Argentina: What Kind of Revolution?

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Francisco Sobrino

THE BATTLES OF last December have opened a new, unwritten situation in Argentina. For the first time in its history, the people have brought down a bourgeois democratic government.

This has been the fruit of a process of eighteen years experience, which accelerated over the last year. At the end of 2000 it was still possible to affirm (with a certain lack of perspicacity):

The social forces of our country are far from conforming to a nucleus capable of organizing resistance (to globalization). One only has to observe the panorama that these forces offer today in Argentina: a weak and vacillating bourgeoisie; a diminished proletariat with a backward and corrupt leadership; a disillusioned society with large lumpenized sectors.(1)

A lot of water has passed under the bridge in a very short period of time — and unforeseen currents have been added to the torrent.

The so-called porteña middle class [from Buenos Aires] massively took to the streets beating pots and pans, as if attracted by a gigantic magnetic force which led to the Plaza de Mayo. It had already brought down two governments.

In the meantime, the workers movement — the traditional historical actor in mobilizations — now weakened by the neoliberal-Menemist hemorrhage [the 1990s regime of Carlos Menem –ed.] and controlled by the trade union bureaucracy, was notable by its absence.

Nevertheless, another social subject has exerted and continues to exercise considerable influence: the “picketers,” that is, the organized sector of the unemployed working class. Its method of struggle to wring concessions from the different governments consists of shortcuts and confrontations with the repressive forces, and its democratic functioning in assemblies has infected the middle sectors.

If the numeric weight of the picketers is less than that of the pots and pans movement, its real and potential influence over the rest of the wage-earners (working, precarious or unemployed) is important.

More than a few commentators at first accused this movement of being motivated solely by the banking “freeze” (the virtual confiscation of checking and savings accounts). But a broad vanguard of this heterogeneous pots-and-pans movement has been organized in neighborhood assemblies, beginning in the capital and extending to greater Buenos Aires, growing to include the rest of Argentina’s cities.

The program raised by the assemblies embraces a wide spectrum of democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-system demands. This opens the possibility of the emergence of a large popular movement with perspectives that aim to break bourgeois hegemony.

The Rise of Direct Democracy

These new alternatives that have arisen have led to elements of direct democracy without precedence in Argentine history.

There is an embryonic but growing tendency on the part of the assemblies to assume tasks or functions that were traditionally the exclusive power of the state. The people deliberate and (almost) govern, in spite of the constitutional arrangements that grant this power only to their representatives.

There are leftists who start from a supposed social characterization of this so-called “middle class” in ferment, that would be composed of “small owners,” whose political project would then be that of an exploiting class of others’ labor.

For these analysts this project has insurmountable limitations, suitable to a wretched anti-imperialism and populism that would end up backing down before global capitalism. We believe that the premises of this analysis are totally false.

It is true that those who participated in the “acerolazos” (pots and pans banging) in December included sectors of the enriched middle class or those who benefitted from the globalizing neoliberal process, whose bank deposits were frozen like everyone else’s.

This sector could constitute the social base for authoritarian and rightist projects when an eventual deepening of the crisis that shakes the country divides those who are affected by it.

But the millions who make up the sector that fills the assemblies, the successive cacerolazos, demonstrations and denunciations that publicly “out“ the corrupt judges, political and trade union leaders in front of their houses, are mainly housewives, retirees, state employees, from commerce and the service sector, teachers, students, self-employed workers, unemployed, impoverished professionals, workers who find democracy in the assemblies that they don’t have in their “natural” organizations, small businesses and kiosks.(2)

These are the ones who today live — or attempt to live — from their work. They are the millions who have rebelled against the destiny reserved for them by global capital: their disappearance.

Challenges for the Left

The growing weight of the left was already reflected in the parliamentary elections of October 2001. In Buenos Aires the Marxist and revolutionary left received twenty-five percent of the valid votes. If they had been united, they would have won a senate seat.

The participation in the neighborhood assemblies of left militants, partisans fragmented in dozens of groups, or former partisans whose number, we believe, generously multiplies the quantity of the partisans has certainly been a factor in the radicalization of the vanguard that we previously mentioned.

