The Argentinean Cordobazo – May 1969, a moment in the resurgence of the international class struggle – ICC

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Fifty years after the workers’ uprising in the city of Córdoba, it is still necessary to reflect on its meaning, because throughout those same fifty years the left apparatus of capital has been presenting distorted versions of its origins and the political responses it generated, preventing the working class from recovering the experiences left by those days of struggle. The fact that the workers took to the streets expressed their rejection of the Argentine bourgeoisie that ruled through a military dictatorship, but this has been used to claim that they were in search of a democratic life for the country. Other versions, defended by bourgeois tendencies such as Peronism, disfigure the workers’ protest, presenting it as something that “sensitised” them and made them change their attitude towards the proletariat, leading them to incorporate “class based” slogans into their programme. And there are not a few accounts that try to erase the spontaneous and combative actions that the workers carried out, surpassing union control, to transform it into an expression of radical unionism and even of the terrorist and guerrilla activities of the seventies.

The Cordobazo, as well as the French May 1968[1], represented the end of the period of more than 40 years of counter-revolution which was instituted after the wave of 1917 to 1923. In order to explain this process we will pause a little to look at the historical development that frames these workers’ mobilisations of half a century ago.

The advance of the economic crisis throughout the world and the end of the counter-revolution

Unlike the revolutionary response of the working class to World War I – where the bourgeoisie was forced to stop this carnage – in World War II the proletariat found itself unable to oppose the bellicose actions of capital. It had not only been physically crushed by Stalinism and fascism, but it had also been trapped in the bourgeois ideology of antifascism and the defense of democracy.

It is necessary to explain that the period 1917-23, centred on the Russian and German revolutions, marked the high point of a great revolutionary wave, though it could still be perceived in 1927 with the workers’ insurrections of Shanghai and Canton in China. However, the series of defeats suffered by the working class in this period opened the doors to World War II and to the opening of a terrible and profound counter-revolutionary period, which lasted until 1968.

The domination of the counter-revolution prevented the working class from responding in a massive and organised way to the blows of the 1929 crisis; on the contrary, it resulted in the further demoralisation of the proletariat. Then the confusion and distrust in their forces became deeper with the preparation of war on the part of the imperialist powers, because the preparations not only implied the militarisation of the economy, but also the launching of ideological campaigns, in which they presented the capitalist state as a “benefactor” and the homeland (and its defense) as a great ideal. That’s how they got the proletariat to line up under the flags of the bourgeoisie and threw it into a fierce butchery.

At the end of the war there was a relative growth of the world economy and the period of the so-called “cold war” between the imperialisms of Russia and the United States was opened up. This gave the bourgeoisie the opportunity to continue and deepen its campaign, this time adding to its discourse the affirmation that capitalism could grant benefits to all through the policies of “social welfare”, once again invoking the joys of “national unity”. Under these circumstances, sociologists and intellectuals of left and right proclaimed the “assimilation of the workers into the consumer society”, which meant that capitalism had found the formula to perpetuate itself and to politically annul the working class.

But the economic crisis, that the theorists of the bourgeoisie claimed had been banished, reappeared towards the end of the sixties, so that the bourgeoisie needed to increase the rates of exploitation and attack the living conditions of workers. That is why the various economic problems that were appearing all over the planet showed that capitalism cannot escape the crisis, and that, as it spreads and deepens, it can serve as a stimulus to the struggle of the working class, to the recovery of its class identity and of confidence in its own forces. The May 1968 mass strikes in France marked the end of the period of counter-revolution and the beginning of a new wave of workers’ mobilisations.

Among the most relevant workers’ expressions that make up this wave was the Italian Hot Autumn in 1969[2], but also in that same year the struggles of the workers in Israel, and without a doubt the uprising in Córdoba, Argentina. These combative expressions continued in Poland in 1970, in Spain, Egypt and Great Britain in 1972…

Then, in the mid-seventies, the mobilisations continued to reappear until the end of the eighties. Among the most militant workers’ struggles of that period were the mass strike in Poland (1980)[3] and the miners’ strike in Great Britain (1984-85)[4].

All these movements showed that the combativity of the working class had been reborn; the creation of general assemblies and strike committees appeared in many places, renewing the experience of the soviets… But while the workers’ consciousness and combativity recovered, the bourgeoisie maintained its attack against the proletariat, undermining and sabotaging through its left apparatus and the unions (both the official organisations and the “independents”). The strikes referred to in Poland and Great Britain are illustrative of how the bourgeoisie confronts the proletariat. It undoubtedly requires the strength of its apparatus of repression, but above all the sabotage of the struggle through its parties and unions: in Great Britain, the National Union of Mineworkers intervened actively to prolong and isolate the strike; in Poland, to take control of the struggle away from the workers’ assemblies and committees, the formation of the Solidarność union was promoted.

