Flowers for the rebels who failed: Rebellion in Patagonia by Osvaldo Bayer [Book Review]

In Rebellion in Patagonia Osvaldo Bayer rescued this tragedy from historical oblivion. ‘The 1921 massacre of the rural workers of Patagonia is no longer a taboo subject, mentioned as if it were but a legend.’ (p467) Patagonia, in the far south of Argentina, dominated by the livestock runs of large landowners, is a long way from Buenos Aires. It may be a long way from where you are, but this is a story that resonates.

Rebellion in Patagonia tells how the anarchist-organised rural workers strike in 1920-21 and win historic concessions, after the army and reformist politicians opt for compromise. The landowners are intent on destroying the workers’ organisation and resist implementing the agreement, which leads to the second strike (of 1921). The owners want a solution, one that leaves them in full control. ‘If the military doesn’t intervene, “there will be nothing but ruins and desolation.”’ (p148 quoting La Nación) Why is there a problem? ‘“Outside agitators, the aftertaste of unrestricted immigration, profess doctrines in which those who were once slaves will take the place of their oppressors.”’ (p121, quoting La Unión) Class interests are sprinkled with patriotic rhetoric. Political pressure is applied to the reformists. The army is encouraged – this time – to return things to ‘business as usual’. In other words, to massacre the strikers. Not simply to break the strike, but to drown it in blood.

The Anarchists of the Workers’ Society put their faith in solidarity that doesn’t come. They know which side the army are on. Not so the rural workers. ‘As far as they are concerned, the real enemies are the police officers who beat them and shake them down for the few pesos they have. But fighting the army, no, they don’t want to get involved in that. This is the moment when Antonio Soto realizes his biggest mistake: organizing a strike that is absolutely anarchist in form – authentic, sudden, unexpected, impulsive – without the support of a rank and file that understands the basic notions of human freedom and its enemies.’ (p267)

The killing isn’t random. Once the strikers surrender (defeating your enemies is easier if they think you’re neutral!) the sorting starts. The army calls it ‘assigning responsibilities’ (p221). Anyone singled out as a strike leader is killed, usually after being beaten. Strikers can have their lives saved by being claimed by their bosses. Given power of life and death, some use it to save lives and some use it to settle scores: ‘The commanding military officer himself admits that the judgements as to who was guilty and who was innocent were made by the “ranchers and foremen.” […] Many accounts state that the ranchers didn’t just point out the “ringleaders” but also any peons that had been slightly insubordinate or to whom they owed wages.’ (p241) Beyond that, the unknown and unclaimed only had hope, and not a lot of that. ‘The ranchers decided whose lives were to be saved and if nobody claimed them they were executed or taken to prison. The same thing happened to the men nobody knew, the migrant workers.’ (p247, quoting Antonio Tiznao)

Bayer records the protest of the prostitutes of the La Catalana brothel (in San Julián) who strike themselves: ‘Patient research has allowed us to discover the names of these five women, these five whores who were the only ones brave enough to publicly say that the perpetrators of the bloodiest massacre of workers in our history were nothing more than murderers.’ (p338) [1] And the protests spread. At first it’s the anarchists but then, ‘When La Vanguardia – the newspaper of the Socialist Party – learned that the dead included Albino Argüelles, secretary-general of the San Julián Workers’ Society and a card-carrying party member, they began attacking [President] Yrigoyen and Commander Varela day after day.’ (p339)

Yrigoyen will say – and will keep saying – nothing. The government will refuse to investigate. A compromise is arranged. ‘When the repression began, there were three categories of strikers: the bad workers, who “died in combat”; the suspicious workers, who were imprisoned in Río Gallegos after being punished and humiliated; and the good workers, who were rescued by their employers.’ (p366) The prisoners will be released: the task has been accomplished anyway. ‘And what about Varela’s argument that these people were bandits, arsonists, thieves? Now, with one stroke of a pen, the judge admits that they shouldn’t have been arrested. What one hand writes is erased by the other.’ (p373) Commander Varela asks Yrigoyen to support him, to explain he was following orders. It doesn’t happen.

Since there will be no justice, inevitably the anarchists think about revenge. Anarchist political violence has thrown up many remarkable characters. Just look at Simón Radowitzky or Severino di Giovanni, both of whom Bayer has written about. Kurt Gustav Wilckens is possibly the most remarkable and least fierce anarchist avenger. ‘He has never even been to Patagonia, but neither has he received so much as five centavos in payment for the assassination. His name is Kurt Gustav Wilckens. A German anarchist of the Tolstoyan persuasion, he is an enemy of violence, but he believes that, in extreme cases, the only response to the violence of the mighty should be more violence.’ (p18)

Wilckens assassinates Commander Varela, ‘the butcher of Patagonia’. Wilckens is then murdered in prison in a right-wing plot, which triggers massive protests and cements his place as a working class hero. ‘If we hadn’t personally collected the testimonies, flyers, communiques, etc., we wouldn’t have believed that, even in the most remote corners of the country, there were people who felt the need to express their support for the anarchist avenger and their anger at his murder.’ (p433) Bayer follows the story to the bitter end. Perez Millán Temperley, the killer of Wilckens, is given a light sentence and serves it in a mental hospital – until he’s killed in an anarchist plot.

