An article by the Internationalist Communist Group (ICG/GCI) about the events in Patagonia 1917-21.
Workers' Memory, from Communism #4
"This signifies the rashest defiance of everything that stands for law and order and the worship of the Homeland, which is the worship of institutions under whose protection groups of more or less genuine workers attempt to vent their hatred and class resentment with unspeakable abuse" said the bourgeois of the "Union", 1921.
"Proletarians of all countries, unite! In a single unit, in a powerful embrace of exploited brothers, let us march down the road that leads to the emancipation of the slaves of capital" replied the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society of the Various Trades, in 1921.
* * *
It is only to be expected that the bourgeoisie should try to hide, to falsify and suppress the memory of every historical process in which the proletariat has acted as an autonomous force. However, in so doing it admits to its own terror at being confronted yet again by these forces which arise out of the savagery of bourgeois domination. It is only to be expected that the proletariat should fight to unearth its history and to strengthen itself through it. In so doing, it clearly illustrates the need to return to past experience and to expose its class enemies in order to prevent repeating mistakes for which such a high price in blood and humiliation has already been paid. It is impossible to realise our aim - the destruction of capital - without repossessing our history. The bourgeoisie is aware of this and therefore tries to prevent our experience accumulating. In turn, the proletariat is conscious of these bourgeois attempts and therefore fights to reconstitute its experience. Every revolutionary advancement brings to light a past which had seemed to be buried forever. Social-democracy did such a perfect job at the beginning of the century that all the major workers struggles of the past century were either misunderstood or completely distorted; what was sold as marxism was actually bourgeois politics directed at workers, represented most famously by Kautsky. The major working class struggles at the end of the last century and at the beginning of this one permitted the rediscovery of facts, texts and viewpoints indispensable for the reconstruction of the communist programme.
After several years of counter-revolution, and especially after the sixties, the problem arose once again due to the revival of the proletarian fight. In Latin America, as everywhere we are beginning to rediscover the history of the world's proletariat. In every country facts are coming to light after centuries of capitalist exploitation. A lot of myths, like that of Latin-American feudalism, are being shattered - capitalism alone must take the responsibility for centuries of abject poverty and extermination. History exposes the true nature of many political parties continuing to maintain a working-class veneer more importantly, even though very basic, the working-class is realising that it has a rich history of heroic struggles. The myth of the Latin-American independence liberation has collapsed and been shown up for what it really was - a war between imperialist interests and powers. From the start of the 19th century onwards the so-called progressive Latin-American bourgeois were also shown up for what they really were -organised assassins of the proletariat (miners, agricultural workers, Indians, Gauchos, slaves, craftsmen and homeworkers) - and the conflict between civilisation and barbarism, progress and anarchy resumed its true character of class antagonism.
Today it is no longer possible to hush up the efforts that the Latin-American proletariat made to establish class organisations. The first socialist organisations and newspapers (utopian socialism) appeared in Latin-America in the 1830s and 40s from just about all different quarters. In the following decades workers' strikes in urban industries became more and more significant, adding to the miners' - proletarianized 'peasant' (1) -permanent struggle against the local and metropolitan bourgeoisie. The first section of the 1st International were set up in 1865 and had a significant boost in the following decade by the arrival of the combatants of the Commune. From then on, the number of workers' associations increased and major demonstrations, strikes, street confrontations and insurrectional attempts took place one after the other.
Of all the buried chapters of our history, the most important are those recounting the most intense moments of the struggle and the formation into classes, that is the revolutionary period of 1917-1923. Over the whole world the proletariat showed itself to be the "protagonist of its own history". 'Dictatorship of the proletariat' and 'communist revolution' were, for the first time in world history, no longer merely the slogans of a handful of revolutionaries but had become widespread among the working-class of all countries. Up until then the communists had stated that the revolution would have to be world-wide for it to happen at all, but they were unclear on how it would become generalised throughout the world. The victorious insurrection in Russia served as an example to them and added fuel to the fire (a fire which was already smouldering in many countries), giving them a practical answer to their questions, on the one hand by uniting the proletariat by drawing up a clear perspective (of which the organic formalisation in the Third International was only one of the aspects) and on the other hand by uniting the whole counter-revolution (the socialists first of all) against the insurrection. The world proletariat, for the fist time in its history appeared as a single unit, a single movement with a single perspective: revolution.
It was this sane cry, this same perspective of communist revolution which was heard and which spread to an area as far away as Patagonia.
Incredible? certainly, anything that is capable of stating revolution seems impossible after having been filtered by more than 5 decades of counter-revolution. Only the recent awaking of the Latin-American and world proletariat has permitted the discovery of such facts and will permit many others to be disinterred and reinterpreted.
