Emilio López Arango: Anarchism and the Workers’ Movement

Emilio López Arango

It is great to see that AK Press is about to publish Ángel Cappelletti’s history of anarchism in Latin America. In the chapter on Latin American anarchism in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary of Libertarian Ideas, I included several translations of material collected by Cappelletti and C.M. Rama in their companion anthology of anarchist writings, El Anarquismo en America Latina (Caracas, 1990). One of the pieces I used was an excerpt from Emilio López Arango (1894-1929) and Diego Abad de Santillan’s El Anarquismo en el movimiento obrero, published in 1925 in Argentina, where both of them were very active in the anarchist movement. Together with Neno Vasco in Brazil, López Arango was one of the most original and important anarchist thinkers in Latin America. This is a translation (I’m assuming by Scott Nappalos) of excerpts from López Arango’s “Doctrine, tactics, and ends of the workers’ movement,” the first chapter of a posthumous collection of López Arango’s writings, Ideario, published by the Asociación Continental Americana de Trabajadores (ACAT), in Buenos Aires in 1942 (I also included statements from the 1929 founding congress of ACAT in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology).

Argentine anarchist paper edited by López Arango

The workers movement is determined by the assemblage of moral and material factors that form and give life and reality to the social system, and that in the process of the capitalist civilization enslave humanity to the rule of necessities. But the proletariat, if pushed to struggle for bread, isn’t limited to aspirations of gaining a better wage; they aspire also to break the yoke of economic exploitation and liberate oneself from the domination of the privileged castes in the political sphere, in the struggle against the state.

If for the anarchists every immediate solution is relative, because it is limited by the law of capitalist equilibrium, in consequence syndicalism can’t be a theory of the future. This does not mean that anarchism opposes revolutionary objectives as an expression of the absolute to the contingent reality. On the contrary, it’s about facts and experiences that libertarian theories should create a base for direction, searching in the working masses for the necessary elements to promote the advancement of history and decide social progress against the reactionary currents.

The anarchists should in consequence contribute our energies to the workers movement. But our commitment poses in fact a theoretical hostility to classical syndicalism – to the syndicalism that wants to rely on itself – and takes to the field of class struggle all the theoretical differences that separate us from the Marxist parties. It is the interpretation of the role of workers’ organizations that brings the inevitable polemic between reformists and revolutionaries. And the disagreement should be maintained at all costs, because the political and ideological mentality in the unions is as impossible as demanding that the workers limit their actions to demand better wages from the employing class.

We the anarchists can’t forget that the workers movement, to be truly revolutionary, should cover the confluence of social factors that makes the life of the employed odious. To divide socialist ideas into different features, separating the political from the economic – the spirit from the body – is to deny to the worker the faculty to think and act in accordance with the ideal of justice. For this we want to define the trajectory of anarchism of the immediate reality not as a parallel line to the process of the capitalist economy, but as a divergent spiritual power in constant rejection of the social constructions subject to historical fatalism: the determining needs, according to Marxist theorists, for the continuity of the capitalist regime.

All the proletarian organizations were born of the necessity to erect a barrier to the exploitation of labor, to the monopoly of the rich for a privileged caste, and to the injustices of the masters. This is the primary contingency that explains the struggle of classes and also the fundamental dynamic of syndicalism. Suppose that the defensive action of the proletariat is only to try to find a base of equilibrium to the problem of necessities. It would then solve the economic issue by placing against capitalism a strong workers coalition, regulating the economy with appropriate organs, creating a compelling power that obligates capital and labor to maintain their forces in equilibrium and to resolve peacefully their differences. Is not more manifested outside the area of the influence of class struggle, to the margin of union conflicts, in the spirit of strife that frustrates all the plans of reconciliation of the reformist politicians?

To find the solution to social problems in an accord between exploiters and the exploited – about the simple material contingencies – is to accept the height of historic injustices. The resistance to capitalism isn’t determined exclusively by the economic question; it has its origins in moral inequality, in all the determining causes of political privilege, of caste, which sustains the regime of wage labor. Could the triumph of the working class, if only for the objective to modify the position of the classes in the social concert, mean something other than a repetition of the phenomenon that is perpetuating injustice throughout the centuries and civilizations?

