The Argentine May
This text was first published in Revista OSAL No.24, October 2008. Translated by Nicolas Allen.
As Eric Hobsbawm once pointed out, the student revolts of the late sixties were global in scale not only because they followed in a tradition of revolutionary internationalism, but because the world itself was truly global for the first time.
The same books appeared, almost simultaneously, in the student bookshops in Buenos Aires, Rome and Hamburg … The same tourists of revolution crossed oceans and continents from Paris to Havana to São Paulo to Bolivia … The students of the late 1960s had no difficulty in recognizing what happened at the Sorbonne, in Berkeley, in Prague, as part of the same event in the same global village. (Hobsbawm, 1995: 446)
Argentina also took part in that fervour. Indeed, there was an “Argentine 68," of a kind. It may have been more proletarian and plebeian than the European 68, and though it drew on traditional struggles waged by workers, students, and intellectuals in Argentina, the phenomenon cannot be fully grasped outside that international frame of reference.
Still, the “Argentine 68” had its own tempo, and like the Italian “hot autumn” it carried on into 1969, exploding in May of that year.
We would do well to recall the relevant historical coordinates. As of June 1966, Argentina found itself under a corporatist, conservative military dictatorship. Peronism had been prohibited since 1955, and yet a fraction of the Peronist trade unions, marching under the banner of “Peronism without Perón," had initially offered their support for the recent military coup. The idyll between the government and the unions would not last long though, as suppression of working-class protest, layoffs in the public sector and the suspension of trade union autonomy began to escalate. Meanwhile, a more combative, anti-dictatorial fraction of Peronist trade unionists was starting to take shape, one that would become more receptive to students, intellectuals, and artists associated with a variety of leftist tendencies. This combative segment went on in March 1968 to form an alternative labour confederation separate from the traditional General Confederation of Labour [CGT]: the CGT of the Argentines [CGTA] (James, 1990).
The same year, 1968, saw the foundation of the Movement of Priests for the Third World, which disregarded the interdictions of the Catholic hierarchy and joined in solidarity with worker and student struggles.
It was also the year for a series of politico-aesthetic actions in the Argentine art world: what began as a set of artistic interventions questioning the nation’s foremost institution for avant-garde arts — the Di Tella Institute — ended by breaking entirely with the Institute, a rupture announced by the performance of the conceptual piece “Tucumán Burns” within the union headquarters of the recently founded CGTA (Longoni and Mestman, 2000).
Finally, 1968 was marked by intense student protests. The military regime’s practice of press censorship, its brutal control over everyday activities, the suspension of the universities’ statute of autonomy, these together were enough to push to the students towards the anti-dictatorial struggle and headlong into an encounter with working-class resistance. Only two months after the military coup of 66, a student protest in Cordoba was violently put down, resulting in the death of one protestor: a student and worker, Santiago Pampillón’s death would become a symbol for student-worker unity in the years to come. In September 1968, on the second anniversary of Pampillón’s murder, the CGTA and the Student Front in Struggle launched a weeklong protest that was met with further violence. The student movement again took to the streets in March 1969, this time in the city of Corrientes, where the students issued the call for a strike-action to take place on May 15 of that year in protest against the privatization of the university cafeteria. Once again, police suppression resulted in the death of a medical student, Juan J. Cabral. Thereafter, student-led strikes began to spread to Argentina’s major cities: Buenos Aires, Rosario, Tucumán, and Córdoba (González Trejo, 1969).
It was in the city of Córdoba that all these trends converged and gave birth to the movement popularly known as the “Cordobazo”. Home to Argentina’s oldest university as well as its latest industrial expansion, Cordoba was the site where a local student movement — whose combative origins stretched back to the University Reform Movement of 1918 — began to mix with and drawn strength from a new working class, as well as a critical intellectual vibrancy that included everything from orthodox communism to new left tendencies.