How can it be that such important historical facts are either unknown or distorted? How has it proved possible to camouflage history in this way? The simple answer is that, outside the area directly concerned (Argentina, Chile, Latin-America), the counter-revolution has managed to perpetrate the myth of a Latin-America populated by peasants (campesinos), fighting for land or national revolution.
Therefore the proletariat has remained unable to identify its own worldwide class and recognize its own struggle. In Europe, for example, even groups defending the working-class positions take up obviously counterrevolutionary positions with respect to Latin-America. These are identical to those taken up by the Latin-American socialists in 1917-23 and later by the stalinists (agrarian and anti-imperialist revolution, national revolution continued by the proletarian revolution, etc).
In Argentina (and in Chile), where the myth of the peasant (campesino) was more difficult to impose on the proletarians, who recognized the struggles of the agrarian proletariat to be their own, 2 incorrect explanations of the nature of the struggles were put forward (as always):
- the explanation by the Argentinean army, the Patriotic League, etc. was the following: the army has had to take action against foreign bandits who were killing and raping, burning down the "estancias" (2), etc.
- the explanation by trade unions, socialists, stalinists, etc. was as follow: the army has tortured, beaten and given the order to dig mass graves for 1500 workers who will be gunned down for demanding nothing more than their rights.
The monumental four-volume book by Osvaldo Bayer (3) has enabled us to discount both explanations. Bayer's is the only reliable work or the subject. It is impossible to find fault with the documentation and the depth of the theme dealt with and he has been of great use to us. Nevertheless, the author's interpretation arises from a conception which differs to our own and therefore we will not reproduce it in this article.
Patagonia, past history and protagonists of the fight
Patagonia is an immense territory situated at the tip of the southern point of Latin-America (from the Atlantic to the Pacific) divided into small antagonistic states by politics of capital, coloniser as well as independentist, on the basis of the existence of a natural border, the Andes Cordilla. During the conquest capital defined it as "land unable to yield any return" thanks to which the indigenous communities were able to remain as such for a bit longer. But plans for future integration were the very reason why it was decided not to exploit this area. Integration was achieved during the first half of the 19th century. The bourgeoisie, expanding over the productive area known as Argentina (a bourgeoisie originating from all over the world but very patriotic, of course), decided to send its army to civilise the area. This resulted in the total extermination of the indigenous communities. This was the prize paid by every indigenous organisation which hadn't developed methods of exploitation and major collective labour which could be directly used by capital as a basis for its transformation into a subsidiary (and not "pre-capitalist") means of production of capital.
Colonisation is a capitalist undertaking which, based on the best possible profits obtainable, decides to appropriate some sort of productive forces (mines, men, land). But there, there were no mines, the men proved themselves inadaptable to the structure of the wage-labour and most of the land was pasture. There was no doubt about the capitalist decision: kill the men, appropriate the land and then bring in other men already used to working for the capitalists for a wage.
Once this process had been accomplished, as in many other parts of Latin-America (4) the great majority of the population was composed of workers from all over the world.
The result of this combination was a high degree of "internationalism" of the 2 protagonistic classes in Patagonian confrontation. The fundamental determination of capital is its valorization - it decides which homeland to defend subsequently. It is for this reason that the "Argentinian patriots" in Patagonia consisted of English limited companies, German, Belgian, North-American, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Uruguayan, Russian, Chilean, and a few Argentinean capitalists. The workers also came from all over the world - Chileans, Spaniards, Argentineans, Russians, Paraguayans, Italians, Germans, etc. - but they had no homeland to defend. Theyy had only the internationalism of their class to brandish high, which is what they did.
Across these millions of almost totally unpopulated hectares of land there were only cows, sheep and capital. This was the scene that gave rise to the feudalist and pre-capitalist theories or even the idea of the definitive "subsumption" (5) of labour to capital. But none of these ideas were correct since the pre-existing labour-process had been completely destroyed. Patagonia was not the same as Rio Grande, Provencia Oriental, Entre Rios or even Buenos Aires, where the "estancia" had been preceded by a century of "vaqueria" (6) (the definitive subsumption of labour to capital).
In a few decades, on these lands fertilized by Indian blood, capital got all the activities necessary for production, commercialisation, stocking, internal and external transport working, using no more people than was necessary for its valorization (the industrial reserve army were made up of the "chilotes" (7) and the European unemployed).
The rapid growth of the wool, leather and meat industries was controlled by the same capital at all its stages. At the end of the last century the same owners were to be found in the estancias, the banks, the refrigorating industries, the warehouses, the insurance, electricity and telephone companies, the shoe factories, the shipyards, the department stores, the maritime goods, passengers, inland and overseas companies, etc.