Rebellion in Patagonia is not cheerful reading and might leave you asking ‘What can you do but weep?’ It reminded me of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol:
Their uniforms were spick and span,
And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at,
By the quicklime on their boots.

But there was no quicklime: some bodies were burnt, many were just left on the pampas. It was left to the local people to bury them properly.

Despite the brutality, this is a very humane book because Bayer is determined to bear witness and writes with a clear grasp of what’s at stake. It’s also a model for writing history from below. Starting fifty years after the events, Bayer interviews eyewitnesses (strikers, neutrals and soldiers) as well as the children of victims and perpetrators, visits the execution sites and sees the bullet-marked rocks for himself. He also makes good use of the written record, like the flier that catches the moment when it’s being typeset: ‘While we went to press, we were informed that the bakers had just voted to go on strike.’ (p414)

When Bayer talks about illiterate workers, there’s no sneer, simply admiration that those who had so little would risk it all for an ideal. They strike to commemorate the execution of the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer: ‘This is typically anarchist. Just think about the riskiness of a strike in a place where jobs are extremely scarce, where all the bosses know each other, and where nobody will hire a disobedient worker. And that these somber men – peons, bellboys, and stevedores – would take such a risk on behalf of someone who had died eleven years before in a far-off land. That these proletarians – most of them illiterate – took such a risk to commemorate the founder of the Modern School!’ (p480-1) There is bitter irony, though, for self-serving lies: ‘It’s strange that Paladino was able to make a confession after dying, taking the time to accuse himself of being “one of the most bloodthirsty.”’ (p330)

There’s a very strong sense in Rebellion in Patagonia that the past has never gone away, that the massacres are simply a dress rehearsal for Argentina’s twentieth-century agony of dictatorship. Bayer was forced into exile during the 1970s dictatorship and his books (including the first version of this one) were burnt. So he not a ‘neutral’ observer. But he is a very perceptive one.

There’s an awful lot to think about in this book. The rural workers were left to fight alone. The ‘pure syndicalists’ of the FORA IX will protest about the massacres, but not too much. Bayer unpicks the nationalism used by the bosses, where the flag really is a blindfold: ‘Without any need for a red flag, Patagonia was already internationalized – not just by foreign landowners, but also because all of her raw material wealth was sent overseas. In other words, the intervention of the Argentine Army did not occur to defend the nation’s interests, but to preserve the status and privileges of foreign companies and to protect an unjust feudal regime that still chokes southern Argentina, slowly turning it into a desert.’ (p33)

Bayer isn’t shy about condemning the killings carried out by Varela, but he doesn’t ignore the forces that used him: ‘It seems as if the responsibility of all those who owed something to Varela, of those who benefited from his actions, ended with his death’ (p403). It’s as if he’s sowing seeds of doubt, asking the army if they’re happy to be ‘the tools of those who already had everything and still wanted more.’ (p235)

Tragic though it is, Rebellion in Patagonia is written with style as well as heart:

‘we can imagine those two tiny Fords traveling through the desert, carrying eight madmen drunk on the ideas of social justice and human redemption. What possessed three Spaniards, one Pole, one Argentine, and three Chileans to set off through this wasteland to bring the gospel of Bakunin to those illiterate, God-forsaken peons? They were crazier than any characters dreamed of by Roberto Arlt, beyond the imagination of even Maxim Gorky. A former stagehand, a stevedore, a mechanic, a former telegraph operator, three shepherds, a former electrician, and a hotel valet go off to fight for social justice and human redemption in the depopulated expanses of Patagonia. A shame that the conversations between these eight messengers of dynamite and fury weren’t recorded. If Jesus had happened upon them in the desert, he would have shook his head sadly and told them, “Brothers, you are exaggerating the teachings of the Gospel.”’ (p156-7)

Bayer’s book is a memorial to them: ‘flowers for the rebels who failed’ as anarchists like to say, a tribute based not on a sense of nostalgia but a love of freedom. It’s also a reminder that the past is important: how can we change things if we don’t understand how we got where we now are? Finally, in a footnote, Bayer reminds us that some never gave up:

‘Here we should add a few words on the fate of Antonio Soto, the man who refused to surrender at La Anita. […] Soto remained faithful to his libertarian ideals until the day he died, although he no longer acted on them publicly. Towards the end of his life, he purchased a small hotel in Punta Arenas that became a gathering place for journalists, artists, freethinkers, and Spanish Republicans. His body was accompanied to the graveyard by a sizable entourage, led by the flagbearers of the Spanish Republican Center, the Red Cross – of which he was a member – and the Galician Center. They were followed by student groups, who honored Soto as the inspiration behind the first student strike in Punta Arenas, which secured an increase in the meager pay of the town’s teachers.’ (p491-2)


1, ‘Here are their names as they appeared on the yellowing pages of the police report: Consuelo García, twenty-nine years old, Argentine, single, prostitute at the La Catalana brothel; Angela Fortunato, thirty-one years old, Argentine, married, seamstress and prostitute; Amalia Rodríguez, twenty-six years old, Argentine, single, prostitute; María Juliache, Spaniard, twenty-eight years old, resident of Argentina for the past seven years, prostitute; Maud Foster, Englishwoman, thirty-one years old, single, resident of Argentina for the past ten years, a woman from a good family, prostitute.’

Rebellion in Patagonia by Osvaldo Bayer; AK Press/Kate Sharpley Library, 2016.