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The Americas 59.3 (2003) 435-437

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Workers or Citizens: Democracy and Identity in Rosario, Argentina (1912-1930). By Matthew B. Karush. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 263. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $49.95 cloth.

Matthew Karush has made a valuable, but limited contribution to our knowledge of Argentine politics and regional history with his exploration of the political system in Rosario, Argentina during the first third of the twentieth century. He specifically seeks to explain how the working class reacted to local politics after the passage of the Saenz Peña law that mandated secret ballots as well as a loyal opposition. What Karush asks is what kind of opposition could develop, and how could party politics function in a society where immigrants, both first and second generation, comprised a major part of the population and anarchism and class conflict threatened to divide, rather than unite society. Rosarino party politics under these circumstances, he argues, utilized rhetoric that fostered national identity rather than sectoral issues. Those who chose other routes by emphasizing working class issues only fostered instability and fears of social disruption. This explains the failure of democracy in [End Page 435] Argentina, and the inability of Rosarino politicians to meet the needs of the burgeoning working class. It is an interpretation that eschews traditional views of Argentine party politics based upon the charismatic politics of personalist caudillos.

Karush buttresses his hypothesis with a careful reading of the local newspaper, La Capital, as well as with an interesting reading of popular culture and political theory. He concludes that by 1930 the experiment with democratic politics had basically failed in Rosario, but not for the usual reasons offered by historians of Argentina. Instead of blaming personalist politicians, Karush blames the political model that emphasized the nation rather than ethnic or class groups. Given the universe Karush has identified, and based upon the sources he used, the explanation is quite convincing. What remains unconvincing is the defined universe.

The author explores the world of the male worker and male politicians in a society that has finally afforded the male Argentine citizen the right to a secret ballot. This universe is so completely male, that Karush muses "In light of the fact that women were denied the right to vote, it seems almost redundant for politicians and observers to have stressed the manliness of political activity" (p. 35), while several pages earlier he noted "anyone born in Argentina was a citizen by law" (p. 32), a definition that included women as well. Indeed, women were workers and citizens as well, and even the unemployed housewives formed part of the working class culture of that city. Thus the political culture of the working class had to deal with the fate of women workers, wives, and children, as well as the conditions males confronted in the workplace.

For that reason municipal officials in Rosario and elsewhere in Argentina had to consider the education of young women, particularly the significance of puericultura, the scientific study of child rearing, the problems of infant mortality, and the conditions confronting women workers. There is an enormous literature on the subject, and none of it has been utilized. In this book women appear as prostitutes and non-citizens, and that further distorts both workers and citizens.

Karush concludes by defining the 1930s in a very traditional way. He sees it as a period exemplifying the failure of democratic politics, when in fact recent publications argue otherwise. It was a moment when national, provincial, and local politicians began to address the issue of how to build a national identity by buttressing public health and the welfare of mothers and children at the same time that labor unions were dealt with harshly. Significantly, an important sector of the Socialist Party participated in these efforts. What appears to be an anomaly in Karush's book are the municipal efforts to promote child and female labor laws in 1913, and the Nucleo's efforts to expand the electorate by incorporating women in 1928 to outvote...


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