Apart from the local police and the Chilean and Argentinean army, the politico-military forces upon which the bourgeoisie could rely in the class confrontation were the following: a collection of political and military machinery, decentralized relative to the State, such as the Patriotic Leagues (Argentinean and Chilean para-military organisations), rural societies, commercial and industrial leagues, the local as well as the Buenos Aires press, the free labour association (an army of strike-breakers, as indicated by its name), the democratic and anti-imperialist Yrigoyenismo and other forces which were claimed to be part of the working class. On the workers' side there were innumerable associations and local workers' federations. Nevertheless, the movement was centralized around and directed by the workers' society of Rio Gallegos which, opposed to all the patriotism of the times, stated in its statutes as early as 1910 that "the society will commemorate no other day apart from the 1st of May, since that is the day of protest of the workers of the whole world". In 1914 the first strike took place, the first men were imprisoned for subversion, the strike became generalised, scabs arrived from Buenos Aires, pickets started to confront strike-breakers and there were confrontations with the police, etc. Up until then the Patagonian ports had done no more than to show solidarity with the strikes decided upon in an agitated Buenos Aires. In April 1917 the first attempt at general strike was declared by the Rio Gallegos workers' society.
But after the revolution in Russia the tone of things altered. In 1918, general strike was decided upon in Puerto Deseado. The strikers derailed a train, shot and surrounded a black-leg, etc.
At the end of the year and at the beginning of 1919 strike was declared by the workers' organisations in Chilean Patagonia, the centres of which were Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. In Puerto Natales the workers took over the town. The workers' measures increased and the first news of the revolutionary strike in Buenos Aires was reported in Rio Gallegos in the following way: "General revolutionary strike. Everything completely paralysed. Shooting between strikers and police. Many deaths and injuries. The movement is intensifying. Several railway trains and stations have been destroyed by fire. The situation is serious. We have never seen anything like it!".
One can imagine the emotion amongst handful of workers meeting at Rio Gallegos and calling, for a general assembly of the whole area. As a result, the police campaign gained momentum, the whole of the working-class leadership ended up in prison and the premises were ordered to be closed. But the governor, Correo Falcon, and superintendent Ritchie had not won yet. The workers' federation secretly organised a new leadership and began to distribute pamphlets calling for strike. But the detentions continued and two days later, something happened which seemed incredible in the area: the proletarian women took to the street and confronted the police, unarmed. The pamphlets were circulating throughout Rio Gallegos and even penetrated the prison: "Soldiers and police officers... there is no need for you to remain the people's executioners. Unite with the people, as your colleagues did in Rosario". The repressive forces found the organisers of the movement, put them into prison and broke up the struggle. The white guard was organised and the governor of Santa-Crux and superintendent Ritchie organised the forces destined to save the "Chilean" bourgeoisie in its time of difficulty. The workers' council which had taken over the town of Puerto Natales was liquidated, the Chilean army took the situation into its own hands and the leaders of the councils were executed.
The bourgeoisie had won battle of 1919, but in 1920 the world economic crises spread to this cattle-rearing region. The world market for wool and meat was saturated and prices fell; produce rotted in Argentinean ports. Capitalism began to put its crisis policies into operation: reduction of wages, unemployment, austerity. The working-class retaliated with major strikes by the rural proletariat in Santa Fe, Entre Rios, Cordoba, Chaco, Patagonia and the Buenos-Aires province.
The Argentinean army and the Patriotic League were the decisive elements against the "foreign subversion" (according to the expression used by "Forestal", a London-based firm) the Argentinean Patriotic League described its action in the following way: "in the name of collective interests (against) ... the outbreak of anarchist agitation by bandits ... who wanted to use their weapons to liberate some detained agitators. This state of affairs makes it necessary to take the important step of mobilising the brigades and, divided into defence sections, we are ready to repel the aggression."
Before completing this presentation of the protagonists and antecedents of the struggle, we should quickly mention the political positions and organisations which were of importance in the fight:
- the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society was affiliated to the 9th congress R.A.W.F. (Regional Argentinean Workers' Federation) [this is an English translation of the union's acronym, which was generally referred to as the FORA - libcom] or Trade Unionist R.A.W.F. Nevertheless, the affiliation was a purely formal one. In reality, the R.A.W.F.'s position was openly counter-revolutionary and all its policies centred on critical support for Yrigoyen's "democratic and anti-imperialist" regime. The revolutionaries of the time referred to the R.A.W.F. - with good reason - a chameleon or as the R.A.W.F. of ministries (ministrialist), because on the one hand it changed its political position as one changed one's shirt and on the other hand it withdrew from all the major strikes at the crucial moment and its leadership took cover in ministries.
