"The historic falsifications of the pseudo-marxists, pseudo-nationalists, weigh like a gravestone on the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of Argentina and Latin America"
Biography of a Self-Taught Intellectual
Milciades Pena only lived to 32, but in his brief life left an unforgettable imprint on Argentine and Latin American Marxism. His History of the Argentine People remains an unsurpassed work of history and a key reference in Argentine and Latin American Historiography. However while he has achieved substantial recognition within Argentina and the region he remains largely unknown in the English speaking world.
Milciades Pena was born in the suburban city of La Plata, an hour south of Buenos Aires, in May of 1933. He was the youngest of four brothers in a middle-class family. However he had an unstable early childhood. His Mother had serious psychological problems and he ended up raised by his uncle and aunt, a librarian and teacher respectively. As a teenager he became active in the youth wing of the Socialist Party and was soon part of the section which split off to join the nascent Trotskyist movement of the Worker's Marxist Group (GOM) headed by Nahuel Moreno. At 16 he was one of the 21 delegates that participated in the party congress that saw this group's transformation into the Workers Revolutionary Party (POR) and was elected to the central comittee.
The era was a difficult one for the Trotskyist movement as it struggled to establish itself in a working class which was ideologically dominated by Peronism. Milciades began to distance himself somewhat from Moreno's group after the organization demanded he industrialize. Still closely linked to the Trotskyist movement, he began to collaborate with a number of left intellectuals around a series of historical projects. He began to work with Silvio Frondizi (another major intellectual of the Argentine left who was later assassinated by the dictatorship) around a series of historical works. However he later split with Frondizi and returned to collaborating with Moreno. The focus of his work together with Moreno is around the party newspaper which set itself firmly against the coming anti-Peronist coup of the "Liberatory Revolucion".
He later established an independent magazine with help from a number of other independent left intellectuals and focused on a series of studies around industrialization, imperialism and the character of Argentina's ruling class. The center of the ideological debate he leads is an ongoing polemic with Jorge Ramos, another figure who emerged from the Trotskyist movement but who became the principal intellectual figure of an anti-imperialist, nationalist historiography which laid the foundation for a "national left".
After Moreno led his Trotskyist group into an entryist project within the Peronist movement Pena once more distanced himself from the organization. He continued his intellectual work with the foundation of a series of magazines the most influential of which was Fichas de investigacion economica y social, Notebooks of Economic and Social Investigation.
With his wife and two kids he moved to Buenos Aires to advance the work with the magazine. It continued to wage an intellectual polemic with the currents of nationalist and "progressive" historiography and began to achieve some notoriety. However while he was at the height of his intellectual career he found himself ever more tormented by mental illness.
In 1965, after a number of suicide attempts and continually wracked by emotional instability, he took a pill which ended his life. His collaboraters at Fichas took over the publication of a number of uneditted monographs he left behind, including the work of his which would have the broadest intellectual impact, A History of the Argentine People.
Milciades Pena's Vision of a Tragic Argentine History
Milciades Pena offers a counterpoint to Mariategui's historical vision of Latin America while retaining tremendous respect for Mariategui as a pioneer. While he doesn't dwell on pre-colonial history, he dismissed the idea of something like the Incan empire representing a psuedo-socialist alternative. His main polemic centers around the colonial period, and in particular he takes issue with Mariategui's definition of Spanish colonialism as being feudal. For Pena, "the content, motivations and objectives of Spanish colonialism were decisively capitalist."
To support this he draws upon Marx's definitions of feudalism in volume one of Capital, arguing that what defines Feudalism is a proliferation of small property owners at all levels. This is precisely what is absent in Latin America. The Spanish Colonial system instead relied on the production on a grand scale of resources (with mines, plantations and workshops) for sale in the world market. A historic example of feudal colonialism exists with the German expansion to the east, a process discussed in Marxist historiography and which had the proliferation of small property holders as a core part of the colonization. The historic example in Latin America he draws up is Potosi, a city entirely specialized in the production of precious metals and which required almost all food and other products to be imported from neighboring provinces. Spanish and Portuguese Colonialism sought to produce for a world market which was increasingly coming into existence.
