The following article is from Proletarian Revolution No. 68 (Fall 2003).
The recent election of a new president in Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, was a significant setback for the working class. If Kirchner’s two-faced attempt to undermine the working class is to be defeated, there are critical lessons that must be learned, particularly in regard to the election tactics used by the left.
Using elections to propagandize for the revolutionary program and party is an essential way to arm the proletariat. In Argentina, the electoral message should include the fact that the interests of the beleaguered working class can only be secured through transcending the current level of struggles and guiding them into a fight for state power. Socialist revolution is a necessity if the Argentine working class is to avoid far greater attacks at the hands of the bourgeois state.
Despite the populist hoopla surrounding Kirchner’s inauguration—where he was flanked by Brazil’s “Lula,” Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba—this mainstream politician spells further disaster for an already besieged population. Kirchner’s plans can only be a more drastic version of what Lula has already initiated in Brazil. Nothing could disguise the fact this bourgeois politician is intent on curbing the Argentine mass eruptions.
Kirchner’s plans are in dramatic conflict with the valiant uprising that the masses launched just a year and a half ago. His counterattack can be stopped, but only if proletarian revolutionaries expose it and offer an alternative leadership that re-invigorates the struggles and fights to arm them with communist working-class consciousness.
Kirchner’s election, and what must now be done to cripple his attack, can only be understood in the light of the huge events of the last few years. In December 2001 the Argentine masses made history by overthrowing, not a military dictatorship, but a bourgeois democratic regime. The uprising was mainly a confluence of struggles by the piqueteros (unemployed activists), explosive food riots by the desperate poor, and the pot-banging demonstrations called cacerolazos.
The cacerolazos were the force that at that time tipped the scales. That month, the strapped government had frozen the savings accounts of small savers, severely limiting withdrawals. (The freezing of the savings was called “el corralito.”) This outraged and activated the middle class and petty bourgeoisie, who saw that the system did not care more about them than it did the working class. “Que Se Vayan Todos!” (Down with Them All!) was the angry battle cry of the whole movement. The presidency of Fernando de la Rúa of the Radical Party (officially, the Unión Cávica Radical or UCR) was abruptly terminated by the masses.
Popular assemblies sprung up everywhere, alive with discussions of possibilities for reorganizing society. The piqueteros, who had for years been protesting their plight with road blockades, were now moving toward center-stage. They were gaining in strength and support from the assemblies and other popular sectors. But the understandable raw rage expressed in “Que Se Vayan Todos!” could not by itself point the way forward. The slogan showed mainly that the masses did not yet have an alternative for state power. As we commented at the time:
In Argentina and elsewhere what predominates on the anti-establishment political scene is the popular notion that “politicians can’t be trusted”, “they are all corrupt” and so forth. Obviously hatred of politicians can be a starting point for developing a class understanding, but only if bourgeois politicians are openly countered by a proletarian revolutionary party. To the politicians, the left in one form or another counterposes the mass movement, just “us” versus “them.” No! We must tell the masses that our problem is not politicians and political parties but capitalist politicians and all their political parties. (Letter to the Liga Obrera Internacionalista, December 26, 2002.)
While the bourgeoisie was clearly suffering a crisis of leadership, the proletariat’s leadership crisis was even worse. There was no revolutionary party alternative intervening on the scene, explicitly countering proletarian to bourgeois leadership. The union bureaucrats—Peronists and traditional reformists alike—kept the powerful big battalions of industrial workers out of the uprising. Therefore a shaky pre-revolutionary situation prevailed, but the bourgeoisie was able to retain the balance of power and the initiative.
The Peronist Party (officially called the Partido Justicialista, or PJ) was the party which had long commanded the support of labor. It was called upon to rule once again. And, after some shake-ups in personnel, it was able to do so. Eduardo Duhalde became the appointed “caretaker” president. (See Proletarian Revolution No. 64 for the full background.) For a while, mass resistance continued. The media openly questioned whether Duhalde could maintain the government’s grip over the masses. Frightened by the huge throngs gathering in the streets and neighborhoods, they wondered whether or not Argentina would survive at all or whether it would “cease to exist.”
