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A Brief History of the Workers Left Front

The revolutionary socialist left in Argentina has gotten up to 1.2 million votes. How did the Trotskyists gain so much influence?

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Illustration: Nathaniel Flakin

In the primary elections on August 11 and the general elections of October 27 in Argentina, the right-wing government of Mauricio Macri was removed from power. At the same time, the Workers Left Front (Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores, FIT) consolidated its position as the fourth political force in the country. It received just under 800,000 votes from across Argentina, almost 3 percent of the total. The FIT, a coalition of Trotskyist parties, represents a pole of class independence, anti-capitalism, and socialism. This is even more startling because the entire political regime tried to forcibly create a polarization between two bourgeois blocs. This led to a spectacular defeat of the right-wing government, and an equally spectacular victory for the forces of Peronism, which absorbed virtually all the center Left and the “social movements.”

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The FIT has existed for eight years, in many different political situations, as a working-class alternative to the different bourgeois blocs. This is an unprecedented experience in the history of the Argentine Left. From the middle of the twentieth century, the Argentine Left oscillated between the two major poles of national politics: Peronism and republican liberalism.

The Historical Pendulum of the Left in Argentina

This oscillation began with the origins of Peronism. In the 1940s, the Socialist and the Communist Parties characterized Juan Perón’s policies as a demagogic cover for fascism. Under the banner of an “anti-fascist” struggle, they lined up behind the opposing bourgeois bloc. The anti-Peronists included the big landowners, stock market profiteers, and even members of the U.S. embassy, who together formed the Democratic Union. This orientation defined the Socialist and Communist Parties for a long time.

On the other hand, the old guard of the syndicalist movement formed the Labor Party of Argentina to support Perón’s bid for the presidency. This set the pendulum in motion, with the Left constantly swinging between Peronism and anti-Peronism. This prevented the emergence of a solid Left that offered a perspective of class independence for sectors of the masses.

This not only affected reformist organizations like the Socialist and Communist Parties, but also put great pressure on the budding Trotskyist movement in Argentina. The group around Nahuel Moreno, for example, went from an anti-Peronist position to entryism in a pro-Peronist party (while maintaining its own publication). After the military coup against Perón in 1955, Moreno became even more supportive, practicing entryism in the “62 Organizations” (Peronist unions) and adding to the masthead of his newspaper: “Under the discipline of General Perón and the Superior Council of Peronism.” Other sectors of Trotskyism abandoned their ideas altogether, founding a “national Left” based on the idea that Peronism was a revolutionary factor that would advance the cause of socialism.

The Revolutionary Workers Party—People’s Revolutionary Army (PRT-ERP), led by Roberto Santucho, which was part of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, had a strategic orientation toward rural guerrilla war. They did not attempt to build a party rooted in the working class (beyond their official statements and individual efforts by PRT militants), a party that fought within the workers’ mass organizations. The PRT thus avoided the political and ideological struggle against Peronism, and even attempted to form fronts with the Peronist urban guerrillas, the Montoneros, and other forces of the Peronist left.

For its part, the Socialist Workers Party (PST), led by Nahuel Moreno, had the merit of presenting an independent alternative in the elections of 1973 under the motto, “Worker, vote for a worker.” The PST got 190,000 votes. Moreno’s tendency simultaneously fought for a national coordination of class-struggle unions. But these proposals were not part of a consistent program, and as death squads (the so-called AAA) began to murder leftists, the PST ended up joining a “democratic front” with eight reformist and bourgeois parties.

After the fall of the dictatorship in 1982, Moreno founded the Movement for Socialism (MAS), which organized nearly 10,000 militants at the end of the 1980s. The MAS had influence in the workers’ and students’ movements, as well as representation in parliament. But in 1985, it formed the People’s Front (FrePu), an alliance with the Communist Party and sectors of Peronism, with a purely democratic program that was adapted to Argentine Stalinism. The MAS rejected forming a Trotskyist front with the Workers Party (PO), which would have had a more left-wing program. In provinces with a combative tradition, such as Neuquén, the PO won more votes (1.71%) than the FrePu (1.36%). Thus it is clear that even in the electoral realm, there was space for more left-wing politics.

In 1987, the Communist Party broke with the FrePu, but the MAS relaunched the alliance in 1989—just as international Stalinism was collapsing! The resulting front was called United Left (IU), and its main candidate was a Christian Democrat who had defeated MAS member Luis Zamora in an open primary. All this was, of course, detrimental to constructing a real pole of class independence.

This brief historical sketch is important to understand the novelty of the FIT in the context of the Argentine Left. The FIT has existed for more than eight years, but naturally it has its own history.

The Conflict with the Capitalists in the Countryside

The FIT was not born out of nothing. Over the last eight years, it has maintained a coherent trajectory of class independence in widely varying situations (and under multiple governments). The bourgeoisie has divided into different blocs, but the FIT has not joined any of these. The FIT is the product of previous political struggles in which the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) was a protagonist.

