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Latin American Trotskyism: An interview with Antonio Rosello

Francisco Sanchez Acosta

Platypus Review 140 | October 2021

On July 13, 2021, Francisco Sanchez Acosta interviewed Argentinian professor Antonio Rosello. Rosello has been a militant leftist and trade-union leader for almost half a century, with vast experience in the Trotskyist Left in Argentina.

Francisco Sanchez Acosta: How do you remember your first years as a leftist militant? Who were your mentors and through which organizations did you receive the legacy of the Left?

Antonio Rosello: I had a tumultuous journey. I would define myself as a younger brother of the generation of 68: May 68 in France, the Prague Spring, and the Cordobazo in Argentina. I started as a militant in February 1973. My father was concerned that my ideas were somewhat right-wing, so in the summer of 1972–73 he provided me with literature by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and put me in contact with what was the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina. He had also been there as a young man and that is how I started as a militant anarchist.

It was a very intense experience. I was active in the neighborhood of La Boca, in the city of Buenos Aires. One of my teachers there was Diego Abad de Santillán, an exile from the CNT-FAI (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo-Federación Anarquista Ibérica) for the anti-fascist struggle in Spain, staying in Argentina. He returned to Spain in 1975 after Franco’s death. I was dedicated to neighborhood and factory-gate militancy. At the age of 13 I had an intense life of militancy, reading and fraternization with the working-class sectors. The neighborhood of La Boca is where the first socialist deputy in America, Alfredo Palacios, was elected through the constituency in 1904. The neighborhood had deep left-wing roots. I fraternized with the people of the Frente de Liberación de Cabo Verde; with the Bagley workers (one of the largest food and cookie factories in history in Argentina up to that moment); I went to the factory gates and the places where workers met to eat or do any kind of cultural activities. All of this was close to Constitución train station, which is one of the largest railway terminals in the country, especially for popular sectors.

I was involved in militant anarchism for two years, but I was concerned about their economic analysis and I asked, as a gift for my 15th birthday in 1974, for Marx’s Capital. Reading Capital on my own (also studying bourgeois economics) made me quickly realize that Marxism had a potency, in the polemic with anarchism, which was much greater. Anarchism is rare in its configuration. The leadership isn’t non-existent, but the debate and passion about what to do tomorrow is much more inorganic than in the organizations that we claim to be Marxist.

This was a time of great passion. I always tell the younger generations: we saw countries falling, not just that a strike was won! In the case of the fight against the Portuguese colonies, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Portugal itself (with the longest fascist dictatorship in history from 1912 to 1974) fell. Franco and franquismo went down; they were tremendous struggles. We had the French May, the Prague Spring, the defeat of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and its reunification after defeating three empires (the French, the Japanese, and the North American) throughout a revolutionary war that lasted four decades. We were in an ascent of the class struggle in which conquests were “normal.”

With my coming to Marxism I became a militant in the high school student movement. I was going to an elite school, a “pre-university” one. Currently there are about 100 such colleges, but at that time there were far fewer and they depended on national universities. One of the top schools that Argentina has is called the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, where I did my secondary studies. There the political effervescence was tremendous. Of approximately 1,500 students, 500 had some political adherence to the Left (between adherents and more or less active militants). We were the organization of the entire secondary movement of the federal capital of the Argentine Republic: the city of Buenos Aires.

There were three sections: first, the reformist led by the Partido Comunista Argentino. I am not saying this in a derogatory sense. At the university this party called itself reformist, using as a banner the university reform of 1918. The second section was the “foquistas:” the armed organizations, mainly Montoneros and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP). And finally, the sections of the Trotskyist left, which were very small at that time. The legalization of the Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores transformed that current into the only independent candidacy against Perón in his election in September 1973. This was my daily political struggle aged 14–15 years old. The militancy in the Colegio Nacional was an invaluable political training school for any adolescent. Today, unfortunately, there is nowhere in the world that I am aware of where people want to debate with each other based on arguments and theoretical frameworks. Social networks impose a rhythm fixed in fleeting images or 280 characters. By all means, but it should exist alongside honest debate and confrontation of ideas!