"The form taken by the relations between the Spanish Crown and the colonies undoubtedly has, in its legal aspects, an accentuated feudal appearance. But under this judicial form, the economic and social content of the colonies moved around production for the market and obtaining profit - which gives this content a decisively capitalist character despite the feudal legal forms which cover it."
What Spanish feudalism raised up in the Americas was a society of an essentially capitalist character. Albeit a colonial capitalism, which had it's own combined and uneven characteristics of development. The parallel here is with Imperialism which raised up in its colonies capitalist institutions which retained aspects of feudalism and slavery.
The different fate of the United States was one set by geography and the social relations which that geography engendered. The South was similar to Latin America, but the North was separated by a need for small holdings, the growth of an internal market based on local artisans and a focus on the naval industry. All of these laid solid foundations for capitalism to emerge in its revolutionary, industrial form.
The curse impeding the development of both Argentina and the rest of Latin America was not the feudal legacy of Spanish colonialism, but fundamentally the character of the capitalism which was established across the region. A capitalism focused then as it is now on the production and sale of raw commodities for a world market.
This historical polemic is launched with a clear vision towards the contemporary political debate which it implied. If Latin America and Argentina continue to be "feudal" economic regimes, or continue to be strongly influenced by the residue of feudalism, it leaves open the reformist path of advocating for unity with a mythical "national" bourgeoisie to achieve a democratic revolution.
Instead the semi-colonial subjugation of Latin America is the product of particular kind of capitalism and capitalist elite, which has social and economic power across the region. There is no progressive sector to be allied with for national liberation and only the overthrow of capitalism can offer any substantial emancipation and political independence.
What lies between the beginnings of colonial exploitation and a potential anti-capitalist emancipation is a long march of dead ends, defeats both comic and tragic which could not be otherwise in the pursuit of a phantom national independence.
From Spanish to British Domination
The real is rational, and in this case the dissolution of Latin America into separate states couldn't have happened any other way. The dream of the "Patria Grande" like the dream of any real national independence had no economic foundation to make itself a reality. The wars of national independence were wars to liquidate an essentially parasitic bureaucratic caste sent from Spain. This common objective united for example those from Rio de la Plata seeking to open up the Americas to British commerce, with small producers in the interior who would be destroyed precisely by that same influx of goods. The clearly parasitic character of Spanish colonial rule allowed for a heterogeneous unity against Spain, one which would quickly dissolve into wildly differing regional, social and economic interests.
Among the newly born Latin American states Argentina had perhaps the greatest potential to reflect the geography and potential of the Northern United States. However while the climate was similar, the blessing and curse of Argentina was the almost endless fertile grasslands of the Pampa:
"Why till the soil? Why go out to confront the river and the sea, if the Pampa served up leather and meat which the world market demanded with as much lust as the silver of Potosi or the Tobacco of Virginia? Soon the colonizers discovered that the road to fortune didn't require conquering Indians, it was enough to take the land, not for the land itself but so the Cattle could reproduce on it."
The riches of the Pampa laid the basis of an oligarchy of ranchers and of a metropolitan center, Buenos Aires, which rose up as an intermediary with the world market. Argentina, "paid the price for having natural resources which allowed its ruling class to enrich itself without effort or initiative."
Pena's history of Argentina in many ways is the history of this social class. It is a historical epic which he weaves while simultaneously waging a two front war within Argentinian historiography. On the one hand he fights against the traditional liberal interpretation, and on the other against the emerging "revisionist", nationalist current of historiography.
The "revisionist" school of history sought to defend many of the historical figures associated with a supposedly more independent national alternative for Argentina. The dictatorship of Rosas, as well as the historical legacy of the Argentine Confederation (Essentially most of Argentina minus Buenos Aires, which waged and ultimately lost a civil war against Buenos Aires) and the original Montoneros who continued to resist the control of Buenos Aires after the resolution of the civil war.
Pena undermines this historical narrative by drawing out the continued relationship of dependency towards British Imperialism and the role of Buenos Aires Commercial Bourgeoisie as the effective agent of British Imperialism in the region. He connects the political figures and social classes behind these supposed alternatives to the real economic relations which led them inextricably to subordinate themselves to the oligarchy. Although they were discontent, they had no economic alternative to dependency and so ultimately accepted subordination to the liberal regime.