On May 26, 1969, the two CGTs declared a national strike scheduled for the 30th of the same month, while the more combative regional sections in Cordoba confirmed an active strike for the 29th and 30th. The military government responded by threatening to send in the armed forces. Threat notwithstanding, an active strike began on May 29 in the city of Cordoba, lasting 37 hours. On the day of, at eleven in the morning, the workers’ columns set out from different points of city in the direction of the CGT headquarters, following routes that had been established the day prior. Students had joined in the march from the outset, followed later by neighbours who began to merge with the columns as the march progressed.
Skirmishes with the police began around noon. Máximo Mena, a worker at the IKA-Renault factory, was killed in the conflict, and out-and-out street combat ensued. The protestors erected barricades and set fires, seeking to protect themselves from the teargas; police opened fire and the demonstrators responded with rocks and battles. The police were finally forced to withdraw and ultimately retreat in disarray. For a moment, protestors had taken control of nearly the entire city. The offices of several multinational corporations were set ablaze, as were government buildings.
The armed forces finally entered the city at five in the afternoon, converging on the Clínicas neighbourhood where the resistance was concentrated. As night came, the advancing army came under fire from gunmen perched on rooftops. Around 11 pm, workers associated with the electrical union induced a citywide blackout, provoking confusion amongst the military and allowing the resistance to carry on for two more hours. At 1 am, the armed forces renewed their attack.
On Friday the 30th, the national strike was carried out as previously announced by the two CGTs. Cordoba was already under military control since morning that same day. All the same, the active strike went forward as planned, and the barricades were again erected. At 10 am the army managed to disperse a large protest. Workers and students threw up another barricade and there were further clashes. At 5 pm a curfew was declared, and the army made its definitive incursion into the Clínicas neighbourhood. Searches and seizures were carried out in student pensions and union halls. As night set in, a court martial began to issue the first sentences. Newspapers calculated that fourteen had died and hundreds had been wounded, while other media outlets spoke of thirty, up to sixty dead.
The Cordobazo had come to an end, but the myth of the Argentine May had just begun. The governor of Córdoba was forced to resign shortly afterwards. Demonstrations had quickly spread to other parts of the country. A year after the Cordobazo, president de facto Juan Carlos Onganía was deposed. The military dictatorship had been mortally wounded in the process and would ultimately accept the seemingly impossible: free elections, with the lifting of the ban on Peronism.
The Memorialization of May
May 68 has been memorialized in the Argentine media, in local political debates and in the Argentine collective memory as the “French May." On first impression, the denomination seems obvious enough. However, the “French May” alludes to the existence of other “Mays”: if Argentines refer to a “French May," this is because in their national history there exists an Argentine May. Or, to be more precise, two Argentine Mays.
To be clear: when journalist Gregorio Selser compiled a series of articles on the Cordobazo for the Montevideo-based journal Cuadernos de Marcha, the title read “Another Argentine May." Even though the student and worker-led demonstrations of 1969 had already been dubbed the “Cordobazo," Selser in his preface to the collection preferred to adopt the expression of Monsignor Jerónimo Podestá, a progressive bishop who had already compared the events of May 1969 to May 1810, when the first local creole government was founded. According to the bishop, the difference consisted in that while in the first May of 1810 the people “wanted to know," with the second May “the people want to be present” (Selser, 1969: 11-12). 1
Nevertheless, Monsignor Podestá felt obliged to insert the French May between the two Argentine Mays. In order to explain the Argentine May, Podestá argued, it was necessary to first consider the “movement of May 1968 in France”. Podestá reflects: "What happened between May 68 and May 69?” How to explain the yearlong gap? In the bishop’s own words, why should “student demonstrations continue to take place in every part of the world, except Argentina”?
Hence, rather than one, there were two Argentine Mays, both superimposed in the collective memory: May of 1810 and May of 1969. There were also two contemporary Mays: the French and the Argentine. Two Mays, the Parisian and the Cordobés, reflecting back on one another to the point that both events tend to overlap in the memory of most Argentines.
In their attempt to translate this episode of Argentine political history for French readers, François Gèze and Alain Labrousse wrote: “Like May 1968 in France, the Cordobazo has assumed mythical proportions."