After Perón’s death, the Montoneros decided to go underground. The ERP maintained its armed struggle and its foquist strategy. It was really attractive for the petty-bourgeois sectors (as was my case) and the youth to understand that our situation could not be solved through voting. On his return, Perón was the political and organizational leader of the AAA (the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina), which persecuted artists and intellectuals and has more than a thousand deaths to its credit. My first burials of comrades who were killed in combat or repressed by the military or paramilitary state forces were back in 1975.

Saigon fell in April 1975. We all went out to celebrate when the photo on the cover of the Argentine newspapers was a marine hanging from the wheel of a helicopter going to the aircraft carrier, fleeing the embassy. In that climate, Perón came and organized the repression. He organized the “social pact.” This pact granted “the metallurgical homeland” (the Metalworkers’ Union, UOM) to the trade-union bureaucracy, which was the powerhouse of the Argentine industry that existed at that time. The industrial unions were the strongest. The bureaucracy had strict control, with its own armed guards to prevent class currents that wanted to break the social pacts and class collaboration from going to elections within the unions. Every trade-union election literally ended in gunfire.

There was a massive sympathy, especially, I insist, in the petty-bourgeois sectors, that we had already tried democracy and it failed. What triumphed in the world were the armed national liberation movements, with one addition: fascism was also a present thing for us. In 1973, when democracy triumphed in Argentina, the Chilean Popular Unity government fell due to a fascist coup. There was also a coup in Uruguay: their parliament got closed and the armed forces took power with the elected president of the Colorado party, named Bordaberry, as their puppet. All this happened simultaneously; convulsions were the normal state of life. It is not like today in Argentina, where a poverty level of 50% of the population means that in the face of pressing material needs and immediate demands, it is important to constantly know the value of the U.S. dollar or if the meat price rose.

In 1975 there was a general strike in the country: the first general strike with mobilizations that lasted more than a week against a Peronist government since 1945, in this case that of Isabel PerĂłn. There had been a violent economic shock given the world crisis triggered in 1971 when the United States abandoned convertibility, which deepened with the devaluation of the dollar with the oil-price pact. Everyone blamed OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) for this crisis.

At that time, I founded an independent group with three or four companions which was called the AgrupaciĂłn de Base TĂşpac Amaru. We tried to achieve unity, in our adolescent utopianism, of the revolutionary organizations. Specifically, the ERP and the Montoneros. We were not significant within the social and political movements of the time.

When the coup d’état of 1976 took place, the situation was unfeasible and unbearable. Under the ERP’s slogan, “Argentines to arms,” ​​I joined the PRT (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores). At that moment I discovered Trotskyism. For a while, the PRT was the Argentine section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International based in Paris, whose biggest influence was Ernest Mandel. Although I already knew Trotsky, I discovered another type of reading of Trotskyism. I ended up moving away from the PRT due to purges after Santucho’s death and my differences with the leadership taken by Gorriarán Merlo. He was an Argentine military commander who executed Somoza in Paraguay, but for me at that time he was an agent of the Soviet KGB. I differed with the tactics and strategy that the new leadership of the PRT had taken, and I walked away. By mid-1977 the PRT had disappeared, after being beheaded in the winter of 1976 with the deaths of Santucho, Mena, and Urteaga.

I continued to be a clandestine militant and joined what is now the Partido Obrero, formerly known as Política Obrera (as it was called at that time). I was also active in the students’ movement, but with differences with the leadership. There was a split in the Organizing Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International led by Pierre Lambert in Paris with his Internationalist Communist Organization, and I was expelled from the Partido Obrero. I continued to be a militant within the Lambert faction in Argentina, forming a small group with about 30 comrades who carried forward the banner of the Fourth International.

Those were my first four and a half years of militancy, from 13 to 18 years old.

