Anarcho-syndicalism in Argentina:FORA(1)

Printer-friendly version

Since its origins, the workers’ movement has seen itself as international and internationalist.”Workers have no country”; “workers of the world, unite!”. These are the two key ideas of the Communist Manifesto of 1848. The proletariat is an international class whose historic task of overthrowing capitalism and establishing new relations of production can only be conceived on an international scale. Because of this, even if the different struggles against capitalist exploitation don’t immediately take on this dimension, they still need to be seen as part of an international, historical movement. In particular, it’s up to the proletariat of all countries, and especially its vanguard, the revolutionary organisations, to draw all the lessons from the previous experience of the workers’ movement and its organisations. It's by basing ourselves on this approach that we have analysed, in our press, the experiences of struggles of the class in different parts of the world, and we think that it's important to make known those which have taken place in Argentina. They have produced an organisation, the FORA, which makes up a reference point for anarcho-syndicalism. In this sense, this article, which will itself be made up of several chapters, is part of our series in the International Review dedicated to revolutionary syndicalism[i]. This article has a particular interest since the FORA today constitutes a reference for anarcho-syndicalists who are embarrassed by the participation of the CNT in the government of the bourgeois republic during the war in Spain and want to remain faithful to internationalism.

In this first part, we are examining the historic context for the development of the thought and mobilisations of the Argentine workers, and which allowed for the constitution of the FORA.

The proletariat is an international class

Whereas in Europe during the nineteenth century capitalism imposed and strengthened itself, most of the countries of Latin America saw their struggles for national independence in the first decades of that century. By the last third of the 1900s, capitalist relations of production became dominant on the continent. In the case of Argentina one of the decisive points of capitalism's advance lay in the consolidation of agriculture and capitalist stock-farming at the same time as the country integrated itself into the international market and the process of industrialisation. It's for that reason that the measures taken from the 1880's on would be decisive for the dynamic of the development of the South American economy and of the working class. More particularly, the period between 1880 and 1914 is a defining moment for Argentina and its territory, clarifying the marking out of its frontiers, but also for the subordination of the old forms of social and economic organisation. This project resulted in the "Conquest of the Desert".

The "Conquest of the Desert" is the name given to a military campaign undertaken between 1878 and 1885 by the Argentine government against the surviving Indian communities of the extreme south of the region (especially against the Mapuches and the Tehuelches). This campaign of destruction and pillage was part of the process of the construction of the Argentine nation state and the route through which capitalist expansion would take place. Hundreds of Indians were shot and more taken prisoner, subjected to deportation to isolated and wild zones of the country or taken into servitude by the privileged families of Buenos Aires. The notes of newspapers at the time exposed the "successes" of the progress of civilisation:

  • "The Indian prisoners arrive barefoot for the most part or on wagons. The despair, the cries are incessant. In the presence of their mothers, the children are lifted up and offered up as presents despite the cries, the howls and the pleas of the Indian women raising their arms to the sky"[ii].

This project was a continuation of the policy carried out by the liberal sectors of the bourgeoisie of the mid-19th century who coveted the arrival of the "modern capitalist". The lawyer, Juan Bautista Alberdi, promoter of the constitution, defined the project as starting from the principle that "to govern is to populate". The reality of this policy is more explicit in his book Elementos de derecho publico provincial argentino (Elements of Public Provincial Law in Argentina, 1853):

  • "even if a hundred years pass, the uprooted, the half-breeds or the herders will not transform themselves into European workers... instead of leaving these lands to the savage Indians who possess them today, why not populate them with Germans, English and Swiss? Would anyone amongst us dress himself up as a pure Indian? Who would marry his sister or daughter to a gentleman from Araucaria and not a thousand times with an English boot maker?..."

Thus the combination of great concentrations of agricultural land, the birth of agro-industry, the attraction of foreign investment and diversified production led to the depopulation and tragedy of the Indian communities and also the massive arrival of immigrant workers, mainly from Italy, Spain and in lesser numbers from France and Germany.

But these "foreigners" who had migrated to flee misery and hunger (and in certain cases, also repression) brought with them not only their physical and creative capacities which allowed them to sell their labour power, but also the experiences of their lives as exploited workers and the lessons of their past combats (along with political weaknesses), which they found again in the social milieu of these "new territories" into which they were integrated, thus allowing proletarian reflection to become an international process.

It's not surprising then that the migrant workers transmitted to Argentina considerable energy to the proletarian combat through the three last decades of the 19th century; for example, the German Ave Lallemant[iii] and Augustus Kuhn of German origins, formed the first small  socialist grouping, "Verein Vorwarts" (the Forward Association), linked to German social-democracy, which acquired an eminent importance in workers' struggles; similarly, for the Italians, Pietro Gori and Errico Malatesta and, later, the Spaniard Diego Abad de Santillan, would be the animators of anarchist workers’ organisations. The tradition of struggle among these immigrant workers is reflected in their publishing work. The diversity of the papers appearing and distributed hand to hand, in the context of the numerical growth of the working class, turned out to be important elements for reflection, for the development of ideas and the politicisation of the young working class of the country.

However, it should be pointed out that this phenomenon did not confirm the mystified vision of the Argentinean bourgeoisie, which presented the workers' struggles as events imported by "foreigners". There was undoubtedly an experience transmitted by the migrant workers, but this arose and coalesced in the heat of combats which were not the mere product of will or created artificially. It is the economic and social reality that capitalism engenders (that's to say misery, hunger, repression...) which the workers respond to and which makes it possible to go beyond the divisions of nationality. 

