The events of last December are a warning of what will happen in one country after another in the coming period. The Argentine revolution is a complete answer to all the faint-hearts, cowards, sceptics and cynics who doubted the ability of the working people to change society. It deserves the most careful study by all workers. As events unfold there will be periods of ebbs and flows, victories and defeats, before a decisive settlement is reached. But sooner or later, the question of power will be posed, and must be solved.
The revolution began with the overthrow of the government of Fernando de la Rua, which was forced to resign after thousands of angry and impoverished protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires. This was the first stage of the revolution. It reflects the deep crisis that has engulfed Argentina, but which affects the whole of Latin America.
This was a movement that included every section of the oppressed layers of society: not just the workers, but the unemployed and the middle class also. This fact has led some to question the class basis of the movement and to deny the role of the proletariat. But this is to misunderstand the dynamics of the Argentine revolution. The seriousness of the crisis - which has ruined large numbers of small businesspeople and pensioners - has aroused the broadest layers of the masses to struggle and awakened even the most backward and formerly inert layers. This is both a strength and a weakness. The presence of other classes in the movement obscures its real character. But only under the leadership of the proletariat can the movement triumph.
The masses are seeking a way out of the crisis through direct action. Strikes, demonstrations, "cacerolazos", factory occupations and roadblocks are occurring on an almost daily basis. In the school of direct action the masses are discovering their strength and the power of collective action. It is like the warming-up exercises of an athlete who is summoning up all his strength for the final test of strength and willpower. However, the decisive test has not yet arrived.
The highest expression of the movement is the popular assemblies, the local and factory committees, the organisations of the "piqueteros" and other forms of the self-organisation of the masses. An important step forward was the convening of the National Assembly of Workers on February 16 and 17. Although most of those present came from the unemployed workers' movement, there were also some representatives from the Popular Assemblies and from trade union committees and factories. This gave an opportunity for the representatives of different regions, districts and factories to understand the need for coordinated action on a national scale, and to debate the slogans and tactics of the struggle and lay down the priorities for the immediate period.
In these organisations it is possible already to see the dim outline of a new power in society that is springing up everywhere, asserting its right to control society, jostling the existing power and challenging its authority. Not for nothing do papers like La Nación rage against the assemblies which they regard with fear and trembling. Not for nothing do they compare them to the "dark and sinister" soviets in Russia. The ruling class have grasped the real significance of the popular assemblies and the other forms of popular power. They are embryonic soviets.
The soviets in Russia were born in 1905 and re-emerged in March 1917. In essence they were embryonic forms of workers' power. But they first arose as committees of struggle - extended strike committees. Their purpose was to organise and generalise the struggle against the tsarist regime. They united the elected representatives of the workers in the factories with the representatives of other layers of society: the unemployed, the women, the youth, the oppressed layers of the petit bourgeoisie, in some cases the peasants, and in 1917 the soldiers. However, the driving force was always the proletariat - the industrial workers.
There are many points of similarity between this phenomena and what we see in Argentina. Part of the reason why the movement has acquired such a broad and irresistible sweep has been the participation of the oppressed non-proletarian layers: the unemployed (mainly through the movement of the "piqueteros"), the petit-bourgeois, the pensioners (whose pensions and savings have been liquidated), the housewives (who have to pay the bills), the youth, the urban poor (including the lumpen-proletariat which can introduce a disorganised and chaotic character to events and may be manipulated by reactionary forces).
The depth of the crisis, which has already ruined a large section of the middle class, has given the movement its massive character. This is at the same time both a strength and a weakness. The explosion of anger among the middle class and other non-proletarian elements deprives the ruling class of its mass base and cuts the ground from beneath the feet of the reaction, which temporarily has been caught off balance and paralysed. This creates an exceptionally favourable class balance of forces. But this situation cannot last. If the working class does not take power into its hands and show the middle class a way out along revolutionary lines, the mood of the middle class can change and the initiative can pass to the forces of reaction.
We have seen this before. In 1968 the capitalist regime in France was shaken to its foundation by the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. Ten million workers occupied the factories, In effect, power was in the hands of the working class. But the workers were blocked by the Stalinist leadership of the PCF and the CGT. They could have taken power even without a civil war, but refused to do so. The initiative passed to De Gaulle who organised a mass demonstration and a referendum which he won. The revolution was thus aborted.