One important division of the bourgeoisie that marked a turning point in Argentina’s history was the agrarian conflict of 2008. This conflict with the capitalists in the countryside was the first major crisis of Kirchnerism (i.e., the successive governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner from 2003 to 2015, who came from the left wing of the Peronist movement). In this conflict between the government and the big landowners, both sides tried to assume a “defensive” position and give themselves a progressive sheen. This led to realignments in many sectors of the Left, including the Trotskyist Left.

The Kirchner government claimed that increased taxes on agricultural exports would be used to redistribute wealth. This was enough for the Communist Party and other left sectors to support the measure wholeheartedly and essentially join the Kirchnerist movement. They ignored that the government used the new income to finance business allies, not sectors of the masses. For its part, the self-described “independent Left” began a step-by-step assimilation into Kirchnerism. They coined the phrase “support the good and criticize the bad,” which ultimately gave way to “support everything, criticize nothing, and dissolve.” Today, all these forces have candidates in Kirchner’s Front of All (Frente de Todos), alongside representatives of the mining corporation Barrick Gold, opponents of the right to abortion, and a plethora of union bureaucrats.

On the opposing side was the so-called “agropower” headed by the big landowners of the Rural Society and supported by the media conglomerate Clarín. This wing of the bourgeoisie managed to disguise itself as “small farmers,” winning a sector of the middle classes for its position. The “mass” agrarian base of a rebellion led by rural capitalists was enough for a sector of the Left to support the landowners.

The Maoists of the Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR) led the sector of the Left that allied itself with the bourgeois opposition to Kirchner. Curiously enough, despite having been anti-Kirchnerist a decade ago, today the PCR is part of the Peronist front. The Socialist Workers Movement (MST), which has Trotskyist origins, also allied with the agrarian bosses and bet unsuccessfully on forming a new center-left party. This led the MST into Proyecto Sur (Project South), a political project started by the film director Pino Solanas, which has since dissolved. The Socialist Left (IS) initially supported the “agrarians,” but later distanced itself from them.

The historic pendulum of the Argentine Left was about to swing again—in what was this time clearly a farce—with different sectors of the Left lining up behind different sectors of the bourgeoisie. But this time, something novel occurred. Under the initiative of the PTS, and later followed by the PO, an independent left-wing pole with support from a sector of the intelligentsia emerged under the slogan, “neither the Kirchners nor the countryside.” In that moment of extreme polarization, the PTS fought from the beginning for an independent class position. We supported neither the agrarian bosses nor the government, which was seeking only to boost a different sector of the ruling class. We defended this position in workers’ and students’ assemblies and in our own events. Though we remained a small minority, if this pole had not existed, we may not be talking today about the FIT as a political alternative based on class independence.

Always with the Workers

A condition for the existence of the FIT is the growth of a Left that has been linked to the vanguard of the workers’ movement for more than a decade. The PTS was always on the front line of this question, intervening in many important working-class struggles from the inside. The Kirchner government, especially in its early years, liked to claim that “to the left of us is just the wall”; to make this slogan true, they resorted to both co-optation and repression. But at this time, a workers’ vanguard began to emerge, one that questioned the three pillars of the Kirchners’ model: the ceiling on wage growth, precarious job contracts, and support for the union bureaucracies.

The first signs of this new workers’ movement became visible as early as 2004–5. In the following years there were intense struggles against precarious working conditions. These included the oil workers in Las Heras, outsourced workers of the Buenos Aires subway or the Roca train line, and garlic pickers in Mendoza. There were heroic strikes by teachers in Santa Cruz and Neuquén, where the teacher Carlos Fuentealba was murdered on the picket line. There were many important strikes by factory workers that ended in brutal repression under the Kirchners.

The year 2009 saw the strike at the factory of the U.S. multinational Kraft Foods. The workers were attacked by the Kirchner government, the U.S. embassy, and the union bureaucracy. In 2010, outsourced workers on the Roca train line fought to be integrated into the main workforce. The bureaucracy of that union, which was friendly with the Kirchners, murdered the young PO activist Mariano Ferreyra. The list goes on. There were numerous strikes against multinational corporations in which workers defended themselves by blocking highways and faced fierce repression. There were also cases in which workers occupied their factories and began producing under workers’ control, such as the print shop Donnelley and the ceramics factory Zanon.

The Left was part of all these workers’ struggles, standing on the front line and confronting the alliance between the bosses, the Peronist union bureaucracy, and the Kirchner government. The Left has maintained this position in the face of attacks by the right-wing government of Mauricio Macri, including the emblematic struggle at PepsiCo, which stemmed from a targeted attack on a core of the workers’ vanguard. Heavy repression in July 2017 was met with heroic resistance by the workers. The same can be said of the days of protest on December 14 and 18, 2017. As Congress moved to cut pensions, there was a huge protest outside, with the Left in the lead. The same applies to the women’s and students’ movements—in struggles that developed both under Kirchner and under Macri.