After independence Argentina was divided. The metropolitan center of Buenos Aires had a full interest in acting as an intermediary for British commerce and the British market. The elite of the coastal provinces shared the same goals, but resented Buenos Aires monopoly on foreign trade and the high fees it charged. There were small producers in the interior but they found themselves in an inescapable contradiction: British imports were an economic threat; Yet to advance production in any sustainable way, they needed a unified national market, a national unification which could only be achieved by Buenos Aires under conditions which would destroy that industry.
The dominant figure of the countryside is the Rancher. This is not a feudal figure, but rather merely the capitalist which is suited to a particular type of production, in this case the reproduction of cattle. Their economic interests are tied to the export of cattle products. However many want to negotiate the best terms of this export and if possible, cut out Buenos Aires from its effective monopoly on foreign trade.
The principal struggles of early Argentine history resolve around this struggle between commercial and rural bourgeoisie. The ranchers lead a number of uprisings leading militias formed from their employees. While at a number of historical points the provinces achieve military victories over Buenos Aires, ultimately they have no real alternative to the economic model which makes Buenos Aires the central power of the nation. At one point Buenos Aires secedes from the Argentinian confederation, is defeated in a civil war, yet the provinces hold back from occupying and imposing their authority. Buenos Aires again rises up a decade later, and this time defeats the Confederation. This military victory by Buenos Aires is followed by the total subordination of the countryside, a subordination carried out with massacres against remaining pockets of resistance. It is crowned by one of the most horrendous crimes of the Argentine Oligarchy, the genocidal war waged against Paraguay.
The closest to a national alternative that was present within Latin America was the state-capitalist driven project of Paraguay. Paraguay like every Latin American country initially attempted to achieve treaties of free commerce with Britain. They were blocked from achieving this by the intervention of Argentina, which put the exclusion of Paraguay as the condition of its own treaty. Cut off from world trade and under constant threat of embargo from Buenos Aires, Paraguay was forced into a state-driven development: one which despite the country's poverty allowed it to construct railroads, factories, elementary schools, send students to study abroad in Europe and more while having no foreign debt. Far from a backwards nation, Paraguay was closer to the Japan of South America, it offered an alternative of autonomous economic development. The unholy alliance of Argentinian Ranchers and Brazilian Slaveholders which destroyed it was deeply reactionary.
Although Britain won the most out of the war, through massive loans contracted by both Brazil and Argentina as well as the introduction of the first British loans to to post-war Paraguayan government, it was a war fought principally for the interests of the Argentinian and Brazilian ruling classes. To merely blame everything on the maneuvers of Imperialism is to exonerate the guilt of the local ruling classes. Brazil wanted to expand territorially so as to postpone the growing crisis of the slave system, much as many of the Confederates had dreamed of expanding into Mexico and Cuba. For the Argentine ruling class, the goal was to consolidate the recently won national unity and pry open the Paraguayan market.
The cost of the war went far beyond the expectations of either instigator, yet they saw it through to the genocidal end. Over the ashes of Paraguay the Argentine oligarchy finally achieved its long dream of dominating the rest of the country, it's own commercial interests propelling it and Argentina into ever greater subordination to British imperialism.
Oligarchy and Democracy
At the point where Argentina achieves consolidation as a unified nation it enters into an international context deeply marked and controlled by competition between the imperialist powers. The era driven by free-trade was over, an era defined by monopoly-capital and imperialist clashes would tightly constrain the options available to the Latin American countries.
Pena returns to the counter-example of the United States and emphasizes the tremendous record of the American Bourgeoisie in a previous free-trade era in defrauding and scamming foreign investors without serious penalty. Having started it's path towards industrialization in an earlier era, the United States was able to take advantage of relatively favorable world conditions backed by it's relative strength as a nation. The Latin American countries, and in particular Argentina, would have neither a capitalist class driven towards industrialization nor world conditions which would allow for the emergence of new industrial competitors. They would have no chance to defraud British investors, and would instead be utterly subordinate to their interests. Loans were freely available, yet investment for actual capital would be scarce. In the few export oriented instances in which it developed, tightly controlled and monopolized by foreign investors.