Nor was it only for a French readership that the Cordobazo was conceived in terms of its relation with the French May. Two decades after the fact, the Argentine historian Carlos Altamirano recalled the events in words that very nearly echo those of Gèze and Labrousse.
Periods such as these often assume a great mythical effervescence, and the Cordobazo acquired this very dimension, as a myth. We thus had our own May capable of conversing with the other ‘68, the French May, even if our own May lacked the imaginative graffiti and was more proletarian, more plebeian, and rougher (Altamirano, 1994).
Another member of the sixties generation, also an intellectual historian, Oscar Terán similarly connected the Argentine and French Mays, observing that the yearlong stretch between May 1968 and May 1969 represented the bifurcating point between the intellectual new left and a posterior left tendency, closely associated with Argentina’s political-military groups.
The shift between two different relations — one cultural-political, the other political-cultural — took place in the intellectual field … in the years ‘68-‘69, following the major events that took place in that period. Because the French May had been experienced as if it were a local event, the Cordobazo appeared as the opening of a revolutionary process in Argentina (Terán, cited in Hora and Trímboli, 1994: 60).
Another fixture of the sixties generation, cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo portrayed the relation between the two Mays in the following manner:
My memories of the French May are just as intense as they are contradictory. The photos of the Parisian insurrection overlap with photos of the Cordobazo, taking place exactly a year later in Argentina. In both recollections, everyone is very young and the mood was to hurl something at the police or at a nearby building. The photos are filled with smoke and the images are somewhat blurry, because everyone is in motion, gesturing, jumping and running.
The frames of memory only become more complex as Sarlo continues:
The Cuban Revolution provided another level of meaning, especially with what came to be known as "Guevarism." The Argentine May took place in 1969, a year after the French May; Che, the guerrilla commander, had died a year earlier in 1967. Those two dates framed the French May, turning it into the broadside for a triptych comprised of a peasant-based, youthful revolution in Cuba, the student revolution in France, and the student and worker insurrection that was the Cordobazo. The three dates are united in the imagination by the youthfulness of their protagonists.
And she concludes:
As with dreams or myths, the Argentine youth associated with radicalized Peronism or the "new left" were operating under these culturally similar and politically contradictory images. This is what is called the mood of the era. The end of the sixties was a period of broad-sweeping syntheses (Sarlo, 1998).
A Negative Reception
Despite its latter-day memorialization, the French May did not enjoy a visible presence when the Argentine May was actually unfolding. Nicolás Casullo has stated categorically:
Paris ‘68 was never a banner, a poster, a slogan or mantra for the students, the neighbourhood organizations, or the unions, nor for any tendency, be they armed or not, insurrectionary or guerrilla, not here nor anywhere else in Latin America, not like Cuba, Vietnam or Algeria (Casullo, 1998: 46).
It was the political culture of Peronism in particular that made difficult any Argentine reception of the French May. That same culture saw the French May as a largely student venture that tended to diffuse worker participation, factory occupations, and the general strike. In addition, the anti-American attitude typical of Peronist nationalism could be easily translated into a sympathy for Gaullist nationalism, to the point that Perón from his exile in Madrid had declared himself a great admirer of the French statesman. Worth noting, De Gaulle had visited Argentina in October 1964 as part of his Latin American tour. The Peronist trade unions, taking orders from their leader that the Frenchman should be received as though Perón himself were returning, greeted De Gaulle with flyers and chants of “Perón-De Gaulle, a single heart," or “Perón-De Gaulle, the Third Position." The exiled general was in fact angling to use the visit of the French president to assert his own presence over the Argentine political scene, as part of the so-called “Return Operation." De Gaulle was alert to the manoeuvre and signalled to his convoy that Perón had the “ridiculous” pretension of “hanging onto the tail of the airplane” (Page, 1984: 157-158 and 324).
The combative wing of Peronism was not any more receptive to May 68. True, the tendencies centring on the CGTA had opened a more fluid relationship between Peronist workers and the students. Nevertheless, the CGTA’s official newspaper, CGT, which reported every minute detail of the Argentine students’ struggle against the military dictatorship, never once provided coverage of the French May. To the extent that those events were even acknowledged, it was always “in the negative." That is to say, when the newspaper interviewed students, they insisted on the national dimension of each student movement, singling out the proletarian quality of the revolutionary process underway in Argentina.