In the absence of a serious alternative, a year or so later the ruling class felt that it was on less shaky ground. The politicians were ready to go for new elections, to try to stabilize bourgeois rule. There was a material foundation for this step. The economy had grown by 1 percent in 2002; this was considered a near miracle, given the depression-like conditions and the lack of assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). By January 2003, credit had returned to Argentina and President Bush had called Duhalde to congratulate him for a successful “pacification” of the country.
Even this minor “recovery” could only be temporary, given new IMF negotiations coming up without any real solution in sight. The ruling class did the best it could with the little it had. It gave pitiful raises to the most heavily unionized sectors of industrial labor. These crumbs released some pressure on the union tops from the ranks, while leaving the rest of the working class out in the cold. Likewise, in a plan funded by the World Bank, it doled out temporary jobs and workfare plans to particular bureaucrats to let them buy off and get more support from particular unemployed groupings. It even managed to release some of the frozen funds belonging to small savers. Thus the ruling class could move on to new elections.
Duhalde bragged that his government had set a rare example by “rejecting the shock measures the IMF uses to impose on nations in crisis.” What he didn’t stress was that he had defaulted on IMF payments, so that the enormous debt owed to imperialist financiers had actually mounted enormously during his term. And in reality he had carried out much of a typically oppressive IMF program, while posturing that he was doing so independently. His main economic measure had been the conversion of the monetary system from a rigid dollar standard to the floating peso. The result of this “pesification” was that small savings were reduced in value by 70 percent. The real value of workers’ salaries dropped at least 30 percent, even for those who still had a job, and more businesses and factories were forced to close. Meanwhile the government paid off the banks for their losses.
What Duhalde really did was to preside over an unprecedented massive transfer of funds from the already suffering population to pay off the big capitalists. Only by impoverishing the middle classes, on top of extracting more blood from the already superexploited workers and poor, was this so-called recovery achieved. His successor will have to deal with the impending IMF negotiations this August, which will inevitably mean more imperialist bloodsucking. He will have to try to stabilize bourgeois rule while inevitably facing more fury from the exploited masses. Stabilization therefore can only be achieved with a drastic level of repression.
When two piqueteros were killed by the police in June 2002, there was a massive outpouring of protest. Duhalde sought to escape by announcing early elections. When things got calmer later, rumors surfaced that he wouldn’t step down after all. But, again after much shuffling, the presidential elections originally announced for September 2003 ended up being set for two rounds, in April and May.
Three Peronists ran in the first round; Kirchner won in the end because people were frightened of the specter of another government led by Carlos Menem, the former president known for his savage neo-liberal attacks throughout the 90’s. Yet Menem was supported by the biggest trade union federation and had taken the lead in the first round with 24 percent of the vote. Kirchner got 22 percent, largely because of Duhalde’s strong efforts for him, given that he was a virtual unknown and had run a lackluster campaign.
Once the first round results were in, it was clear that Menem had peaked and would lose the second round. So he dropped out, making Kirchner president by default. The lack of a clear mandate for Kirchner—he was not the candidate of choice of any major union, a big failing for any Peronist—demonstrates that the capitalists have not resolved their crisis of leadership. Kirchner has been given a honeymoon with the public for about three months: the temporary IMF package granted earlier expires in August and must be renegotiated. Before the big guns come to town, he rushed to try to establish a more decisive and impressive image of “change” and “national pride.”
In addition to his populist inauguration show, he has put new people in the armed forces’ leadership and the Supreme Court, in an effort to show he is cleaning house. Above all he has made all sorts of promises on issues from economic growth to human rights. Menem likewise had run on an even more left populist campaign when he won in 1989 and then did exactly the opposite in office. Not without reason did the London Financial Times label Kirchner “Menem Lite.” (May 21) For the moment, his election was a striking success for the bourgeoisie, especially compared to the crisis and instability that had rocked the ruling class.