For the Argentinian elite, British loans would provide an easy solution to financing much of the state's activity and investments in infrastructure to facilitate export to the world market. Pena lays out a clear analysis of the relationship that would develop as a consequence of the reliance on British loans:
"There would be nothing dangerous in doing this if the State had been controlled - like in the United States and Japan - by a strong, national class which was interested in the autonomous development of the nation and the internal market, not merely towards the world market as an appendage of European industry; a class capable of meeting as an equal with foreign capital, rather than transforming itself into a foreman directing the exploitation of its own country. Such a class did not exist. Unlike the decrepit parasitic states of China or Egypt, the Argentinian Oligarchy (especially the Ranchers of Buenos Aires) was strong enough to resist the most direct attempts at colonization - as it showed under Rosas - but had neither the interest nor the ability to resist financial colonization by the London Stock Exchange. It could only occasionally rebel - generally a verbal rebellion - against those aspects which were most oppressive for its own profits."
The Argentinian state in this period was characterized by tremendous electoral fraud, the distribution of public territory to selected elites and massive political corruption. The corruption in particular helped substantially the ease with which Argentina's subordination to British imperialism was achieved.
The last major territorial conquest of Argentina was the "Conquest of the Desert", a genocidal massacre carried out against the indigenous population of Patagonia. A new more professional army was formed and commanded to sweep ever further south, rounding up native people and executing them or taking them as slaves. This original sin of a genocidal war of extermination would haunt Argentina with two curses - an expanded army, and an expanded landholding class. It would also within a few decades transform into the site of one of the most infamous massacres of immigrant workers under a supposedly democratic government. The spoils of the war went exclusively to the same politically connected elite that ruled in Buenos Aires.
As Argentina took on greater and greater loans a not insignificant class emerged in Buenos Aires of those whose profession revolved entirely around comissions from the massive loans the government took on from Britain. Much of the spectacular architecture that distinguishes the city center today was constructed in this epoch on the basis of British loans. Yet the extent of the debt, famously arriving at one point to be equal to the weight in silver of every Argentinian, led to tensions even within the ruling elite.
The lack of democratic rule was leading to an ever increasing number of conspiracies and the occasional coup. A major uprising with support from the masses and the bourgeoisie finally left it clear that without reform, new social disturbances could threaten order, profits and above all their line of credit. In 1912 an electoral reform was finally passed and despite all the efforts of the oligarchy to commit fraud, in 1916 the UCR and it's central leader, Hipólito Yrigoyen, took power. The UCR was a heterogenous organization, filled with the bourgeosie, petty-bourgeoisie, lawyers, workers, the unemployed. It's unifying purpose was winning the universal (male) vote. Having achieved this it had no real political program or economic alternative for Argentina.
"The Radical triumph of 1916 marked a transcendental moment in Argentinian history, one which indicated the eruption of the popular masses into political life, those who had previously been excluded by the oligarchy. This was the first and final progressive achievement of the UCR."
In power the UCR continued the same fundamental political economy, refusing even to negotiate better terms under an extremely favorable economic position which Argentina had during the first world war. On the social front, Yrigoyen was responsible for the massacre of striking workers in Patagonia as well as hundreds of workers killed and thousands arrested or deported in the 1919 General Strike that was part of the "Tragic Week". At the same time he brutally repressed the most radical outbursts of workers activism, he laid the foundations for state control and influence over the more docile unions.
His successor Alvear saw a truly new development, the first influx of US investments and capital into Argentina. This was the beginning of a significant struggle which would only be resolved definitively with the overthrow of Peron in 1955: the attempt by US capital to replace Britain in Argentina as it had already done in the rest of Latin America. Britain found support in the traditional oligarchy, the United States began to gain support among the nascent industrial bourgeoisie.
The oligarchy however did not forgive the UCR's usurpation of power on the basis of votes from workers and the poor, even if the power was exercised in a way which defended the oligarchy's interests. Utilizing accusations of corruption as a foundation and with US backing (Standard Oil hoped a new government might help displace British interests, a bet which did not pay off), a military coup in 1930 led by General Uriburu ended Argentina's first democratic experiment.