Roberto Grabois, leader of the National Student Front, confirmed that view:
The characteristics of the student movement in each country will depend on the particularities of national historical processes. It can’t be stressed enough, the imitation of foreign national processes has never led to any real advances for the [Argentine] popular movement, of any kind. The progress of the Argentine student movement towards an anti-imperialist national consciousness is occurring at an accelerated pace and will no doubt lead to closer ties with the working-class and popular movement. Here, the workers will lead the struggle and coordinate the contributions provided by other social sectors, among them the student movement. The students will come to support the Revolution of the Workers. Those who think the workers should support the student revolution can keep dreaming of Paris; meanwhile, history is being made here in Avellaneda, in Tucumán, and in every neighbourhood and province of the nation (CGT, 1968: 3).
On the eve of the creation of the Montoneros guerrilla group, the Peronist Youth had also cast a scornful glance at the French May. Upon returning from a trip in which he had experienced first-hand the events of May in Paris, Nicolás Casullo was met by his friend Leonardo Bettanin, then leader of the Youth, who sought to dampen his enthusiasm:
Nicolás, there are plenty of interesting developments here worth getting excited about. And forgive me for saying so, but I feel they are even more important. This is not the wankery of the French students; this is a liberation movement with organized labour at the head, led by the working class (Anguita and Caparrós, 1997: 234).
The images of the French May did not sit any easier with the perspective of the Argentine Communist Party. Although the events of Paris may have inspired some enthusiasm among its youth organizations, the official communist press avoided the topic at all costs. Cuadernos de Cultura, the journal of communist intellectuals, translated a single article by Roger Garaudy, “La revuelta y la revolución” [Revolt and Revolution], in which was repeated the familiar thesis on the revolutionary nature of the working class and the petit-bourgeois character of the student movement. Building on that foundation, Garaudy questioned the “extremism” of certain sectors of the student movement and vowed that the “the working class and its party” must enable the students to obtain “true revolutionary consciousness." To that end, he dedicates the last part of his article to attacking the then-popular theses of Herbert Marcuse, bête noire for communist circles at the time (Garaudy, 1968: 60-70).
Nearly two decades later, another Argentine communist again emphasized the differences between the French “revolt" — petit-bourgeois and Marcusean — and the “truly popular Argentine rebellion." We read:
We are accustomed to reading in books and articles that the “Cordobazo” drew its inspiration from the French May of ‘68, or that there was a kind of seismic wave emanating out from that site. It would be senseless to deny the influence of the French May on the students. But it would be just as absurd to assert any real similarity between the two events. Córdoba is not Paris, and the capitalist development in both places is not the same. The most important difference is that, whereas in Paris the students unleashed a Marcusean-inspired movement that was only later joined by the workers, in Córdoba there was a truly popular rebellion originating with the proletariat …, to which the students later adhered (Bergstein, 1986: 106).
Argentine Maoism did provide some coverage in its publications. Despite that, the assimilation of the French May was far from a simple case. Then a Maoist intellectual, Beatriz Sarlo later pointed out:
In May 1968 … I thought that the French students were rehearsing an insurrectional act that could only be definitively carried out in Latin America. They had taken the lead, but on this side of the Atlantic the true, definitive revolutionary struggle was in preparation … The idea that there could be insurrectionary reserves in the largest capitalist countries … clashed with another idea: that the revolution would be advanced from the periphery towards the centre, introduced by the wretched of the earth, as Franz Fanon had called the peasants (Sarlo, 1998).