Kirchner’s election does not mean he will actually be able to impose stepped-up neo-liberal attacks, even though that is what he is there for. There is a tremendous potential for a new upsurge that could defeat his assault. It would have to include showing the way to overcome the debt, and wedding a political program to the power of the masses to fight for it.
After the mass uprising in 2001, the ruling class’s ability to continue its attacks was hardly inevitable. At the onset, there was no revolutionary party willing to fight for leadership in the mass upsurges, based on demonstrating that socialist revolution is the only solution to the crisis. But during such times of crisis, new fighting layers of workers and youth are generated who can be won to building the revolutionary party. Crisis can generate rapid development of the vanguard.
An authentic proletarian revolutionary group, since it would have no stake in the capitalist system at all, could have fought honestly and openly for the overall interests of the working class. It could have fought against any kind of artificial and bourgeois-inspired division used to hamper the powerful unity in action of the working class that was so desperately needed.
When it is under attack, the working class naturally seeks strength through unity, and there is also an objective need for a united defense. That is why authentic Trotskyists have always fought for united-front action whenever possible. The Bolshevik motto “march separately, strike together” is meant to encourage united class action, ranging from mass meetings to protest marches to strikes and street confrontations. Unity in action among workers who have varying levels of political consciousness and disagreements is a precondition both for creating an immediate defense and for attaining more advanced socialist consciousness. “March separately” means that all participating political tendencies openly display their banner and slogans and fight for their political strategy and program. Raising working-class consciousness means giving our fellow workers the chance to judge which political tendency has the program that represents their actual interests and shows the way forward. For Leninists, the united front has always been a demand for united action, not an elitist ultimatum demanding political agreement beforehand.
Unfortunately, the Argentine left has become a model for the opposite conduct. Organizational sectarianism has been entangled with political opportunism. Petty-bourgeois reformist and left outfits have divided and weakened working-class action for their narrow organizational gains, to ward off their supporters from exposure to alternative politics. Thus we saw the sizable and fighting piquetero movement divided into at least three different organizations, led by rival bureaucracies competing for control over workfare plans and other deals, which they then dole out to the piqueteros selectively. They call separate and competing mass meetings, marches and actions. An even newer development has been the growing factory occupation movement. The occupations involve about 200 small-scale factories that have been taken over by workers trying to save their jobs when the owners abandon or shut down their workplaces. This movement has been subjected to similar divisiveness, despite ongoing efforts at maintaining solidarity.
The left’s failure is even more striking with respect to the major unions. Even with massive unemployment, there are still over 8 million wage-earning urban workers. Even though only about one-third of these are currently represented by the unions (with the majority of workers now either underemployed or in the “gray economy”), employed workers—and particularly those in industry and transport—are still clearly central to the political economy of the country. And Marxists know that strategic emplacement within production carries more weight than numbers alone.
The gulf within the working class has persisted, since the major battalions of the employed industrial and transport workers have been fundamentally disengaged from the struggle from the time of the uprising until now. No leading trade union figure has been willing to stand for any kind of working-class fightback or class independence. Of course, union bureaucrats generally avoid such efforts, except when under tremendous pressure from the ranks. But now, with the stakes so high, to a man they are unwilling to lead even limited strikes, as they used to do. If the bourgeoisie has been shaken by the crisis, the pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy is virtually paralyzed.
Faced with this critical impasse, the left has raised no real alternative. It talks very radically but follows policies that perpetuate both the misleadership and the division of our class. Refusing to place demands on the big unions reached an extreme after the uprising: the left immersed itself in the existing movements of popular assemblies, piqueteros and factory take-overs. But it neither carried out a strategy to reach the mass of workers nor provided one to the militant workers in its immediate audience. (See PR 64 and the Letter to the LOI for our debates with Argentine left organizations over trade union policy.)
As one example, where groups of unionized workers have already become very militant, a rather rare phenomenon now, the left has often supported split-away locals and the notion of separate “combative” unions. Splitting became a pseudo-militant way to run away from the fight for the leadership of the central core of the proletariat. It actually means abandoning the less advanced fellow workers, instead of staying within the larger union in order to fight alongside and convince fellow workers. Orienting mainly to “combative” unions is part of a general, long-held tendency to evade the fight for revolutionary leadership within the main federations, where the masses of workers still are.
