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«STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Stanford, California 1986 Modern Latin American Historiography and the Labor Movement Twentieth-century Latin American ...»

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Finally, and most important, is the fact that the t w o dependent variables derived from export structure—the potential for economic development, on the one hand, and the potential for labor organization and the g r o w t h of the left, on the other—interact historically in such complex and unexpected ways that they may in fact reverse the direction of the initial causal connection, and transform the independent variable into a dependent one. The subtle and often tragic irony of such paradoxical historical developments can be appreciated fully only in detailed historical analysis.

T h e chapters that follow explore the interaction between export structure, labor, and the left in the historical development of four of the larger, more economically advanced Latin American nations. T h e first t w o chapters deal comparatively with Chile and Argentina, the next t w o with Venezuela and Colombia. Although each chapter attempts to provide an interpretation of national history from the early nineteenth century until contemporary times, each emphasizes the period of the twentieth century w h e n the ideological and institutional trajectory of the labor movement was fixed, and when its enduring influence on national life was clearly defined. T h e chapter on Chile thus concentrates on developments before 1930, whereas those on Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia focus on the period up to mid-century.

Argentina and Colombia are treated at greater length than Chile and Venezuela, but this was not decided by their size alone (Argentina and Colombia, with populations of roughly 28,000,000 in 1983, are about twice as large as Chile, with some 12,000,000 people, and Venezuela, with 16,000,000). T h e depth of treatment reflects primarily the state of the existing literature on the four countries. In Argentine and Colombian labor history, the sector of the w o r k i n g class emphasized in this study— Historiography and the Labor Movement 15 workers in export production and processing—has received relatively little previous attention. Moreover, in Argentine and Colombian historiography as a whole, the importance of export workers to the evolution of the labor m o v e m e n t and national history has been slighted. In Chilean and, more recently, in Venezuelan historical studies, by contrast, export w r orkers have attracted considerable attention, and their influence on the course of national life is more widely recognized.

In choosing to focus m y research on these four countries and to pair them for comparative, sequential treatment I have sought to illustrate the power and range of the interpretive framework outlined in this introductory chapter. In important respects, Chile and Argentina approximate polar types among the Latin American nations. This is true in terms of both export structure and, until very recently, twentieth-century political evolution. In Chile's foreign-owned nitrate and copper export economy, organized labor evolved under Marxist leadership and ideology. T h e left became the strongest in Latin America. Conversely, in Argentina's d o mestically owned livestock and cereal export economy, organized labor ultimately became corporatist in leadership and ideology and a weak left was eclipsed by the right-wing popular nationalism of Juan D o m i n g o Peron. T h e different political trajectory of the left contained within it paradoxical implications for economic development and social transformation in the t w o societies. In Chile the paradox was most poignant in p o litical terms,.in Argentina in economic terms. In Chile, the left's political success within a bourgeois, democratic system worked to constrain liberal capitalist economic development after 1950 and fatally undermined the left's ability to effect the transformation to socialism. In Argentina, the eclipse of the left and the rise of Peronism effectively smothered the potential for social transformation and severely eroded the country's once great potential for economic development. Thus, by the 1970's each country, by different routes and in part for different reasons, reached an economic and political impasse that was at least temporarily "resolved" through the imposition of authoritarian military regimes, the repression of organized labor, and the pursuit of neoclassical liberal economic policies. There is a strong element of convergence in these developments. As Guillermo O ' D o n n e l l " and others have shown, since the 1950's and 1960s all of the larger, more developed Latin American countries have faced a set of c o m m o n economic and political problems generated by the exhaustion of the "easy" phase of import-substituting industrialization.

Lmphasis on the mechanisms of contemporary convergence, however, should not obscure the ongoing legacy of historical divergence. That divergence helps explain the great differences in the success and functioning 7- See Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism, cited in n. 5 above.

Historiography and the Labor Movement i6 of the authoritarian regimes in these two countries and has decisively influenced the nature of their current transformation.

The export economies of Venezuela and Colombia diverge in the same directions as Chile's and Argentina's do, but each has a special characteristic that moderates and complicates its influence on labor organization and economic and political evolution. Thus, on a continuum defined by export structure and twentieth-century political evolution, Chile and Argentina tend toward the poles, whereas Venezuela and Colombia lie toward, but on opposite sides of, the center. Venezuela's foreign-owned petroleum economy, unlike most other mineral export economies (especially Chile's), has experienced sustained growth and generated increasingly large government revenues since its inception in the early decades of the twentieth century. Colombia's domestically owned coffee economy, unlike most other agricultural export economies (including Argentina's), has featured very widespread ownership of the means of export production. The basic structure of the Venezuelan export economy favored the initial autonomy and organizational strength of labor and the left; its special feature helps to explain the displacement of the left by the reformist liberal governments that emerged in the 1940's and 1950's. The structure of the Colombian export economy hindered the development of working-class cultural and organizational autonomy; its special feature tended to push social and economic unrest into traditional political channels and toward the intraclass warfare of the period called la violencia in the 1940's and 1950's. In both countries these mid-century developments had profound implications for economic and political evolution. They resulted in organized labor movements that, in contrast to the left- and right-wing political commitments of Chilean and Argentine labor, were primarily concerned with bread-and-butter issues. In both countries, the weakness of the left (more extreme in Colombia than in Venezuela) has contributed fundamentally to the maintenance of relatively open liberal developmentalist regimes in the postwar period.

