Pablo Ben University of Chicago

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Socialism and Marriage in Buenos Aires, 1880-1905
Pablo Ben

University of Chicago
In Argentina the major radical political movements were Anarchism and Socialism. They were the product of massive migration in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and they consolidated in the 1890s. In fact, the Socialist Party was created in 1896 together with an influent newspaper named La Vanguardia, and although Anarchism as a heterogenous movement does not have a date for the birth of a particular organization, its first major federative newspaper, La Protesta Humana, started in 1897.

The story of marriage in Argentina begins long before the emergence of Socialism and Anarchism. The first Civil Code written by Dalmacio Velez Sársfield, was passed in 1869, and despite its liberal spirit, in terms of marriage it followed canon law, giving civil legitimacy to the unions certified by the church. The gradual consolidation of the state encouraged many deputies to pass a civil marriage law in 1887 although they faced strong Catholic opposition. The late nineteenth century Argentine elite was conservative in its monopoly of state power, but it was very liberal in other realms like the attempt to keep church and state separated and increase the power of state institutions.

This chronology of the legal history of marriage implies that Socialists and Anarchists became a part of public opinion precisely at the time when marriage was already a legal institution controlled by the state. However, there were still many other issues to discuss in relation to marriage, and Socialists and Anarchists had different participation in them.

The first parliamentary debate about divorce, for instance, took place in 1901, and although it failed, there were many other attempts through the years. Almost all of the attempts were encouraged by the Socialists, especially after 1905, when they had their first deputy in the parliament: Alfredo Palacios. Unlike Socialists, who followed the reformist wing of the Second International, Anarchists were more radicalized. They did not support divorce because they opposed any state intervention and they refused to participate in any debate promoted within the state. In opposition to Socialists, Anarchists promoted “free love,” that is to say: a kind of bond between men and women were they would become partners without legally marrying.

Another issue were Socialists had a great deal of participation was the role of women within marriage. In fact, Socialists were interested in women beyond the realm of marriage. They promoted the first law on female and child work passed in 1907 and they fought for female equal rights. The 1887 civil marriage law, despite the great opposition to the church, did not modify the legal status of women at all. They were unable to have a job, sign a contract, decide where to live, etc, unless their husbands supported them. Men were the only legitimate voice within marriage and women would become legal minors. In this context Socialists wanted women to become legal equals in the full sense of the term, and they even supported female suffrage. In fact, in a way their ideas were quite advanced at the time, because only in 1926 women became full legal subjects within marriage, although some other issues only took place much later: female vote in the 1950s, and patria potestad and divorce in the 1980s. Again, in this context, Anarchists abstain from participation in the state.

Despite the avant-garde ideas Socialists promoted, the political view we have about this movement changes a lot if we consider it under a different light. It is important to contrast the policies promoted by the radical movements on one side, with the real life of workers and the poor. Although Socialists promoted equality, in daily life, they accepted a subordinated role for women. However, women from the popular classes were actually very independent, and many Socialists and Anarchists had a hard time accepting it. Both currents opposed the existence of prostitution as a form of “white slavery,” however, not all prostitutes thought this was an oppressive institution and the left could not avoid a very moralistic point of view.

The popular classes in Argentina were not characterized by family life. On the contrary, in general, collective life was more important. Men would socialize at work, and spend their free time in bars, women would work for many hours, and children were left alone in the streets. This meat that there was no family sociability for most of the poor, but instead of perceiving this as an opportunity to question bourgeois family and create new institutions, Socialists were abhorred by the regular household arrangements of the popular classes, and in fact they promoted their familiarization. In fact, the performance of Socialists had a great wait, because they were considered as the legitimate opponent of the elite.

In addition to a structural situation working against family life, the popular classes did not seem to be searching for a marriage with children in a privately owned household. On the contrary, a description of the sexual culture of the popular classes shows a world quite distant from the ideal family utopia of the Socialists. The end of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of tango, a popular music characteristic of Buenos Aires that has recently been “normalized” as the result of a fear of contamination with female prostitution and especially male queer sexuality. Tango dancing clubs were part of a network were the same subjects circulated, a network including brothels, male same-sex cruising areas, and centers of criminality. These spheres were identified at the time as “la mala vida,” a Spanish phrase including all those whose life was “bad” in contrast to what the elite and the professionals considered “decent.” Most of the male clients of the brothels, as well as the male pimps of female prostitutes were at the same time involved in criminality and usually performed same-sex sexual practices. They claimed to play the “active” role, which was identified with the practice of penetrating another man anally. As long as these men – usually named lunfardos – were perceived as “active” partners publicly, they faced no condemnation, but, on the contrary, they were proud of their sexual “domination” of both women and other men considered inferior. This was an extremely phallic culture where both women and men were subject to some imposition of “virginity.” In the case of women, they were not supposed to use their vagina, except with a man they were supposed to join for life who would be their master in an unequal relationship. Men with the same social status were supposed to be equals among them, but this equality could only be kept if they were represented as individuals whose anus was virgin. Offering another man to “make use” of one’s anus was equivalent to include oneself in the side of those who were “dominated.”

