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Bert Cochran

What is Peronism?
A Review Article

(February 1958)

From American Socialist, February 1958.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Argentine Upheaval
by Arthur P. Whitaker
Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1957, $3.50.

THE author is described in the dust-jacket as a professor of Latin American history at the University of Pennsylvania and ‘one of the most eminent Latin American historians of era.’ Possibly this last is a bit of an overstatement, though he is clearly acquainted with his subject matter but like so many of his colleagues in the scholarly world, he has enrolled as a technician of the American Empire and discusses, without the tremor of an eyebrow, the most intricate social problems of our time, from the insular assumptions of our State Department politicos and the vested interests of our corporate bureaucrats. Indeed, Mr. Whitaker has been so roughly conditioned in this sort of outlook, he does not even feel it necessary to elucidate why egotistic American interests should be protected, or justify US interference into the affairs of a country six thousand miles away. No sir, Mr. Whitaker is no fusspot. He has a job to do, namely, the unraveling of the tangled skein of Argentine politics to enable our decision-makers to more effectively formulate policies, and Mr. Whitaker doing his job without needless circumlocution, rhetoric, or philosophizing.

He certainly writes of Argentine affairs with an expert’s competence. But as his focus is delimited by his specialized commitments, it is quite difficult for the general reader to discern the broad play of social forces underlying the sequence of events that led to the military revolt of September 16, 1955 which unseated the dictator, Juan Peron, and installed in power a new military junta.

The Peron decade is something that has to be looked into. Argentina, the leading Latin American country both culturally and economically, is destined to renew its challenge to the United States for leadership of the South American continent, as it did under Peron, and his type of dictatorship is endemic to many semi-colonial countries of today and excellently portrays the complex social and political tangle of their affairs. American journalists have glibly described Peron as another fascist fuehrer whose sympathy was with the Axis partners during the war. This gives a totally false picture of the dictator both in his internal and international roles, but it is a first-class illustration of the success of American journalism in utilizing democratic jargon to make our public see the world through the cockeyed spectacles of the State Department. The Peron-type regime is a new proposition peculiar to the underdeveloped world, and we have to know something of the social makeup of the country to understand it.

ARGENTINA occupied traditionally the position of a semi-colonial country under Britain’s suzerainty, although United States investments continued to grow after the first World War until they almost equalled Britain’s on the eve of the second. The dominant wheat and meat oligarchy – semi-feudal landowners of fabulous latifundia – ran the country. In recent decades, there grew alongside, a class of native capitalists, which, while lacking capital by Western standards, was nevertheless the strongest of its kind in Latin America and began to play an increasingly aggressive role in the country’s affairs. This class decided to push its opportunity for all it was worth when both Britain and the United States had their hands full with the war. Britain had for years spread the propaganda that Argentina lacked resources for the development of basic industry, but no sooner was she unable to supply the country with steel products than the Argentine capitalists drove ahead to exploit the coal and iron ore deposits of Salta and Jujuy. YPF, the government oil corporation, went into an ambitious expansion, and extensive road and rail construction was rushed. A frenzied industrialization boom was on. At the same time, the Argentine government made use of its blocked sterling credits in England to buy back its bonds so that by 1947 the country was free of foreign debt.

Argentina was the only country in South America that felt strong enough not to get into the war on the Allied side, but to maneuver between both war blocs for maximum concessions (and to make sure to wind up on the winning side). This was not because Argentina was more dictatorial-minded than the other Latin-American countries, as it has so often been represented, but because it was in a position to practice an independent policy – neutralism. It is true that the army was German-trained, and both Mussolini and Hitler had many admirers, especially among the higher officers. But naked, calculating, national self-interest, not ideological preferences, determined Argentina’s stand. (It had been neutral in the first World War, as well.) In 1943, the army put through a coup d’etat, as it had done in 1930, ousted a corrupt and discredited government, and a military junta, which included Colonel Peron, took over.

THUS far, we are dealing with a familiar set of components of a semi-colonial country trying to extricate itself from the grip of foreign imperialism. There is the entrenched landowning aristocracy with strong ties to outside imperialism and united with the latter in keeping the country as an agricultural preserve. There is the growing middle class which aims to lead the nation in its anti-imperialistic aspirations, but which unlike its counterparts in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is not a social revolutionary, but a conservative class. Coming so late in the historical calendar, it finds itself subject to too many contradictory canceling pressures. It hates the rich and powerful imperialist outsiders, but it fears to lay strong hands on their property lest it upset respect for its own property rights and ambitions. It wants to use the mass nationalist sentiments to blackjack concessions from the imperialist powers, but it fears the growing ambitions of the working classes. It is often in conflict with the landowners over tariffs and other economic questions, but this is over-ridden by the community of interest in maintaining social stability. Consequently, the middle classes are animated by the philosophy of a Mirabeau, not a Marat. Because the nation is thus fragmented, and no class can rise above its parochial interests and command all-national support, the upper class military officer cliques take over time and again as self-appointed arbiters of national conflicts. They have stepped in on more than one occasion to run the government show.