Different nationalities but a single class

In the three last decades of the 19th century, Argentina was presented as a country where anything was possible, but very quickly this promise showed its real face. The workers' publications of this period detail the living conditions of the workers, where unemployment is frequent, the working-day exhausting and the wages are miserable. For example, in the hat factories of Franchini and Dellacha of Buenos Aires:

  • "They paid the pressers one peso per hundred hats and they lowered it to forty centimes, the finishers four pesos to 2.80, the rollers of soft hats from 6 to 4 and of top hats 6 to 3 pesos per hundred. At this rate, a skilled worker could only earn two pesos in two hours of work. Children aged 8 to 12, who worked in the morning or evening in hot water, burning their hands and losing their health after six months of exhausting and unhealthy work, after earning 80 centimes per day saw the rate lowered to 50... "[iv]

These living conditions continually repeated themselves throughout manufacture and agricultural exploitation, but in addition, a great number of employers practiced the "Truck System" for payment of work. In this wages are paid as vouchers for goods often produced by the enterprise but sold at a high price by the boss; the worker is thus stuck in continual dependence on  the boss.

In the towns the masses of workers, talking different languages, came together in insalubrious quarters, made up of precarious lodgings known as "conventillos"[v], where poverty consumed the lives of their inhabitants whatever their national difference.  

To imagine that the history of Argentinean workers is only the product of "bad" migrants denies the fact that capitalism creates its own gravediggers and that it pushes workers to make their own response to it. Miserable conditions encourage and accelerate workers' organisation and mobilisation, and the migrant workers integrate themselves into this reality. The anarchist Abad de Santillan rejected, correctly, the conspiratorial explanation of the bourgeoisie: "The defence of victims was something so logical that, even without social inspiration of any type, these workers' associations would appear as a biological wall against the bosses’ greed"[vi].  In his analysis there is a very precise following of the development of conditions which drive workers' resistance; however, he loses sight of the work of agitation and propaganda in which the migrant workers actively participated. And from this fact the international character of the proletariat is also lost.

Explaining the story through the existence of a " scapegoat, guilty for all the evils of society, the government and bosses’ groups unleashed the persecution of foreigners. A particular illustration of these attacks is the 1902 proclamation of the "Law of Residence". This law, also called the "Cane Law", allowed deportations without previous convictions of foreigners accused of seditious activities, thus dressing up a campaign of persecution in a legal and respectable garb linked to the law and to democratic principles.  In 1910, this law was extended through the "Law of Social Defence" which allowed the admission of foreigners to be restricted if they were suspected of being a threat to public order. In order to understand the mobilisation of the workers in Argentina it is important to take into account that capitalism is a system which is underwritten by profound contradictions which engender its economic crises. In the nineteenth century the bourgeoisie had shown an ability to increase its power, even though this was not achieved without difficulties. But as the century came to an end the contradictions of the capitalist economy were manifesting themselves more sharply. Although its epicentre had been situated in Britain, the recession of 1890, known as the "Baring Crisis"[vii], spread to central Europe and the United States, but also to Argentina given that this country constituted an important destination for the export of British capital; moreover this period was marked by a significant level of trade between the two countries.

Faced with capitalism's tendency towards recession, the response of the bourgeoisie, concerned to defend its profits, consisted of strengthening the means of exploitation of the producers of social wealth the workers. It's in this context that strikes and demonstrations appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, along with the necessity for the workers to build their unitary organisations of struggle.

The discussions and the confusions

If the process of the development of capitalism stimulated the fighting spirit of workers and awoke their efforts at reflection, that doesn't at all mean that the exploited all shared the same vision of reality; neither did they have the same class consciousness and the same capacities for organisation. The proletariat, as a class, builds itself up in its combat and through the self-criticism of its actions. In Argentina at the end of the 19th century, it was still marked by political and ideological traits belonging to the decomposition of the artisanal and peasant economy. Even if the mass of migrant proletarians constituted a certain form of inspiration for it, they didn’t always transmit their experience through the clearest arguments. That's the reason why the discussion and practices of the Argentine workers, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, was illustrated by a range of confused visions. Despite all this, they synthesised the intellectual effort and militant spirit of the exploited.

With the diversification of manufacturing production in the towns and the creation of specialised corporations, the workers began to establish social relations among themselves at the level of the workplace. This coming together stimulated the creation of societies of resistance, that's to say corporate groups for the defence of the most immediate living conditions. From this, between 1880 and 1901, there appeared the organisation of workers by job: bakers, drivers, cigar makers... but also the emergence of minorities who wanted to form socialist and anarchist groups which would, in time, become a factor in the animation of unitary organisations of struggle.

While the foundation of French, Italian and Spanish sections of the First International in Argentina went back to 1872, it was during the last two decades of the 19th century that more workers’ organisations and papers were created. As an expression of this dynamic we can note the 1890 edition of the socialist paper The Worker animated by the German Ave Lallemant. While this tendency was being pushed forward by workers' mobilisations, other publications such as La Vanguardia (led by the doctor Juan B Justo) appeared in 1894; other groups then formed who took up an important place among the workers such as the Centro Socialista Obrero (The Socialist Workers' Centre) and Il Fascio dei Lavoratori (Workers' Sheaf, a group attached to the Socialist Party of Italy). These groups joined up with the Equals, an ephemeral group formed by workers of French origin, to publish in 1894 the programme of the Partido Socialista Obrero Internacional (International Socialist Workers' Party - PSOI). This proletarian expression in Argentina changed its name the following year, becoming the Partido Socialista Obrero Argentino (Argentine Socialist Workers' Party - PSOA) to then become in 1896 the Partido Socialista Argentino (Argentine Socialist Party - PS), with Juan B Justo remaining at its head.

The PS attached itself to the Second International and called itself internationalist. Despite the weight of reformism in this International, this nevertheless enabled workers to make advances in the process of reflection and struggle. Given that the PS was formed from diverse groups it was politically heterogeneous. In fact the group led by Juan B Justo was in the majority but it was also the most confused since it was he who gave the most importance to the positions of the liberal bourgeoisie, which contributed at decisive moments to a lack of clarity in the party’s intervention[viii] . This lack of clarity and the sliding towards positions foreign to the proletariat provoked reactions inside the party, as demonstrated for example by the creation, in 1918, of a "critical wing" which formed the Partido Socialista Internacional Argentino  (PSIA)[ix], and also by reactions within the union sections.  