- the truly proletarian forces, that is to say the communists, had proved unable, as all over the world, to organise themselves around a single centre. The most significant revolutionary force was the predominantly anarcho-communist communist R.A.W.F. This was the only organisation to attempt to support the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society. The Argentinean Communist Party, the A.P.C., despite being one of the first set up in the world (Jan.1918), was already dominated by the right-wing faction. Its leadership already contained the unfortunately famous Ghioldi, Codovilla (eternal travellers to Moscow) who maintained the leadership on the basis of the Third International (I.C.) opportunistic policies against left-wing faction (the majority in the first three congresses) which went in to publish the newspaper "la Chispa" (8). The Patagonian workers could hope for nothing from this party. If the proletariat had indeed united by the Russian revolution, the Bolshevik policies which conserved capital and repressed the workers along with the opportunism of the I.C. only served to divide it again. Of these two contradictory aspects in 1920-22 only the first reached Patagonia. It was only in 1922 that articles began to appear condemning the working-class policies of the Bolsheviks. This explains the fact that up until then the Patagonian workers, whether they regarded themselves as pure anarchists, communist-anarchists, communists or even socialist had all identified themselves with the Russian revolution, which showed them the way, and used everyday expressions such as "if Lenin catches you!". As workers, material necessities and the example of the Russian revolution tended to unite them in a single party of communist action.
But the absence of a basic plan of action and solid organization resulted tragically in perpetual changes in the Rio Gallegos workers' Society with consequences which we shall consider subsequently.
1920-21 direct action and general strike
In April 1920 the governor, Correo Falcon, declared that "Elements with progressive ideas originating from the federal chief town and other parts of the country have begun a campaign aimed at disrupting public order on this territory." Indeed, the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society had succeeded in reorganising itself and in July declared strikes in the Patagonian ports and Hotels.
The bourgeoisie was very much in favour of a repressive solution to the problem. Detentions first began in Rio Gallegos and then in Santa Fe. All workers' meetings were prohibited and beatings and prison sentences were given to those who chose to resist this prohibition. Superintendent Ritchie demanded that troops be sent. The workers' society retaliated by calling for all workers to come out in sympathy for the strikers. And across this barren land (one must not forget the sparseness of the working-class population and the communication difficulties from one estancia to another, etc.) the incredible happened: the strike to free the prisoners became unstoppable.
The bourgeoisie retreated and freed a few prisoners, hoping to break the strike. But the strike continued and by the 1st November the bourgeoisie was left with no other choice but to free them all. But this was already too late, the workers' organisation and communication had improved and they decided to continue the strike, this time to try and gain improvements in the agricultural workers' conditions.
The representatives of the "estancieros" (9) promised to make "sacrifices" and to grant wage increases as well as a series of improvements. But it was again too late: the rural proletariat had already formed its own avant-garde and guaranteed an extension of the fight. Two armed contingents had gone into action. Their historical leaders were "El Toscano", (due to his Italian origins) whose real name was Alfredo Fonte, and "68" (his prison number, also an Italian) whose name was Jose Ricardi. They went from farm to farm, calling for strike and agricultural workers joined the march. They took everything necessary to continue to the fight as they went: provisions, horses, weapons and money. With every action the movement was strengthened both in men and in arms. The land-owners, bosses and administrators of the estancias were taken hostages. All that remained necessary was to disappear in order to throw the police off the scent.
The situation was now such that the whole of southern Santa Cruz was paralysed. The owners attempted to negotiate once more and the "irigoyenists", in the role of "workers' advisors", called for an improvement in harmony between capital and labour. The strike continued, was strengthened and spread. Half a million animals rotted on farm without being able to be sold, the refrigorating factories were unable to function and the ports were completely paralysed. Police repression and detentions were unsuccessful in halting the movement.
The bourgeois newspaper then announced the founding of the "Association of free labour": "The initiative has been taken by an important group in the region to found an 'Association of free labour' so that the worker, tyrannised by the absurd sectarianism maintained by combat groups and other meant of dissuasion, may be completely free to change his direction whenever he chooses, depending on current events and his own interests." In the name of Democracy and Freedom of labour, it was decided to send a group of scabs to Buenos-Aires. Considering that the trade unionist R.A.W.F. (to which the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society was affiliated) was in control of the sea workers' organisations, one could have supposed that they would have at least prevented the arrival of the scabs. But that was too much to hope for: the chameleon R.A.W.F. was positioned on the opposite side of the barricades. The scabs disembarked.