In the eyes of Socialists, the morals of the popular classes actually resembled those of ‘primitive cultures.’ They wanted workers to become responsible individuals typical of a liberal society, they expected men and women to marry and take care of few children, and they wanted them to avoid ‘illicit’ sexual practices, alcohol consumption, gambling, etc. In a context where same sex among adult men was widespread and shared the same spaces of female prostitution and Tango, Socialists and Anarchists preferred to represent a ‘virile’ working class.

In order to understand how socialists ordered their theoretical understanding of sexuality and marriage, I think it is important to understand what Erns Haeckel called the “theory of recapitulation,” an influent tool of analysis taken from social Darwinism and applied to the Social Sciences in most of late nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas.

Ernest Haeckel gave a name to the “theory of recapitulation” although he was just synthesizing an idea that had become scientific common sense at his time. He was a German biologist and promoter of a peculiar interpretation of Darwinist evolutionism, famous towards the end of the nineteenth century because of his popular books sold not only in Germany, but all throughout Europe and the Americas. In Argentina, his books were so well-known that they can still be easily found in any old small town library in the country. According to Haeckel, the research developed after Darwin had proven that ontology – that is to say, the development of the individual human being – “recapitulated” filogeny – a term used to refer to the evolutionary history of the species as a whole. According to this biologist, from their birth to their death, human beings would experience the same biological steps that natural history had undergone in its evolution from the first cells to the higher organisms. Haeckel’s work condensed ideas that were sometimes either latent or implicit in many of the evolutionary disciplines that marked European fin de siécle thought. Science shared the idea that history (both natural history and the history of societies) had an aim, the more developed stages were characterized by the signs of adulthood, whiteness, the opposition and complementarity of the sexes, and the socially distinct costumes of the European elites. Everything outside of this realm of higher evolution was somehow interpreted as an arrested development, as a primitive stage, as evolutionary backward. Even normality and abnormality were constructed through these categories: abnormal organisms or behaviors would perform functions that were typical of a prior state of evolution.

This theory was a political tool to connect the hierarchies constructed throughout axis of oppression that were relatively autonomous: gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and age. First of all, it implied the existence of steps in which the “primitive” – equivalent of the young – was “inferior” in relation to the more developed biological or social forms. Within this frame, the opposition and complementarity of the sexes was supposed to be an achievement of the higher levels of evolution – and idea that Bebel developed in his book about “Women and Socialism.” According to the theory of recapitulation, natural evolution would start with asexual cells in the same way that embryology, the second step for both was hermaphroditism, a stage where the reproductive function was specialized but only within one individual. Finally, the end of embryology and natural history was the differentiation of the sexes in separate individuals. If a modern human being was hermaphrodite s/he would be characterized as an abnormality because only previous stages of development would produce hermaphrodite organisms. Hermaphroditism was at the same time abnormality and arrested development. The place of “sexual inversion” was the same, in a context where nature and society had evolved towards the progressive opposition and complementarity of the sexes, some individuals dare to blur this differentiation line: they could not be anything but the product of the persistence of the past in the present itself, that is to say, an abnormality. Not only embryology, human evolution and natural evolution were oriented in terms of more differentiation between the sexes and sexual desire towards the “opposite” sex. Anthropology constructed a narrative of socio-cultural evolution beginning with primitive promiscuity and ending in monogamous heterosexuality. This allowed Western thought to identify sexual abjection with the “primitive” groups they colonized and the lower strata within ‘their’ metropolis.

When socialists and anarchists began publishing their first journals, magazines and newspapers, they had a strong stance about the need for a scientific approach. In the same way that Socialist politicians such as Friedrich Engels and August Bebel had embraced the theory of recapitulation in their major works about the relationship between gender, sexuality and the state, the Argentine versions of these European theories repeated the same idea.

As they were constructing a narrative with basically the same theoretical framework, the elite and the working class organizations would end up accusing each other of sexual and gender deviance. However, the structure of this accusation would not be limited to accusations between the elite and the popular classes. Since the early nineteenth-century, the different factions of the elite of the United Provinces of the River Plate had turned to the mutual accusation of sodomy, using the stigma of this sexual practice to undermine the power of the enemy faction.

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