"Besides the Militant and PM we brought with us Pathfinder books and copies of the New International, and we sought out workers and young people who are attracted to the perspective of making a revolution," he stated.
Koppel, editor of the Spanish-language Perspectiva Mundial, was joined on the platform by Romina Green, a garment worker and organizer of the New York Young Socialists. The two had returned days earlier from a two-week trip to Argentina to report on the social explosion that led to the collapse of the de la Rúa government in December. Christian Catalán from Canada was part of this team.
The forum, titled "Behind the Social Crisis and Economic Collapse in Argentina," was part of a socialist educational weekend sponsored by the Miami and Tampa Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialists. Nearly 30 people participated in the forum on Argentina and two classes the next day, "In defense of workers' rights" and "Bolshevism and Anarchism." Among them were a high school student and three immigrant workers from Argentina. The three--a garment worker, a welder, and a construction worker--noted that there is now a fast-growing Argentine immigrant population in Miami.
The current upheaval in Argentina, Koppel noted, is a sharp example of what capitalism increasingly has in store for working people worldwide, from the debt squeeze in Turkey and stepped-up U.S. mili tary intervention in the Philippines to the economic crisis in the imperialist countries, underscored recently by the collapse of the Enron corporation and its shock waves.
In Argentina today, working people confront record unemployment, brutal social cutbacks, and police assaults on protesting workers. The recent devaluation of the Argentine peso is leading to a further sharp drop in the income of working people.
"There is substantial working-class resistance to these brutal conditions. And we found many workers and youth there who are thirsty for revolutionary answers," Koppel stated. "But what's needed is working-class leadership: a party that can lead working people to chart a path to take power out of the hands of the Argentine ruling families, break free from imperialist domination, and establish a workers and farmers government that can open the road to socialism. This is what we went to talk to people about."
Peronism: main obstacle for workers
Politics in Argentina today cannot be understood without looking at the unfolding of the historic currents in the workers movement over the years, Koppel pointed out. Today, he said, the main obstacle to working people in Argentina building a revolutionary leadership remains Peronism, a bourgeois current that has dominated politics there since World War II.
"This obstacle was not inevitable, however," he added. The main current in the working-class movement prior to World War II was the Argentine Communist Party. This Stalinist party betrayed the working class leading up to and during World War II. Faithfully carrying out the foreign policy dictates of the ruling bureaucratic caste in Moscow, it backed the war efforts of Argentina's main imperialist oppressor--the United Kingdom--and its ally in Washington. The Communist Party opposed strikes by packinghouse and other workers in order to "aid the war effort." Such treachery discredited the CP among militant workers.
The Stalinists thus handed the banner of national liberation to the bourgeois nationalist current around Juan Domingo Perón, which was able to divert the potential revolutionary struggles of workers and farmers into pro-capitalist channels.
Argentine capitalists had been able to take advantage of the war between imperialist rivals, selling them meat and raking in high profits. This allowed them to make substantial concessions to the working class. Under Perón, appointed minister of labor by a military junta and then elected president in 1946, workers organized massively into unions and won significant increases in wages and social benefits. During the postwar boom, working people attributed the fruits of their struggles to Perón and his wife Eva, who posed as a champion of the dispossessed and defender of "the Argentine nation." The leadership of the powerful industrial unions, affiliated to the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), became subordinated and completely tied to Perón and his Justicialist Party.
Since that time, the Argentine labor movement has been marked by the contradiction between the militancy of the rank and file and the class-collaborationist union bureaucracy that has tied the unions to the Peronist party and the capitalist state.
With the end of the postwar boom, Perón was overthrown in a military coup. Workers and their organizations suffered blows but were not defeated.
In 1969, a working-class uprising against the military regime took place in Córdoba, the country's center of auto and aerospace production. Similar revolts took place in the industrial center of Rosario, and then in a number of other cities--except the country's capital, Buenos Aires.
The Cordobazo, as it became known, opened up a prerevolutionary situation in Argentina, at a time when working-class upsurges swept through several South American countries. "With proper leadership, a struggle for power by workers and farmers throughout the country could have been posed," Koppel pointed out.
To defuse the mass upsurge, the military announced elections that took place in 1973, and the Peronists won decisively.
During this period, class-struggle-minded currents began to grow in the union movement, seeking to challenge the pro-employer course of the Peronist bureaucracy. Various organizations identifying themselves as socialist or communist were active in the labor movement. Among them was a small Marxist current that received a hearing from many vanguard workers.
In face of the obstacle of Peronism and the treachery of Stalinism, however, "thousands of revolutionary-minded youth and workers turned toward an ultraleft course," Koppel said. "They were inspired by the Cuban Revolution but misapplied its lessons. Rejecting the perspective of building a revolutionary party of workers rooted in its struggles and mass organizations, they elevated the method of guerrilla warfare to a political strategy, believing it possible for a small group to spark the masses into action through bold but isolated deeds." Prominent among these groups were the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) and the Montoneros, a group arising out of Peronism that used socialist language.
