No theme in Argentine history has attracted greater scholarly scrutiny than Peronism. A recent bibliography (Laszlo Horvath, A Half Century of Peronism, 1943-1993, 1993) lists 3,392 works, not counting periodicals. The bibliographic database WorldCat includes more titles on Juan Domingo Perón than on any other twentieth-century Latin American political figure except Fidel Castro, and more on Eva Perón than on any other Latin American woman. Mariano Plotkin’s addition to this massive corpus focuses on a topic that, if not exactly understudied, seems less saturated than others: the nature and function of Peronist propaganda in political festivals, primary education, and semiofficial institutions.
Despite the dates in the title, Plotkin avoids the myopic—and all too common-portrayal of Peronism as a sort of Athena springing abruptly and fully grown onto the postwar scene. The first chapter of the book discusses how the liberal consensus that made possible seven decades of uninterrupted constitutional regimes after 1862 began to show fissures before World War I and cracked with the military coup of 1930 (in which Perón actually participated as a middle-ranking officer). Even before the coup, Hipólito Yrigoyen’s identification of his party and government with “the nation itself,” his conviction that political legitimacy emanated from this supra-political union more than from electoral victories, and his refusal to recognize the opposition as legitimate contenders (morally, if not legally) foreshadowed some of Perón’s standard tenets. The military regimes of the 1930s and early 1940s displayed other traits that presaged Peronism: disdain for liberal democracy, anti-Communism, nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric, quasi-Keynesian policies, and corporatist leanings. The novelty of Peronism consisted in synthesizing all of these traits, adding a potent prolabor ingredient, and thrusting the blend to unexpected extremes.
The extremism unavoidably offended powerful groups and polarized society, dooming from the start Perón’s efforts to forge his eclectic “doctrina” into a new “spiritual unity” that would replace the old liberal consensus. Indeed, as Plotkin correctly notes, the Peronist “threat” served to revive liberalism as an unified force, which now incorporated even the old Left. The attempts to fashion an alternative Peronist culture had a similar effect, at least in terms of high culture, as the anti-intellectual stance of some Peronist sectors alienated most of the Argentine intelligentsia.
The regime’s efforts proved more successful in regard to working-class political culture. Despite the opposition of socialists, Communists, and those who wished to preserve labor’s independence, the government’s propaganda machinery effectively transformed May l into a state-sponsored Peronist ritual in just a few years. It also rewrote the history of the celebration, portraying it as a previously bloody and revolutionary event, even though—Plotkin argues—it had generally been a peaceful and even patriotic affair. If this was true, the transformation appears not so much the domestication of an internationalist day of protest into a national holiday but rather an easier case of appropriation.
Another festival, October 17 (the day in 1945 when union workers took to the streets and forced the military government to reinstate Perón to a position of power), required even less alteration. Nevertheless, the festival was quickly turned into an orchestrated affair devoid of its original spontaneity and associated with the increasingly syncretized Party-State-Nation trinity rather than with organized labor. The date came to be known as the eve of San Perón (and in 1951 of Santa Evita), which explains the book’s title and supports its thesis that Peronism became a political religion. These massive and ritualized marches served to underscore the direct union between leader and masses as the ultimate source of the former’s legitimacy. They also functioned as a warning to the “oligarchy”—the term used to delegitimate Perón’s opposition in general. By 1950, the author claims, the government had achieved a virtual monopoly of “symbolic public space” —though one has to wonder how two holidays could have accomplished such a mighty task.
The third part of the book examines the regime’s use of the educational system to promote a Peronist political culture and mystique. During the early years of his presidency, Perón’s policies followed the efforts of the previous military regime to implement a nationalist, Catholic, and Hispanophile curriculum as an antidote to what was perceived as the cosmopolitan and materialistic pedagogy of the liberal establishment. As the government expanded, centralized, and increased its control over the educational system, it embarked in 1951 on an ambitious campaign to replace longstanding textbooks with Peronist ones.
By comparing the two sets of texts, Plotkin shows their continuities and changes. Perón was never able, or willing, to supplant completely the liberal discourse. The nationalist “historical revisionism” that condemned the venerable figures of official liberal history as selfish oligarchs at the service of British imperialism and exalted nativist caudillos such as Rosas became a significant part of Peronist rhetoric, Plotkin demonstrates, only after the overthrow of Perón in 1955. The Peronist textbooks presented history, instead, as a series of crucial moments, of which only the Spanish conquest (portrayed positively) and the achievement of political independence in the 1810s (seen as a prelude to Perón’s accomplishment of economic sovereignty) rivaled the Peronist period in importance. Everything between San Martín and Perón was simply relegated to the background.
Changes in the textbooks went beyond interpretations of the past or the obvious deification of Juan and Eva Perón. Workers (including some working women) appeared for the first time as principal characters. Work ceased to be a “burden” and became a social duty. Poverty and charity were transformed from individual and moral issues to questions of social rights and justice in which a benevolent state played the key role. Society gained in importance vis-à-vis the individual. And Catholicism was not simply promoted but increasingly Peronized, a change that fueled the eventual confrontation with the church.
The last part of the book examines some of the Peronist regime’s semiofficial institutions and their efforts to politicize everyday life and popular culture. The most important of these was the Fundación Eva Perón. Putatively a private beneficence association, the fundación was mostly financed by, and used as an instrument of, the Peronist government. Its monopoly on the provision of welfare encouraged popular participation in state-sponsored activities that did not require militancy but did imply a degree of what Plotkin calls —after Renzo De Felice —“passive consensus.” Concomitantly, it served to incorporate sectors of the population (the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, women, and youngsters) who were not directly mobilized by the labor unions, and thereby to diversify the regime’s base of support. The Partido Peronista Femenino fulfilled a similar function in regard to women, not only as voters (a right they received during the first Peronist administration) but also as mothers and wives who would take the Peronist doctrine into Argentine homes, a dual approach that served to politicize women while maintaining traditional gender roles. The Eva Perón sports leagues and the Peronist children’s magazines played an analogous role in narrowing the gap between public and domestic spheres, incorporating and indoctrinating the younger generations, and controlling their leisure time.
Overall, the book’s focus on the production of state propaganda inevitably creates blind spots. One, which the author mentions, relates to how that propaganda was actually consumed by its intended audience. Another is the lack of a socioeconomic analysis, which could have provided a serviceable anchor for the politicocultural narrative. Plotkin may have excluded this type of analysis because of its abundance in the rest of the literature; he agrees with Clifford Geertz that “researches on the symbology of power and on its nature are similar enterprises.” This may be true, but here, political symbols often appear detached from the socioeconomic plasma in which they existed. This is particularly problematic in the case of Peronism, insofar as much of its symbology was backed—to an exceptional degree—by material benefits for the working class, and equally tangible penalties for others.
Some readers may also feel that the emphasis on propaganda unavoidably colors the study with an anti-Peronist tint. This reviewer, however, found Plotkin’s approach consistently and scrupulously fair. He may not stress the regime’s social accomplishments, but by concentrating on political incorporation and persuasion, he also leaves out political exclusion and persecution. One omission balances the other in terms of bias, and neither diminishes the intelligence of Plotkin’s nuanced analysis of Peronist political imagery. Despite—or perhaps because of—its limited focus, this book provides as original a perspective as can be expected in the historiographical cornucopia of Peronism.