In this way, the Cordobazo cannot be seen as an isolated expression that responded only to “Argentine affairs”, it was part of an international response by the proletariat. It was a struggle that managed to develop a great combativity in spite of the presence of the unions and the ferocious repression of the State.

Thus, the reappearance of the economic crisis at the end of the sixties not only broke through the mystification of the perpetual growth of capitalism, but also by pushing the proletarians of the world into combat, it put an end to the period of counter-revolution.

Unions against the Argentine working class

Argentina’s process of industrialisation was notable for taking on a more active rhythm than that followed by the other Latin American countries. It took place during the last decades of the 19th century, which is why the working class also extended its presence in society. The development of capital accumulation required new labor power and this was largely supplied by migrant workers from Europe. This allowed the bourgeoisie to have a trained work force, but also, this working mass, by integrating itself into the life of the exploited class in Argentina, transmitted its political experience, helping in some aspects the orientation and development of workers’ militancy[5].

In the 20th century this dynamic of capital was maintained and even accelerated at certain “junctures”, such as the First and Second World Wars. During these periods, industry expanded throughout Argentina, with some cities becoming industrial centers with high concentrations of workers[6].

But this dynamic process of accumulation also met with obstacles. If we go back to 1929, when the economic crisis broke out and spread throughout the world, we find that Argentina’s economy was also affected and dominated by the crisis, but its effects and consequences were magnified by the lack of political unity within the ruling class. That is why some sectors of the bourgeoisie supported successive military coups to enforce a level of unity and social control that would allow them to resist in those critical moments. Thus, through a coup d’état, a military government was imposed under the leadership of José Uriburu in September 1930. This new government took on the task of carrying out fierce repression against the workers’ response to the degradation of their living conditions. For the new government it was not enough to apply measures that would further degrade wages and to give free passage to direct fiscal and credit resources for the protection of capital; it had to impose its power through persecution and repression. But to contain the resulting workers’ response, the strengthening of the union structure was necessary.

Thus, in the framework of the development of the capitalist crisis of 1929 and the advance of counter-revolution throughout the world, the Argentine bourgeoisie sought to strengthen its trade union political apparatus by creating a great central machinery in order to ensure control of the workers. This project was completed on 27 September 1930 with the formation of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT). Precisely the tasks of this machine were:

– to campaign within the working class for the military government in order to give it credibility,

– to control proletarian discontent in the face of the austerity measures imposed by the state.

For this reason, from its origin and in its daily action, the CGT would be shown up as a bourgeois structure opposed to the workers. In order to convince the workers that it was on their side, they could use very radical language, but they also stood alongside the bourgeoisie in order to faithfully carry out their work of sabotage against the proletariat.

It was the dynamic of industrialization that made the presence of the CGT of greater importance for capital; it is no accident that it was in the mid-1940s, under Perón’s government – which had the task of overseeing the new phase of industrialisation made possible by growing exports – when the CGT was strengthened and became the backbone of the government’s policies and the main disseminator of Peronist ideology[7]. In short, the presence of a growing working class obliged the bourgeois state to strengthen its union arm.

In 1966, as a product again of an internal fracture of the bourgeoisie, but above all responding to the “national security doctrine” promoted by the USA as part of the Cold War, the military forces once again carried out a coup d’état. Taking advantage of the discredit of the parties, the deputies and other figures of power, the military presented itself as an alternative, as the defender of “national values” and security. For this reason they baptised this project the “Argentine revolution,” achieving in a short time the unification of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.

The CGT openly expressed its support[8] for the military government of Onganía, reaffirming that its interests are on the side of the bourgeoisie and that its task is to subjugate the workers. The cohesion that the bourgeoisie tried to ensure with the so-called “Argentine revolution” became fragile as the economic crisis advanced. Under these circumstances, the state intensified its “anti-recession” policies, which implied increasing attacks on workers, thus making the services of the CGT more necessary.

The shameless defense of the military government by the union ensured that was it not very credible in front of the workers. That is why the bourgeoisie itself pushed for the creation of an “alternative” union structure; that is how the CGT of the Argentines (CGT-A) was formed in 1968. Thus, while the official CGT (led by Augusto Vandor), with a moderate discourse tried to subdue the general discontent, the CGT-A (headed by Raimundo Ongaro), took over and trapped the proletarian sectors that were tending to go outside the official trade union domination.