Since the upsurge, we have been arguing that the gulf between the existing movements and the bulk of the working class is a primary problem that has to be overcome. We argued that building the revolutionary party itself had to be the key propaganda slogan, the central idea addressed to advanced workers. Such a party would fight to build a revolutionary opposition within all the unions and unemployed organizations, as well as the other mass sectors. Such union work is necessary in the two major union federations currently led mainly by Peronists; they are identified by their top leaders’ names as the CGT-Daer, the more conservative one, and the CGT-Moyano, the more militant-appearing one. Revolutionaries would also fight inside the CTA, whose leadership is social-democratic and which leads a significant organization of piqueteros as well.
We have contended in particular that the leading action demand should be “General Strike to Repudiate the Debt!” (See PR 64.) The centrist left has also voiced the words “general strike,” but again they use a militant phrase to avoid the practical struggle. The demand for a general strike is hollow unless it is placed as a challenge on the unions, the only institutions which have the power to carry out such a struggle and shut the country down. Unless they are brought into the decisive struggles, or at least made aware of their own power and what kind of struggle they are capable of waging, it was absolutely predictable that the mass of workers would vote for the Peronists.
As we have argued, workers not only had to understand that their union leaders and the Peronist politicians were bad, which many already know; they have to learn through their own experience that the working class has the power to build a meaningful alternative. Only then can independent working-class politics become realistically attractive to the mass of workers, who want concrete results rather than nice-sounding rhetoric. The important programmatic demands which the left sometimes advances, even correct ones, remain just words in the minds of most workers. Unless they can see that their class has the muscle to win something through mass united class struggle, they feel they must stick with the Peronists, who they think are at least better than the open bourgeois enemy.
With this in mind, we foresaw the electoral result even from afar:
Despite the evident crisis of Peronism today, capitalism has proven many times over, unfortunately, that it will not permanently collapse by itself, but only via a successful revolutionary alternative. If it proves impossible for some wing of Peronism to resurrect itself then there can be a bourgeois alternative to fool and repress the masses with another name. But at the present time a significant percentage of workers will vote Peronist. (Letter to the LOI)
The main reason for the large Peronist vote was the failure of a serious alternative. This is not to say that the masses of workers would have changed their minds overnight if offered the right program. But important inroads into the consciousness of the working class could have been made by fighting for a revolutionary program before and during the elections.
Peronism has cast a long shadow over the working class. The historic memory of the rapid rise in living standards in the initial period of Juan Peron’s reign half a century ago, and the tremendous mobilizations of workers that took place then, are big factors. Also important is the fact that the Peronist politicians speak to the industrial workers in terms of their interest in an industrialization program for the country. Industrial workers are not only worried about keeping jobs. Their jobs and the destinies of their families and friends are also materially linked to the resurgence of an economy based on industrial production. Only the Peronist PJ, the so-called “party of production,” claims to have such a program. This bond between large sections of the workers and Peronism is only a vestige of the past strong allegiance. Its continued existence is all the more tragic since the workers’ hopes for industrial expansion cannot be achieved under imperialism today.
The elections were a specific opportunity for the left to raise a revolutionary program which could meet the working class’s aspirations. An open communist campaign could have raised the need for the revolutionary party, working-class independence, and socialist revolution. It could have put forward demands from the Trotskyist Transitional Program to link socialism with the current struggle: jobs for all, public works, an escalating scale of wages, a sliding scale of hours to spread the work around, expropriation of industry and the banks and credit institutions without compensating the capitalists. Expropriation of the large landowners is also critical. A real plan for the resurgence of industry could have been outlined.
Revolutionaries could have challenged the Peronist union leaders not just by denouncing them from the outside but by exposing them in practice, addressing our fellow workers along the following lines:
“In Argentina, the working class built an important industrial infrastructure. But the Peronist party has joined in selling it off and taking it apart piece by piece. Some say they are still for us, but they have to deal with the ‘reality’ of the economic crisis and the power of imperialist capital. But we say the union leaders are not worth anything if we cannot push them to respond to our needs.