In Argentina, the movement has not yet reached the same stage as in France 1968. The main weakness of the situation is the lack of a generalised movement of the working class. Despite the fact that there have been 8 very militant general strikes in the last three years, the working class has not yet participated as an independent force in the revolutionary events which opened with December 19 and 20. The majority of the organised workers are under the control of the official (Peronist) CGT. The union bureaucracy is doing everything in its power to hold the workers back. The CGT apparatus has considerable power and huge resources. It has the backing of the bourgeoisie and the state. In fact, the Argentine bourgeoisie could not maintain its rule for 24 hours without their support.
The trade unions
Therefore, the question of the unions in general, and of the CGT in particular, occupies a central position in the revolutionary process. In my last article I wrote:
"The decision to put demands on the leaders of the CCC and the FTV-CTA, who refused to call for this National Assembly, to break any negotiations with the government was very good. But the majority of the organised workers in Argentina are under the control of the Peronist CGT. It is not possible to carry through a revolution in Argentina unless this decisive layer is won over.
"The Left in Argentina is traditionally hostile to Peronism, which is quite understandable. But it is one thing to combat the Peronist leaders politically, and quite another to ignore a large part of the organised working class. In the past there have been divisions and splits in Peronism. In the present situation, with a right-wing Peronist government carrying out the policies of the IMF there must be serious divisions within the CGT. We must find a road to the rank and file of the CGT workers and win them for the revolutionary road by a skilful application of the united front tactic." (The way forward)
It is likely that some on the Left in Argentina will object to this proposal on the grounds that the CGT is pursuing a reactionary policy, is allied with the government, and so on. But in the first place these arguments apply, not to the workers organised in the CGT but to the CGT leadership. And in the second place, under the present conditions of crisis, sackings and collapsing living standards, the CGT leaders, in spite of themselves, can be pushed into a position of semi-opposition, or even outright opposition to the government. In fact the "rebel" CGT of Moyano is already talking of mobilisations against the government, and even the official CGT of Daer warned that the threatened non-payment of wages to the civil servants would provoke a "social explosion". Obviously the intention of these bureaucrats is to try to put themselves at the head of the movement - when they are no longer able to prevent it - in order to make sure they can betray it.
The question of the unions is a life and death question for the Argentine revolution. A mistaken position on this question will have far more serious consequences for the movement than a mistake on the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. It is of the utmost importance that the comrades should reassess their attitude to the unions - and the CGT in particular - in order to correct any tendencies towards ultra-leftism which can lead to the isolation of the vanguard in a critical situation.
In general, the trade unions tend to lag behind the revolution. There is always an element of conservative routinism, even among the activists, let alone the apparatus. By contrast, organs like the Popular Assemblies more faithfully reflect the changing mood of the masses. They are closer to the most downtrodden and oppressed sections, and are more open to revolutionary ideas and militant action. The same is true of movements like the "piqueteros" which are mainly made up of the unemployed.
The revolutionary vanguard gets a better response for its slogans and proposals for action in this layer, which at the present time stands in the front line of the movement. To use a military analogy, they are like the light cavalry which moves quickly to the front line and engages the enemy in skirmishes, testing their resolve and probing for a weak point in their defences.
However, no war was ever won by light cavalry alone. In order to inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy, the heavy battalions are necessary. These are slower and more ponderous in their motions, and take a little time to catch up with the advanced guard. But ultimately their active participation is decisive for the result of the conflict. And any idea of confronting the enemy head-on without these forces is an invitation to disaster.
In the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, through a mistake on the part of the British commanders, the Light Cavalry was sent into a charge against the Russian cannons, which led to a terrible massacre. An astonished French general who observed the charge from a hilltop remarked to his companions: "C'est magnifique. Mais ce n'est pas la guerre!" ("It's magnificent. But it is not War!") The British soldiers displayed the utmost courage in the face of the enemy. But their action led to a catastrophe. The ultimate cause of the catastrophe was bad leadership.
The class war has many analogies with the war between nations. It is a golden rule that the vanguard must not separate itself from the masses. That was the position of Lenin in the course of 1917, when he directed nine-tenths of the energies of the Bolsheviks to winning over the masses of workers and soldiers who were still following the leadership of the Mensheviks and SRs right up to the eve of the insurrection - in some cases, even after it.