The main Trotskyist party, known then as the Revolutionary Workers’ Party [PRT], was somewhat more receptive to the French May. Connected as it was through the Fourth International to the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires and the Parti Communiste Internationaliste, the PRT republished the statements of the Unified Secretariat, the essays of Ernest Mandel and a number of analyses of the French situation. However, local Trotskyism also drew on the same revolutionary-proletarian imagination as Peronism and communism, and thus tended to view the events of May 68 as a general strike led by the French proletariat. The student movement was understood on that account to be the catalyst for the worker struggle. No critiques of everyday life, of the traditional family, of schools and other bourgeois institutions, no attempts to connect art and politics, in sum, all the countercultural elements of 68 that were disparaged by Peronists and communists were simply invisible to the Argentine Trotskyists, who viewed matters through a strict workerist lens.
That said, a significant part of the PRT was increasingly attracted to Guevarism, and the events of May appeared before them as a “student-based rebellion." The main leader of the PRT — and eventual leader of the People’s Revolutionary Army [ERP] — Mario Roberto Santucho arrived in Paris in early May 1968. According to Daniel Bensaïd’s testimony, Santucho had arrived with the intention of holding a meeting with the leadership of the Fourth International, only to find himself surrounded by street rebellions:
Jean Pierre Beauvais … was his main companion throughout the city. He took [Santucho] to the barricades of the Latin Quarter, to the workers’ marches, to the most violent demonstrations on the Champs Elysées … Santucho offered few political remarks though; he tended to keep quiet when he didn’t understand. But upon concluding one of those May sessions, Santucho did share one reflection with us: “your mass actions are almost non-violent” (Seoane, 1991). 2
Traces of an Intellectual Reception
Thus, the French May never became a rallying cry for Argentine social and political struggles, not like Cuba, Vietnam, or Algeria. Instead, one has to follow the existing clues and reconstruct the lines of reception for ideas and images of the French May in Argentina, the sites where, through publishers, translators, and propagators, those images and ideas — perhaps in a molecular fashion — managed to reach the intellectual circles of the new left, politicized artists and students.
The ideas associated with the French May did in fact arrive in Argentina, attached to the names of authors that would be translated, read and discussed with great enthusiasm by a generation of Argentines in the 1960s and 70s: Jean-Paul Sartre (a figure familiar to Argentine readers since the 1940s), André Gorz, Roland Barthes, Henri Lefebvre, Ernest Mandel, Alain Touraine, Guy Debord, and Cohn-Bendit. Within this intellectual universe, one cannot fail to mention the reception of Rudi Dutschke and the extraordinary influence of Herbert Marcuse.
Just as well, there was a powerful image of May 68 that went well beyond books and ideas. First, as Sarlo’s memories make abundantly clear, the photographic images of the barricades, of pitched battles in the street, of students throwing projectiles at the police, these appeared daily in newspapers and were reproduced in the journals of the new left.
Second, there was the role played by graffiti. La imaginación al poder — a small volume that included a chronology of May 68 events, accompanied by texts from Cohn-Bendit, Sartre, and Marcuse — contained a section entitled “The walls are speaking." There, two-dozen examples of graffiti were reproduced. The same images were later reprinted in other media outlets and were even repurposed by the Argentine students in their own struggles.
Third, there was the powerful impact of the posters produced by the students of Beaux-Arts. The Argentine edition of Joyeux, for example, reprinted twenty of those posters. Furthermore, the iconic poster showing a factory with a chimney forming a raised first, reading “La lute continue," would become the cover for the series “El mayo francés," by Diana Guerrero; this same edition enjoyed enormous popularity, with up to 10,000 volumes sold.
This reception was the handiwork of independent publishers. One of the main agents for this reception was Mario Pellegrini, a writer, publisher and bookseller who worked behind the scenes at the Insurrexit publishing house; the same Pellegrini was the son of Aldo Pellegrini, poet and essayist responsible for introducing surrealism to Argentina. Through the Insurrexit and Argonauta brands, father and son disseminated texts from the French and Argentine avant-garde, as well as their precursors: Sade, Nerval, Lautréamont, Artaud. Another poet, Rodolfo Alonso was keen in his role as publisher to introduce novelties emerging from French culture, welcoming such maudits as Sade and Bataille, along with critical Marxists such as Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, Edgar Morin, and Marcuse.
