked him to join an editorial board, Justo refused; Moreno and Pena did not, he believed, have the talent to make the careers to which they aspired by serving the bourgeoisie (Estrategia, pp.137-8).


Justo’s ideas anticipated Maoism in his stress on an undefined ‘national liberation’ and on his hostility to what he regarded as the capitulation to imperialism of the traditional labour movement, particularly the Socialist Party. It is difficult to draw general conclusions from a writer who concentrated on personal abuse of those who rejected a position, which, perhaps because he regarded it as self-evident, he did not expound coherently. It would be interesting to read how a programme derived from Justo’s ideas would differ from that of the Left Peronists, and how it would avoid the dangers of subordinating working class interests to those of native capitalists. What did ‘anti-imperialism’ mean in the absence of a peasantry? If the authoritarian labour relations prevailing on large ranches made the Argentine pre-capitalist, would not that also be true for areas of North America? If the coup by Uriburu and Justo had put the clock back to the situation prevailing before 1916, when the oligarchy monopolised political power, then, in that case, an alliance with a broad spectrum of society to overthrow a stratum, might have had some potential. In reality the Argentine had entered the area of mass politics where middle class nationalist aspirations were expressed by factions of the army, and where upper class politicians were abandoning cosmopolitanism in favour of portraying immigrants as the scum of Europe, infecting the Argentine with the poison of Socialism. The most likely partners in an anti-imperialist alliance were consistently hostile to Socialism, and eventually went to Peron. Justo’s position would have made more sense in Peru or Paraguay. His dilemma was the opposite of those who seek forces other than the working class to carry out the Socialist revolution. Justo needed a force to wry out ‘national liberation’. The working class would have to stand in for the peasantry.

J. Posadas’ (Homero Cristalli) place as Argentina’s most colourful leftist is so firmly established that he will never be displaced, but Justo must surely have a good claim as a runner up. The curious mixture of ultra-leftism, Stalinism and nationalism left him with no followers in the Argentine by 1943, but 20 years later when that mixture produced Maoism, the latter had a considerable following in some parts of Latin America, though not in Argentina, cursed by the absence of a peasantry and thoroughly saturated with an urban working class culture.

John Sullivan


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Last updated on 16.8.2003