“There is an action they can take, the only way to get the funds for industry that the Argentine working class needs. They can mobilize the unions to launch a general strike to demand that the state repudiate the debt! Everybody knows that we are slaving away to pay the imperialists, and yet the debt keeps mounting. The capital we produced should go back to the class that made it in the first place, the working class. It can also win over the middle-class savers. But as long as we let the ruling class pay off the parasitic banks and the IMF, working-class Argentines will starve. Debt repudiation is our only choice.
“We all know that the union leaders have the power to call out the workers and stop industry and profit making. You still hope that they can still be used to mount some kind of defense. But they are not worth anything if we cannot push them to respond to our needs. We revolutionary workers say that the bureaucrats are so glued to the PJ and the capitalist system, that they would prefer to see the working class and the unions sink rather than to carry out such a demand.
“We say that only revolutionaries will fight for debt repudiation, for all the workers’ needs. So these union bureaucrats have to be replaced. We predict they will try everything to betray us. But let’s put them to the maximum test by raising our demands on them and at the same time build strike committees to fight for and organize the general strike. Then we will see who is right.”
Another key element of the revolutionary program, particularly vital to counter illusions in bourgeois electoralism, is the call for mass armed self-defense. This has been strikingly missing from the propaganda of most of the far left—and missing in action too. A few days before the first round of elections in late April, Buenos Aires police attacked the workers occupying the Brukman textile factory. Thousands of supporters, including the major left groups, valiantly showed up to join the workers’ battle. This was not the first eviction attempt, but this time it was successful because of the significant force used. In the whole period leading up to it, no major left group had propagandized or agitated for mass self-defense, nor have they raised it since. (See the LRP statement on the Brukman fight .)
Rather than put forward a revolutionary program, sections of the left ran in the election on fairly standard centrist programs. The Partido Obrero (PO; Workers Party) campaigned for their perennial call for a constituent assembly. (See PR 64 for an analysis of this issue and the PO.) The Partido de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (PTS: Party of Workers for Socialism), on the other hand, engaged in an electoral boycott campaign, criticizing the leftists who ran candidates as “participationist.” Since the PTS is the farthest left of the prominent groups, and since the boycott tactic attracted the most left-wing elements, it is important to look at it more closely.
In an article, Active Boycott Against The Phony Elections, the PTS initiated their boycott call with all guns blazing. They wrote:
The PTS has put forward a unitary call in an Open Letter distributed in thousands…. We call on all picketer organizations, popular assemblies, occupied factories, combative unions, combative students federations and leftist parties to put forward a great national rally and to form a united committee to call all peoples to carry out an active boycott….
We must all break down the electoral trap. We put forward this campaign in factories, state buildings, schools, workers and peoples quarters, as part of the fight to build a national congress of all the expressions of the struggle and to prepare an active general strike which will surpass in organization the actions of December 19 and 20, to put an end to the government of Duhalde. Only with this perspective and over the ruins of the present regime can we call for a Constituent Assembly, in which the mobilized masses can discuss the democratic resolution of the great national problems….
Down with Duhalde! Active boycott against the phony elections!… General strike until they are all kicked out to impose a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly!(La Verdad Obrera 109, October 1, 2002.)
This passage is representative of the PTS’s work from that time until the day Menem dropped out. Some key points: First, the PTS does on occasion formally recognize the need to address the organized working class. But in practice it addresses a movement that does not include the major union federations and their leaders but only the “combative” unions.
Second, it claims that an “active” electoral boycott will lead to a big congress to launch a general strike and hopefully bring down the regime. But there is absolutely no argument made for how the existing movement would gain the ear of the whole organized working class in order for it to boycott the elections. Nor are they even challenging the union leaders to drop their support to bourgeois candidates, or even advising the rank and file to fight for the PTS’s boycott policy in their currently non-combative unions.