The Experiment of the Workers Left Front

This was the basis for the development of the FIT. Long before the FIT’s formation, the PTS proposed that these workers’ struggles needed a political expression in the form of a front for class independence. For this reason, we formed electoral fronts with the IS and the New MAS in 2007 and 2009. Finally, in 2011, we advanced the political discussion and convinced the PO to join. Since then, the FIT has been a principled electoral alliance with a clear program of class independence, anti-imperialism, and a workers’ government. The anti-imperialist position was demonstrated, for example, by the FIT’s position against the coup in Venezuela while remaining critical of Maduro. This program of class independence has been raised in different political situations over the last eight years. As is to be expected in a front made up of different parties, there have been moments of important disagreements, for example concerning political developments in Venezuela and Brazil. There have also been public debates among the parties of the FIT regarding work in the unions, organizing the unemployed, and administering students’ centers. But these differences have not prevented the FIT from presenting coherent political positions about the main features of political life.

In seven consecutive elections, the FIT (and now the FIT-Unidad) has been a point of reference for a sector of several hundred thousand people—surpassing one million in legislative elections. The FIT has won seats in the national congress, several provincial legislatures, and municipal councils—in total, forty seats across the country. These parliamentary representatives have helped establish a synergy between “the social” and “the political” among vanguard sectors of workers, students, women, youth, and intellectuals.

In contrast to much of the history of the Argentine Left, the FIT has managed to establish a pole of class independence at various moments of political crisis, as well as in every battle in the class struggle. The FIT owes its influence to the fact that its representatives, like Nicolás del Caño, are always standing with workers in their toughest struggles. This is recognized by allies and enemies alike.

Faced with the current crisis, the FIT has expanded, incorporating the MST and forming the FIT-Unidad (the New MAS has, unfortunately, decided to remain outside). This policy has proved successful, since the Left managed to defend its political space against the attempt at polarization between two bourgeois blocs (Peronism and Macrism). This attempted polarization was supported by the corporate media. The FIT defended itself against the idea that it is necessary to vote for the “lesser evil” as the only alternative. We had to fight hard against this idea, as part of the preparation for major confrontations in the class struggle that, as everything indicates, will be coming soon.

A Strategic Hypothesis

The current crisis is shaking the country’s economic and social foundations. Macri’s support among financial speculators, embodied in his agreement with the IMF, collapsed after the primary elections. Peronism, represented by Kirchner’s Front of All, has presented itself as the better manager of the crisis. Their candidate, Alberto Fernández, has made clear that he favors a currency devaluation, which represents an attack on the living conditions of working people. This is supported by the bureaucracies of the unions and the social movements, as well as the pope.

The FIT is entering this new phase of historical crisis as a consolidated pole of class independence. It is, of course, a minority force. But it is not marginal; the FIT has become influential inside workers’ organizations, schools and universities, the women’s movement, and so on. Having defended an intransigent position against Kirchnerism, it has gained recognition that reaches far beyond people who vote for the Left. This is a product of its political coherence and consistent attitude in every struggle.

The party’s “dialogue” with mass sectors can be seen in its media. La Izquierda Diario, the online newspaper started by the PTS (and sister site of Left Voice), gets three million visits per month—it is read by far more than those who identify with the FIT.

The FIT is a living organization. It is a front composed of different parties, and each member-party has its own dynamics, as demonstrated by the current crisis of the PO. As a front, it has no “vaccine” to prevent forces within it from yielding to the two tendencies that we have described in this article: subordination to Peronism or amalgamation with the right-wing opposition. These tendencies represent a constant pressure exerted by Argentina’s political regime. It is highly positive that the Left, perhaps as never before, now exists as a consolidated pole of class independence at the beginning of a crisis.

The intervention in the class struggle is one of the essential elements for understanding the Left today. Since the emergence of the FIT, however, only partial class confrontations have taken place (with the exception of the December 2017 protests). The depth of the current crisis presents us with the possibility of generalized confrontations between the classes. The future Peronist government will attempt to impose a capitalist solution to the crisis, a solution in which working people will pay for the crisis, as they have done so many times in Argentina’s recent history.

We from the PTS have been proposing to advance in the construction of a unified party of the revolutionary socialist Left. In the framework of the crisis, this is becoming increasingly necessary. This strategic hypothesis is possible because right now the Argentine Left, in contrast to much of its history, is not lined up behind one faction of the bourgeoisie or the other. In the heat of the crisis and the sharp class confrontations that it will provoke, sectors of the masses of the heterogeneous but powerful Argentine working class will break from different representatives of class collaboration (fundamentally Peronism in its different varieties). This working class includes precarious young people and the unemployed, but also unionized sectors. They can link up with combative sectors of the students’ movement, the women’s movement, and the intelligentsia, uniting in a common revolutionary party alongside the class-struggle Left.

This is a substantially edited and shortened translation of an article that was published in Spanish on August 18 in Ideas de Izquierda. This English version was authorized by the original authors. Translated and adapted by Nathaniel Flakin.

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Octavio Crivaro

Octavio is a sociologist and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Santa Fe, Argentina.

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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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