FSA: The Fourth International is an organization with a direct Trotskyist heritage. Perhaps you do not agree with the reading that I am going to present, but for me the 20th century was a regressive one. The international revolution of 1917–19 failed, severely conditioned by the capitulation of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to Bonapartism and reformism. This failure, in a way, opened the door to a century of reaction, in which the orthodox Marxist Left was largely liquidated. My understanding is that Trotsky founded the Fourth International with a feeling of emergency, of immediate necessity for the proletarian revolution, very different from the foundation of the First or Second International. I do not think he would have imagined that the International would continue to exist in 2021. However, the International today continues to offer a certain historical continuity, as if this has not been broken. What impact on the Argentine left has the Fourth International had throughout its history, through Nahuel Moreno and posadismo, to date? What is your opinion of the International today?

AR: I have a different outlook and I am not going to abuse Trotsky, but I clearly differ. Perhaps it’s a nuance. To put it in popular terms for both Europe and Latin America, I’ll make use of Eric Hobsbawm's “short 20th century.”

To begin with, for me the 20th century was very progressive, not regressive, and contradictory to the era of “wars and revolutions” (Lenin). That historical stage was still in force, although it is a century that had a “midnight of history,” as Victor Serge, a great Belgian union leader and communist, said. As you presented it, from 1917 to 1919 the biggest offensive of the proletariat in Europe took place. Evidently the proletariat could not surpass, as a class, its leadership, which it had concretely built. It is easy to criticize the German Social Democratic Party with retrospective hindsight, but the construction of the SPD, according to Lenin, was not surpassed even by the Bolshevik Party. It was a mass party of immense penetration in the midst of Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws. The newspaper Vorwärts would arrive at your door every morning or week (depending on the period). It reached more than 100 regional newspapers. Even though it was subsequently bureaucratized and co-opted by the upper layer of the proletariat (hence the name of the labor aristocracy), the construction of the SPD as a mass party has not yet been surpassed by the working class.

When the SPD supported the war credits, Lenin read it in the newspapers in Switzerland and thought that it must have been faked by the imperialists, that it could not have happened. It was something that surprised everyone, except Rosa Luxemburg. Trotsky said during the First World War that “we internationalists fitted into a couch.” Lenin gave a lecture in Geneva two weeks before the Russian revolution in February where he explicitly addressed the “young” because “we old men” would not see the revolution. In 1914 he thought that the SPD’s betrayal was a forgery of the German secret services, and by 1917 he thought that he would not see the revolution. But what matters is reality, not the scheme. Lenin has a phrase — one could even say Christian — that states that “Marxism is all-powerful because it is the truth.” But, why is it the truth? Because Marxism is a method of analysis for action, not a certification by historians.

From 1917 to 1919 the great offensive took place, which social democracy and imperialism managed to paralyze. Lenin, Trotsky, and Keynes are the only three who, when the Versailles treaty is signed, think that it is useless and that it will unleash another war or revolution due to the intolerable oppression of the German people through unpayable and uncollectible war reparations. The defeat of the German Revolution only occurred in 1923, not in 1919. This is when hyperinflation happens; Hitler's failed coup in Munich, and so on. A process of regression begins. This setback inevitably impacts the Soviet Union, which by 1922 had had eight years of external warfare and civil war. They had exhausted their material strength. The best leadership of the proletariat had died on the battlefields or had died of typhus, or other diseases. The economy had to be liberalized and a big step backwards was taken through the New Economic Policy (NEP). That was the way Lenin posed it to the Russian workers, explaining the setback since the international revolution was receding and they were blockaded and out of supplies. I grant you that from 1923 to 1933 there is a setback (not without contradictions, like the failed Chinese Revolution), but there is a discussion in the ranks of the Left about “what needs to be done.”

In 1933 the German Communist Party surrendered to Hitler without a fight. General Secretary Thälmann was imprisoned without having armed bodies to defend him or going into hiding, which is not a minor fact. It had already happened with Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Jr.: for not going underground and into exile they were massacred by the Freikorps. This had already been learned in the revolution: having the top leadership of the party exposed to Hitler is a criminal act in itself, even though Thälmann is the victim of his own policy. It is this night that Serge (the Belgian) refers to as “the night of the 20th century, the midnight of history.” This event also had an impact on the USSR, with the expulsion of Trotsky and the Moscow Trials. But still, life is richer than any schema. The class struggle does not stop even in the concentration camps.