Accompanied by a police escort, it was attempted to bring them to the workplaces. But the workers greeted them with rifle shots, bullets which reminded the proletariat that they are sections of the working- class which refuse to take part in the democratic game, who understand perfectly that democratic freedom is the freedom for the oppressors to maintain exploitation and that statutes and other legal procedures are made to disorganise the workers as a class.
The scabs and their escort were so frightened that they returned to Rio Gallegos immediately. An indignant Correo Falcon ordered superintendent Ritchie to pursue Toscano's and 68's avant-garde, using cars and the police, but they found no trace of the "bandits". The bourgeoisie used this term to separate the armed groups of workers from those "fighting peacefully for their economic interests", hoping in this way to divide the proletariat, to discredit the class's violent action and to isolate the working-class vanguards.
The working-class understood the root of the problem perfectly and saw a qualitative change in the new forms of struggle in the confrontation with capital. It knew that the "bandits" were in fact its class brothers, that they were all "bandits". "Long live the bandits from the South" were the headlines of the workers' press in Buenos-Aires. "Bandit" became synonymous with "worker aware of his class enemies". The Workers' Society which, considering its filiation, should have been opposed to the support of such initiatives, called for "a show of solidarity by continuing the indefinite strike unfalteringly",
The bourgeoisie began to use new weapons to break up the growing unity and centralisation developing in the working-class struggle. The owners made new proposals: very generous ones this time. Terrified by the proletariat's increased organisation and armamentation, the bourgeoisie retreated, preferring to lose a really considerable amount of surplus-value than the whole of capital, including possibly its own head.
The unionist R.A.W.F. defended, in front of the workers, the need to accept the owners' proposals, it came as a big surprise to them when the Workers' Federation answered: "No! the strike will go on!". The chameleon R.A.W.F. had revealed its true nature. As always in these situations, the newspapers championed the cause of "workers' democracy". They proposed that the parties concerned, the agricultural workers, should be consulted and tried to break the class unity using the pretext of majority. They denounced the commission that had taken the decision to continue the strike in the name of the assemblies: "Is the commission a sufficient authority to reject the proposals that had been made, without consulting the workers, who are the only ones actually concerned in the conflict?".
Nevertheless, and despite the attempts of the unionist R.A.W.F., the assembly came down in favour of continuing the strike. The unionist R.A.W.F.'s standpoint was not only utopian and reactionary, but frankly authoritarian, because the armed workers' groups were either unable to participate in the vote or they were liquidated on entering the town. The worthy predecessors of Argentinean trade unionism weren't in the least bit embarrassed to admit that they were against all working-class action: "Convinced that fanaticism is dangerous, we were insulted, even threatened, when we attempted to avoid the worst that threatened us at that time. We see the same situation today a direct consequence of the illogical frequency of strikes and the absurdity of boycotts, and we are forced to support it!". These men were those supposed to put the Patagonian workers in contact with the rest of the Argentinean workers. Obviously the workers remained unsupported, despite efforts of solidarity made by the communist R.A.W.F.
At that time, Correo Falcon (the governor) played a card which could still teach us a thing or two about democratic freedom and rights and about the services rendered to the employers by the unions: "The Workers' Federation of this town is directed by elements which have nothing to do with the workers themselves. This has recently produced a profound split between the bad and the good elements since the later have withdrawn their support for the leadership of the agitators, given that no economic or social improvements have been made for the worker... groups of men excited by sovietist speeches have thrown themselves into the fields, cutting innumerable barbed-wire fences..., it is to be expected in this situation that the police should act energically to protect property and the freedom of labour, since that is their principal duty... As long as the situation remained calm and the workers weren't calling for disorder and lootings, they could hold all assemblies and meetings they wished, considering that they were exercising their rights without affecting the property of others. But as soon as they used these rights to break the peace (of exploitation) and to put constitutional guarantees (the bourgeois domination) at risk, they necessary had to be restrained."
The first armed confrontations took place at "Puerto Deseado" on the 17th of December 1920. One worker was killed and many other were injured or taken prisoner. The workers came through badly but they didn't weaken. As they didn't possess a printing-works, they wrote out pamphlets by hand: "To the working-class people. Comrades: Thirty comrades have been imprisoned by the capitalist tyranny, but we shall carry on fighting for the cause with ever increasing enthusiasm. Down with tyranny, long live the strike!".
At the end of December, superintendent Michieri issued the following ultimatum: "You have 24 hours in which to either go back to work or to leave the Argentinean Lago, otherwise I guarantee to have you beaten and drowned in a bloodbath and sent to the other side of the Cordillera."