Syndicalism reduces the sphere of the revolutionary movement to the rule of necessities. For this the authoritarian currents that favor the organization of the workers on economic grounds – who strive to parse the ideas of the union – limit the action to the working class in defense of the wage, allocating to the parties the work of organizing political life of the peoples in a united state.

Through this logic they abandon the position of syndicalism in the sense that their ideologies fail to adjust to the immediate reality. Historical materialism condemns revolutionary propaganda that breaks the rhythm of capitalist evolution. This denies the effort of the rebel against the social environment, which opposes the sacred morals for a new ethical principle, that tries to live life belying the law of routine conventions.

For these reasons, the anarchist cannot limit our interventions in the workers’ movement to the simple defense of the wage. Capitalism is not a simple economic concretion: it represents a state of progress and civilization, and is concrete in its force and potency in all the old and new causes of human misfortune. How can the worker liberate herself of material slavery if she remains a slave morally? In what manner can the people come to realize their own destinies if they accept as fate all the social injustices and can only combat some of the roots of evil?

Capitalism will not be destroyed if the root causes remain unchanged: if humanity is still a slave to their needs and an enemy of their liberty.

All the economic reforms have in consequence the perpetuation of the capitalist regime, and a workers’ revolution would not be nothing more than a change of the privileged classes if performed on the plane of the economy, continuing the line of the industrial process, which is mechanizing the individual who has lost their best spiritual qualities by atrophy of the brain and heart.

The struggle for bread is not enough. Let us capture in the consciousness of man the value of the loss of individuality, establishing a moral resistance to the monstrous constructions of capitalism and opposing to material reality a reality of spirit.

Emilio López Arango


Enrique Roig de San Martin – The Motherland and the Workers (1889)

The Cuban anarchist movement can be traced back to the 1860s, when Proudhon’s mutualist ideas (Anarchism, Volume 1, Selections 12 & 18) were popularized in Cuba by Saturnine Martinez. A variety of mutualist workers’ and mutual aid associations were formed. From these a trade union movement began to develop. By the 1880s, anarchists influenced by the libertarian socialism of the anti-authoritarian sections of the First International (see Volume 1, Chapter 6) and the Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume 1, Selection 36) had taken an active role in the Cuban trade union movement, thanks largely to the work of the weekly anarchist paper, El Productor, edited by Enrique Roig de San Martin (1843-1889). The proto-syndicalist Cuban Workers’ Alliance, inspired by Bakunin’s International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, regarded unions as revolutionary organs of the working class that would seek to abolish capitalism independent of any political party. Anarchists were also involved in the fight against racial discrimination, a significant problem in Cuba as slavery was only officially abolished in 1886. In the following excerpts from El Productor, translated by Paul Sharkey, Roig de San Martin responds to an article in the “liberal” paper, El Pais, calling on the workers to support the cause of Cuban independence.

The Motherland and the Workers

It is not because we are “faint of heart”, not because we are “hot-headed” nor “for reasons of a personal nature, even though we be the sons of this land”, that we shy away from “defending [Cuba’s] dignity and grandeur”.

El Pais should know that in acting as we do we are prompted solely by the dictates of honest conscience.

This land it has fallen to our lot to be born in holds great, very great attractions for us, but at the same time we have paid fervent tribute… to “her dignity and greatness.” In our hearts, knowledge that the greatness of a country resides in the greatness of its inhabitants has caused us to amend our opinion of the defence of our own “dignity and grandeur”.

The continual growling from an empty belly, the heart-rending sight of children starving and naked and the wretched spectre of a weak and bloodless spouse: this is the picture that has presented itself to our eyes every time that we have tried to improve our comrades’ circumstances.

In vain, staking all on the wings of chimerical dreams, have we asked the art of politics in which part of its repertoire lurks the solution to the economic strife that tyrannizes us. To no avail, for the only reply we have ever had is silence.