The programme for labour reform and the support given to liberal projects (for example, separation of church and state) that the PS advocated at the end of the nineteenth century, was a backward step in relation to the reality of the world, since the moment was approaching where the task of the proletariat was the overthrow of capitalism and not support for a system which had been progressive in relation to the irrational layers of society such as the church. But the calls for self-organisation and struggle for better living conditions allowed the workers to become conscious of the force that they represented and to obtain some immediate even if non-durable reforms. But the strategy of conciliation advocated by the SP, similar to its rejection of the basics of Marxism which came close to the arguments of Bernstein, distanced the party further and further from the proletarian camp; and this would become  a political weapon cleverly used by the Argentinean state. For example, at the beginning of 19th century, the PS maintained a sort of proletarian life within itself but its unbridled support for parliamentarism helped to distance it from the workers' struggles. This led to compromises, such as when it avoided the mobilisation of workers in exchange for the promulgation of the National Labour Law (known as the "(Joaquim) Gonzalez Plan") in 1905.

In the last years of the 19th century, the libertarian milieu began to take on some importance. Some figures of anarchism fleeing from the repression of European governments arrived in Argentina: Malatesta  (in 1885) and Pietro Gori (in 1891), stimulating workers' organisations and publishing work. But the anarchist camp wasn't homogeneous. To sum up we can divide them into two groups: the anarchists favourable to organisation, and anarchists hostile to organisation.

The publications of the first group had a limited distribution such as L'Avenir, El Obrero Panadero (The Bakery Worker). A journal of the same political lines with a much larger distribution should be also noted: La Protesta Humana (Human Protest) with the main writer one Antionio Pellicer Paraire (Pellico). On the side of the "anti-organisationists", the main publications were El Rebelde (The Rebel) and Germinal[x]. This division was accentuated with the convocation of the International Anarchist Congress of September 1900 in Paris. This Congress was the occasion for an important discussion between the anarchist groups, and although it was closed by the police before the end, some secret meetings were held which recommended the creation of union federations. The "favourable to organisation" thesis was expressed more clearly still in an intervention of Malatesta to the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam of 1907: "It is necessary that anarchists enter into workers' unions. First of all in order to make anarchist propaganda; second because it is the only means for us to have at our disposal on the long-awaited day groups capable of taking in hand the direction of production"[xi]. This orientation was based upon the idea that "syndicalism is not and never will be only a legalistic and conservative movement without any other accessible aim than the amelioration of working conditions".[xii]

Since the discussions preparing for the Paris Congress in 1900, a clear separation was created in Argentina between those who considered workers’ organisations as vital and those who on the contrary judged them to be useless and pernicious. Thus, extracts from El Rebelde (August 14, 1899) reveal the idea that when there is self-organisation and centralisation, individuals lose the capacity for initiative, revolutionary forces are exhausted and the reaction triumphs. The majority camp in Argentina was the one that defined itself in favour of organisation, of increasing its work in the unions and to push for the creation of federations, converging in this position with the socialist groups.

The militant anarchist Diego Abad de Santillan considered that the debate between the "pro" and "anti" organisationists was settled by the arguments exposed in the twelve articles published in 1900 in "Human Protest" under the title "Workers' organisation" and signed Pellico. At the centre of his ideas was the necessity of organisation at two levels: economic and revolutionary. Pellico wrote of: "a branch of workers' organisation that one can qualify as revolutionary, which is made up of those who are fully convinced that they are working directly for the triumph of an ideal. And the other branch that one can qualify as economist, made up of worker masses who are struggling in order to better their conditions of life and counter the abuse of the bosses..."[xiii]. According to Diego Abad de Santillan, the passage quoted of Pellico is based on the strategy of "the International Brotherhood of Bakunin (placing itself) within and alongside the International Workers' Association..."

Antonio Pellicer himself explained that the federation is the type of organisation that the workers need, attributing to it the role of the "germ of the commune of the revolutionary future". He thus proposed "that local federations organise themselves in the sense of the revolutionary commune, of the permanent and active action of the working people in all domains which challenge their liberty and existence..."[xiv].

Following this description we can understand that the union federation is seen as the organ charged with the defence of the living conditions of the workers; and, at the same time, under the influence of conspiratorial groups which work "in parallel", it is oriented towards open combat against the system.

In fact the workers' movement as a whole is confronted with the need for a political organisation distinct from the organisations for the defence of its immediate interests, responsible for defending its programme and its political project of the emancipation of the proletariat and the establishment of a classless society[xv] . For marxism, this first of all took the form of mass political parties in the Second International, then after their betrayal, much more selective political parties around a political programme for the revolution. But this problematic wasn't foreign to anarchism, as certain terms of the debate between "pro" and "anti" organisationists revealed. The problem is that the well-identified necessity for a revolutionary organisation is completely derailed by Diego Abad de Santillan by identifying it with the conspiratorial action of a Bakunin (which included the conspiracy against the General Council of the IWA).

On reflection, we can note of course that while some "pro-organisation" anarchists opposed the vision of the "anti-organisationists", it wasn't through a profound critique given that, after having tried to criticise them, they went back to the roots of the Bakuninist schema of conspiracy, which is unfit for a real struggle against capitalism. Moreover they repeated the old idea of the separation of the economic and political combat by embellishing the idealist conception of the possibility of beginning to build the new society from the germs that existed in the very entrails of capitalism. Thus, although criticising the socialists for focussing on reforms as the means for creating an alternative to capitalism, they naively put their confidence in the effort to create "federated communes" as the prefiguration of the future society, and this without the system itself being destroyed.