Anything serving as logistic support for the strikers - small shops, bars meeting halls, etc.- was wrecked. Whoever turned up at any such place was immediately arrested and beaten up. Superintendent Michieri's troops were successful until they confronted 68's and El Toscano's men, who were unintimidated by their uniforms. They ordered Michieri to stop and the superintendent and his men responded by shooting. This method had always worked up until then, but this time the workers answered bullets with bullets, without hesitation. As a result, several policemen were killed, officers of the Patriotic League were injured and others surrendered and were taken prisoner by the workers. The superintendent, with two bullet wounds, was taken hostage.
When the workers' forces, at that time between 500 and 600 men, decided to continue on their route, superintendent Ritchie's reinforcements arrived from Rio Gallegos. There was a fresh confrontation and the workers lost a comrade, but it cost the police deary. One officer of bourgeois law and order was killed during the fight and another was executed; Ritchie's forces were obliged to flee many of them with bullet wounds as souvenirs, Ritchie himself with one in his right hand.
The patriot's commission returned defeated to Rio Gallegos. The atmosphere of terror for the bourgeoisie was reinforced by the fire in "La Ambrense" warehouse, which was stocked full with tanks of naphta and oil. Bayer commented that "the strikers had chosen their target well. All night long there was one explosion after another. the terror is acting like an ice cube down the backs of all those who believe in private property. On the other hand, for the poor man it is a real show, all this banging of fireworks, many people believe that it is time to leave because Santa Cruz resembles Russia in 1917."
Correo Falcon's appeal was pathetic: "The situation created by subversive elements makes it necessary for all men who respect the law and freedom, which the National constitution grants us, to unite. This is not a working-class movement, but something much worse: a subversion of order, of all the principles of equity and justice. Elements which have neither homeland nor laws are murdering ... we must preserve the respect for our Constitution and our laws and hold high the sacred teaching of the Homeland." And all the patriots assembled, faced with the serious situation, from the Argentinean Patriotic League to the British Legation in Buenos Aires, from the Chilean government to the radical Yrigoyenist democrats, from the Rural Society to the chameleon R.A.W.F. The English government and the new German republic made pathetic appeals to the Argentine chancery to protect property and the citizen.
How the workers' unity was destroyed
The Rio Gallegos Workers' Society continued to appeal desperately to the Buenos Aires unionist R.A.W.F., which, on the contrary, was making separate agreements, wherever it had any influence, to get men back to work: "maritime workers' federation". The situation in Rio Gallegos became unbearable. Soto vacillated, because of his partial and intuitive rupture with counterrevolutionary ideology and anarcho-trade unionism, and finally opted for halting the strikes in the towns. Soto had never approved of the movement's qualitative leap toward direct action and the offensive. He considered it necessary to explain that the workers, when faced with repression, had to defend themselves armed, but up until then "the workers from the country had been acting within the limits of their indisputable right to strike in order to be able to sell their labour force at the price they required". Soto's position, (centrist and very confined to right-wing ground) against which the communist avant-garde fought, differed from that of the trade unionist R.A.W.F., obviously on the completely opposite side of the fence. Acting upon Soto's advice, whose influence was total and this time disastrous, the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society stopped the strike. The agricultural workers continued, completely isolated.
The true leadership of the strike was now in the hands of the strongmen - 68 and El Toscano -. It was decided to ssend 68 to Rio Gallegos, to combat Soto's defeatist standpoints. He entered the town under cover and left it accompanied by 30 men who already began to take action as they went, taking hostages (administrators, landowners and some policemen), commandeering weapons and horses. Other workers joined them and 68, who had left alone, returned with 150 men. Other superintendents and their inferiors attempted to confront the 50-150 men workers' detachments but they were defeated every time. The red flags continued to blaze in the countryside.
It was under such complex circumstances for the workers that "Yrigoyenism" took the lead, in the name of the whole of the bourgeoisie. They replaced Correo Falcon, the governor much hated by the workers, by an yrigonenist appointed to "defend the workers against the bosses". Argentinean troops disembarked under the command of the yrigoyenist Varela, who admitted that "the workers are right". The bourgeoisie had understood perfectly that the military situation had become very difficult and that the army wouldn't be able to crush every working-class uprising over the whole country. The available forces sent to Patagonia would have been incapable of confronting the workers if they had continued on the path to revolution as their red leaders, 68 and El Toscano were proposing.
The executive power gave the following instructions to the governors and the military: "Avoid blood-shed ... interpret the President of the nation way of thinking, well-known to be working-class orientated." Where open repression had failed, the bourgeois working-class policies were to succeed: disorganise, disarm and divide the enemy. All that was yet to come was Act II - the massacre.
Commander Varela seemed to listen to the workers' demands: freedom to all prisoners, amnesty for all those who had committed criminal acts, etc. Proposals were made to 68's and El Toscano's men and in a general assembly the majority accepted and agreed to give their weapons, the hostages, the horses and return to work.