Third, there is no mention of smashing the state. Nor do they mention the need for the revolutionary party here, or in most of their material.
The PTS deceived and miseducated the ranks of the movement, which in fact never had the forces to call an active boycott that could have affected the election. We, like Lenin, do not generally believe in an electoral boycott tactic except where an immediate working-class seizure of power is possible. But certainly an “active” boycott had to mean at least unified large-scale demonstrations, if not strikes, at a minimum. The PTS never had the power to call any such mass actions. But it did try to cover some of its tracks by formally recognizing in advance that the proposed successful boycott wouldn’t actually stop the elections. So they also said:
Even if we cannot win this battle and Duhalde’s elections take place, a great movement for active boycott will ensure that the upcoming government starts out as illegitimate and unrepresentative, weakening its ability to pass measures against working people, who will be in better conditions to confront and defeat them.
That is, they claimed that the boycott movement would at least weaken the new regime. But this too proved utterly false. Even though none of the candidates’ votes were impressive (they were all under 25 percent), the total turnout was high, especially compared to the promises of the boycott movement. While the historic average of electoral participation since 1911 (when voting became legally mandatory) has been 79.5 percent, in the first round this year the level was 77.5 percent, an insignificant difference.
In the October 2001 provincial elections, abstentionism had hit a record high for Argentina. But that in itself did absolutely nothing to weaken the attacks, as the PTS argued it would in 2003. In fact the attacks escalated more after the 2001 elections—until the potentially revolutionary mass struggle overthrew the elected regime in December. But even that action did not stop the attacks, because capitalism was not facing a conscious challenge to its state power. The overall lesson, which was eminently predictable by Leninists, was that without a revolutionary alternative for state power, any government would remain bourgeois.
The PTS ran in the 2001 elections. They did not argue at that time that their campaign strengthened the legitimacy of the de la Rúa regime. While we do not agree with the political program on which they ran, their analysis showed a nodding acquaintance with the Leninist tradition of participating in parliament in order to present a working-class alternative. And it showed their ability to provide a critical eye on the concrete events as they unfolded. Here is how they explain their participation then:
We do not abstain from all elections in general. The PTS stood its own working-class candidates in the 1999 general elections, which we reiterated in the October 2001 legislative elections. We did this at a time when the “rage vote” [not voting in one form or another out of anger with the system] had surfaced, because we deemed that such an option, which the middle classes turned to in the main, lacked a precise class orientation. On the contrary, it was sponsored by a bewildering array of forces, from some picketers’ movements to the fascist-minded TV presenter Daniel Hadad. (LVO 114, January 17, 2003)
The PTS, failing in the task of educating its audience, did not even address why the long-standing Leninist position against election boycotts, which it had previously acknowledged, should be discarded for this election. As Lenin wrote in his pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder:
It has been proved that participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament even a few weeks before the victory of a Soviet republic, and even after such a victory, not only does not harm the revolutionary proletariat, but actually helps it to prove to the backward masses why such parliaments deserve to be dispersed; it helps their successful dispersal, and helps bourgeois parliamentarism to become “politically obsolete.” To refuse to take this experience into account and at the same time to claim affiliation to the Communist International, which must work out its tactics internationally (not narrow or one-sided national tactics, but international tactics), is to commit the gravest blunder and actually to retreat from real internationalism while paying lip service to it.
Instead, of dealing with the traditional Leninist arguments, the PTS complained that the presidential elections would leave all the other “corrupt politicians in their seats” and not give even a chance “for workers and the left to gain seats.”
But what bourgeois elections did not put forward corrupt politicians? Or gave workers and the left a fair chance? For Bolsheviks, participation in elections was not based on the fairness of the elections or the chance of winning. Lenin always denounced electoralism as an end in itself, since no meaningful change can come through elections. He always argued for the far greater value of mass action over elections.
