How would you describe your background and political formation?
I was born in Buenos Aires in 1928. My father was a lawyer, though he had been a lieutenant in the Navy before that; my mother was a housewife. My paternal grandfather was an Italian immigrant, with the surname Malvagni. Gilly was my mother’s maiden name, possibly of French origin; I later adopted it as my nom de plume, since in Argentina your mother’s name doesn’t appear on your passport. My first political activity came in 1943, when I joined the local Comité de Gaulle, without really knowing what it was, out of sympathy with the Free French. France always had a large cultural influence on Argentina, and de Gaulle of all the leaders had not surrendered to the invaders. The first political demonstration I went to was to celebrate the liberation of Paris in August 1944, at the age of sixteen. The following year, there was a general strike in Buenos Aires, with mass mobilizations of workers in October that forced the military government to call elections, which the Junta’s Labour Minister, Juan Domingo Perón, won in February 1946.
This was a decisive moment in what I would call my ‘sentimental education’. That year I joined the Juventud Socialista, the youth wing of the Socialist Party, and then the Socialist Party itself. Together with some other school students, I worked on a Party newspaper called Rebeldía (Rebellion), but we had only put out four issues before the leadership closed us down. I left the Socialists in 1947, and joined an organization called the Movimiento Obrero Revolucionario. By the time I turned twenty, I had quit my studies of law and got a job as a proof-corrector at a publishing house. This was a very particular milieu, because the proof-readers always saw themselves as intellectuals, but underprivileged ones. It was around this time, 1948–49, that I began to live the workers’ movement. In Argentina, this was a movement with a strong socialist and anarchist tradition—largely because of Italian and Spanish immigration into the country, which coincided with the initial wave of worker organization in the 1880s and 90s. This, by the way, is a feature common to Brazil and Uruguay as well, where anarchists also had a significant presence. These Mediterranean immigrants brought with them a culture that had an anarchist tradition—anarchist and Catholic. Later, I discovered that many features of Peronism, such as the proposal for a general strike in 1945, came from the world of anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism, rather than that of communism or social-democracy.
I was increasingly drawn to Trotskyism, and in 1949, two of us in the mor—Guillermo Almeyra and myself—decided to join the Fourth International. At this point, we had to choose which of three currents within the FI to support. There was one strand which saw Perón as an agent of British imperialism. Braden, the us Ambassador at the time, had made public statements against Perón during the campaign; so posters appeared everywhere saying ‘Braden or Perón’, posing the election in nationalist terms, as a choice between the two. It seems absurd now, but one current in the FI thought that the British were behind all of this. A second strand argued that Perón’s support base was composed of backward masses of newly proletarianized workers. They were like an avalanche that buried the previously existing proletariat, over which the Socialist Party had had an influence in the 1930s. According to this interpretation, these ‘backward masses’ were now following a leader—as if Perón were some sort of snake charmer with a flute.
The third current, which was led by Homero Cristalli—better known under his pseudonym, Juan Posadas—maintained that Perón was a representative of the Argentine industrial bourgeoisie, engaged in a struggle for political power with the old landowning oligarchy, but that his base was a genuine nationalist mass movement. The rapid growth of industry during the Second World War had brought large numbers of peasants and artisans into the capital from the interior, effectively creating a new proletariat. This was not the traditional peasantry of a colonial country—they were peasant workers, in a countryside where capitalist relations dominated the large meat- and wheat-exporting haciendas, and small producers descended from European immigrants. When they moved to the city and became industrial workers, they created unions with an impressive mass base. Perón’s popularity rested on a series of laws on holidays, severance pay, pensions, guaranteed rights of organization, holiday resorts. It’s important to have holidays, of course, although it may not seem like a radical change in anyone’s life. But for the Argentine working class that developed during the Second World War, fifteen days’ holiday a year was a real gain; something comparable happened in France in 1936 under the Popular Front. This third current was saying that the workers may have been following a charismatic leader, but they did so for their own reasons. Peronism was the specific form that the organization of the working class took in our country, and we had to understand it.
I joined this third current within the Argentine organizations affiliated to the FI—the one led by Posadas. The world of the Fourth International might now seem like another planet. There were always two elements within it, one focused on revolution in Europe, the other on the colonial world. Both dreams were Trotsky’s, and they cohabited in the FI, but there was always a tension between them. Ernest Mandel and Michel Pablo represented the two visions. Mandel, who had been formed in the world of manufacturing and mining in Belgium, was convinced the vector of revolution would be the industrial proletariat. Pablo, whose real name was Michalis Raptis, was born in Alexandria and grew up in Greece, a country with a long history of struggle for national independence; in the 1950s and 60s he saw the huge upsurge of movements for independence in the colonial world. Ernest would become animated when talking about the German Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg and so on, while Pablo would come alive when telling heroic stories of the Algerian revolution or the war of liberation in Greece; in that sense, he was something of a Balkan conspirator. There were many disagreements between them, because they had such different dreams. But they had warm personal relations all the same. In 1995 I was in Greece to do an interview with Pablo, who called me one afternoon to tell me Mandel had died; he then recorded some very emotional recollections of Ernest, with whom he had argued time and again. This kind of warmth is something social democratic parties lack, because they are in a sense too secular: they lack devotion to the idea of revolutionary Marxism. Though that phrase has always struck me as a pleonasm—for me it was always a given that any Marxism would have to be revolutionary.
What would you say were the main intellectual influences on you early on?