What is more, much more, some bamboozler has stepped forward to reply, with the timidity of one who knows that he is uttering an untruth: “You ignoramuses, Politics will help you bring down the prices of consumer goods, which is tantamount to your receiving a pay raise which must leave you better off than you are at the moment.”

But this is just so much sophistry. It is not the case that lower prices for consumer goods are equivalent to a raise in pay, for the latter is always tied to the former, rising and falling as the cost of living rises or falls.

On which point we have in our possession conclusive statistics and studies that leave no room for doubt. The fact is that it could scarcely be otherwise, since elevating the labouring folk to comfortable circumstances would be tantamount to the ruling classes cutting their own throats.

Inevitably, therefore, we are trapped for all eternity in a vicious circle, as long as it is left to politics to iron out the vagaries of fortune and the manner in which we operate.

But, taking it for granted that this is the argument, and granting that we were to achieve a hike in pay some day, albeit even indirectly, through politics, should that be the be-all and end-all of our aspirations?

Certainly not.

Being wage-earners, dependent upon a wage, our “dignity and grandeur” must be at the mercy of those who live off our sweat; and at least insofar as we understand the meaning of the word it is not dignified for our exertions to be directed towards the maintenance of an order that keeps us in degradation.

Which is why we want no truck with politics, why we urge our comrades to keep clear of it as much as they are able and to form an essentially workers’ party, committed solely and exclusively to the championing of their own interests.

But what about the homeland! …Ah, the homeland! The “dignity and grandeur” of the land that gave you birth!

But what do we mean when we speak of the grandeur of the homeland? Do we mean her independence! Precisely! Except that this, like everything else in politics is simply an abuse of words.

Does the independence of our homeland consist of her having a government of her own, her not being answerable to any other nations, etc., etc., even though her sons be subjected to the most degrading slavery? Can the homeland exist without her sons? Or can a “dignified, great”, happy and independent homeland include children who are slaves?

We cannot accept this interpretation.

We hold that the homeland is made up of her sons, and that there is no freedom for the homeland if some of her children are still slaves; it is of little consequence whether the slave-master is a foreigner or a fellow citizen; the result is the same. Slavery! Some may say: Where is the slavery? Has that stigma not been erased from our foreheads once and for all?

Sure. No longer will you find among us a slave with a branded skin, his flesh continually torn by the weighted tails of a brutal whip wielded by dull-witted overseers, the degraded henchmen of the ambitions of the mighty.

But that does not mean that slavery has been ended; very far from it; it is as powerful and as vigorous as ever, except that it has changed its form. Is that not what the “Regulation and Charter for the Organization of Domestic Service on this Island” represents?

Article 16 of the aforesaid Regulation reads as follows:

“No servant may absent himself from his residence on any personal errand, without the corresponding leave from his master, on pain of a one peso fine.”

And Article 21 of the Regulation reads:

“Should a servant be without employment for more than one month, he shall be deemed dismissed from service; and, should he fail to furnish due evidence that he is plying another trade, or has other means of sustenance, he shall be deemed a vagrant.”

Lest this article drag on too long, we shall refrain from offering comment and urge El Pais to do so in our place, since it has so far said not one word on this score, such is its liberality! The remainder of the Regulation is of the same ilk.

Besides all this, we understand perfectly well the reason behind politics as far as certain classes of society are concerned. By whichever means they think easiest, each of them searches for a way of living independently; and so we find the capitalist dabbling in conservative politics, just as those with enough wit to sparkle and shine dabble in liberal politics, both feeling like slaves in a set-up that is ill-suited to their aspirations.

But let us leave them to it, for when all is said and done it is up to them to turn situations to their advantage.

As for ourselves, we will be the slaves as ever no matter what political system is put in place.

We workers cannot nor should we be anything other than socialists, for socialism these days is the only thing standing up to the bourgeois rule that has us enslaved.

Talking to us of homeland and freedom is a waste of time unless they start by guaranteeing our independence as individuals; we are not about to redeem the homeland while we are all left slaves.

The measure of the homeland’s independence can be gauged by the amount of independence enjoyed by her children, and, as we have already said, there can be no free homeland while her children are slaves.

Enrique Roig de San Martin

El Productor, (Havana) 12 May 1889