The political documents of the CGT-A contained statements written in “radical” language, which allowed them to disguise their actions oriented to the defense of capital; for example, it presented the interests of the working class as being united with those of the bourgeoisie, justifying their call for the defense of national capital: “The crushing of the working class is accompanied by the liquidation of national industry, the surrender of all resources, submission to international financial organisations (…)The basic sectors of the economy belong to the Nation. Foreign trade, banks, oil, electricity, iron and steel and refrigerators must be nationalized”. (Message to the workers and the people. Programme of May 1, 1968).

It is not at all strange that the “caudillo” Perón recognised, from exile, the political importance of the CGT-A and pushed it to confront Vandor’s CGT. And it is not only because Vandor disputed Perón’s leadership of “justicialism”, postulating the creation of a “Peronism without Perón“, but also because his radical phrases created a better camouflage to involve the workers in the defense of capitalism.

Official, “independent” or “radical” trade unions: all enemies of the working class

In the formation of this “combative” CGT (as the CGT-A also called itself), figures from the radicalised “intelligenstia” of petty bourgeois origin and even Catholic priests of the “Movement of Priests for the Third World” collaborated; and without a doubt a great number of workers also took part for very honest reasons, which in no way changed its bourgeois nature. The trade unions are indispensable weapons for the bourgeoisie precisely because it is through them that the ruling class can penetrate the ranks of the workers.

The rise of the military government of Onganía was a political response of the bourgeoisie to the rupture of its unity in the face of the economic crisis. It concentrated its attention on improving the mechanisms for the exploitation and subjugation of the workers, leading to a greater degradation of their lives, to a strict police surveillance of social life and a fierce repression against worker (and student) demonstrations, leaving on each occasion a number of detainees, wounded and murdered.

But the terror applied by the state failed to frighten and paralyse the workers; on the contrary, it fed their courage and fighting spirit.

This atmosphere of struggle also encouraged the Maoist, Stalinist, Trotskyist and Peronist parties to enrich their ranks with students and young workers. However, despite the repressive practice of the state, trade union action and action by left-wing parties, some sectors of the Argentine proletariat were able to promote discussion and reflection on the meaning of the economic measures, the policies applied by the government, but also on the possibility and necessity of revolution[9].

By the end of the 1960s, Argentina had some highly industrialised cities (such as Buenos Aires, Rosario and Córdoba), in which large masses of workers were concentrated, often engaging in very militant actions. It was precisely this workers’ combativity that began to come to the fore in 1966, showing a response to the attacks of the bourgeoisie and its state.

For example, in the provinces of Corrientes and Rosario, the student mobilisations that protested against the increase in prices in the university canteen ended in both cases in police attacks, leaving a number of murdered and wounded students. These events generated consternation among the workers, but at the same time they acted as triggers of courage and expressions of solidarity.

In Cordoba in May 1969, workers’ discontent grew in response to violent economic measures and repressive acts: at the beginning of May transport workers went on strike for better wages. In the automobile factories, since 1968, workers had been dismissed and labor intensity increased, but in 1969 the bosses announced that, for workers in the machine and automobile sectors, the “English Saturday” would be eliminated, which implied the extension of the Saturday workday (4 overtime hours without additional pay). This measure had its complement in the direct reduction of wages (due to the effect of the “zonal removals“).

In the rest of the companies, the freezing of wages was maintained (as it had been since 1967). On May 14, the metalworkers were attacked by the police when they held an assembly, so a violent street fight was unleashed, and this would detonate an increase of workers’ courage and combativity. The unions did not hide their concern about the combativity that was threatening to spill out of their control, which is why the two CGTs sought to work together.

Despite union control, workers’ militancy was real

In an attempt to prevent rising discontent among the workers from breaking out of union control, the CGT-A in combination with Vandor’s CGT, called for a 24-hour national work stoppage for May 30. The Cordovan trade unions[10], for their part, in a kind of competition with the bureaucratic structures of the CGT and even of the CGT-A (with which most of the trade unions in Cordoba were associated), proposed to begin the strike on May 29 at 11 a.m. and end it 37 hours later: in this way they sought to gain prestige among the workers and at the same time show the leadership of the two union centers their local domination and strength, in order to gain a greater presence within the union structure as a whole.

The call for mobilisation was controlled by the union. The arrest of the Peronist Raimundo Ongaro two days before the strike fed the discontent that the unions could take advantage of.