As always in history, a revolutionary minority refused to be taken in by the myth of working-class democratism. Two hundred men, lead by El Toscano and 68, appropriated the weapons and disappeared. But the pro-workers tactics of the bourgeoisie had won and the avant-garde was cut off from the rest of the class. It will be too late when it will finally be recognized that it was "the faith in this military man that lost us fight."
Strike without perspective
Productive activities were resumed. In the estancias sheep-sheaving was going on apace and in the ports merchandise was being loaded and unloaded. The prisoners were freed and all subversives were issued with a pass, signed by Varela himself, which stated that: "this person is at liberty to travel around this land in the search of work and must not be prevented from doing so by military or police authorities". The land-owners protested at this and therefore Varela acquired the blind trust (absurdly blind) of the workers.
Radicalism had achieved its objectives and Patagonia was converted from what had seemed to be an unsuppressable state of insurrection to a recuperation of all that had been lost (for the capitalists). Promises were made for a better future and the whole of Patagonia (apart from a handful of workers who had understood their tactics) thanked and honoured the governor Iza and commander Varela for their "progressive work in the workers' favour". As one can imagine, the exploitative conditions didn't change and the promises remained nothing more than empty ones. On the 21st of March, only a month after the agreement, a strike broke out in Swift's refrigorating factories but was rapidly quelled. It was only the first sign of what was yet to come.
The classes prepared themselves for a second confrontation: the Patagonian workers did all they could to avoid remaining isolated again and to gain the solidarity of the whole class by generalising the struggle over the whole area. As a result of their drive, a congress was organised for the whole of Patagonia (Argentina and Chili) with the participation of the Workers' Societies of Puerto Madryn, Comodoro, San Julian, Puerto Santa Cruz, Puerto Descado, Rio Gallegos and the Magellan Workers' Federation. The trade-unionist R.A.W.F. openly sabotaged this attempt to centralize the fight across borders. It was totally opposed to the Rio Gallegos Workers' Society, and the R.A.W.F. objective was to remove all their external support and to set up free unions for "good" workers, etc. Each step taken by the trade-unionist R.A.W.F. was a step nearer their preparation for working-class defeat, backed-up at length by all of the bourgeois newspapers.
The first skirmishes, demonstrations and repressions took place between the 21st of March and the 21st of July in Rio gallegos and Puerto Santa Cruz -Patriots against internationalists, police corps supporting the "free" workers against the proletariat. The situation was also explosive in Chili, especially in Puerto Matales and Punta Arenas. The workers from both countries managed to coordinate and carry out some common acts of sabotage and boycott, despite the counter-revolutionary policy of the trade unionists.
In September 1921, the Workers' Federation began its offensive on two fronts. In its newspaper "The first of May" they denounced the role played by trade unionists of the R.A.W.F. and launched a campaign for proletarian internationalism. At the same time, a group of men - including Soto - covered the countryside in preparation for the new strike. On the 1st of October, under the heading "Patriotic Celebrations" ,the workers' newspapers wrote: "Last month patriotic celebrations took place. They consisted of a multitude of flags, rosettes, gatherings, balls and drinking sessions,... It seems impossible that there are comrades amongst us who support such events. Farewell to the red flags unfolded on the 1st of May." There then followed an account of world proletarian confrontations especially in Italy, where the workers predicted success for their class brothers and said: "who are the instigators of these celebrations? A few tradesmen who buy and sell products throughout the world and compete with others from their own homeland - in truth, their only homeland is profit.. A banker, who speculates in every world stock exchange, who has a stake in every world money market (in reality his homeland is money), a proprietor who employs workers of every nationality (as long as they cost as little and work as much as possible) - in reality, his compatriots are all "beaast of burden" - the cheapest and the most profitable possible (*). When will we understand - we, the proletariat, who have never land nor property nor anything material that ties us to one place more than another - that the confused notion of the 'homeland' is an irrelevancy to us? When will we realise that the homeland is perfectly established and fostered by the privileged of the bourgeois class?".
The workers' anger had already exploded in the countryside. A while before El Toscano had reappeared. Without waiting for the Workers' Society's decisions and vacillations to be sorted out, he declared a general strike in the countryside and began his plan of action: To cries of "Long live the revolution", a handful of comrades set up what they called a "red council".
