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Anarchism in Latin America, (an excerpt)

By AK Press | February 24, 2018

We’ve just published the incredibly important (if we do say so ourselves) English translation of Anarchism in Latin America, Ángel Cappelletti’s sweeping overview of the movement’s origins and development across the region, from the Caribbean to Mexico and Central and South America. It’s hard to choose an excerpt, given the varied histories Cappelletti shares, but this snippet of a few pages from his Preface should give you a good sense of the book—and of Gabriel Palmer-Fernández’s wonderful translation.


As with other ideas of European origin, anarchist ideology was a product imported to Latin America. But ideas are not simply products. They are also living organisms and, as such, ought to adapt themselves to new environments; in so doing, they evolve in lesser or greater ways. To say that European immigrants brought anarchism to these shores states only the obvious. And to take that as a kind of weakness is plain stupidity. Like the very ideas of nation and of a nationalistic ideology, anarchism comes to us from Europe.

Anarchism is not merely the ideology of the working and peasant masses who, arriving in the new continent, are robbed of their hopes for a better life and witness the exchange of oppression by the ancient monarchies for the no less brutal oppression of the new republican oligarchies. Soon some of the native and also indigenous masses adopt the anarchist view of the world and society, from Mexico to Argentina, and from Francisco Zalacosta in the Chalco to Facón Grande in Patagonia. It is seldom noted that the anarchist doctrine of self-managed collectivism has a close resemblance to the ancient ways of life and organizations of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Peru, ways of life that were practiced prior to the imperialism of not only the Spanish, but also the Aztecs and Inca before them. To the extent that anarchists reached the indigenous, they did not have to inculcate exotic ideologies but only to make conscious the ancient peasant ideologies of the Matagalpan calpulli and the Andean ayllu.[1]

At the same time, a tendency towards liberty and indifference towards all forms of statist structure was already present in the Creole population. When that tendency was not usurped by the ways of the feudal caudillos, it proved fertile soil for a libertarian ideology. Few mention the existence of an anarchist gauchaje in Argentina and Uruguay, or its literary expression in libertarian payadores.[2] But those matters aside—undoubtedly they will be looked upon as having little consequence by academic and Marxist historians—without hesitation we can say that anarchism took root much more deeply and extensively among indigenous workers than did Marxism, perhaps with the exception of Chile.

It is important to note that from a theoretical perspective, even if the Latin American movement did not make fundamental contributions to anarchist thought, it did produce forms of organization and praxis that were unknown in Europe. For example, the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA), a labor union that was majoritarian (becoming almost the only union), never conceded to syndical bureaucracy, and developed an organizational form as different from the Confederación National del Trabajo (CNT) and other European anarcho-syndicalist unions as it was from the North American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). A second example, typically Latin American, is the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM). Primarily through the efforts of Ricardo Flores Magón, within a few years of its founding it adopted an ideology that was unquestionably anarchist, nonetheless keeping its name while continuing as a political party, and thereby earning sharp criticism from some European orthodox thinkers like Jean Grave.

With the exception of that singular case, anarchism in Latin America is nearly always anarcho-syndicalism and is essentially linked to workers’ and peasants’ organizations. To be sure, there were some anarcho-individualists in Argentina, Uruguay, Panama, and other places, as well as anarcho-communists, the latter foes of the syndical organization in Buenos Aires in the 1880s and 1890s. But the vast majority of Latin American anarchists were adherents of a revolutionary and anti-political syndicalism—not, as some say, a-political. That is an important difference between Latin and North American anarchism. An anarchist syndicalism was evident in the United States and its greatest witness was the sacrifice of the Chicago martyrs. It represented the continuation of the anti-slavery movement into the industrial context, and was promoted by Italians, Germans, and Slavic immigrants, with the German Johann Most as its revolutionary prototype. Later a revolutionary syndicalism emerged (anarchist or quasi-anarchist) among the working classes, organized through the IWW. There was also an earlier movement unrelated to the working classes, represented by important literary figures such as Thoreau and Emerson. Its predecessor is found in the liberal radicalism of Jefferson and other eighteenth century thinkers, and is perhaps represented today by what is known as “libertarianism.” While it was not an anti-workers’ ideology—although today there are Right-libertarians—it developed along lines quite alien to the struggles of the working classes, and its principal concerns include individual human rights, anti-militarism, and the abolition of bureaucracy and the State.