The first union federations

In 1890, at the height of the struggle  between factions  of the bourgeoisie (marked by an economic crisis which provoked a coup d'état,  ending with the renunciation of the presidency by Juarez Celman), the group Vorwärts and the corporations of shoemakers and carpenters (in which the anarchist groups actively participated) set up la Federacion de Trabajadores de la República Argentina (Workers' Federation of the Argentine Republic, FTRA). The federation demanded the 8-hour day. Although its capacity for intervention was relatively limited and had existed for hardly two years, it favoured the unity of the workers and the definition of a programme of demands. The FTRA captured the attention of the workers but was rather confused. While the socialists of Vorwärts saw it as a permanent force to gain concessions and reforms, the anarchists saw in the unions the instrument par excellence of the anti-capitalist struggle. The two positions were expressed at the second congress (1892) in a very confused form where the socialist groups thought that the federation should be the spearhead of the struggle for the nationalisation of the industry. Faced with this the anarchists abandoned the FTRA. There followed a numerical weakening aggravated by the fact that the increase in unemployment provoked the departure of many from the country and the federation ended up by dissolving itself.

Even if this federation had a brief existence, it allowed the identification of difficulties which would emerge in the discussions in the following years. On one side, the socialists amplified the temporary economic gains obtained by the union struggle and gave a privileged place to dialogue with parliament. On the other side, the anarchists were convinced of the possibility of revolution at any time of history as a product of the will and expressed in "direct action".

In order to criticise the point of view of Argentine social democracy, we want to recall the analysis made by Rosa Luxemburg in 1899 in the introduction to Social Reform or Revolution:"Between social reform and revolution there exists, for social-democracy, an indissoluble link. The struggle for reforms is the means, whereas the social revolution is the aim". We can note that the confusion that was already present in German social democracy and criticised by Rosa Luxemburg is repeated in Argentina where the socialists let themselves get caught up in the "means" (which Rosa Luxemburg talked about) while underestimating the "aim", finally forgetting it altogether. As for anarchism, in general it turned out to be incapable of analysing the class struggle in a dynamic fashion, not seeing the different phases of the life of capitalism and thus incapable of taking into account the changes from one to the other concerning the tasks posed to the exploited class: that's to say no longer the struggle for now impossible reforms but the fight against the deterioration of its living conditions, with a view to overthrowing capitalism and the revolutionary transformation of society. Further, by denying the necessity for the party, anarchism overestimated the role of the unions.

In this state of confusion and with the aggravation of attacks against the living conditions of the working class, the idea grew of creating federated unions. The year 1899 was particularly marked by an increase in strikes and by a questioning of their role and that of the unions. These issues were at the centre of the problems discussed by the workers.

Juan B Justo posed the problem in the following terms: “What is the final outcome of the strike? The socialists consider it as a first step (and a primary step) for the formulation of immediate demands and their possible satisfaction, the anarchists as the method for the transformation of the social regime...”[xvi] The discussion cut across the unions and the socialist and anarchist groups without being deepened. However it did allow the “pro-organisation” anarchists to recognise the necessity for the working class to struggle for the amelioration of its living conditions and thus to ally with the Socialist Party for the creation of a union federation. Thus in May 1901, 27 unions of different corporations gave birth to the Federacion Obrera Argentina (Workers’ Federation of Argentina, FOA). It was composed of both socialist and anarchist delegates, although the latter had the stronger presence, including Pietro Gori from the Rosario rail workers.

The founding congress unfolded over eight sessions, the second being opened by a declaration of Torrens Ros of the anarchist tendency in which he petitioned the congress “not to make any sort of compromise with the Socialist Party, nor with the anarchists...”[xvii], declaring it independent and autonomous, which doesn’t mean to say that the opinions defended by the two camps were excluded from the debates. After the congress some of the problems raised there were posed anew. Outside of the divergences, the discussion allowed the establishment of a general schema of agreements and basic demands:

  • General contempt for traitors who have to be countered, a direct reference to strike-breakers and scabs
  • Fight against the “Truck System”
  • Mobilise for the lowering of rents
  • Reduction in the working day
  • Increase in wages
  • Equal wages for men and women
  • Rejection of under-15’s working
  • Creation of free schools.

But there were other issues that fed the conflicts after the congress. One of its decisions was the transformation of the paper La Organizacion (edited by a dozen unionists strongly influenced by the PS) into La Organizacion Obrera (considered as the organ of the FOA) but two months after the constitution of the FOA, the unionists who edited La Organizacion refused to stop its publication and rejected its transformation.

One of the thorniest discussions concerned the recourse to arbitration; that is, of a mediator to settle labour conflicts. The intervention of P. Gori in the founding congress was important because it deepened the polemic, considering that the FOA should work for “the integral conquest of the rights of the workers by the workers, (but) they reserve the right, in some cases, to resolve the economic conflicts between capital and labour by the means of juridical arbitration which could only be effective through persons presenting serious guarantees of the defence of workers’ interests”[xviii].

Complementing this position was a definition of the role of the general strike, regarding which he said: “it must be the supreme base of the economic struggle between capital and labour, it affirms the necessity of propagating among the workers the idea of a general work stoppage; that’s the challenge to the reigning bourgeoisie...”[xix]

It was above all the question of “arbitration” that was the cause of the conflict within the ranks of anarchism. The “anti-organisation” anarchist tendency, most particularly the paper The Rebel, generally criticised those anarchists who moved closer to the PS in order to found the FOA, but more precisely they accused Gori of legalism in “defending and supporting arbitration”. The disagreements which emerged on the basis of the problems described didn’t immediately mean the break-up of the federation, although they illustrated the difficulties which confronted the working class at that time.

The significance and use of the strike as envisaged by the congress provoked sharp tensions between anarchists and socialists in the upsurge of the strikes which paralysed the main towns in the two months following the foundation of the FOA.

“The 20th century, a feverish and confused bazaar”[xx]

In Argentina, the first year of the 20th century was marked by workers’ demonstrations. The formation of the FOA expressed the search for unity and solidarity among the workers, but the explosion of strikes and demonstrations also confirmed the atmosphere of combativity and the rejection of a life of misery imposed by capitalism. The long working days, the lowering of wages and despotic treatment by the bosses contributed to diverse industries being hit by the strikes. In August of 1901, the rail workers of Buenos Aires blocked economic activity. A significant number of workers pushed for the opening of negotiations, obtaining a temporary satisfaction of their demands. Negotiations with the bosses were led by P. Gori, which allowed him to show to his critics that he was not legalistic, at the same time as demonstrating the form through which arbitration could be used.