As neither the industrial middle classes nor labor have been strong enough to take charge of the nation’s destiny, Bonapartist figures have arisen in a number of the more advanced under-developed countries to fill the vacuum of leadership. Such a figure was Peron. (Similar types were Vargas in Brazil, and now Nasser in Egypt.) His political technique consisted in manipulating the contending classes. His social policy was a forced march toward industrialization. His foreign affairs were directed toward a more assertive challenge to imperialism. Here was not simply another Latin American ‘strong man’ pressing down the lid with a bayonet while rifling the treasury. This was the emergence of a social dictator who tried to realize the country’s aspirations by modernization and anti-imperialism without an internal social overturn.

HOLDING the twin jobs of Minister of War and Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare in the 1943 junta, Peron introduced something new in Argentina politics. He proceeded to build up the labor unions under government tutelage and eventually as semi-government organizations. From a membership of some 260,000 embracing mainly skilled workers, they swelled under his patronage until they finally numbered practically the whole wage-earning force. When the military clique grew panicky at the new empire he was carving out and tried to dump him in 1945, it was already too late: the descamisados publicly flexed their muscles and triumphantly restored him to power.

For the next ten years, the confederation of labor (CGT), with its derivatives, the Peronista party and Peronista women’s party, plus the military, were to be his principal institutional bases of power. Deftly, he seesawed between one and the other of these hostile forces utilizing one to keep the other in check. He tried to keep a firm hold on both by staffing the labor organizations with his faithful servitors, and by purging the officers’ clique time and again to ensure its loyalty. This Bonapartist technique was made possible by Peron’s aggressive program both at home and abroad.

The previous efforts at building native industry appeared pale in comparison to his own. He bought out the British railroads and utilities, the IT&T, the ports and grain elevators. He boosted tariffs, instituted monetary controls, altered shippings rates and created an important merchant fleet. He nationalized foreign trade in farm products using profits to promote state and private industries. Such a program called for war on the old feudalistic aristocracy, and Peron waged it, symbolized by his suppression of the Jockey Club and his seizure of La Prensa owned by the richest landholding clan – although war may be too strong a word for it. While his policies favored the industrialists, he never touched the latifundia, and agrarian reform never got very far during his rule. The social status quo was never upset

Industrialization and urbanization have been headlong in Argentina. The last national census showed over 60 percent of gainfully employed in manufacturing or services, 10 percent in government bureaucracy, and only a quarter in farming, forestry and fishing. In the decade 1943-53, industrial production increased 40 percent, with industrial output accounting for roughly half of national production as compared with 40 percent contributed by agriculture and livestock. Although Argentine industry is primarily light, beginnings have been made in manufacture, metals, machinery, vehicles. And as is true of other colonial countries, there is a strong trend toward nationalization of sectors of the economy, because native capitalists are too weak and lacking in capital to be able to finance the industrialization projects. It case of Argentina, the nationalized sector includes the central bank, railways, air services, merchant marine, oil, telephone, port facilities, grain elevators, Buenos Aires transport and gas works. The government also runs military factories and DINIE, a group of expropriated German metallurgical, chemical, and pharmaceutical plants factories.

IN the course of this forced marched, Peron gave the labor masses more than just demagogy, although to be sure, there was plenty of that. Especially in the first few years before inflation took its heavy toll, the workers made important strides in higher wages and social security benefits. Furthermore, even under the Peron-dominated CGT, labor won a sense of strength, dignity, and influence which will have an important bearing on the future history of the country – and which survived the dictator’s fall.

Utilizing the special circumstances of the war and Argentina’s extraordinary boom, Peron gave the country’s traditional anti-imperialist policy several additional twists. He asserted Argentine leadership up and down Latin America and challenged United States hegemony both in economic and political matters. It was this pretension to leadership that aroused the righteous indignation of our State Department, not Peron’s affinity to European fascism.

