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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 188-190

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Book Review

La cuestión social en Argentina, 1870-1943

La cuestión social en Argentina, 1870-1943. Edited by JUAN SURIANO. Buenos Aires: La Colmena, 2000 . Table. Bibliography. 334 pp. Paper.

This book appropriately begins with an attempt by its editor to define its title. Suriano includes here the usual suspects that fell under the late-nineteenth-century rubric of "the social question": concerns or anxieties about urban growth and poverty, immigration, labor militancy, working women, criminality, public health, and tenement housing. He adds, however, an item (the Indian "problem") that seems out of place chronologically (the conquest of the Indian frontier had been accomplished by 1880 ) and conceptually (contemporaries rarely included the issue under the notion of the social question). His description of civil society as endemic and suffocated by state power would only hold true with the narrowest definition of "civil" as having to do with legal citizenship. After all, in this country of immigrants, the number and activity of secondary associations ranked among the highest in the world. Likewise, the depiction of local liberalism as a mainly discursive trend that had limited institutional impact contradicts recent scholarship such as the similarly titled Los liberals reformistas: La cuestión social en la Argentina, 1890- 1916 (1994 ), by Eduardo Zimmerman. Suriano rightly points out that "the social question" represented more than an elite construction. Tellingly, it was the title of one of the first anarchist newspapers in the country. But this view from below includes only the labor movement, leaving out multiclass immigrants' clubs and mutual-aid societies, which actually had a much larger membership than trade unions.

The first four chapters deal with labor or with the attitudes of other sectors towards it. María Celia Bravo examines the views of liberals, socialists, the Catholic Church, and sugarmill owners in the northwestern province of Tucumán. After tracing the evolution of legislation on systems of labor control, she centers on a [End Page 188] successful strike by sugar workers in 1904 and its aftermath. Agustina Prieto shifts the focus eastwards, towards Rosario, a city that massive European immigration turned into the second largest in the country and, in the words of the socialist leader Enrique Dickman, into "the mecca of anarchism, the Argentine Barcelona." Prieto shows how political resentment from this dynamic city towards Santa Fe, the conservative provincial capital, found expression in the bourgeois press's sympathetic attitudes towards the labor movement. In absolute terms, the anarchist movement was, of course, larger in Buenos Aires and the editor of the book contributes a chapter on the porteño libertarians' opposition to government involvement in labor issues during the 1904 attempt to pass a national labor law. Suriano perceptively observes that in spite of their desires, the anarchists' activism ended up encouraging government involvement and reformist legislation. Ricardo Falcón deals with the same issue but from the opposite side (the state) and a dozen years later (during the first Radical government). He argues that this regime's pro-labor policies obeyed not electoral concerns, as David Rock has posited, but a broader desire to integrate all sectors of society that was mainly inspired in Yrigoyen's Krausist principles.

Four other chapters deal with labor in a less direct manner. Ricardo Salvatore examines the emergence and consolidation of positivist criminology, its view of casual unskilled laborers as potential delinquents, and its impact on penal reform, including the use of prison labor as a way to correct what was seen as a major cause of criminal behavior: the lack of a work ethic. Fernando Rocchi approaches the issue from the side of employers, elucidating how relationships among them and with their employees and the state shaped an industrialist identity and a paternalist response to the "social question." Mirta Lobato records the views on women workers of socialists, anarchists, Catholics, and the state (as revealed in official reports and legislation). And Marcela Nari repeats much of this but in a less organized manner.

The three remaining chapters have less...


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pp. 188-190
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