Another channel for reception was the journals Eco Contemporáneo and Contracultura, both edited by Miguel Grinberg. There, texts by Cohn-Bendit and the Centre Censier’s “Call to the students” found their place alongside texts on the youth movement, the beat generation, pacifism, hippies, rock-and-roll, the struggle for sexual liberation, and anti-psychiatry. This conglomerate of texts was construed as a “third way," as much an alternative to “consumer society” as the communist regimes. Daniel Alegre, for his part, introduced the Situationist texts through the journal En cuestión (1971).
Signos and Pasado y Presente were also responsible for introducing French materials. Both journals were steered by José María Aricó, a Gramscian intellectual and one of the key figures of the Argentine new left. His anthology on the French left appeared in the collection Cuadernos de Pasado y Presente (founded in the very same Córodoba), which was in turn one of the driving forces responsible for the renovation of critical Marxist culture in Latin America. The publishing house Rosa Blindada, overseen by poet and publisher José Luis Mangieri also played a part in this dissemination. Aricó and Mangieri were together part of the generation of intellectuals that broke with communism to become leading figures of the Argentine new left.
Other important figures included the essayist Juan José Sebreli, and the sociologist, cultural critic, and journalist Diana Guerrero.
Insurrexit, Rodolfo Alonso, Signos, Pasado y Presente, La Rosa Blindada, Galerna, Tiempo Contemporáneo, De la Flor, and Centro Editor de América Latina were just some of the publishing outfits that contributed to the creation of a new left political-intellectual climate during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their books, serial volumes and journals — where neo-anarchism, libertarian surrealism, and critical Marxism all rubbed shoulders — were obligatory reading for the intellectuals of the new left and the students engaged in movements in Corrientes, Rosario, Buenos Aires, Tucumán, and Rosario.
Under the dictatorship of 1976, these same publishing houses suffered censorship or were directly shut down. Pelligrini and Aricó were forced into exile, along with their presses. Diana Guerrero became one of the many “disappeared” during the decade of State-sponsored terrorism.
From Fiesta to Tragedy
Each political tendency and cultural group, with their respective analyses, printed volumes, translations, and prefaces, each of these appropriated — negatively or positively — the French May in their own manner and offered their own interpretation of the relationship between May 68 and May 69. In other words, whether they appealed to the concept of worker-centrality in the revolution, or youth power, or renovated Marxism, or the utopian-libertarian vision, or the artistic and countercultural element, each group performed their own reading of the French May. The same occurred with the Cordobazo. Some viewed it as a popular, working-class rebellion against the government, while others considered it the dress rehearsal for a larger worker insurrection, and others still sought to interpret it as the opening shot in an unfolding revolutionary war.
May 68 and the Cordobazo have both acquired the aspect of a collective myth: eyewitnesses would later evoke those events as if they were large-scale popular celebrations, replete with mass actions, street occupations and a defiant sense of jubilation in the face of retreating power structures. Indeed, there was a Rabelaisian element to them: laughing in the face of powerful men, there was a sense that a popular utopia had been born and that the social order had been inverted, where students could hound the police.
“Paris was a fiesta," thus read many headlines that accompanied the reportage for the May 68 events. One of the catalysts behind the Pasado y Presente project, Héctor Schmucler recalled the Argentine events along those same lines: “The Cordobazo was a fiesta." He then adds: “there are foundational acts that live on in the memory of the people, that can only be grasped in the overflowing jubilance of celebration. Moments of fusion and collective recognition, the restoration of the absolute, of hope fulfilled. Like all celebrations … the Cordobazo was fleeting” (Schmucler, 1994).
Such moments are indeed fleeting in the broad scope of history: moments when subjects leave behind their daily lives and institutional routines at work or school, when forms come unfixed from their contents and “normality” is shattered, where a collective feeling reigns that the powerful are not so powerful after all, and that the popular masses are not condemned by force of destiny to a role of passivity and obedience. There are historical moments where it seems that anything is possible, and that by dint of a collective desire anything can become a reality.