From the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 up to 1979 there had been a tremendous rise in the labor movement. (During this rise I was the younger brother, as I told you, of the 68 generation.) So much so that half of the emerging nations and half of the world’s population lived under workers’ states. 17 new workers’ states were built. The critique of Trotskyism is, specifically: why are there 17 workers’ states? Why didn’t China and the USSR create a single market and an international division of labor? Why were the leadership of the USSR and China fighting instead of creating a single market and facing in a better position the development of the productive, material forces? Because the ruling Maoist and Stalinist bureaucracies (or two Stalinisms for us) are two faces of the same politics. What makes the USSR explode? The restorationist forces: these bureaucracies are appropriating most of the countries’ GDP, leading to a deformed industrialization in Eastern Europe, focusing on the service of Moscow and its military needs. They could not achieve the necessary structure in a world in which, post WWII, almost 50% of the world’s GDP belonged to the United States. And what are the Communist parties doing in Western Europe?

In France, the Maquis were disarmed under the slogan “one state, one police.” The largest party in the West was the Italian one of Togliatti, who had a city in the USSR called Togliattigrad because he obtained the fiat patents to produce cars there. He handed over the power and even accepted a referendum to decide if the monarchy would return! Even when he had the weapons in his hands and Mussolini had been executed. Also, the Greeks had the arms supply cut off and were massacred by the British army. All this happened under postwar democracy in Western Europe!

From these currents, cells were rebuilt within the Fourth International, Michel Pablo being its main leader. There was a very severe problem with the North American section, which was the most powerful in the legal period. The Soviet section, that used to be the largest, was massacred between the Moscow Trials and the war. In the U.S. there was the Socialist Workers Party which had at its head the union leader J.P. Cannon, who dedicated himself to building a party in a single country instead of building the International. He had the same fundamental deviation that Stalinism undertook. The reconstruction of the International after the war was in the hands of, specifically, the Europeans. In particular, the French. They, in the face of the triumph of the revolution, of Tito’s separative maneuvers from Stalin, of the seizure of power in China in the 1949 revolution, saw that they were obviously wrong, because in the Transitional Program (which is the foundational program of the Fourth International) Trotsky says that “the least likely variant is that petty-bourgeois parties, including Stalinism, will come to the seizure of power.” Michel Pablo said that they were wrong there since that was not the least likely variant but the one that actually happened, which is why he promoted a new strategy of “sui generis entryism” (as he officially calls it) in the communist parties. We believed that this policy was liquidationist. Early on, the French section, with Lambert at its head, confronted this policy of the world leadership of the Fourth International and in 1953 the Socialist Workers Party launched an open letter to Trotskyists around the world. The International is torn apart into the International Secretariat, in the hands of Pablo (where Posadas directed the Latin American secretariat), and the International Committee, in which Nahuel Moreno organized, creating the Secretariado Latinoamericano del Trotskismo Ortodoxo (SLATO). SLATO confronted Posadas, who was a delusional person (like many Argentines) and thought that UFOs exist. These UFOs had tremendous technology, which is why they must be socialist. There was a very famous long-term newspaper in Argentina called Proletarian Voice, which my generation called “Planetary” Voice because of its intergalactic political concept. The problem is that they ended up supporting the Peronist right at the same time they supported the communist parties.