Pena's words on how the new government "ended corruption" are of particular relevance today given recent events in Brazil:
"This is true, Uriburu ended the administrative corruption of Yrigoyen. He did this in a Hegelian manner, through surpassing it and elevating corruption to a gigantic scale hitherto unheard of."
What followed was a period in which Radicalism was initially proscribed and elections were monumentally fraudulent, but there was a return to civilian rule. At the same time the working class continued to grow numerically and in economic importance, leading a series of important strikes during the 1930s. The ruling class also saw a further division into a Pro-English and Pro-American faction.
.Peron from Ascent to Overthrow
This Oligarchic restoration was ended in 1943 with the military coup that once more gave the armed forces control of state power. The military, watching the elite govern without anything approaching a popular mandate, essentially decided that the benefits of governing should be theirs instead. American hopes that the new government would align with Washington and declare war on the Axis were frustrated.
Pena considers this new military government to be a Bonapartist regime. The new military regime had its foundation in the Military, Police, Church, the State Bureaucracy and support from British Imperialism. Yet it needed more than this to sustain itself in power against rising discontent from sectors of the Bourgeoisie, Oligarchy and Petty Bourgeoisie as well as US imperialism. It found this sector of support in the mass of industrial and rural workers, and through them the poor in general.
A Coronel by the name of Juan Domingo Peron was appointed to head the Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare. He immediately led a campaign to integrate the unions into the state, a camapaign directed from above without any rank and file struggle or leadership. There were enormous industrial profits which made possible a favorable redistribution of some of the wealth. His efforts to tame the labor movement were helped by the fact that most of the official left, above all the Communist Party, was discredited for its unyielding defense of the interests of US imperialism.
When a coup was finally organized with US backing and the almost universal support of the elite, Peron was initially deposed. Yet based in support from the mass of workers mobilized through the unions, as well as the total support of the police and sectors of the army, Peron was able to counter this coup and re-establish himself in power.
Peron deepened his power and with targeted repression squelched plans for an independent labor party, ensuring the labor bureaucracy was clearly subordinate to the state. It was possible to both keep the capitalist class content and provide a number of wage increases and social benefits thanks to a tremendous commodities boom (a familiar pattern today). By 1950 however the rate of super-profits that sustained the compromise began to evaporate.
Unrest started to emerge among significant sectors of the working class, with rank and file militants wishing to go further and fight harder than Peron wanted to allow. The contradiction was resolved by every now and then leaving one of the most-hated bureaucrats out to hang, and matching repression with incentives and wage gains which were delivered from above.
Right wing opposition to Peron became more and more organized, with a key moment being when the Catholic Church turned against the regime. The church began to function as a broad umbrella organization for the opposition, with the Communist Party (which was opposed to Peron) even going so far as to defend the Church against Peron's attempts to establish a firmer separation of Church and State.
The Navy spearheaded the first attempted coup in June of 1955, with Navy planes famously bombing and firing indiscriminately into the masses of workers gathered to support Peron at the Plaza de Mayo. Workers had requested arms and prepared barricades, yet Peron relied fundamentally on the Army to stay in power, and after the attempted coup it was the Army that held the keys.
In September of the same year a second coup was launched led by the Navy and a few generals. Despite the rebel forces being greatly outnumbered by "loyal" sections of the army, the army ceased to be loyal and Peron was sent into exile without a fight. The triumph of the new regime meant Argentina was definitively brought into the American sphere of influence. Peron oversaw a large increase in unionization rates and a growth in workers share of national income, yet the underlying economic structures of dependency remained unchanged.
Reviewing the Work
Milciades Pena's historical analysis is strongest and the most detailed when explaining the broad historical sweep of Argentinian history. He delves into both political economy and a detailed intellectual history of major figures in Argentinian history. What is notable for its absence however is more detailed discussion of the "Argentinian people" of which the work is a history. His work notably lacks a detailed discussion of the politics of the working class, the great Anarchist unions at the beginning of the 20th century and the ideological struggles that took place within the working class before it could be more easily controlled by Peron.