Nothing was achieved by a meeting in early October with Soto. He didn't approve of El Toscano's methods and thought that everything should be agreed upon by the assemblies. There was a total split and El Toscano and his handful of men were left without any support and were imprisoned shortly afterwards. Soto and his men had signed their own sentences and marched irreparably to death. Only towards the end of October, when open repression had begun, did the Workers' Society call for a general strike. Several groups of hundred of workers were set up and covered the countryside, cutting communications and barbed wire fences taking horses, weapons and provisions. But this was all in the absurd hope that the Argentinean army would adopt a "working-class orientated policy" again. The army arrived in the area in mid-November and distributed itself in small groups throughout the region.
The internationalism of the massacre had already been organised: the Chilean governor sent the Magellan battalion and machine-gun company; the English, German and Spanish governments called for bloody repression and the Argentinean military patriotic league, the Chilean league and the Buenos Aires press urged the defence of institutions and the Homeland. The trade unionist R.A.W.F. added its own contribution towards the bloody orgy. The death penalty was decreed and the executions began.
Indeed, they were executions rather than confrontations, since the workers were politically unarmed, with neither leadership nor perspectives despite a superior number of guns. The trade unionist fluctuations of the Workers' Society had cut them off from the only possible solution: a generalised offensive. If any confrontations at all did take place the army, lead by Varela, had succeeded so well in the previous year that the workers' forces surrendered immediately to the Yrigoyenist commander. This is the only way in which it can be explained how groups of 400, 200, 250, 600, 350, 80 men surrendered to military detachments of a few dozen men without firing a single bullet. It is not known how many men were shot. Bayer puts it at 500-600, but the workers' newspapers talk of thousands.
The massacre had numerous repercussions in Argentina and Chili. The now disorganised working-class tried to retaliate. Desperate appeals appeared one after the other in the workers' newspaper. For example, the Magellan Workers' Federation said: "Workers pointed out by estancia administrators are shot in the back and others are hanged from telephone posts and then their bodies are burned. Such savage mass murders are committed in the name of the god Capital or of the Homeland. We want it to reverberate throughout the whole world like the sounding of a bugle, like an alarm, that in the so very free and democratic Argentinean republic military troops threw themselves like bloodthirsty animals at Argentinean Patagonia killing, killing!". There were a few confrontations, but no generalised counter-attack by the class. About a year later, commander Varela ended his wretched existence with 17 injuries: 15 from a bomb which blew off his legs and 5 bullets in his chest. It was a desperate act, powerless to alter events, carried out by an anarchist, as brave as he was lacking in perspectives. Revenge followed from both sides and culminated in the breaking up of the Argentinean proletariat's "general revolutionary strike" by the socialist party, the 'communist' party, the old R.A.W.F. trade unionists who were all united in the new A.T.A. (Argentinean Trade-union Association).
The Argentinean army believed that the Patagonian workers had realised the "first attempt at revolutionary war". The trade unionists rewrote history saying that the workers had been fighting for democratic rights and rightful economic demands.
As for ourselves, we reject all attempts to separate working-class interests into economic and political. The revolutionary struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing other than a generalisation of demands: the facts about Patagonia prove it. They confirm that the working-class only defends its immediate interests in fighting for communist revolution. The Protagonists understood this. Their demand was for revolution and their example the Russian revolution: "Comrades, let us continue as yesterday a strong and straightforward fight, this is how we shall achieve our demands like the comrades across the seas who managed to overthrow the vile tsarism. Long live the Workers' Federation!".
Bayer remarked that not one of the Argentinean trade unions have portraits of the Patagonian fighters, or of the workers of German origin who executed Varela, hanging up in their meeting places. On the contrary, there are portraits of the three army generals San Martin, Rosas and Peron. Is it still possible to doubt whose class interests the Argentinean unions are really defending?
1. 'peasant' or 'countryfolk' (in Spanish: 'campesino'): intelligent bourgeois expression to hide social class distinctions behind phrases such as 'inhabitant of the country-side' (like 'citizen'). One must note that the proletarianisation in Latin-America during colonisation was so violent that nothing like the 'allotment peasant' (petit-bourgeois), to which Marx refers concerning France, remained.
2. Capitalist agrarian development firm set up over a large territory.
3. The first 3 volumes published by Galerna and the fourth by Hammer.
4. Not everywhere, because where there was a pre-existing (before colonisation) developed society based on class exploitation (the Incas, Aztecs, etc.) capitalism didn't have to import the whole of its workforce in order to submit it to exploitation.
5. that means inclusion, subordination and domination.
6. "vaqueria": cow hunting to sell the leather, the meat had no exchange value.
7. contemptuous expression used by the bourgeoisie to refer to the Chilean proletariat.
8. "la Chispa", in English: "the Spark", in Russian "Iskra".
9. Owners of the estancias, individuals or societies.
* Verbation! We don't know whether or not these comrades had read Capital, but they had certainly understood it.