Based on similar demands, in October of the same year workers’ discontent arose in the sugar refining industry at Rosario. While the threats of unemployment from the bosses reduced the initial protests to silence, they only strengthened the courage and militancy of the workers, as shown in the growth of demonstrations in the streets, in which the socialist and anarchist militants of the FOA were foremost. The strength of the demonstrations affected the negotiations with the capitalists; the chief of police was presented as the mediator. In an assembly the workers elected a committee of struggle and a delegation for negotiations, which included the anarchist Romuldo Ovidi.

When the delegation came to the meeting, the police arrested Ovidi, which further aroused discontent. In responding to the initiative of the workers to free their comrades, the police attacked with sabres and then with bullets, killing the worker (of anarchist origins) Cosma Budeslavich. After this the workers of Rosario declared a one-day general strike.

1902 began the same way that 1901 ended, with strikes for the reduction of the working day, better wages and better working conditions. Although the stevedores and the port workers of Rosario and Buenos Aries were the most active during the course of the year, workers in other sectors also mobilised on a wide scale, as illustrated by the strikes of bakers in July and the workers of the central fruit market in  October, raising great expressions of solidarity and ferociously fought by the ruling class, first of all by using scabs and strike-breakers and then with hordes of police who confronted the workers in the streets, resulting in a number of them being wounded or arrested.

For the bourgeoisie, these social conflicts were fomented by a group of immigrants[xxi]. Thus the promulgation of the “Law of Residence” allowed it to justify the expulsion of migrants deemed to be ‘dangerous’. Faced with this measure the FOA called a general strike which paralysed the factories and the ports from November 22. The government of Julio Roca responded with a declaration of martial law on November 26 (up to the first of January). A wave of repression was then unleashed, putting an end to the mobilisations. The atmosphere of agitation between 1901 and 1902 pushed the socialists and anarchists to analyse in more detail the way in which the working class should struggle. From this, the anarchist papers (both those in favour of organisation and those against) considered the moment opportune to insist, in their appeals for the general strike, on the idea that this was the most important form of combat. For its part, the PS adopted a critical tone towards the radicalisation of the demonstrations on the streets and the strikes. This same tone was employed in the circular published in 1902 in the journal La Pensa which said that the PS “deplores recent events in Rosario (the confrontation of workers and police in the stevedores’ strike on January 13) and declined all responsibility for the movement”[xxii].

The second congress of the FOA (April 1903), was, in a certain way, the expression of these disagreements, since they created a schism which saw the departure of the unions under the influence of the PS.

In fact, the split was not the result of disagreements on the different conceptions because, in reality, there was no discussion on the subject. The motive for the separation was a disagreement which came up on the application of the statutes concerning the nomination of delegates to the congress.

From the beginning of the congress there was a problem regarding this subject. Alfredo J. Torcell (journalist and well-known PS militant) was not allowed to present himself as a delegate of the bakers’ corporation of La Plata because he didn’t do the job and was not involved with this local. This led to tension and the delegates of a socialist orientation quit the room. Some 48 union groups were affiliated to the FOA and nineteen withdrew, thus leaving an absolute majority to the anarchist unions. However, the demands on which the FOA was founded didn’t fundamentally alter.

The second congress adopted or deepened some general demands posed from the first congress (for example, the 8-hour day, provision of care services...). But it was in the changed attitude that the FOA adopted with regard to the PS that we find the basis of the disagreement at the second congress. This wasn’t identified and still less taken up through a political confrontation between the anarchist and socialist conceptions. The congress firmly rejected the invitation of the PS to conjointly participate in the First of May demonstration. There was also a rectification regarding arbitration. Abad de Santillan synthesised the argument: “The congress declares for a greater autonomy to the federated societies for recourse or not to arbitration as they judge opportune". This fracture allowed the anarchist groups who criticised the formation of the FOA for its rapprochement with the socialists, as was the case with The Rebel among others, to integrate into the federation. But, without doubt, what most clearly showed the distancing between the FOA (with its anarchist majority) and the PS, were the interventions they made in the strikes of 1902; and this  distance lengthened and deepened following the raising of the state of emergency.

After the state of emergency and during the year 1903, persecutions and arrests continued. Despite that demonstrations started again and there was an upsurge in polemics, as much among the socialists as the anarchists, around the form the struggle should take.

In its press and at its congress, the PS never ceased to criticise the way in which the strike was developing. In particular it criticised the fact that it didn’t have a resistance fund but, above all, it maintained that it was a disproportionate action which would block any eventual negotiations.

Based on this analysis, the PS participated in the creation of the Union General de Trabajadores (General Workers’ Union – UGT)[xxiii] and even if, at its founding congress (March, 1903), the UGT refused to establish an electoral alliance with the PS, it promised to undertake political actions in order to promote laws in the workers’ favour. At the same time it nuanced the PS’s conception of the general strike by recognising in the latter an efficient means when properly organised. But it underlined its rejection of the use of violence and insurrectional aims. This showed that although the UGT was directly promoted by the PS, the latter didn’t get absolute agreement from its members.

The anarchists affirmed their position around the general strike while accusing the socialists of being cowards and traitors, including in La Protesta Humana (January 31 1903), underlining that, since the raising of the state of emergency “... the workers confirming their affiliation to the circles of the Socialist Party, although they are leaders, although they have incited the strike or like us advised the corporatist organisations, are being set free after making an apology for their actions...”[xxiv]. In this sense, the FOA, with a majority of anarchists at the time of its third congress, came to a total disagreement concerning dialogue with the state and decided that the general strike was the ideal means of raising consciousness in the struggle.

Workers’ actions didn’t stop throughout 1903 and December signalled a massive protest of workers from different sectors, in particular the tram conductors’ strike. Their demands were very clear: the 8-hour day and an increase in wages. They also expressed solidarity with comrades dismissed for having handed out union leaflets, calling for them to be re-hired and the union recognised. The response of the bourgeoisie was to resort to strike-breakers and the police. In this context the FOA convoked a massive meeting on December 22 which ended in brutal repression by the police.