Thus the union structure covered different flanks to ensure control of workers’ combativity. It combined the “radicality” of the CGT-A with the “measured and legalistic” attitude of the CGT, but also involved the unions that were not integrated into any of the CGTs and therefore outside the call (as was the case with Fiat).

While some unions tried to prevent the workers from participating in the strike, most of the unions of the various industries would promote the mobilisation, trying to make sure that they would remain as mere parades, occupying the streets but in a dispersed way, maintaining (under the supervision of the unions) the union division that responds to the division of labor in capitalist production. However, on this occasion, they did not succeed in stopping the expression of proletarian discontent on its own class terrain.

May 29, 1969: Workers’ rebellion in Cordoba

The proposal that emerged from the union meetings was that, from the morning of May 29, the different contingents of workers and students would leave from the doors of the different factories to advance, forming dispersed contingents, until they arrived at the CGT premises (located at Vélez Sarsfield Avenue).

The first aspect that stands out is the massive response of the workers; not only the workers of the big industrial plants mobilised, but also those of the small workshops spontaneously joined in and even many workers of the Fiat factory, where the union opposed the strike, join the demonstration. The students also stopped their activities and became massively integrated in support of the workers, so that practically the entire city came to a standstill.

Since the early hours of May 29, the police had surrounded Velez Sarsfield Avenue to prevent the arrival of groups of workers, and in various streets and neighborhoods near the factory zones, the government placed squads of the gendarmerie and the cavalry, which began their task of intimidation very early, trying to prevent the advance of the columns of workers. But it was in the streets of the center of the city where the strongest combats took place.

When the police saw the demonstration approaching the rallying point, they attacked first with tear gas bombs, then launched the mounted police squads… with these advances they managed to disperse some groups of demonstrators, but soon they regrouped and responded to the aggression with a lot of courage. Sticks and stones were used by demonstrators against the repressive bodies. The massiveness of the demonstration managed to repel the aggression, but the police, when unable to impose their order, resorted to fire power, so that they no longer used only their “dissuasive armament”. Now their rifles and pistols fired on the masses, injuring several workers and murdering Máximo Mena[11], a young worker from IKA-Renault.

The death of this comrade, instead of causing fear, encouraged solidarity and ignited courage. The workers spontaneously built barricades and held assemblies in the streets and around the barricades, in which workers participated without distinction of the factory in which they worked, also integrating students and the inhabitants of the neighborhoods, achieving a high level of unity and solidarity. The testimony of a worker who participated in those battles: “The reaction of the people was remarkable, they went out to help us daily (to light the bonfires that help to diminish the effect of tear gas), the women, the old women, they gave us matches, bottles for us to defend ourselves, sticks...”[12].

The union structure, no matter how hard it tried to stop the fighting, failed to do so and watched with horror as the demonstration they hoped would be controlled by them turned into a massive workers’ rebellion.

Some union leaders, such as Agustín Tosco of Luz y Fuerza, who was impotent in the face of the working force that was rising autonomously, declared to journalists of the magazine “Siete Días”: “The people went out for their own sake, now nobody directs them” and his bitterness showed when he said, “It all got out of hand“[13]. The union structure of the UOM (led by the “moderate” Peronist Atilio López), also realised that the workers had freed themselves from their control, so they “separated” themselves and fled, trying to achieve the pardon of the state and save their skins…

After a few hours of fierce combat in the streets of Cordoba, the exploited forced the withdrawal of a large part of the repressive forces, who took refuge in their barracks. Others maintained their action in some neighborhoods farther from the center, but without being able to cross the barricades, so in an act of desperation and revenge, the police attacked the population even when it was not involved in the demonstration, but simply had the bad luck to cross their path.

In the neighborhood of Clínicas, groups made up mainly of students were placed on the roofs of houses from which they fired deterrent shots to impede the advance of the police. Late that night the workers cut the city lights, creating a gloom to hinder the movement of the police and army that had arrived in the city in the afternoon and was preparing an assault.