"This ultraleft sectarian course led to disastrous results," Koppel emphasized. "Workers and farmers were increasingly relegated to the sidelines by this strategy. And as the ruling class unleashed a brutal repression, thousands of courageous revolutionaries were slaughtered."
He pointed out that the lessons of that experience are drawn in the Pathfinder book The Leninist Strategy of Party Building: The Debate on Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America by U.S. Socialist Workers Party leader Joseph Hansen. It was one of a number of books on sale during the socialist educational weekend.
The Argentine rulers responded with a bloody military coup in 1976. Under the U.S.-backed dictatorship, some 30,000 workers, students, and others were "disappeared." Thousands more were imprisoned or forced into exile. It took years for the working class to recover from these blows.
Antilabor offensive in 1990s
In 1989, after a transition to bourgeois democratic rule, the Peronists were voted in again, with Carlos Menem becoming president. What followed was a decade of massive selloffs of most basic industries and utilities to foreign investors and an accelerated penetration by imperialist finance capital. The capitalist owners of these industries began large-scale layoffs, leading to sharply increased unemployment and speedup on the job. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which supported Menem, went along with these attacks, Koppel said.
"We visited Neuquén province," Koppel said, "a center of the oil industry. Workers' living standards there have been devastated by layoffs over the past decade. But above all, they have been devastated by the union bureaucracy's policy of depending on the government for jobs, pensions, and a secure future."
Incapable of responding to the capitalist assault, the CGT fractured. There are now two CGTs and the smaller Argentine Workers Federation (CTA), all of which have a class-collaborationist leadership. Meanwhile, the level of unionization has dropped rapidly. Today, only 20 percent of the workers are organized in trade unions, down from 90 percent at the postwar high point, Koppel stated.
For years, the working class in Argentina was marked by fear from the legacy of the military terror and then from the threat of unemployment. Social explosions, however, began to break out in mid-1990s, especially in the provinces hardest hit by the social crisis. Workers who were jobless or had not been paid in months revolted in Santiago del Estero, Neuquén, Jujuy, Salta, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Argentina's foreign debt has mushroomed to more than $140 billion. Capitalists in the United States, Britain, Spain, and other imperialist countries use Argentina's debt bondage to suck billions of dollars in wealth out of that country, as they do throughout the semicolonial world. To pay those bondholders, Argentina's rulers have slashed wages of public employees, pensions, and driven down working conditions.
"While nearly 20 percent of the labor force is unemployed and even more are underemployed, many workers told us that 12-hour workdays have become normal," Koppel said. "On-the-job injuries have risen sharply because of speedup." Through so-called reform labor laws, which the union officialdom largely consented to, many previous gains of the labor movement have been set back. Militant reporters found it's not uncommon for new hires to undergo job probation of one or even two years, Koppel stated.
Downfall of de la Rúa regime
Fernando de la Rúa, a Radical Party politician who won the 1999 elections from the Peronists in an alliance with another bourgeois party, Frepaso, obediently carried out the demands of the imperialist bondholders and native capitalists to squeeze more and more from Argentine workers and farmers. In recent months, however, de la Rúa's government defaulted on part of the foreign debt because it simply could not keep up with the interest payments. At the same time, the policy instituted by the Menem government of pegging the peso to the dollar became increasingly unsustainable as the peso in practice lost value in relation to the U.S. currency.
The unions, which had carried out several nationwide strikes against the de la Rúa regime, launched another general strike December 13.
A wave of working-class protests exploded across the country--road blockades by unemployed workers, demonstrations by unionists demanding back wages, the storming of supermarkets by crowds of unemployed workers. Small businessmen and professionals threatened by financial ruin joined in the street protests. And this time mass demonstrations erupted in Buenos Aires. After his declaration of a state of siege and unleashing of deadly police violence sparked even more popular anger, he was forced to resign December 20.
"This was the working class anarchically defending itself, with little organization, no leadership, and no clear demands except immediate relief," Koppel stated. In Buenos Aires, the unions and parties that call themselves socialist or communist were virtually absent from the big mobilizations.
After the resignations of three more presidents in less than two weeks, the Argentine ruling class picked Peronist leader Eduardo Duhalde, former governor of Buenos Aires province, as president. Duhalde has used traditional Peronist demagogy to try to dampen the social protests and has put together a Peronist-dominated coalition government together with Radical politicians. His government has implemented a devaluation of the peso, which will have a disastrous impact on the living standards of working people, and is preparing a new round of economic attacks on working people to meet the demands of the imperialist creditors.
Need for proletarian leadership
"The eruption of social protests and the downfall of the de la Rúa government has opened up greater political discussion and debate among working people in Argentina," Koppel said. "But there is no political current offering proletarian leadership in Argentina today."
Street rallies, pot-banging demonstrations, strikes, and other protests continue to take place daily across the country, demanding relief from the economic catastrophe. But these diverse actions involve different class forces and dynamics.
On one hand, struggles such as demands for payment of back wages, for jobs, or against police brutality, which have been taking place from Neuquén to Córdoba to Jujuy, can help strengthen the confidence of working people in their own capacities.