In his “Foreword” to the Francia 1968 anthology, Aricó suggested that the volume’s texts would speak directly to Argentine and Latin American readers about the timeliness of revolution, of a revolution that had acquired international contours and was shaking the First World to its core, as well as the Second and Third World. “Everything was possible in May 1968," he writes. Aricó was writing these lines, filled with hope, in March 1969 in the very same city of Córdoba, at the precise moment that the Cordobazo was being born, when workers and students — just as in the French May — were converging around a set of demands and struggles. With respect to the events of May 68, Aricó queries, ironically: “Is it a dream hatched by some German anarchists? Some young workers ignorant of the traditional struggles of the French people, or some overzealous intellectuals?” He responds in the negative, grasping that the convergence between the student-led countercultural movement and the working class was the condition for the possibility of a revolution whose time had come. Aricó added, one must take seriously “the repercussions that the French students’ struggle and the proletarian strike will have for those in the Third World."
In that sense, and leaving to one side all differences, the Cordobazo and the French May were both instances of a singular encounter and a mutual strengthening of two subjects, two movements, of two traditions: the worker and the youth movement. Naturally, in each national case that relationship was forged in a different manner.
Juan Carlos Torre, another exponent of the Pasado y Presente group, would later characterize the Cordobazo as an encounter between these two subjects. It was, he maintained, the culmination of a 15-year long working-class resistance that coincided with the emergence of a new generation of youths.
For the workers, it represented the culmination of a prolonged resistance that, since 1955, had opposed every political attempt by the powerful to dismantle the social and institutional changes that were promoted during the ten-year Peronist period. For the youth, it was the beginning of a vast enterprise that sought to subvert, by fire and sword, a social order that appeared before them as morally unjust and politically cynical and corrupt (Torre, 1994).
Just like the interests involved, the motives too were diverse:
While the politics of class interest had inspired the workers to defend their position, acquired in the face of repeated plots to wrest from them their power, it was a moral revolt that guided the armed crusade of the youth against established practices and values (Torre, 1994).
These sons and daughters of the middle class, who had read the books and magazines of the French May, saw themselves reflected in the global insurgent youth movements and felt that they too were cohering into a collective subject. This was the sixties generation, product of a dizzying process of cultural and social modernization, pushed to rebellion by their own estrangement from the values and institutions that had shaped them. Importantly, the same Argentine youths were also the children of anti-Peronism, and they would commit the fateful act of parricide by seeking alliance with the Peronist working class. And they appealed explicitly to revolutionary violence, in the name of Peron’s return from exile.
In 1969, year of the Cordobazo, a rift had opened between the Argentine working class and the trade union leadership. Nevertheless, the working class still waged its struggle within the parameters of the Peronist political culture. Their ideological animus was nationalism, social justice, and class conciliation. By contrast, the youth had rallied around a moral condemnation of the Argentine political regime and a powerful identification with the myth of revolutionary Peronism. However, their utopia of armed revolution failed to inspire support among Peronist workers, to say nothing of the middle class from which they had emerged.
When Aricó wrote in 1969, his vision was suffused with optimism for the timeliness of revolution, feeling that the meeting between the working class, the youth and the middle classes was to be the realization of a Gramscian hegemony. Twenty years later, Torre offered an account that was equal parts lucid and disenchanted. The Cordobazo was indeed a fiesta, because it represented the felicitous encounter between these social actors. And the Argentine tragedy of the mid-70s began to take shape as they started to break apart.
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1. Translator’s note: Podestá here cites a popular Argentine idiom: ¡El pueblo quiere saber de qué se trata! [The people want to know what is going on]. The anonymous phrase dating from the foundation of the government junta in May 1810 — in allusion to the popular demand for transparency and representative government — is contrasted in Podestá’s usage with the goal of direct democracy — “the people want to be present."
2. Bensaïd continues: “It took us by surprise, because for us the world was in flames. I think in his [Santucho’s] remark there was a concise synthesis of what he had meant by violence. Is there any more violent tension then when millions decide to break off all political dialogue and pass straight to direct action? But Santucho had in mind the strategic, elite violence of guerilla warfare. That is, a shock force that, in one sense, goes over the head of millions in order to seize power” (Seoane, 1991: 113).