This scenario was repeated in 1904 and, on various occasions, the demands and the response of the state were very similar. The bourgeoisie took heed of the development of workers’ discontent and for that reason combined open repression with the opening of parliament to the PS. Thus, Alfedo Palacious assumed the responsibility of deputy. Further, he made use of nationalist ideology, privileging the hiring of Argentinean workers which favoured a hostile atmosphere towards “noxious migrants”. But the government also asked for a study to be made on the situation of the workers by the doctor Juan Bialet Masse. It’s probable that the doctor acted with honesty in trying to describe reality. On the other hand, it is certain that the ruling class used the results to its profit.

The report began by underlining a claim by the “Creole” (Argentine) workers, accentuating an anti-immigrant campaign. Echoing what Bialet had written, it said that “... the Creole worker, despised and treated as incapable, sees himself as a Pariah in his country, working harder and doing more work than anyone else, he cannot earn enough to make ends meet (...) despite his superior intelligence, his sobriety and adaption to his surroundings...”

Then, it criticised the conservative ideology of the bosses which generated social tensions: “The obsession of the bosses becomes obstinacy (...) a shoe manufacturer maintained the ten-and-a-half hour day because he saw it in a large German factory…he did not want it (the 8-hour day) and now it was necessary to bring it about by the force of a strike which is imposed on him, through a sterile and damaging struggle as much for the worker as for himself..”.[xxv]

The change from the FOA to the FORA

The recognition of the living conditions of workers by the state in the report of Bialet (presented in April, 1904) did not eliminate repression despite the decision to enact an employment law (approved August 31, 1905). The actions of the police on Mayday 1904, on the Piazza Mazzini in Buenos Aires showed this:

  • “The demonstration of the Workers’ Federation (...) was severely repressed with revolver shots by the police under any old pretext or no pretext at all. When the designated speakers were ready to speak to the united and enthusiastic crow, gunshots rang out, from where no-one knew, but it was the signal for a savage attack by the police. The dispersion of the demonstrators began while the ground was covered with wounded, almost a hundred of them. Some workers with arms repulsed the attack and their bullets equally hit some agents of the security squads...”[xxvi].

Searches, deportations, detentions, repression in general and the terrible conditions in the factories did not diminish workers’ fighting spirit. Unions and federations continued to adhere to the FOA which, as it developed, radicalised its speeches. This tendency was seen at the Fourth Congress which took place between July and August 1904 and distinguished itself with the change of name from FOA to Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina (Regional Workers’ Federation of Argentina – FORA).

The change of name corresponded to the structure adopted by the organisation: on the one hand, it set up professional associations; on the other, all the professional associations of the same territory formed a local federation, with all of the local federations in a province forming a region. The heart of this arrangement was the existence of a dual organisational structure in which each part had a different role; the professional associations had the task of obtaining reforms on the economic level while the local federations, having brought together different industries and linked the territories, displayed objectives which went beyond the economic and corporate level by envisaging the emancipation of the proletariat. For that reason this structure was based on a “Solidarity Pact” aiming at a level of unity that would allow professional and corporate interests to be overcome, along with territorial limitations. The process consisted first of all of strengthening the organisation at the national level in order to then create “the great confederation of all the Earth’s producers”.

But a part of the congress was also dedicated to the “law of residence” and naturally the proposed employment law.

The congress pronounced against the two laws by raising the necessity for a general strike in order to oppose the policy of deportation. On the employment law, the rejection came from a justified mistrust, since the Minister of the Interior, Joaquin V. Gonzalez, warned that the proposed law was “to avoid agitations of which the Republic has been the theatre for some years and most particularly since 1902...”[xxvii]. The congress saw in the plan an attempt to corral the workers behind the juridical orientations of the state.

The FORA rejected this plan: “it only favours the capitalists because they can evade their own responsibilities and the workers would have to faithfully assume them”; by contrast the PS was the motor of the employment law, above all since it had included (March 1904) a deputy, the lawyer Alfredo Lorenzo Palacios.

However, there were some sectors within the PS which, through the publication La Vanguardia, expressed their agreement with the criticisms made by the FORA on the labour law. The UGT itself drew an official line away from the PS and its deputy and promised a campaign to repudiate the law. The law finished up being withdrawn, not through the criticisms of the unions but because a regroupment of the bosses, the Industrial Union of Argentina (UIA), considered the law’s proposal to establish an 8-hour day, with a day off on Sunday, to be too extreme.

This didn’t stop the workers mobilising massively and again taking up the demand for the 8-hour day and increases in wages. At the same time, the government of Manuel Quintana prepared to oppose the protests against the designation of the chief of police as the arbitrator in labour conflicts.

Since September 1904, different sectors of workers had been mobilising to demand the eight-hour day but discontent took on a much greater breadth when a strike broke out among workers in enterprises in Rosario demanding a day of rest on Sunday. The police immediately responded with arrests of the union delegation. Faced with such attitudes the FORA and other unions not belonging to the Federation called a work stoppage for November 22 and 23. The demonstrations developed throughout the day, during which confrontations with the police continued, with workers injured and several murdered. Indignation increased and pushed towards unity between the FORA and the UGT and PS in the calling of a general strike in solidarity with the town of Rosario. On November 29, while order was being called into question in Rosario, and already in Buenos Aries, the meeting of the FORA prepared a general stoppage for December 1 and 2. The turmoil and concern of the state was such that it openly prepared the deployment of police and the military throughout the town and even installed cannons in the suburbs and anchored warships in the port. Despite this the strike continued and even spread to Cordoba, Mendoza and Santa Fe. The demonstrations which followed these days had fewer repercussions and some of them, like those of the rail workers, remained isolated. The situation became complicated and confusion grew from the failed revolt of February 4, 1905, led by the Radical Party and inspired by the ideas of Hipolito Yrigoyen, which tried to overthrow the government of Manuel Quintana.