Although the Bolsheviks advanced as their central slogan "All Power to the Soviets", they also paid a lot of attention to systematic work in the trade unions. Most of the unions were controlled by the Mensheviks and many of them still remained under the old leaders even after October. The railway unions, in particular, gave the new regime a lot of trouble. But this did not shake the Bolsheviks' determination to conduct revolutionary work in the unions, which was a key element in their strategy.
After the revolution, when Lenin was trying to explain to the new and inexperienced parties of the Communist International the basic principles of Communist tactics, he explained (in Left Wing Communism - an Infantile Disorder) that the Bolsheviks worked in the most backward and reactionary unions - even "police" unions under Tsarism. Such work is completely indispensable under all conditions. But in the course of a revolution, it assumes a burning importance.
The reactionary character of the CGT bureaucracy needs no explanation. That is an ABC question for Marxists. But what is self-evident for us is not necessarily so obvious for the masses. Workers have a powerful instinct for unity, and this is not weaker but stronger in a revolution. Under conditions of terrible crisis, unemployment and falling living standards, the organised worker will cling all the more tenaciously to his union.
The bureaucrats use and abuse the workers' traditional sense of loyalty in order to maintain their own positions. They reflect the pressures of the bourgeoisie within the labour movement. They act like a police force within the union movement, trying to control and discipline the workers in the interests of "class peace". In Argentina, this notion is usually mixed up with "patriotic" demagogy.
Vanguard and class
What is absolutely necessary is to link the vanguard firmly to the masses, and to understand that different layers will draw conclusions at different rhythms. The vanguard, active in the popular assemblies and the piquetero organisations, is in the first line of struggle. They are the shock troops of the revolution. But the heavy battalions of the working class have not yet moved in a decisive way. Of course, they will catch up, but in the meantime it is necessary to avoid going too far ahead of the mass.
There is no question of posing the taking of power as an immediate slogan. The immediate task is not the conquest of power but the conquest of the masses. But this question is inseparably linked to the question of the unions.
As we have pointed out, the main weakness of the Asambleas Populares is that they are as yet insufficiently connected with the organised workers' in the factories. The establishment and extension of factory committees is a fundamental demand in the present situation.
This demand is not at all abstract but flows from the objective necessities of the situation. The question of defending jobs and ensuring the payment of wages will force more and more sections of the workers into the struggle. The teachers and bank workers have already called a national strike, and civil servants all over the country are involved in battles over the payment of wages. The deepening of the crisis has already destroyed thousands of jobs in all sectors (textile, building construction, auto industries, etc) and is threatening thousands more. In this context the demand, passed at the National Workers' Assembly, calling for the nationalisation under workers' control of all factories that declare bankruptcy or sack workers should be the central slogan in the battle to involve the industrial working class in the movement.
Once again on the Constituent Assembly
The paper of the Partido Obrero, Prensa Obrera, on February 28, 2002, carried an article signed by Gabriel Solano entitled "What's being debated at the popular assemblies?" In the course of this article we read the following:
"By struggling for the Constituent Assembly - which is the same as struggling for power under current circumstances - the popular or picketers' assemblies themselves become an instrument of power for the exploited. Those who say that power is now vested in the popular assemblies, without struggling for the power of the Constituent Assembly, that is, without demonstrating national authority, organisation and strength, are merely propagandising."
It is clearly not correct to say that the power must pass immediately to the popular assemblies. If such a proposal were to be made, it would not merely be propagandising. It would be insane. Before the question of power can be posed, it is first necessary to win the decisive majority of the working class to the idea of taking power. This presupposes a period of agitation and propaganda. As Lenin used to say: "patiently explain!"
However, precisely for this reason, it is essential that the slogans advanced for the purpose of winning over the workers be clearly and unambiguously linked to the idea of workers' power. To the ultra-left idea of the immediate transfer of power to the popular assemblies (which I certainly have never mentioned), Comrade Solano counterposes - the slogan of the Constituent Assembly! But this does not follow in the slightest.
We can readily agree with the proposition that the time is not ripe to pose the question of power in Argentina, and that transitional slogans are necessary to convince the mass of workers that in order to solve their most pressing needs, it is necessary to take the power into their hands. The type of transitional demands needed for this were fully elaborated in the National Workers' Assembly and are also adequately expressed in the PO's programme.
