Some Notes on
Argentine Gauchos in the 19th Century
and the Question of "Class"

from a Letter to George Rawick

The case of the Gauchos raises interesting questions about the nature of the working class. As the material in Ricardo Salvatore's dissertation on Argentine trade in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries shows, the Gauchos made up a self-constituting "class" drawn from many different parts of society. They were part of the "working class" in-itself only to a limited degree because they only worked for a wage a small part of the year and spent no special time reproducing the talents required for those jobs. Similarly, they constituted a part of the "working class" for-itself only to a limited degree in so far as they struggled for higher wages etc. and avoided work. Because they spent most of their time as they pleased, mostly independent of capital accumulation they were only marginally incorporated into that accumulation, they were only partially accumulated.

As a largely self-reproducing group of people, living a relatively free life on the Pampas and in the cities, mostly wandering and hunting for fun and to survive, it almost seems odd that we should look at them as part of the working "class," given their success at avoiding incorporation into that Atlantic body. Being part of a "class" means being defined as a particular sector of a larger society --mainly by that larger society. We know the working class in-itself was forged as such by the capitalists who forced people to be defined by their work. The transition to working class for-itself occurs not mainly with the resistance to that forging but after it, once the struggle to avoid being coerced into a "class" has been lost. Before the failure to avoid becoming part of the working class, those people who became workers were either part of another class, or outside of class altogether, e.g., "primitive" non-class societies. So, it seems the issue should be to what degree the Gauchos are part of the Argentine working class and the Atlantic proletariat. Given that they worked so damned little and that their lives were not organized around work it hardly seems fair to just dump them in the "working" class.

I don't know about you but I pretty much define the "working" class this way: those whose lives are organized around imposed work and who thus struggle against that imposition and for other ways of being. How are we to view those who are able to avoid such subordination of their lives?

But this question leads to a broader one: isn't it true in general that workers have always struggled to be more than workers, to avoid having their entire lives subordinated to work? Even among those skilled workers who have been proud of their skills and their ability to create, most of them have probably sought to be more than one-dimensional men and women, have sought to live diverse lives beyond their trade. Among the ranks of the "mass workers" who have despised their work the point is obvious, but even among the relatively unalienated skilled workers, their work, at best, has been seen as only one desirable form of human activity and not as the end-all and be-all of existence. To the degree this is true, we can say that most workers have struggled to cease being defined as workers as they have sought a richer, more multilateral existence. From this point of view, to call such workers part of the "working" class is almost insulting, it implies their failure to avoid having their lives reduced to work. To be a worker, for such a person, is to be a loser. Who wants to be a worker?

Against this we have to place the pride of those who, failing to avoid having their lives subordinated to work, band together and struggle against capital. But is this the pride of being a worker (as the left generally sees it) or of being part of a self-organized, highly motivated and victorious group of people who have struggled and won? We know that in their struggles not only have they fought to make the imposed work less onerous (and sometimes even interesting) but have also succeeded in limiting the degree to which they are "reduced to mere worker," as Marx says in the Grundrisse -- i.e., the struggle to reduce the length of the working day/week/year/life and thus to carve out time for other aspects of life. If we give up the socialist view that one organizes for and fights the revolution in order to be free to be a totally unalienated worker, and instead recognize that people fight to be more than workers, indeed to be many other things, then perhaps we should see that even in the concept of the working class for-itself there is a contradiction in terms. In the way that Jean-Paul Sartre used the terms, and I think for Marx as well, for-itself meant first and foremost being able to become something different than what you are (unlike being in-itself in which you are stuck in changelessness). In the case of the working class, being a class for-itself means struggling to go beyond being workers, struggling to become a thousand different kinds of people and thus unregroupable and un'class'ifiable as a class. Isn't this what communism always alludes to? Not to classes disappearing because everyone is now a worker, but because people live such diversified lives that it no longer makes sense to define them in terms of classes.

In the case of the Indians and then the Gauchos who escaped to the unaccumulated Argentinian "frontier," they were successful (for a few decades) in carving out a great deal of time for their own lives, and in subordinating their work --of hunting wild cattle-- to the rest of their life projects --riding horses, drinking yerba mate, playing cards, singing songs, etc. instead of the other way around. Here we have a clear parallel between auto workers and Gauchos. But if we hesitate to label those fiercely independent Gauchos and Indians "workers" because the title does not appreciate their success at being other things than workers, perhaps we should also be careful about labeling the people who work in factories and offices "workers"? Perhaps we can understand why so many of them resist the label, because it is inadequate to the complexity of their struggles and goals and because the Left has used it to reduce them rhetorically to socialist myths.

But what can we call them --and ourselves? What language can we use that is not marked with the sign of the oppressor? Marx's jargon (the language of his theoretical concepts) is so marked because it was developed to express the nature and dynamics of oppression. Perhaps that jargon is adequate when we describe the mechanisms of domination, but is inadequate to express the autonomous reality of the multi-self-directed population capital tries to dominate. If we embrace self-activity and self-determination perhaps we should also accept (not uncritically of course) self-definition. If Indians call themselves Guarani, and "Guarani" has a complex, self-determined racial/cultural reality, then Guarani they are. If Gauchos call themselves Gauchos and "Gaucho" labels a complex, self-determined cultural reality, then Gauchos they are. To the degree that Argentine capital is successful at reducing Gauchos and the Guarani to "mere workers" we can indeed speak of them as part of the working class in-itself. But not pridefully, rather sorrowfully as it measures their failure to avoid that fate. To the degree that they continue their self-activity and struggle against capital we can recognize them as working class for-itself but, leaving aside socialist self-satisfaction with that honorific, we must remember to look closely and appreciate the diverse things they struggle for, as well as those moments of capitalist would-be universals they struggle against. And thus remember that they, as all "workers," are more than workers, even in defeat. That, with whatever power they can muster and organize they fight to be humans and not one-dimensional droids, and for that struggle "working class" is an inadequate description.

So too with other "workers." We all struggle to be many different things, to self-define ourselves, individually and in social groups, in society as a whole. This, it seems to me, is what self-valorization is all about, and we are in dire need of greater recognition of this process and of greater understanding of how it shapes the "class" struggle. We know what people struggle against --capital, and the stunted, alienated being it seeks to impose. We need greater appreciation of the diversity of being people struggle for. Only by understanding both aspects of our struggle can we think clearly not only about what we are seeking to destroy but about where we want to go and what are the best ways of getting there.

Harry Cleaver
Austin, Texas; February 1987

For those who can read Spanish, you should read the epic poem of the Gaucho Martín Fierro by José Hernández.
* Ricardo Salvatore's Ph.D. Dissertation Class Struggle and International Trade: Rio de la Plata's Commerce and the Atlantic Proletariat, 1790-1850, was completed at the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. A copy is available in the PCL.