Massive strikes and repression

The upheavals of February 4 1905 were called the “civil-military revolution”, although it was a fight between different sectors of the bourgeoisie over power, and it also had implications for the workers. Not only did the martial law imposed by the government of Manuel Quintana prevent any sort of massive demonstration by the workers, but it also made it possible to arbitrarily accuse the anarchist and socialist unions of participating in the uprising. In this framework of a confrontation between forces of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie, the government unleashed a new wave of persecutions which continued after martial law was ended. The deportation of union militants and anarchists from abroad continued but it was added to by the persecution of militants of Argentine nationality who were arrested and exiled to Uruguay. However, the increase in repression did not demobilise the workers.

In Argentina, as in a great part of Europe, the first decade of the 20th century was characterised by a great wave of struggles in which masses of workers participated. But this strengthening of workers’ militancy was also met by the repression of the ruling class.

The state of emergency that followed the Yrigoyen rebellion had hardly ended when, on March 24, the FORA called a demonstration in the centre of Buenos Aries which was repressed without any pretext. On another occasion, May 1909 at Rosario, the protests of the working masses were again put down, resulting in several deaths and dozens of wounded. There was not a single union local or workers’ publication that wasn’t attacked by the police.

But faced with the constant threat, demands for better conditions of work formulated by the transport workers of the town took on a greater importance given the militant atmosphere surrounding preparations for the demonstration of the First of May. The possibility of extending the struggle looked promising.

In trying to spread fear and contain the expansion of demonstrations, a Colonel Falcon ordered demonstrators to be fired on, resulting in a dozen deaths and many more wounded. In response, the mass strike again paralysed the town for eight hours, until some amelioration of conditions was accepted by the workers as well as the release of prisoners and the restitution of union locals taken over by the police. This event, in a certain way, favoured two other important developments although they are quite different:

  • The first was the demonstration of a high level of solidarity and coordinated action by the union structures (FORA and UGT) inciting the workers to look for unity, which, it must be said in passing, the UGT took advantage of in order to argue for its proposals about unification.  Thus, throughout September 1909, several corporations of the FORA and the UGT gave birth to the Workers’ Regional Confederation of Argentine (CORA).
  • The second came about as a consequence of the massacre of May; the reappearance of individualist anarchism. In revenge for the massacre of May, a young anarchist, Simón Radowitzky, decided to assassinate Colonel Falcon. In the following years, similar acts were repeated. The FORA never made a critique of these practices; on the contrary it considered them as expressions of the class.

In fact the two inter-related aspects had important political consequences:

1) The creation of the CORA led to a strengthening of a union tendency which promoted a move away from anarchist and socialist positions, affirming the principle of apoliticism (that's to say, non-electoralism). It defined itself as a current having the characteristics of revolutionary socialism, but these were rapidly lost. The CORA went on to increase its influence among the workers, gradually expanding and even advocating integration en masse into the FORA. It was through this tactic of infiltration that it could gain a political presence which it would use in 1915, during the 9th Congress of the Federation, in order to vote for the suppression of the reference to anarchism established at the Fifth Congress. 

This led to the existence of two federations having the same name. The one oriented by the Ninth Congress, the other formed by a minority which decided not to recognise this congress and laid claim to the principles of the Fifth Congress, recovering its image as an anarchist union; that's why it called itself the FORA of the Vth Congress.

The two federations declared themselves in favour of the struggle for immediate demands while also calling for the emancipation of the working class. What differentiated them at the beginning was the question of the reference to anarchism, and from this flowed changes in the kind of struggle advocated. The FORA 9 went on to reject the mass strike as an arm of combat; the principle of solidarity grew increasingly distant from its practice and it considered that each union federation should act "as it saw fit". And although its members continued to reject participation in parliament, they looked for a rapprochement with the structures of the state in order to hold negotiations around social gains. The government of Hipolito Yrigoyen profited from this arrangement since, while continuing to order the massacre of workers, it tried to forge legal links with the "Niners".

The FORA of the 9th Congress developed numerically and, along with this growth, came closer to the state. Thus, it dissolved itself in 1922 to form the Union Sindical Argentina, which would serve as a base in 1930 for the foundation of the Confederacion General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labour - CGT) which from the beginning would be influenced by the Socialist Party and later evolve into an instrument of Peronism.

2) The act of Simon Radowitzky also had political consequences. The anarchist Cano Ruiz explained that the assassination of the policeman Falcon "provoked the anger of the reaction. The state declared martial law for two months, the union locals were closed (...) hundreds arrested and numerous undesirables (for the authorities) were expelled". He even recognised that an important period of reflux had opened up; analysing things a little further on: "Since the act of Radowitzky (September 14, 1909) up to 1916, oppression was so harsh that the anarchist movement and by consequence the workers' movement incarnated by the FORA gave no sign of life"[xxviii]. It's essential to affirm, in looking back at the effects that this event provoked and as summed up by Cano Ruiz, that terrorism is foreign to the combat of the working class. Even if it can arouse sympathy (because it's seen as an act of justice), it expresses a weakness and even expresses the infiltration of petty-bourgeois ideology and of classes which hold no perspective, who live in despair and lack confidence in the actions of the working masses. Consequently, it is an individualist practice which, by hiding behind the facade of heroism, expresses a strong impatience, scepticism and demoralisation. Thus, as we have said on other occasions: “Their actions are more aimed at spectacular suicide than at any particular goal"[xxix].

We thus see growing difficulties in the expression and organisation of workers' militancy. On the one hand, there was a rapprochement between the FORA 9 and the structure of the state and, just as significantly, a loss of proletarian life in the PS, with the growth of parliamentary illusions and nationalist positions (it advocated the entry of Argentina into the Great War). But what confirmed the abandonment of the proletarian camp would be its condemnation of the Russian revolution. On the other hand, the repression had a demoralising effect and would temporarily remove all hope for the workers, a situation aggravated by the confusion provoked by an anarchist individualism that focused on the accomplishment of terrorist acts.