Nevertheless, there exists the risk that the old vices of the left groups (apparatchikism, substitutionism, sectarianism, etc.) can dangerously obstruct the development of these organisms and the conscience of their members, by not respecting the natural rhythms of their maturation.

It should be emphasized that even if many currents of the left repudiate Stalinist language and practice, lamentably they don’t appear to have understood the profound democratic content of this process; they continue to be tied to the conception that Hal Draper called “socialism from above” with its distinctive reformist and revolutionary variants.

To this problem we must add the downside of the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc. It makes it extremely difficult to raise the banner of socialism as an alternative to capitalism, and as a way out of the crisis.

Socialism is identified at the popular level with the bureaucratic, repressive statist regimes (it isn’t our intention here to argue about the nature of these states). [See the author’s “Reflections on `Really Imaginary Socialism’” in ATC 94, September-October 2001 –ed.] The organizations of the left should think seriously about this problem, which is more than simply semantic.

At times we have spoken about a “human society” as opposed to the “inhuman society” of capital. We are not speaking about “inhuman” in the sense of its cruelty (though it certainly is!) but because in this society — created by humans, obviously — capital has an impersonal power, and humans are mere objects dominated by it, whose reciprocal relations take the fantastic form of relations between things.

To speak of a human and inhuman creation sounds illogical. If it has a contradictory sense, it is because it expresses the truth of a contradictory reality. Perhaps then, it would be easier to propose and raise the banner of a human society than to try to explain why socialism as it was known in the 20th century wasn’t what it set out to be: an association in which the free development of each will be the free development of all.

Particularities of the Movement

We should try to compare this new crest of social struggles (especially in Latin America) that has inserted itself into the flames of the 21st century with other processes from the 20th century, the closest of which would be from the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the seventies.

On the face of it there would be a great difference in the “level of consciousness” in both processes. The enthusiasm awakened by the Cuban Revolution, the French May (1968), the mobilizations of Italy’s Autumn (`69), Prague’s 1968 Spring, the heroic Vietnam War and the anti-war movement in the United States, as well as the Cordobazo [working-class rebellion in the early 1970s in Cordoba, Argentina –ed.] in our country represented, in the social imagination of the workers’ and student vanguard of those years, a perspective of a more or less immediate socialist revolution.

At least that was how it was mainly understood then, as a revolution that would overtake so-called “actually existing socialism” [the term used to describe the Soviet bloc and China –ed.], and the new society would be extended throughout the world.

The decades since then have witnessed hard struggles and large defeats of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, and the glorification of neoliberalism as the only alternative for the world.

Although this panorama has begun to modify itself, and the neoliberal “single-alternative” no longer exhibits this “exclusive” character, the majority doesn’t yet clearly conceive that there can be an alternative to capitalism.

Nevertheless the recent struggles against capitalist globalization whose landmarks are Seattle, Prague and Genoa are examples of the growing rejection of its control, a rejection that co-exists with tendencies that propose the “humanization” of capitalism and similar variants.

In spite of the backwardness of the level of consciousness today compared to that of the previous movement, a large part of this movement’s struggles go forward without being ideologically weighed down or dragged backwards by the dominant organizations of the previous period — with their conception of socialism, which they see as their (parties,’ movements’ and guerrilla armies’) generous gift to the grateful masses.

Many of those who are today in struggle, even if the great of majority of them haven’t read the statutes of the First International, seem to be very clear that “the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves.”

We believe that the present process in Argentina is not only part, but the highest point, of the struggles all over Latin America. It is also very probable that because of the socio-cultural characteristics of our population the “Argentine case” will be an impressive example to tens of millions of Europeans, who are going to be compelled to face with sober senses the real conditions of their own lives.


  1. Carlos Gabetta, “Notas sobre el sujeto histórico,” Actuel Marx 20000, Vol. III, Buenos Aires, noviembre 2000.
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  2. According to the data of the INDEC, the industrial proletariat shrank from 1.5 million workers in 1975 to less than 1 million in 2001.
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from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)