However the work is also a polemic which builds upon the history of Argentina to establish and re-establish the historical responsibility of Argentina's dependency. Pena traces in detail the faults, motivations and the historic responsibility of Argentina's ruling class for the country's continued economic backwardness. There is a political struggle which is ongoing to this day in which sections of the left have sought a "progressive" wing of the bourgeoisie which leftist parties have used to justify allying with and serving capitalist parties. Pena's rich historical work unmasks the real character of the Latin American bourgeoisie and in so doing provides a powerful argument against contemporary efforts to support any bourgeois government.
"The world phenomenon of imperialist domination reproduced itself in our country, but not in Japan or the United States. Why did the interaction of foreign capital and the national economy produce an outcome like that of Mexico or Russia, and not that of Japan and the United States? This is what must be explained, starting from the ineptitude of our ruling class which was incapable of promoting, as was its duty, autonomous national development. A phenomenon which was a result of the formative processes of the country. Of course the weakness of the Argentinian Oligarchy was nothing special in comparison with the Chinese, Russian or Egyptian Monarchies, or the Mexican and Brazilian oligarchies. Along with these, the ineptitude of the Argentinian oligarchy was the general ineptitude of the ruling classes of the backwards countries invaded by imperialist capital. However that the evil is shared by many is only consolation for idiots and it only constitutes an argument for scoundrels. If we want to construct a great nation it is indispensable to discover and baptize with an overflowing pen each and every one of its failures in defending national autonomy, and not to whitewash it under the pretext that all around the world there were classes equally corrupt and useless."
Historic responsibility for dependency lies with the ruling class. Only through studying its failures can we understand what is needed to create a liberated, independent nation. An independence which in this case can only be achieved through casting away all illusions in the Latin American Bourgeoisie, instead depending on an independent working class seizure of power the likes of which Pena fought for as a Trotskyist militant.
Further Historical Notes
Pena's overall historical work was left incomplete by his untimely death and debates around Marxist historiography have advanced considerably since his epoch. Nevertheless it is worth indicating some tentative outlines worthy of future exploration and debate.
The central debate in Marxist historiography continues to be over the emergence of capitalism being a consequence of the growth of the world-market (Wallerstein and many more traditional theorists), or it being an outcome of far more specific economic relationships and balances of class power which emerged in England (The Brenner Hypothesis). Pena's work clearly predates substantially the emergence of the Brenner debate and initially Milciades Pena's choice of defining capitalism around the world market seems to place him within the first camp. However his painstaking analysis of the Argentine capitalist class and the structural conditions which make it impossible for this class to lead any kind of industrial revolution offers something more.
Through focusing the debate centrally on the type of capitalist class under discussion (in this case the rancher, and the commercial bourgeoisie) Pena is offering a sophisticated analysis. Not every capitalist class is capable of driving forward anything like historical and technological progress. Very specific conditions are required too, as in the case analyzed by Brenner in England, or as Charlie Post extends this analysis to the Northern United States, produce a capitalist class which is capable of promoting a virtuous cycle that can ultimately drive towards industrialization. A ranch owning capitalist class has very little interest in industrialization, it has particular economic interests which led Argentina and many other countries to a dead end, yet it does not for this reason alone cease to be a capitalist class.
Most of the contemporary Marxist criticisms of the Brenner thesis have focused on their unease with the emergence of capitalism seemingly being dependent on particular, semi-random outcomes of class struggle. There is also the real but present growth in the productivity of labor and in the scale of international trade.
Arguments for the persistence of feudalism can be more convincingly made in the case of Peru or Mexico which inherited the social structures of pre-capitalist empires. However Argentinian ranch owning capital, especially after it subdued the independent Gauchos(cowboys) and exhausted means of immediate territorial expansion, is certainly not "feudal", it's as capitalist as any ranch owning capital is today. It's simply a capitalist class which had nothing to propel it towards industrialization and economic independence, a capitalist class which was doomed by it's own narrow interests to follow a path of dependency.
What is contingent and seemingly almost random is not so much the emergence of a profit-driven capitalism, but rather the emergence of a capitalist class which is capable of leading a process of industrialization and the creation of a substantial home market. The study of Latin American history and Pena's work in particular could offer a promising path towards deepening our understanding of the emergence of capitalism and a way to complement and expand upon much of the promising historical work which has been written focused on the English speaking world.