During this period of confusion and continuing attacks against the workers, only events of great breadth like the Russian revolution could aim to break the reflux and general demoralisation. Abad de Santillan synthesised it in this way: "There were moments in the period of agitation between 1918 to 1921 that really knocked on our door and made us feel joy at the supreme hour of all our demands. An international wave of enthusiastic solidarity touched the modern slaves (...) there rose a Russia bright with promises of liberty from the debris of Tsarism[xxx].

FORA V criticised the Bolsheviks but it didn't cease to recognise the historic importance of the revolution for the exploited. After having broken the reflux, the masses of workers could mobilise again for the defence of their living conditions, as they would do in massive fashion between 1919 and 1921.

In the second part we will look at the experience of the struggles undertaken by FORA V.

Rojo, March 2015.

[i] International Review no 118, ‘What is revolutionary syndicalism’. This series contains articles on the CGT in France (IR 120), the CNT in Spain (IR 128,129, 130, 131, 132), the FAU in Germany (IR 137,141,147) and the IWW in the USA (IR 124 and 125)

[ii]  La Nacion (The Nation), 21 January 1879, quoted by Raul Ernesto Comba in "20/20: 4 decados en la historia de Banderalo. 1800-1920" (20/20: 4 decades of the history of Banderalo), Edition Dunken,  BA, 2012, p47. Translated by us.

[iii]  Although G. A. Lallemant had dedicated an important activity to the organisation and spread of socialism in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, this person and with him a part of social democracy were close to the bourgeois liberal party called the "Radical Civic Union".

[iv]  La Protesta Humana (Human Protest) 3 September 1899, quoted by Diego Abad de Santillan in La FORA: ideologia et trayectoria. Translated by us.

[v]  There are many tangos that have their origins in these precarious dwellings. They often became flooded so you would have to fix benches by roping them to a wall. Thus one could sleep sitting against the wall. This form of rest was called, in the argot of the time, "maroma" (roping).

[vi]  Abad de Santillan. Op. Cit.

[vii] From the name of the English bank which ran into severe difficulties after being exposed to heavy defaults of payments linked to the sovereign debt of Argentina and Uruguay.

[viii]  Regarding the process of degeneration of the PS, it's necessary to recall that in 1919 Juan B Justo held a conference where he condemned the Russian revolution and the actions of the Bolsheviks in particular. In his text of 1925, "Internationalism and country", he criticised the communists (in particular Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg) for not having defended free-exchange, on the pretext that, if the war is effectively caused by the struggle for markets, as they affirmed, then it was necessary to eliminate this factor "by opening up all the markets to the free exchange of international capital".

[ix] In 1918 the PSIA was formed declaring itself in agreement with the Zimmerwald Conference and supporting the revolution.

[x] The historian Zaragoza Ruvira found other "individual" publications but their activity was diluted in the latter years of the 19th century, among them: El Perseguido (The persecuted, 1890-97), La Miseria (Misery, 1890), La liberte (1893-94), Lavoriamo (We workers, 1893 in the Italian language).

[xi]  Quoted in our article of the International Review no 120: "Anarchism faced with a changing epoch: the CGT up to 1914".

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii]  Human Protest, November 17, 1900.

[xiv]  Quoted by Abad de Santillan.

[xv]  Regarding this, read our article in International Review no 118, "What is revolutionary syndicalism?"

[xvi] Cited by Dardo Cuneo, Las dos corrientes del movemiento obrero en el 90 (The two currents of the workers’ movement in the 1890’s) in Claves de la historia argentina (Keys to the history of Argentina) 1968.

[xvii]  Oved, Op. Cit., p165.

[xviii]  Op. Cit., p68.

[xix] Bilsky Edgardo J.  La FORA y el movimiento obrero, 1900-1910 (FORA and the workers’ movement, 1900-1910), Latin American Editions, Argentina, 1985, p. 194.

[xx] In the celebrated tango “Cambalache” (1934) you can find the following phrase which inspired the sub-title of the article: “Siglo XX Cambalache problematico y febril”, which we have translated as “The 20th century, a feverish and confused bazaar”.

[xxi]  This attempt of the Argentine bourgeoisie to divide the workers shouldn’t surprise us.

Thus in the United States, the bourgeoisie cynically tried to exploit the differences between those born in the country, the Anglophone workers (even if they themselves were second generation immigrants) and the newly-arrived immigrant workers, who only spoke and read a little or no English. On this subject see our article “The IWW (1905-1921): the failure of revolutionary syndicalism in the United States (I)” in International Review no 124.
Similarly in Brazil from the second half of the 19th century, a massive immigration of workers coming from Italy, Spain, Germany, etc., made up the necessary labour for a rising industry, notably modifying the make-up of the proletariat in this country. From 1905, revolutionary minorities among them, essentially composed of immigrants, began to get together. Police repression expelled the active militants. On this subject, see our article “1914-23, ten years which shook the world, the echoes of the 1917 Russian revolution in Latin America, Brazil 1918-21” in International Review no 151:

[xxii]  Op. Cit. p204.

[xxiii]  The UGT in Spain was founded in 1988, where it was presented, as in Argentina, in certain proximity to the Partido Socialista Obrero de Espana (PSOE – Workers’ Socialist Party of Spain). Although the two central unions had a similar origin and even the same name, outside of that there was no political or organic relationship between them.

[xxiv]  Cited by Abad de Santillan.

[xxv]  Juan Bialet Masse, Informe sobre el estado de las clases obreras argentinas (Report on the state of the Argentinean working class).

[xxvi]  Abad de Santillan, Op. Cit.

[xxvii]  Cited by S. Marotta, “El movimiento sindical argentinao” (The Argentinean Trade Union Movement) Argentine, 1960, p194.

[xxviii]  Cano Ruiz, Que es el anarquismo, (What is anarchism?). Editions Nuevo tiempo (New Times), Mexico, 1985, p272.

[xxix]  For a deeper understanding of this question we recommend reading: "Terror, terrorism and class violence", International Review no. 14, 1978:

[xxx]  Abad de Santillan, "The book of the counter-revolution", in The Protest, 110, 1924.




Revolutionary Syndicalism