Marxists will have noted by now that in largely ignoring the standard category for analysis of Latin American labor history, the industrial proletariat, I seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Throughout the discussion of export structure I made little mention of perhaps the most important feature that distinguishes one export economy from another—the existence or not of fully developed capitalist relations of production, the existence or not of free wage workers. I did so not because I consider that issue unimportant, but because I wanted to make an important point too often slighted in orthodox Marxist Latin American labor history.

Historiography and the Labor Movement 17 Latin American Marxists, many of them labor and political activists affiliated with the C o m m u n i s t parties of the region, have written m a n y — and some of the best—studies on labor history. Unlike the majority of their academic counterparts, these militant activists never lost sight of the centrality of class conflict and the historical importance of the organized working class in the region. Moreover, and again unlike their academic counterparts, many recognized intuitively the importance of export workers to the march o f labor and historical developments in their o w n societies. Indeed, it was from among the ranks of export workers that many of these grass-roots Marxist labor historians often sprang, it was toward export workers that they directed their organizational and political energies, and it was around export workers that they built their analyses. 18 Many of these writers thus implicitly rejected the category of industrial workers as the primary focus for the early-twentieth-century labor history of their o w n societies. They did not, however, reflect deeply on the meaning of export structure for the relative success or failure of the Marxist left in organizing these workers, in developing national labor movements, and in influencing the course of national history. Part of the reason lies in the lack of comparative focus in their work, a kind of occupational hazard built into the lives of organizers and activists w h o depend on analytic concepts developed by others—in this case, by others outside their o w n societies. These activists worked with the simplistic orthodox Marxist notion that capitalism engenders a proletariat that, under the leadership of the C o m m u n i s t Party, gradually acquires the consciousness necessary to overthrow its capitalist oppressors and establish a socialist order. When such developments seemed to be confirmed by the course of national history, as they were in Chile, orthodox Marxists complacently and uncritically patted themselves on the back. When developments did not conform to these predictions, as in Argentina, Marxists tended to attribute the failure to tactics and leadership, or to ruling-class conspiracies, or to the ignorance of the w o r k i n g class. N o other attitudes are possible if the main issue that determines the trajectory of Latin American labor movements is the existence of capitalist relations of p r o duction. In point of fact, however, such relations have been more, not less, developed in Argentina than in Chile throughout this century.

As we shall see, particularly in the Colombian case, the social relations of production in an export economy are fundamental to the analysis of labor history and the role of the left in Latin America. Given free wage

18. Outstanding examples of the work of these labor historians are Elias Lafertte, V'ida de un comunista (Santiago, 1961); Jose Peter, Historia y luchas de los obreros de la came (Buenos Aires, 1947); Jose Peter, Cronkas proletariat (Buenos Aires, 1968); and Rodolfo Quintero, La cuttura delpetroleo, 2d ed. (Caracas, 1976). These works are discussed in subsequent chapters.

18 Historiography and the Labor Movement labor, however, it is differences in export structure that best explain the remarkable disparity in the labor movements of Latin America, and the very unequal strength of the left in countries such as Chile and Argentina.

I discuss the strengths of this whole approach in greater depth in the concluding chapter of the volume. That chapter emphasizes ways in which the interpretive model advanced here would have to be modified to account for the historical specificity of the four countries compared. It also explores a range of other historical factors that limit the usefulness of the model in interpreting the diverse histories of the other countries in the region. The chapter ends with some reflections on the implications of the study as a whole. These, I argue, transcend the specifics of the role of export workers in twentieth-century Latin America. By placing labor at the center of historical analysis, the study raises conceptual and m e t h o d ological questions for the interpretation of the m o d e r n history of other societies as well.


model-building of the kind pursued in this chapter can help to orient research and provide historians with a way to select illuminating case studies for comparative analysis. By itself, however, such modeling is a mechanical exercise, artificially abstracted from life and incapable of touching and moving its h u m a n subject matter.

Historians are rightly impatient with such models because, more than most social scientists, they learn through training and experience to appreciate the complexity and untidiness of social reality and change. Social scientists learn to cut off a manageable slice of social life and to specify as precisely as possible h o w various factors combine to influence it in patterned ways. Historians, by contrast, share more fully the conviction that such fragments cannot be adequately understood apart from the whole.

T h e difference is, of course, one of degree, but it leads to quite distinct methodological traditions.

Historians have developed methods of analysis and modes of exposition that, however imperfect, should be understood as responses to the magnitude of the comprehensive task they set for themselves. Historians try to keep concrete h u m a n experience at the center of their analysis, a c o m m i t m e n t that explains their reverence for primary sources in m o n o graphic studies, and their reliance on the historiographical method in general interpretive w o r k s. This method, used extensively in this c o m parative study, takes as its starting point not the absolute symmetrical demands of a model in search of confirmation through historical data, but rather a critical mastery of the corpus of literature written on a place and time. Historians attempt to write engagingly for the literate layman, and share a predilection for narrative and a preoccupation with prose style.

These expository means reflect the assumption that general, dialectical Historiography and the Labor Movement 19 social processes are best unraveled step by step as they unfold t h r o u g h time, and that interpretation should be conveyed to a general audience with a nuanced subtlety appropriate to the effort to understand such complexity.

For all these reasons, the major analytical task of this book is to illuminate the questions posed by the body of historical writing on each of the four countries compared. T h e measure of its success should be its ability to explain, in laymen's terms, these very different historiographical issues through a c o m m o n emphasis on the h u m a n experience of workers in export production.


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