Moreno's journey was shakier. From having a very gorila (anti-Peronist) position in 1945, he went on to join one of the satellite parties of Peronism: the Partido Socialista de la Revolución Nacional, where a section of the Argentine social democracy had converted to support for bourgeois nationalism. They came to control the Federación Bonaerense through their newspaper La Verdad (many Trotskyist newspapers in the world are called Pravda, following Lenin’s newspaper). Moreno performed entryism there and obtained control of the Federación Bonaerense with a policy of zigzags toward Peronism; he supported the positive and criticized the negative, but did not seek class independence, workers’ democracy, etc. Moreover, he deepened that policy during what in Argentina is known as “the stage of resistance,” from 55 to 59. A group called Palabra Obrera had as its motto, “Under the discipline of General Perón.” Nahuel Moreno also put himself “under the discipline of General Perón.” But, as we are all sensitive to the class struggle (unless you belong to a dogmatic religious sect), the Cuban Revolution also had an impact on Morenism, introducing the issue of foquismo. Moreno’s group became divided. Its second leader, Vasco Bengochea, was an active militant for foquismo. Then, the entire Moreno group was also driven towards a variant of foquismo.

The Popular Indo-American Revolutionary Front (which Santucho had led) and what was left of Palabra Obrera unified into the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores, which became the section of the Fourth International in Argentina (until its division and the foundation of the ERP). The factions were PRT La Verdad, of Moreno, and PRT El Combatiente, the official organ of Santucho’s central committee. Then, before the Cordobazo and the legal opening, Moreno merged his PRT group La Verdad with the Argentine Socialist Party (led by a man named Juan Carlos Coral) and founded the Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores, which is the translation into Spanish of Socialist Workers Party.

What was contradictory about Posadas? In Cuba he supported the revolution, he was a militant for it, but he maintained the independence of his party from both the 26th of July Movement as well as from the Cuban Communist Party. Why? Due to the fusion of the 26th of July Movement with Stalinism: the Stalinist party in Cuba was called the Partido Socialista Popular, which had supported Batista and was then greatly discredited before the masses. The Posadas group remained independent as the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (another classic name for Trotskyist parties), until the time when Che Guevara left and the Castro apparatus took full control, mainly through RaĂşl Castro (another KGB agent, speaking on my own behalf), and imprisoned the posadista revolutionary party. They turned it clandestine and destroyed it. Posadistas debated with Che (where Che lost) about what was the necessary and possible industrial development on an island. Nobody thought of building a missile industry, but an industry that would have led to development and that would have prevented the famine that the Cuban people suffer from today. This was the development supported by the workers of the city and the countryside, for sustaining a life and not having to live on the Soviet or Venezuelan subsidy, leading to famine in special periods.

FSA: Regarding Partido Obrero, of which you are a member: there was a split within the party in 2019. What was the cause? Why do the Trotskyist parties tend towards sectarianism? But, on the other hand, Partido Obrero is now part of the Frente de Izquierda (Leftist Front). What do you think of the agglomeration of the Left under one flag? Do you all share the same historical consciousness, the same goal? And what is that common goal?

AR: As for being sectarian: Trotskyism has never overcome this since 1933, except in the U.S. for a period (the Socialist Workers Party), England (under The Militant, a massive newspaper that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was active in the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress), France (which has an enormous tradition with the Revolutionary Communist League, which today is the New Anti-Capitalist Party), and in Argentina. Trotskyism could only take root in those four western countries. The greatest militancy obviously existed in the Soviet Union, but that was over 70 years ago.

Ho Chi Minh massacred us in Vietnam, where Trotskyism really had a strong insertion through deputies and leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party in South Vietnam and Saigon. Very early on the Left Opposition in China was liquidated, which had a lot of influence in Shanghai and Guangzhou before the Long March. The Chinese Communist Party (which has just turned 100 years old) had a lot of roots in working-class cities, although it was not a sympathizer of the Left Opposition, the seed of the Fourth International.

In the Partido Obrero, in Argentina, we called to vote in the revocatory plebiscite for the permanence of Hugo Chávez; in the first election of Evo Morales in 2005, for Morales. Now, in the second round, we called to vote for Castillo in Peru. We are perceived as sectarian, but I do not perceive myself that way. I have been an elected union leader for 38 years; I have always been elected on more than one list; I have won and I have lost, but I have been a union leader for 38 years. I feel integrated into the workers’ movement, the women’s movement, the youth movement, the environmental movement. We have a mass development policy and I can’t even tell you the influence we have on the movement of the unemployed and impoverished in the country.

