For whatever reason, most of the books written by Argentine scholar Halperín-Donghi (University of California, Berkeley) have gone unreviewed in journals in the United States—a circumstance thoroughly undeserved by one of Latin America’s more profound and productive historians. One, therefore, reviews with more than the usual sense of critical responsibility this translation of the unreviewed monograph published in 1972 by Siglo XXI Argentina Editores under the more accurate title Revolución y guerra: La Formación de una elite dirigente en la Argentina criolla.
Halperín-Donghi states in his preface that “the purpose of this work . . . is to trace the vicissitudes of a political elite created, destroyed and then created again by war and revolution.” That he does: the elite is urban at the outset, in the last decades of the viceregal era; in the end, in the 1820s, the elite is paradoxically reborn out of the rural base of a rising estanciero-commercial sector. The author’s uncomplicated purpose is achieved far more brilliantly than this simple precis can reveal.
The rise, fall, and rise of the creole elite is woven of now parallel, now interconnected themes ranging from analysis of changing economic factors throughout all the regions of “Argentina” to the “militarization” and “barbarization” of life in the lands of the Río de la Plata, without the author overlooking, needless to say, violent or subtle British influences. The analysis is original, sophisticated, and therefore often revisionistic. Halperín-Donghi has restored meaning to the term “Revolution,” at least for this place, and perhaps, in this and in other work, for other parts of Latin America, for those who may have accepted the gospel that the War for Independence was overwhelmingly just that. He demonstrates beyond doubt the dissolvent power of the Revolution, and the labored, imperfect emergence of new categories of social, economic, and political relationships which scarcely survive the slow imposition of the power and ideas of Rosas—but which did survive, to make a nation at last.
Despite a relative paucity of footnotes and a limited (four-page) bibliography in this book, Halperín-Donghi is clearly in command of his time and place, displaying a powerful control over a wide range of ideas and data.
The monograph is not, of course, free of defects. Sometimes the author stretches thin sources—or even assumptions—into assertions of general validity. Example, from pages 18-19: How can he possibly justify his statement about “an abundant population” and “a confused and turbulent mass of humanity” in the Litoral (or, worse yet, is he actually referring only to the Misiones area?) when (a) he cites no sources for the statements; (b) no useful censal or other statistics in fact exist; and (c) the entire population of the vast viceroyalty (ca. 1800) may have numbered no more than one million?
Such imperfections, sometimes substantive, are outweighed by his skilled treatment of subjects such as “the career of the Revolution”; his unusually holistic analysis of the Interior and the Litoral (see, for example, his discussion of the disintegration of political order in the inland provinces, pp. 308-374); and, above all, his original insights into social relationships under revolutionary stress, which indeed led to the “barbarization of politics” and the “militarization and ruralization of the bases of political power.”
Halperín-Donghi’s prose style is distinctly a matter of individual preference, with admirers probably in the great minority. I confess to my early antagonism or at least unease when reading other works by this author, because of the exhausting (and sometimes even opaque) complexity of his constructions. But a most careful reading of this book convinces me that his dense if protracted sentence-paragraphs admirably reflect the sophisticated dialectic and intricate thematic organization with which he has recreated—dare we say?—the enormously complex history of the decades he analyzes. The translation by Richard Southern is faithful to the original and is therefore, I believe, excellent.
Halperín-Donghi does not write for beginners. History is change, imbalance, ambiguity, contingency: life. He knows this, and he seizes these forces and brings them to vivid reality as the multifaceted story of the people of a poor, remote, and dissident place and time. Not a “classic work”—that status requires time—but nearly a masterpiece.