Elevate Difference

Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890-1910

In Paradoxes of Utopia, social and labor historian Juan Suriano explores the Argentinean urban anarchist movement at the fin de siecle. Drawing on archival sources, Suriano analyzes libertarian theory and practice in Buenos Aires through an analysis of anarchist books, newspapers, lectures, rallies, propaganda tours, fundraisers, theater groups, songs, rites, symbols, educational projects, and union organizing campaigns.

Suriano situates the urban anarchist movement in Argentina in the context of a rapidly modernizing nation and explores the influence of international anarchist figures and publications on the Argentinean movement. Arguing that historical studies have ignored radical politics prior to 1945, he focuses on explicitly anarchist institutions and publications, distinguishing anarchism from socialist and worker struggles while still acknowledging the relationships and overlap between these movements. He shows the many ways that anarchists in Buenos Aires contested the state, legal system, nationalism, religion, army, and electoral politics through cultural and study circles, alternative schools, radical presses, social events, worker organizing, and direct action.

Suriano describes the rise and eventual collapse of the anarchist movement in Buenos Aires. He outlines the many obstacles anarchists faced, including ideological conflicts, lack of coordination and trust between anarchists, a reluctance to analyze the specifics of Argentinean society, and the eventual marginalization of libertarian politics in favor of the more reformist agenda of socialist and worker groups. He also examines the effects of state repression in the form of Residency and Social Defense Laws, which curbed anarchist groups by criminalizing many of their activities.

While Paradoxes of Utopia outlines and analyzes in detail the political and cultural practices of urban anarchists in Buenos Aires, Suriano’s analysis falls short from a feminist perspective. The book offers tantalizing evidence that women were intricately involved in the anarchist movement as workers, wives, mothers, intellectuals, and comrades, yet he fails to fully consider the effects of women’s roles in shaping the movement. For example, at various points Suriano briefly touches on anarchist ideas concerning marriage and family structure, women’s liberation, sexual equality, and the persecution of prostitutes, but he does not fully explore these aspects of the anarchist movement.

The absence of women in Suriano's analysis does not seem to indicate that they were not involved in anarchist theory and practice. He mentions in passing the existence of an Anarchist Women’s Center and newspaper (Women’s Voice), women’s involvement in tenant strikes and social events, and the renown of several female anarchist lecturers and intellectuals. While dealing with archival sources can limit the scope of analysis, it does not appear that women’s role were completely obscured from the historical record. The lack of analysis regarding women's involvement in Paradoxes of Utopia points to the need for more studies on the role of women in radical social movements.

Despite this critique, Paradoxes of Utopia has a great deal to offer readers interested in historical and contemporary radical politics. Indeed, many of the difficulties faced by the anarchists in urban Argentina a century ago sound surprisingly similar to those that arise in radical social movements today: splintering based on ideological differences, state repression, lack of resources, high turnover, and competition with reformist social movements. This well-researched study is a valuable read for those interested in Latin American history, anarchist theory and practice, and labor movements.

Written by: Traci Yoder, September 25th 2010

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