But anarchism developed in different ways in the various Latin American countries. In Argentina, FORA was sufficiently radical to be considered extremist by the Spanish CNT. In Uruguay it tended to be nonviolent, as Max Nettlau notes, perhaps because it was less persecuted, except during the last dictatorship. In Mexico it influenced government not only because of Magonist participation in the revolution against Porfirio Díaz, but also because La Casa del Obrero Mundial provided Venustiano Carranza his “red battalions” in the fight against Villa and Zapata, and because the leadership of the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) engaged President Obregón in public political debates. In Brazil, on the other hand, it was always at the margins of the state, and the military-oligarchic republic did nothing but persecute, ostracize, or assassinate its leaders. A phenomenon common in several Latin American countries between 1918 and 1923 was anarcho-Bolshevism. Following the Bolshevik revolution many anarchists in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and especially Mexico supported Lenin and declared their unconditional support of the Soviet government, yet still considered themselves anarchists. With Lenin’s death this trend disappeared. Those who still chose to follow Stalin no longer dared to call themselves anarchists.

In addition to a vast newspaper propaganda and extensive bibliography, anarchism in all Latin American countries produced many poets and writers who were among the most prominent in their respective national literatures. They were not, however, equally numerous and important in all regions. It is safe to say that in Argentina and Uruguay most writers publishing between 1890 and 1920 were at one time or another anarchists. Likewise in Brazil and Chile, where during this time there were more than a few literary anarchist writers, though not as many as in the Río de la Plata region. In Columbia, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico, if a properly anarchist literature did not fully flourish, the influence of a libertarian ideology was greater among writers and poets than in the workers’ movement. But even in those places where literature and anarchism were nearly synonymous, as in the Río de la Plata, anarchist intellectuals never played the role of elite or revolutionary vanguard, nor did they have any dealings with universities or official culture. In this respect anarchism’s trajectory differs profoundly from that of Marxism.

The decline of the anarchist movement in Latin America (which does not imply its total disappearance) may be attributed to three causes. First is a series of coups d’état, mostly fascist, in the 1930s—Uriburu in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, Terra in Uruguay. All are characterized by a general repression of the workers’ movement, Left-leaning groups, and particularly of anarchists. In certain cases (e.g., Argentina) the state achieved the total dismantlement of the organizational and propagandistic structure of the workers’ anarcho-syndicalist federations. A second factor is the founding of communist parties (Bolsheviks). The support of the Soviet Union and of affiliated European parties gave them a strength sorely lacking in anarchist organizations, which had no other resources than the dues paid by their own militants. Some anarchists chose to join the communist party, more in some countries (Brazil) and fewer in others (Argentina). Finally, the emergence of nationalist-populist sentiments more or less linked to the armed forces and, in a few cases, with the promoters of fascist coups completes the factors that caused anarchism’s decline.

The unique situation of dependence in which Latin American countries found themselves with regard to European and, above all, North American imperialism caused the class struggle to be substituted by struggles for national liberation. Consequently, workers conceived of their exploitation as arising from foreign powers. The bourgeoisie, both domestic and foreign, together with various sectors of the military and the Catholic church, convinced them that the enemy was not Capital and State as such, but foreign Capital and State. Skillfully manipulated, this very conviction was the principal cause of the decline of anarchism. All else is secondary, even the intrinsic difficulties faced by anarchist organizations in the actual world, such as the need to make unions function without bureaucracy or the impossibility, real or apparent, of concrete proposals.



1 In the language of the Matagalpan Indians calpulli refers to a group constituting the fundamental unit of Aztec society. Ayllus were the basic political and social units of pre-Inca life (Trans).

2 In Argentina, Uruguay, southern regions of Brazil, as well as in parts of Paraguay and Chile, a musical form accompanied by guitar (Trans).

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