The demands that move the masses are those most closely linked to their immediate needs: jobs, wages, houses, etc. They are inseparably linked to the perspective of the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle, through the demand for the nationalisation of the banks and the big monopolies, the repudiation of the foreign debt, and the expropriation of all imperialist property. It is around these issues that we can reach the ear of the workers and get an echo for the idea of taking power.
What relevance to this does the slogan of the Constituent Assembly have? The Constituent Assembly slogan, as I pointed out in my article on the subject (On the constituent assembly slogan - Is it applicable to Argentina?) is at best irrelevant to the concrete situation in Argentina, and at worst, harmful. It is hard to see why the comrades insist so much on it.
Comrade Solano attempts to justify the slogan thus:
"However, a sovereign Constituent Assembly raises the issue of overthrowing the current government, as a first measure, and must then encompass all the State powers at the national, provincial and municipal levels. The bosses' politicians don't talk about a sovereign Constituent Assembly because they want to prevent the overthrow of the regime."
With due respect to the comrade, this is a most peculiar form of reasoning. Is it true that the Constituent Assembly slogan "raises the issue of the overthrow of the regime"? As we have already pointed out, the Constituent Assembly is a democratic parliament. The first problem is that such a parliament already exists in Argentina. The regime is as "democratic" as is possible on the basis of capitalism. In order to improve on the present set-up, and to achieve a genuinely democratic regime, what is necessary is not a "more democratic" bourgeois parliament, but the expropriation of the bankers and capitalists who really run the country.
In actual fact, it is perfectly possible to have a Constituent Assembly within the framework of capitalism. This means that it does not present any kind of threat to the existing regime. But it may represent a threat to the future of the Argentine revolution to the degree that it diverts the attention of the working class from the central tasks and creates dangerous illusions in the possibility of some kind of "third way" between capitalism and socialism, or a separate "democratic" stage in the revolution.
Herein lies the real danger, and here it is necessary to pose a direct question to the leaders of the PO: what is the nature of the revolution in Argentina? Are we fighting for workers' power, or do we consider that, since Argentina is allegedly a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country, it is necessary to pose the question of a democratic stage in the revolution?
I hope and trust that this is not the position of the PO leaders. If that is the case, then the controversy over the slogan of the Constituent Assembly would be a relatively minor matter that we could easily dispose of. However, in that case, it is still difficult to understand the extraordinary prominence the PO gives to this slogan. After all, in Russia, which was certainly a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly occupied a relatively secondary position in the agitation of the Bolsheviks, whose central slogans were "peace, bread, land" and - above all - "all power to the soviets".
Manoeuvres of the ruling class
The most important thing is that the workers - and above all their vanguard - should not be lulled into a false sense of security with "democratic" and parliamentary phrases. The class struggle in Argentina is posed in the starkest terms. Already there are rumours of a conspiracy and coups in the ruling class. There can be absolutely no doubt that this is the case. The representatives of big business, the bankers, the tops of the army, the reactionary circles of the Church - all will be conspiring to destroy the revolution.
The Argentine ruling class has shown many times that it will stop at nothing to defend its power and privileges: no methods are too dirty, too cruel, too monstrous for these ladies and gentlemen. The last dictatorship was proof enough of this. The prostitute press will be mobilised to lie and slander. The bank balances of the bourgeoisie will be opened to finance the provocateurs. The army and police will be prepared systematically to crack down when the conditions are appropriate.
But the problem for the ruling class is that conditions are by no means appropriate - yet. The movement is still in the ascent. Its forces are intact and undefeated. The middle class is full of hatred and resentment against the big bankers and capitalists and their backers in Washington. Any attempt to use violence to crush the movement at this stage would have the opposite effect. Just one bloody clash, and the whole country would erupt.
The ruling class is therefore obliged to play a waiting game. They will wait until the movement begins to show signs of exhaustion. This is inevitable at a certain stage, if the masses do not see a clear perspective of a way out of the present mess. The crisis is getting deeper every day, with more sackings, factory closures, rising prices and falling living standards. The political crisis is only a superficial and tardy reflection of the depth of the economic crisis - a crisis that cannot be solved on a capitalist basis, unless by an even more savage reduction of living standards. But this can only be achieved by first breaking the resistance of the working class. In the Argentine context, that means all-out class war, which must be fought to the finish.