The heart of the PTS position was really their desire to echo the “Down with Them All” sentiment of the movement. Therefore, to contrast with the middle-class abstentionism or “rage vote” in 2001, they analyzed the boycott tactic for this election as follows, in an article entitled Duhalde’s electoral trickery and the tactics of the left: realism in revolutionary politics:
The present situation is very different now. After the extraordinary situation ushered in by the December uprising, new actors have come onto the scene. In stark contrast to the October 2001 elections—when the so-called ‘rage vote’ was not a driving force for the organization of both the workers and the people—we now see real organizations that we should come together with in rejecting the electoral trickery: the assemblies, the picketers’ movements, the occupied factories and the left. All of these strands came together in the December 20 rally at Plaza de Mayo, on the first anniversary of the uprising. By coming together, we should be able to put forward a unified position addressing the wide layers of the population and the workers who stand in rejection of the present elections. (LVO 114, January 17, 2003)
This shows that they thought the middle-class-dominated abstentionist vote in the October 2001 congressional elections could be converted into a working-class stance, based on the unity of the existing movements inspiring the rest of the workers. On what basis was this “realism in revolutionary politics”?
Last year, we wrote about the left’s heady celebration of the middle-class-led popular assemblies and foresaw the consequences of its failure to raise a direct call for working-class independence and leadership:
The Argentinean bourgeoisie, in conjunction with U.S. imperialism, has been given more time to concoct a more useful solution. It aims to break off middle-class support from the working class and over time to win support for increased repression as well. The more weeks and months that the undefined slogan “Down with Them All” continues to be the rallying call, celebrated uncritically by the PO, the PTS and the bulk of the left—without a sharp class alternative even suggested—the more hollow it becomes. And because there is no such thing as a municipality, province or nation with no politicians, it can only strengthen the middle-class populist influence that the PO already acknowledged is at work. (LRP Reply to Vicente Balvanera in PR 64.)
The PTS, on the other hand, used the same slogan as a reason to boycott the election, believing that now the working class as well as the middle class really would vote against all politicians. They claimed afterward that “the election results stabbed the movement that had massively called for ‘Down With Them All’ in the back.” (LVO 119, April 30.) They also blamed “the participationist left” that “destroyed the unitary call that was made by the PTS and other forces.” (LVO 120, May 21.) In reality, it was the PTS that had been swept away by its fantasy interpretation of the slogan.
The PTS simply tailed what it judged to be the mood of the already existing sectoral movements. On that basis it addressed that audience with the dream of a big class-wide boycott movement which would dampen the attacks and fortify the possibility of overthrowing the regime. Apparently, it was not a dream held by much of its own imagined audience, or the abstention rate would have been significantly higher. Even knowing that the past abstentionism was a middle-class rather than a working-class phenomenon did not impede the PTS’s effort to cater to non-communist consciousness under the guise of a working-class act.
After the results of the first round came in, the PTS refused to state explicitly that their tactic had been wrong, although they did analyze the results fairly well. They stated:
The most striking feature of these elections was that they revealed a political and social fragmentation that we haven’t seen since the days of the uprising. In that moment it seemed (and only seemed) that the forces of the right had disappeared. The “block of December” that was reuniting all those who came out to confront the dying government of de la Rúa seemed to unite in an alliance, atypical in its heterogeneity…. This alliance that raised the slogan “Down with Them All” came unglued, and it gave way to a major social and political polarization.
The article went on to say that the “anti-vote” (including abstentions, blank and spoiled ballots, etc.) decreased because the middle class voted! The PTS recognizes that the middle class “historically vacillates,” but without a word of self-criticism! Instead they offer a self-defense:
Our party attempted the task that in that moment seemed less glamorous and more difficult, that of establishing a systematic work in the heart of the working class and that of formulating for the vanguard of December the necessity of establishing a fuller workers’ and popular unity…. What happened is that the vanguard suffered a sharp lack of revolutionary leadership, and it has remained in these circumstances on the defensive. (LVO 119, April 30, 2003)
What does it mean to say that “the vanguard didn’t have revolutionary leadership?” Clarity in terminology is called for. For Lenin and Trotsky the vanguard meant the revolutionary party leadership. But there is the relative “vanguard”: those engaged in the struggle right now. For one thing, identifying the most active today doesn’t automatically determine which strata will be in the action vanguard of future upheavals, since this layer that is out front in today’s actions does not necessarily have communist class consciousness. The militant action vanguard in Argentina today represents advancing consciousness, both because of the heroic struggles and sacrifices it has made, in many cases taking on the police and the bosses, and a good part is even subjectively socialist. But it is limited or backward in relation to the need for the communist class consciousness of the Leninist vanguard.
