Osvaldo Bayer: Reflections on the life and work of an anarchist historian

Osvaldo Bayer

by Nate Freiburger

Just over a month ago, the well known Argentinian historian, Osvaldo Bayer died in his home in Buenos Aires. Lots of obituaries have been written about him, particularly in the Argentine press. So, this is not another obituary, and if it were it would be horribly late coming. But, that all being said, his death did prompt me to reflect on both his work—well-crafted historical studies of anarchists and anarchist movements in Argentina—and a conversation I had with him about that work and the broader work of keeping anarchist thought and action alive by writing its history.

His books, such as The Anarchist Expropriators and Rebellion in Patagonia (translated and published in the US by AK press), are read by everyone on the left in Argentina. Again, when Osvaldo died, every major news outlet wrote something about him. As a good friend explained to me, “he’s this type that is read by everyone: trotskyists, maoists, leftist Peronistas, anarchists….everyone reads Bayer.” In June of 2016 I meet and interviewed Osvaldo Bayer at his house, named El Tugurio (meaning a hovel, shack, or clandestine den), in the neighborhood of Belgrano en Buenos Aires. There, he recounted being invited to the Casa Rosada (the Argentine White House) by Néstor Kirchner, the center left president elected in the wake of the 2001 financial collapse. He told us that this invitation caused him to begin to view himself as suspect. And it’s true, the halls of institutional political power were not Osvaldo’s place: he was much more likely to be at the popular assembly, the march, the mobilization. Yet, the invitation does say something of his broad readership, and I asked him about that readership. Why it is that his books circulated among so many different groups including those not on the left? His response: “because [my books] tell the truth.” And, I think this is an important point, even if “truth” can itself be quite complicated. Osvaldo was known for telling a story about those who otherwise would not have had their story written, or it would have been reduced to the state’s official account: one that demonized, pathologized, criminalized those collective actors who fought for freedom. Osvaldo wrote chronicles of these actors, but he never demonized them or romanticized them. One of his well known books Severino di Giovanni: El idealista de la violencia [Severino di Giovanni: The idealist of violence], which was translated to English by Paul Sharkey as Anarchism and Violence: Severino Di Giovanni in Argentina 1923-1931 and published by Elephant Editions & Ardent Press, is a good example of what Osvaldo means by telling the truth: the book tells a story about the actions (sometimes very violent ones) taken by Severino di Giovanni, and particularly the consequences they were intended to have. Again, no romanticizing, no demonizing. One is only left with the question: when, if ever, is violence merited? And, no, we are not talking about the completely twisted version of violence decried by the liberal-left-do-gooders: “please don’t break that bank window; it’s violent!”

We talked about his book The Expropriators, which as he said had been very polemical when he published it. At the time, Argentina was living under the military dictatorship of Videla, who had overthrown Isabel Perón with a coup in 1976. And, I asked him what had motivated him to write that particular book in a moment when those on the left were being disappeared for that very kind of writing. “So that they would know this ideology, and debate it. Is it criminal or not, expropriation. Is it theft or is it not. It’s a difficult topic for a bourgeois society like this one, because if you want to make the revolution you obviously have to expropriate.” Again, the expropriators aren’t romanticized, nor demonized. He intends for the story told in the books to force a question: when to expropriate?

Osvaldo’s books push us to reflect on these questions, many of which are perennial, but they give us a different context in which to think about them, and that is the most important aspect to consider with the questions his books present: what is the context of these actions, their use, their failures and successes? But, as we were talking, I just couldn’t let the Casa Rosada invitation go. I had to ask: why he had been invited to the Casa Rosada by the Kirchner government? He shrugged. In a puzzled sort of way he said that they had him seated up at the front left where Néstor would come in to give his speech: “and he came in, and came up to me and whispered to me: it was my grandfather’s uncle, not my grandfather!” Apparently, Néstor just wanted to set the record straight with respect to the 10,000 pesos stolen from Osvaldo’s grandfather!

In addition to being a well regarded cronista, Osvaldo Bayer was known as a someone who despite having the name recognition of a top intellectual, was a radically open person. He welcomed me and my friends into the Turgurio as if he had known us forever, and Osvaldo told us that his door was always open to any militant who wants to come and talk. We talked about the influence of anarchism in Argentina, and Osvaldo reminded us of the vicious persecution of anarchists after the military coup Juan Perón served in and ultimately led to the elections that put him in power . “They were very persecuted, many of them were sent to prison in Tierra del Fuego.” And, this led us to a discussion about the place of anarchism in Argentina today. Through my previous time researching and organizing in Bolivia, I had made some contacts in Buenos Aires with militant groups who formed after the rebellions of 2001 in Argentina that were sparked by economic crisis and hyper inflation. Massive, neighborhood based popular assemblies were organized, social and cultural centers of all sorts popped up in recuperated (in the US we would call them “occupied” or squatted) buildings, factories were reclaimed by the workers, and over the following decades these spaces continued to be active spaces of autonomous thought and action. Wonderful, terrific books have been published about and during the rebellions of 2001. (Tinta Limón, a super rad press in Buenos Aires, has a few to get started with if you are interested in this topic: Acá No, Acá No Me Manda Nadie (Here No, Here There Are No Bosses), 19 y 20, both of which can be downloaded for free from their site.)

We asked about the assemblies of 2001, and whether or not those could be seen as part of a lineage of anarchist organizing and thought in Argentina, but he was reluctant to call the assemblies anarchist. Then, what of anarchism in Argentina? Is there something left of it? To which he responded, “of course there is something! How could there not be something of it left if it is the best idea! The best ideology. Freedom, total freedom. Not political parties.” Even though I, myself, am an advocate of what Voltarine le Clerye called an anarchism without adjectives, my friend asks Osvaldo, just out of curiosity, “do you identify with one of the thousands of types of anarchisms … anarcho-syndicalism, etc?” To which Osvaldo responds, “which one do I prefer? I prefer all of them.”

Osvaldo’s death prompts me, and hopefully others, to reflect on the purpose and place of his work, and of the broader cultural labor of autonomous thought. After Osvaldo refilled our glasses of wine (he still loved his drink, even at almost 90 years old at the time!) a few more times, my friend asks, “do you have a message for North American anarchists, or what would you say to a North American anarchist public?” To which Osvaldo replies: “That they continue supporting publications of anarchist thought, which is the ideology of freedom and the respect of one person to another. And, freedom is the end of all political struggle. Freedom above all, not the police, and not the liberal political regime, which is in defense of capital. Freedom.”

Posted on February 1, 2019 .