The Left Front is an exception, I am not going to deny it. It has been ten years now and that does not exist in history from 1933 to date. There is no such precedent in the history of the Fourth International for four parties claiming to be from the International being together in a political front for such a long period. That is unprecedented, sadly! There are parties following this tendency, like the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France, or the Socialism and Freedom Party in Brazil (PSOL). But there everyone does whatever he wants, says whatever he wants. Here we have a political front where each organization maintains its program, its profile, its local partisans, but has a front to act on the plane of combative trade unionism, in the class-based labor movement; to act on the unemployed through the Unidad Piquetera (protesters); to act in the women’s movement; and to act electorally. Unfortunately, there is more focus on elections than on the concrete field of the daily class struggle. It is the only political front in the known political world (including Asia) that maintains a program that proposes a workers’ government. This is the vulgar way, Lenin said, of expressing the dictatorship of the proletariat, which we do not deny. That is what makes the hegemonic media and the rest of the Left perceive us as sectarian: we continue to believe that the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Lenin put it, is the essential difference from social democracy. Workers’ government or workers’ and peasants’ government are the vulgar, popular ways of saying the dictatorship of the proletariat. We do not hide it, this is how we present it in our press.

FSA: Reading the daily and weekly press of the Prensa Obrera (the press of Partido Obrero), it gave me the feeling that there is a constant struggle for reforms in benefit of the workers, while the revolutionary character of the party appears in the background. What is the relationship between reform and revolution for Partido Obrero, which so much concerned the Second International? Did the revolution become a utopia, just part of the discourse?

AR: The revolution is a necessity! Not a utopia. That the 1%, as it was said at Occupy Wall Street, owns 50–70% of the GDP (depending on the country you prefer), shows that a small group of owners of the means of production monopolize world wealth. Not only is the revolution a necessity, but the world revolution is a necessity for the development of civil and material forces. Not in Argentina or Denmark, in the world! And there is nothing better than the discussion of vaccines that exists throughout the world today to explain this. Look at the confrontation that Merkel had with the laboratories and their privatization of public goods (such as knowledge) that are financed by public funds, that is, by taxpayers. Tax systems are regressive. In other words, it is the working people of the city and the countryside who finance the discovery of vaccines. That technological power that humanity has accumulated over millions of years is owned by a few. We face a fact of nature (without delving into whether it is or not) and the owners of that patent, of that productive good, are the ones who defend an oligopoly that decides who gets vaccinated and who doesn’t. This is the concrete demonstration, in 2021, of why the world revolution is a necessity.

For Trotskyists it is a settled discussion between the minimum or the maximum program. The Bolsheviks were known as the maximalists at the time you quote, from 1917–19. They used to tell the socialists, “you follow the minimum program and talk about socialism on festive days.” That was Lenin’s reply to the German Social Democracy. Our program is called “The Death Agony of Capitalism” (also known as “The Transitional Program”). We believe that the immediate demands of the masses are what should leverage and unleash the revolution. There is no other way out, hence the importance for us of the program of the “Left Front and Workers-Unity” in Argentina, to carry out that workers’ program. This program is not only for festivities, or every two years when voting, but for every day to build a revolutionary organization that considers the seizure of power. We say that clearly. Now, the immediate need of the masses cannot be neglected. Because if we neglect, for example, evictions, mortgages, or even in Denmark, the cyclical crises in pig production or the massacre of fur animals last year; if we are not in the environmental fight for climate change, we would be absent from the class struggle. Everyone has their opinion in that fight, ours is one and yours will be another; we are democratic to the maximum in that the mass movement is the one that resolves, to which we provide guidance. This does not come from Trotskyism, but from Marx. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto he says it clearly: “we communists have no interest other than that of the proletariat as a whole. We are only, in this movement, the most resolute fraction for struggle.” That was the tradition of the First, Second, Third and that maintains the Fourth International, with the new elaboration, or update, that we believe in the achievement of transitional demands to carry out the political struggle. |P