It was not until the early morning of May 30 that the military squads began the slow advance through the city, given that they still found many barricades being defended. But in the end the soldiers were able to take the city militarily, imposing a curfew and the massive detention of workers and students, whom they judged almost immediately in rapidly formed military tribunals

The lessons of the Cordobazo

The fighting days of May 1969 sparked a wave of struggles in Argentina until the mid-1970s, providing lessons that workers must reappropriate today. Unlike the bourgeoisie, who as Marx said in their struggle against the old system,  “storm more swiftly from success to success” the workers “constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts“[14] And they do so because they are part of a social class that has no economic base in this system: its strength comes from its consciousness and organization, and this can only be strengthened by evaluating its own practice, recovering the lessons of all its combats and in particular of its defeats. In that sense, when we remember the Cordobazo it is not to make an exaggerated or blind apology, a tearful and moving speech or a formal description of an ephemeral event. We remember it after 50 years because the Argentine proletariat showed the strength that can be created when it manages to break the ties of trade unions and of the parties of the left and right of capital that keep it subjugated. This is a great lesson that the proletariat of the world must re-learn, but at the same time this requires a critical balance-sheet that shows the weaknesses of the movement, for example:

– The workers’ rebellion of May 29 showed itself as a spontaneous and conscious response to the attacks of capital; it was an incipient but important expression of resistance against capitalism, as long as it managed to awaken combativity, encourage solidarity and self-confidence. However, the mobilisation did not advance any further. One of the aspects that prevented the workers from raising their consciousness to more developed levels was the ideological burden that for years had been inoculated by the trade union apparatus, the left of capital and in particular Peronism, which in Argentina has acted and continues to act in defense of capital and against the proletariat.

Specifically, the “anti-imperialist”[15] ideology has been used to batter the consciousness of the proletariat[16]. “Anti-imperialism” is actually the disguise of a nationalist discourse used by both right and left sectors of capital to confuse and divert the discontent of the exploited towards the defense of national capitalism. The same point is reached when the slogan of struggle against monopoly capital is raised, and even more confusion is created when the exploited are peddled the illusion of possible “alternative” policies, such as protectionism or nationalisation. These old traps have no other objective than to prevent the workers from directing their struggle against the foundations of capitalism.

This burden of confusion appeared during the May 29 rebellion when groups of workers and students tried to show their discontent by burning not only government offices, but also businesses and offices of foreign monopolies (Xerox, Citroën…).

Nationalism is one of the heaviest ideological burdens carried by the proletariat, which is why it is not surprising that these expressions appear even at times of rising combativity, and this is so because the bourgeoisie does not let a day pass in which it fails to feed this campaign. In 1973, invoking nationalism, the Argentine workers were dragged to the polls (and since then the bourgeoisie have repeated the trap countless times) and in 1982 they were submerged in the poisonous atmosphere of patriotism in support of the Falklands War.

– Another aspect that hindered the development of workers’ consciousness was the strengthening of the union structure by the state. When the military tribunals blamed the rebellion on the union leaders, Agustín Tosco, Atilio López and Elpidio Torres, they turned them into martyrs, giving prestige to them and to the unions. For this reason, it was not long before the bourgeoisie took advantage of the prestige it gave to Atilio López and Tosco[17], to drive the workers to the polls and to the defense of democracy through their participation in the Justicialist Liberation Front (FREJULI). This meant that the advances in militancy made in the Cordobazo did not have continuity and the lessons were not adequately put together. By snatching control of the struggle from the unions, it was shown that the struggle could be carried on without them, opening the way for building their own organisations (councils, committees…), real expressions of the autonomy of the proletariat.

A few years earlier, when the workers began to recognise the anti-working class character of the official CGT, the bourgeoisie offered them another union, the CGT-A, so that combativity was again recuperated by the union, blocking an understanding that the unions are structures integrated into the state. This same problem was repeated in the “Viborazo” of March 1971, in which the Sitrac-Sitram unions used their “metamorphosis”, going from conservative to ultra-radical unions, in order to widen the source of confusion and sterilise workers’ combativity.

It is in this framework that the bourgeois press and the apparatus of the left of capital, when they speak of the Cordobazo, highlight the confrontations in the streets, trying to reduce this day to anecdotal events, in order to cover up the fact that these were events where the workers showed their ability to take control of the struggle, going beyond the unions, and from which lessons could be drawn in in order to prepare the next battles.

On this basis, the bourgeoisie also tries to falsify the real terrain of struggle of the proletariat, `presenting as “radical” or “effective” methods of struggle such as looting or pillage, as happened during the protests against the “corralito” of 2001-2002[18], or the roadblocks or the “piqueteros” in 2004[19]. In the pages of our publication we have denounced such methods precisely because they are contrary to true self-organisation and true unity. With the prospect of developing new and brutal attacks in the immediate future, and the expected emergence of new workers’ struggles, the proletariat must recover the lessons of its experiences of struggle in Argentina and around the world.

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