The Duhalde government is like an infant suffering from an incurable disease that makes it exhibit all the signs of senile decay. Only two months after coming to power it has revealed total impotence. It is now being cursed and kicked from all sides. The IMF is demanding yet more austerity before any aid is given to Argentina, but that would mean a cut in the budget which can only be introduced with an agreement with the regional governors, most of them Peronists. The collapse in tax collection also means the government might not have enough money to pay the wages of the civil servants - which threatens to provoke a clash with the Peronist unions. The privatised oil companies are resisting attempts by the government to introduce a new tax on their exports. Finally the small savers are still on the streets demanding the return of their savings, the piqueteros increase their protests demanding jobs and the cacerolazos continue on a weekly basis.
The government cannot solve any of these problems and its collapse is only a matter of time. The demand for new elections will gather force. This prospect does not arouse any enthusiasm on the part of the ruling class, since elections will reveal increased support for the Left. The Peronist movement is riven with contradictions, which will soon come to the fore. They will enter into a deep crisis, and will tend to split. Menem is attempting to fish in troubled waters, but it is not likely he can succeed. People's memories are short, but not that short.
More likely, they will push forward a "left" Peronist, like Rodriguez Saa, who already revealed a considerable capacity for demagogy last December. At that time, the bourgeoisie were not ready to accept him. But they are rapidly burning all their political bridges. Since the time is not right to confront the revolution with force, they will resort to deception. The idea of a painless solution to the crisis, a solution that offers all things to all men, will appear attractive, especially to the middle class. Saa (or anyone who plays the same role) will promise the earth, the heavens and a lot more besides. He may even give a few reforms with the left hand, which will be taken back the next day with the right. But nothing substantial will change. The purpose of this manoeuvre is only to gain time for the ruling class, while disorienting and demoralising the masses. It is not even ruled out that such a government could offer to convene a "constituent assembly" some time in the future ("after we solve the crisis").
The precise variant cannot, of course, be foreseen. There are many variants. But that the Argentine ruling class will in the next period resort to some such manoeuvre is beyond all doubt. This poses a serious danger to the revolution. We already saw in December that even some left-wing people were prepared to believe in Saa and extend him some credit. This is a fatal mistake. It is necessary to maintain an implacable position of class independence from each and every bourgeois politician. We must be on our guard, and constantly warn the workers against such manoeuvres. Of course, we must be skilful in our approach. It is not a question of denunciations but of explanation: "Deeds, not words!" That is the main thing.
Above all, it is necessary to step up the work of extending the organs of popular power: the Popular Assemblies, the piquetero organisations, and above all, the factory committees. The central slogan of this new power is the general strike. But the general strike must be organised and prepared. The only way to guarantee that the movement will take place in an organised manner, with no rioting and looting, is through the creation of action committees, elected committees of the workers, which must be broadened to include the elected representatives of the unemployed, the small shopkeepers, the students, and all elements of the population except the exploiters. As I wrote in December:
"The committees should organise transportation and the distribution of food and other necessities of life to the poorest sections of the population. They must control prices and patrol the streets to maintain order and fight reaction. In order to fulfil these functions, they will need to acquire arms. An appeal should be made to the soldiers and police to set up elected committees, purge their ranks of fascists and other reactionaries and link up with the workers' committees. Finally, it is necessary to link up the revolutionary committees on a local, regional and national basis, preparing the way for a national congress of revolutionary committees, which is capable of taking power into its own hands." (Argentina - The Revolution has Begun)
The slogan of Popular Assembles (soviets) does not at all preclude work in the unions. On the contrary. The slogan of soviets (especially the formation of factory committees) goes hand in hand with the slogan of the transformation of the unions into real fighting organs. It is necessary to address ourselves to the workers of the CGT, to penetrate the Peronist unions, to propose a united front for action to ensure that all that is promised is carried out - and that all the problems of the working people be resolved. The Peronist workers will come to understand through their own experience the impossibility of solving their problems while the real power remains in the hands of the oligarchy. An abysm will open up between the workers and the government. At a certain stage the unions themselves will be pushed into semi-opposition, or even outright opposition. At this point, the way will be open for winning over a decisive majority of the working class. The question of power will then be posed.
The revolution in Argentina can develop over a period of months, if not years, before a decisive settlement is reached - one way or the other. There will be periods of ebbs and flows, of tiredness, of defeats, and even reaction - which can provoke new outbreaks. But sooner or later, the question of power will be posed, and must be solved. Either a dictatorship of Capital or the dictatorship of the proletariat. There can be no third way.
London, March 11, 2002