"But demonstrations that simply demand 'Out with the corrupt politicians' or denunciations of 'all political parties' do not advance the interests of working people," he said. "Just being antigovernment is not progressive and will feed rightist currents that rail against the corruption of the establishment."
Middle-class layers have been spurred into protests against the partial freezing of bank accounts. But these middle-class cacerolazos, or pot-banging protests, are not in themselves progressive. Some have an outright reactionary character, such as a recent street rally in Córdoba against rising prices that was directed against a Chinese small shopkeeper rather than the capitalist price-gougers.
"The middle-class rage registered in many of these actions can lend itself to right-wing and fascist demagogy," Koppel said. The existence of small fascist groups and figures, such as the followers of Mohamed Ali Seineldín ----a former military officer who uses nationalist and anticapitalist rhetoric--is a real part of Argentine politics to day. "But it's unlikely that the fascists will grow in a big way and get decisive ruling-class backing unless the working-class movement becomes strong enough to contend for power and misses decisive opportunities to do so," Koppel said.
In the workers movement today, Peronism remains the dominant political current. The two CGTs were quick to announce their support for Duhalde's government. The CTA's official position is not to support any party, but in reality its leaders give critical support to the Peronists.
"It's true that Peronism's hold is weaker than it was 35 years ago, and it's noticeably weaker among the newest generations that never lived through the postwar Perón years," Koppel said. "But Peronism is still the main political obstacle to communism and a clear proletarian line of march in the Argentine workers movement today.
"It's not uncommon for a militant worker to say that today's Peronist party and politicians 'have betrayed Perón's ideals' and that the Peronists 'are no better than the Radicals.' But such a statement doesn't mean a break with Peronism--it reflects a continuing illusion in the 'ideal' promoted by Perón that a bourgeois government can fight imperialist oppression and advance the interests of working people in Argentina. In fact, many workers who denounce today's Peronists still have a picture of Juan and Evita Perón in their living room or union hall."
Other currents in workers movement
All the major radical currents that contend for influence in the workers movement today played a role during the prerevolutionary period of the early 1970s. Yet none has drawn a real balance sheet on the lessons of those events, Koppel said, because their political course contributed to the defeat or because they have changed their views. And none provides revolutionary leadership today.
The Argentine Communist Party is a shadow of its former self. It was badly discredited by its decision to back the military junta in 1976–82 in exchange for the hope of avoiding repression. It pursues a class-collaborationist course similar to that of Stalinist parties around the world, and was further weakened by the crumbling of its mentors and paymasters in the Soviet Union.
Among the other currents in the workers movement, the various self-designated Trotskyist groups maintain a visible presence in the unions, as they have historically in Argentina, but they are increasingly fragmented, Koppel noted. The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), which was led by Nahuel Moreno until his death in 1987, has split into several groups, including the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) and the Workers Party for Socialism (PTS). These groups maintain an ultraleft sectarian course, as illustrated by the perennial chant of "For a constituent assembly" by one such group, the Workers Party (PO). The MST's focus today is largely electoral; it is in an electoral bloc with the CP called United Left.
Other currents range from radical Peronists, some of which focus largely on "community work" in impoverished neighborhoods, to anarchists, which attract a layer of radicalized youth because of their stance "against all political parties."
Rebuilding communist movement
This lack of proletarian leadership is not going to change overnight, Koppel said. But as the capitalist crisis grinds away and the ruling class tries to solve its problems at the expense of working people, defensive struggles continue and revolutionary-minded workers and young people continue to seek answers.
In her presentation, Romina Green described the thirst for revolutionary politics that the international team encountered in Argentina, from members of the Metalworkers Union occupying a plant on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to university students in Córdoba.
"Many of those we met were particularly interested in talking to communists from North America about working-class politics in the United States and Canada," Green said. They purchased books like The Changing Face of U.S. Politics and Capitalism's World Disorder. "A lot of people wanted to know what we thought about the U.S. government's war drive in Central Asia and its repercussions inside the United States, including the U.S. government's attacks on workers' rights at home under the pretext of 'fighting terrorism.' "
Others were attracted to Che Talks to Young People and other books on the Cuban Revolution. These books are essential, Green said, to counter misconceptions that Ernesto Che Guevara was simply a heroic guerrilla fighter rather than the political leader of working people that he was, both in the mass struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship and then in the efforts by workers and farmers to reorganize society.
The Cordobazo and other working-class uprisings in Argentina in the late 1960s and early 1970s are not simply of historical interest, Green noted. She underscored a point made by Jack Barnes in Capitalism's World Disorder, "For revolutionary-minded workers, such events confirm what our class is capable of and what we know is coming sooner or later in every country of the world."
"The work we did in Argentina had the same goal as the Young Socialists who took part in last summer's world youth festival and recent anti-imperialist meetings, seeking out revolutionary-minded youth," Green concluded. "It's through this kind of work that the communist movement will begin to be rebuilt internationally, including in Argentina."
Argiris Malapanis is a meatpacker in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Workers occupy tile plant in fight for jobs
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home