Early Liberal Socialism in Latin America: Juan B. Justo and the Argentine Socialist Party

By Braun, Carlos Rodriguez | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Early Liberal Socialism in Latin America: Juan B. Justo and the Argentine Socialist Party


Braun, Carlos Rodriguez, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Socialism did not always favor extensive legal and political interference in citizens' lives and properties. In addition to defending civil and political rights, socialists had, at first, much in common with liberals--pacifism, anti-imperialism, and free exchange, in the broadest sense of the term: open support for the free movement of people, goods, and capital. This article examines the most prominent figure from the origins of Argentine socialism, Juan B. Justo. His thought, like that of colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, proves that if today's socialists wish to moderate their interventionist ideology they need not betray their roots, they need only acknowledge them.

I

Argentina After the National Organization

THE FINAL QUARTER of the 19th century corresponds to the consolidation of a national state in Argentina, a process leading to, among other things, the provinces losing power and having it transferred to the central government. The transformation took shape via three basic measures: the federalization of the city of Buenos Aires, which ceased to belong to the eponymous province (it founded a new provincial capital, La Plata) and passed into the state's hands; the liquidation of provincial militias, with the provinces retaining only their police forces; and the creation of a single monetary unit, thus eliminating provincial currencies in exchange for the state assuming provincial debt. It was a relatively peaceful period; there were no significant internal conflicts and, on the international scene, Argentina had recently waged what would be its last interstate war (excluding the 1982 adventure in the Falklands), a war against Paraguay, the so-called War of the Triple Alliance--Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay--lasting from 1865 to 1870. It was also a time of great prosperity and massive immigration. By the end of the 19th century, a quarter of the population was foreign-born, and in areas like the province of Santa Fe or the city of Buenos Aires, the percentage swung between 42-52 percent. (1)

There was not, however, ideological calm. Intense debates raged in, for example, the fields of education and religion. These joined the old dispute over protectionism and free trade and a growing "social question." Education Law 1420, in effect from 1884 to 1946, made primary education free and nonconfessional and granted control to the national government. The Church's reaction to this law and a later one in 1887 stripping it of control of the civil registry and opening up the possibility of civil weddings was so bitter that it led this Catholic country to break off relations with the Vatican for almost 15 years--from 1884 to 1898. (2)

The most relevant political figure at that time was General Julio A. Roca, one of the National Autonomy Party's main leaders. His was a restless period in politics, leading to the formation of the main opposition party, the Radical Civic Union (UCR) founded in 1891 by Leandro N. Alem. The Saenz Pena Law of 1912--inspired by the Spanish Maura Law establishing universal, male, secret, and obligatory voting rights--brought greater electoral freedom and allowed the Radicals to win in 1916. The closest local antecedent had been in 1902, with Roca's Interior Minister Joaquin v. Gonzalez's electoral reform)

These years are usually characterized as predominantly liberal. This seems incorrect. We already have seen how in important areas like education, policies were not particularly friendly to free choice; in this vein, the 1887 Mining Code passed during Juarez Celman's presidency nationalized the country's subsoil; 15 years later Roca and Gonzalez's labor legislation was equally cold to liberty. The nationalist and protectionist components were pretty clear and became even clearer in the new century. Botana and Gallo note that "modernization was conceived ... as a necessary consequence of political and legislative action." That is, in Constant's words, the "liberty of the Ancients" came first, a programmed liberalism, far removed from a strict, limited laissez faire approach and where not even the economy avoided political voluntarism; at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, leaders were searching for:

   mixed formulas where libertarian rhetoric in common discourse
   overlapped with a State-imposed legal tender, public banks and a
   range of protectionist and fiscal initiatives. … 

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