The PTS incessantly refers to the militant factory takeover movement, along with the “combative” union militants and piqueteros, as the vanguard, making clear that they really do see these layers as the vanguard for the whole class. There are many problems with this. Their terminological “ambiguity” also covers up the fact that industrial workers must form a core part of the revolutionary vanguard. It also covers up the fact that it is the PTS itself which was supposed to be the revolutionary vanguard providing revolutionary guidance, i.e. leadership, to all the advancing workers. If the question of revolutionary leadership is decisive, then why were the revolutionaries of the PTS only tailing the action vanguard? Supposed revolutionaries with communist consciousness were tailing non-communist consciousness, cheerleading for the slogan “Down with Them All!”
The PTS has not produced a serious balance sheet of the major tactic which they employed in the heat of the Argentine struggle. This is the case even though they made the campaign for a boycott a key question in issue after issue of their newspaper for over a year, denouncing all those who wanted to run and by extension the workers who wanted to vote.
The boycott tactic was ultra-left in appearance, opportunist in essence. But as opportunist maneuvers go, what a flop this one was! Since the uprising, the tendency toward abstention seemed to be growing—but only within the currents cordoned off from the big battalions of the working class. The PTS swam so vigorously with that boycott current that it didn’t see how weak the current actually was becoming. In reality the boycott movement had not advanced politically past the dead-end notion of frustration with all politicians, encapsulated in the perennial slogan “Que Se Vayan Todos,” which of course the PTS, like other leftists, had uncritically championed.
The sectoral movements had been going on for over a year and a half without seeing any solution to the crisis, much less a revolutionary alternative. Abstention as an answer to the problem of treacherous politicians, carried out in October 2001, had already proven to be no answer to anything. Therefore, those workers and middle-class activists involved in the sectoral uprisings voted for what was there. We agree with the PTS that there are vital layers of workers, employed and unemployed, as well as youth that must be addressed right now with what to do. The boycott gave them the wrong answer.
Above all, the boycott campaign never had a chance to reach the crucial industrial workers and even begin to break their ties to the Peronist bureaucrats and candidates. The decisive question that the PTS refuses to face is that unified mass action will never occur in Argentina without the unionized industrial proletariat. The only solution is proletarian revolution and for that, working-class consciousness must be fought for in direct political opposition to the bureaucracy. It is the only way, as Marx pointed out long ago, that “the working class fits itself for power.” The advanced layers of the proletariat embodied in its own revolutionary party must win the leadership of our class from the hands of a bureaucracy which has to be fought, not evaded.
In the presidential election, not only did abstentions go down dramatically compared to October 2001; so did the vote for the left. If the PTS sensed one thing right, perhaps they realized that if they had run on their centrist program, they would have had a similar result.
Some mistakes are unavoidable. This one was not. But in any case mistakes can at least be learned from. Tactics embody a dialogue, from which Bolsheviks can learn from the masses whether or not they conveyed their message and whether or not their tactic worked. By critically assessing what they have done, authentic revolutionists learn from their experiences. Not the PTS.
As consummate opportunists, the PTS used its boycott as just a passing phase: they have quickly announced that they support participation in the upcoming provincial elections. But the underlying centrism is no passing matter. Rather than learning the lessons of their failed boycott agitation, their method is apparently to move on and forget about it.
The PTS either did not understand mixed consciousness among workers or didn’t care to. Worse still, they do not get it now. They could have written their appraisal before the results, since they had been condemning the “participationists” all year. Trotsky’s rules for Fourth Internationalists encapsulated a different spirit. As he said, “Face reality squarely.”