Peronism – essentially a pragmatic maneuvering between social classes at home and between rival powers abroad, concocted into a pseudo-ideology by grandiloquent rhetoric and noisy demagogy – contained a hard kernel of nationalist achievement, material progress and social reform. That is why Peron managed to split every party and political formation from the extreme Catholic Right to the Communist Left and line up the dissidents behind his banner. As Carleton Beals wrote, his leading opponents had nothing to offer except to complain of the lack of civil liberties. Their cry for freedom was somewhat suspect, however, as they had never respected it when in office.

Any half serious study makes clear that it is apocryphal to call the Peron dictatorship fascist unless one decides to promiscuously dump any and all dictatorships into a pot labelled ‘fascism.’ All dictatorships, whether of Czar Nicholas I or Diocletian the Emperor, Pope Julius II or Genghis Khan, Hitler or Stalin, have certain similarities. But it is only in the consideration of the different social backgrounds, class purposes and political aims that is illuminated the makeup of the regime and the history of the period.

The fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy came to power through the deadlock of labor and capital, by mobilization of the lower middle class elements, and with the benign neutrality or outright support of the propertied classes. Once in power, they smashed, first, all Left and labor organizations; then, all independent political and social formations – to rule society as an omnipotent police regime. Peron, in contrast, took power in a more or less legitimate election in which he won a majority, and his ensuing dictatorship rested on the twin pillars of a government-controlled labor movement, and the army; with the regime oscillating between these two essentially hostile forces. Monopoly capitalism strengthened its grip on the economy under both Mussolini and Hitler while social difficulties continued to be solved by a combination of repression and war preparations.

Under Peron there took place the growth of a variety of nationalized state capitalism, an elimination of foreign investors through staying out of the war and bargaining with both belligerents. Nationalism was used by Mussolini and Hitler as a handmaiden of imperialism. It was used by Peron as a weapon of anti-imperialism. Fascism could be said to represent the rule of modern condottieri who slipped into power with the backing of the big monied interests to safeguard the status quo by the rule of the sword. Peronism was the rule of a Bonapartist dictator imposing his will by manipulating the social classes on behalf of industrializing an underdeveloped country and challenging dominant American imperialism. In a word, there is a substantial difference between the two types of dictatorship, and it muddles our comprehension of important lines of social cleavage to identify the two.

DESPITE its considerable elan in the first few years, Peronism pretty much exhausted itself by 1953. The country was starved for capital with which to follow through its expansion. Inflation took on runaway proportions, wiped out the gains of the wage earners, and was cutting into living standards. After the war, the United States mounted an implacable offensive which in rapid order swept Argentina out of its economic bases on the South American continent. Pretty well stymied on all fronts, his popularity in heavy decline, Peron, by 1953, was swinging away from the CGT, whose ranks were growing disgruntled, and rested increasingly on the military. His crusade against el imperialismo yanqui had also pretty much ground to a halt and he was by this time trying to fix up a new deal with the United States to get much needed capital and loans. This capitulatory swing was climaxed in his last year with the attempt to sign away oil rights in Patagonia to a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of California, which would have created an independent state in an area three times the size of Massachusetts. Many believe that this attempted agreement which outraged Argentine public opinion was as important as any other cause in bringing down Peron. When the military cliques moved against him in 1955, Peron tried to overawe them with a repetition of the performance of ten years before. But his deals with the United States had tarnished his reputation as the nationalist Sir Galahad, and the descamisados were no longer the enthusiastic supporters of yore.

The military cliques have always had close ties with the landowning nabobs and the new military junta headed by Major General Aramburu has tried to swing things back in their favor. The junta has returned La Prensa to its former owners. It has modified some nationalist regulations. It broke several general strikes last year. But it is no simple matter to turn the clock back to the status quo ante. The new industrialized Argentina is a fact. The CGT remains a power that no government can ignore. And the pervading anti-imperialism can be flaunted by any government only at its own peril.

After much hedging and several postponements, elections are finally scheduled for late February. The country is in for hectic times, as the economy is starved for capital, and the Wall Street crowd hasn’t changed its spots (even though it has jazzed up its public relations). It will not unloosen the old purse strings until it gets its pound of flesh – first of all, the cancelled oil concessions. The prolonged inflation has made Argentine labor restive, the Socialists and Communists are making strong progress again, and Peronismo remains a potent political force two years after the dictator’s exile.

The Peron regime has to be viewed as a stage in the battle of Latin America for economic independence. It did not realize its proclaimed goals, nor could any regime that left the oligarchic social structure of the country undisturbed; but it could boast of some achievements. The next attempt will start from this higher ground.

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