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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 773-774
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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. Illustration. Map. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. viii, 264 pp. Cloth, $49.95.
This well-documented study supports a nuanced set of arguments that helps us understand the conflictive nature of party politics in Argentina in the early twentieth century, especially the failure of the democratic project that began promisingly in 1912 and ended in the 1930 military coup. Karush argues that Juan Perón's 1945 electoral success finds its roots in the nature and discourse of electoral politics up to 1930.
Elite concern over the growing dangers of Argentina's scandalously corrupt electoral system resulted in top-down legislative reform. While the Sáenz Peña law, enacted in 1912, did not lessen the contentiousness of party politics, the Radical Party did stop threatening revolutionary challenges. However, in September 1930 right-wing elements of the military put an end to Argentine liberal democracy. Focusing on the urban laboratory of Rosario, the largest city in the province of Santa Fe, Karush addresses the nature of citizenship, conflicting perceptions of class, and the variable tolerance for pluralist democracy.
The Radical Party won the 1912 election in Rosario. The rhetoric of Ricardo Caballero, the party's most aggressive leader, appealed to the historical vitality of Argentina's laborers, infusing working-class aspirations into the idea of an Argentine democracy. By invoking the needs of the disaffected within a nativist discourse, Caballero politicized class positions and questioned the legitimacy of the elite republic. This discourse fused class identity with citizenship identity. Democracy was not simply about pristine, affective patriotism and single-minded affinity to the nation; it was something more complex—a political system conscious of social needs. However, Caballero's connection of patriotism and partisan need were an anathema to other established political actors in Rosario, including the traditional elite and the bourgeois core of the Radical Party, whose definition of citizenship did not easily admit class considerations. Indeed, the prevailing view was that citizenship should not be conditioned by partisan identities: the nation demanded of its people an undifferentiated, indivisible affinity to the patria, devoid of sectoral appeals.
Karush explores an oddly irreconcilable pair of worldviews. Workers, on the one hand, saw the state as the principal agent responsible for social conditions. That politicians should respond to sectoral demands was made clear through strikes and the rhetoric of class grievances. In contrast, the majority of intellectuals, professionals, merchants, landowners, and petty entrepreneurs saw political participation as an honorable and patriotic activity that expressed, above all, an essential Argentinidad devoid of ideological partisanship. This view held that issues of social justice eroded democracy. Insofar as the principal political organizations considered partisanship politics to be unpatriotic, Argentine electoral campaigns were largely devoid of specific social or economic content but rich in patriotic and hagiographic [End Page 773] discourse. For the most part, politicians and their supporters defined electoral politics and democracy as nation-building tools and not as avenues for representing diverse needs.
Most political leaders' insistence on what Karush calls a "nonpluralist democracy," in contrast to workers' commitment to class-based identities and continued use of labor unrest to redress grievances, had two results. In the short term, elites felt increasingly frustrated that class-based political appeals represented a failure of Argentina's experiment in liberal democracy and nation building. Liberal democracy was defined by a politically mature citizenry and not the relentless dissension unleashed by the class-based appeals of laborers and political firebrands. Thus, the military coup of September 1930 was welcomed as an immediate relief from violence and as an acknowledgment that liberal democracy had failed to build the consensual nation. In the longer term, the failure of parties to address social and economic grievances during this experiment in electoral democracy paved the way for the Peronist movement, which would galvanize neglected sectors and, in the process, redefine the purpose of politics, the...