Archive for the ‘Chiapas’ Category

Eros and Revolution Now Available

July 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse is now available in hardcover from Brill Academic Publishers.  Being the eighty-sixth title in the Studies in Critical Social Sciences (SCSS), this 400-page political and intellectual biography examines Marcuse’s life, focusing on the German critical theorist’s contributions to the realms of philosophy, radical politics, and social revolution, while also reflecting on critiques made of Marcuse and the continued relevance of critical theory, libertarian communism, Marxist-Hegelianism, utopian socialism, radical ecology, and anti-authoritarianism today.

The volume will be republished in paperback in a year’s time with Haymarket Books.

For review copies, please contact Anne Tilanus: reviews@brill.com

For author inquiries, contact jscastro@riseup.net

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Feria Libertaria del Libro y la Publicación (FLLP 2016) Monterrey

February 24, 2016

Agenda FLLP 2016

El fin de semana que viene, estaré presente en Monterrey para dar dos ponencias en la Feria Libertaria del Libro y la Publicación (FLLP 2016).  El primer será presentar un ensayo conjunto que he escrito con Andrew Smolski y Alexander Reid Ross, “Tierra y Libertad: El Anarquismo y las Alianzas Campesinas-Proletarias en México y Rusia, 1848-1924” (el sábado 5 marzo a las 16:30).  Por otra parte, presentaré la traducción de mi libro Clima, Ecocidio y Revoluciónpublicada por Revuelta Epistémica hace un año, el domingo a las 16h.  Muchas gracias a l@s organizadores de la feria por darme esta oportunidad.  Además estoy contento que voy a estar compartiendo espacio de nuevo con mi compa scott crow.

Next weekend, I will be in Monterrey to give two talks at the Anarchist Bookfair (FLLP 2016).  The first will be to present an essay I have written jointly with Andrew Smolski and Alexander Reid Ross, “Land and Liberty: Anarchism and Campesino-Proletarian Alliances in Mexico and Russia, 1848-1924” (Saturday 5 March at 4:30pm).  Next, I will present the translation of my book, Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophepublished by Revuelta Epistémica a year ago, this on Sunday at 4pm.  Many thanks to the organizers of the bookfair to allow me this opportunity.  I am pleased as well that I will be sharing space again with my comrade scott crow.

New Prologue to Imperiled Life: 2015 Update

May 5, 2015
@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

This is the translation of the new prologue written for the Spanish translation of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (IAS/AK Press, 2012), entitled Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución, which has just been published by Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica in Mexico City.

Published originally on the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) website, 5 May 2015

“The revolution is for the sake of life, not death.”1
– Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension

I am very glad that this translation is being published in Spanish. It is important that critical writings be shared. Given that Imperiled Life came out nearly three years ago, I see it as necessary here to provide a brief update of some of the most important events that have taken place in these years, particularly with regard to environmental questions—as well as to reflect on the present status of anti-systemic social movements and to make some recommendations for eco-anarchist strategy and praxis.

It is clear that the magnitude of climate change has not diminished, let alone stopped, in the past three years. Instead, it has accelerated at an alarming rate. Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year for planet Earth since official records began at the end of the eighteenth century.2 In terms of average global temperatures, the months of May, June, and August 2014 broke all the previous records.3 In point of fact, the climatologist Don Wuebbles says that last year could have been the hottest year of the last five millennia, while a study published in Science in March 2013 shows us that average global temperatures are at present higher than 90% of those experienced during the entirety of the Holocene geological er. The Holocene began 12,000 years ago, when temperatures stabilized so as to allow for the development of agriculture and the misnomer “civilization.”4 Welcome, then, to the Anthropocene.

Given such an insane context, it should come as little surprise to consider that during the very warm winter of 2014, an entirely unprecedented amount of melting was experienced in Alaska—the result of a temperature spike of between 15 and 20°C (27-36°F) higher than the averages observed for this time of the year at the end of the twentieth century. Similarly, it should be noted that, at the beginning of 2013, the Australian Meteorological Institute saw it necessary to add a new color to its heat-index so as to depict the new temperature extremes raging at that time in the interior of the continent, which reached 54°C (129°F).5 What is more, the Amazon region is currently suffering its worst drought in the past century, the fatal result of global warming in combination with the mass-deforestation of the tropical rainforest.6 At the end of 2013, the Philippines was confronted with the strongest typhoon observed in history, leading to the death of 1,200 people.7 Beyond this, the latest biological data show a decline of a full half of terrestrial animal populations since 1970, and further that 41% of amphibians, 26% of mammals, 13% of birds, and one-fourth of marine species are at immediate risk of extinction.8 As Elizabeth Kolbert details in her eponymous 2014 work, we find ourselves fully immersed within the Sixth Mass Extinction.9

Increasingly more scientists are communicating to us openly about the profound gravity of the environmental crisis. During the forum on “Environment and Alternatives” that took place at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in June 2014, several experts from this institution concluded in unison that the ongoing destruction of the biosphere puts at risk the very existence of humanity, whereas two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January 2015 warned that the present rate of environmental degradation imperils complex life on the planet.10  In this sense, the British economist Nicholas Stern, the famous author of the 2006 Stern Report, declared at the start of 2013 that he should have been more direct about the risks that humanity and nature run due to climate catastrophe.11 For its own part, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows in its July 2014 report on the supposed “mitigation” of the climate crisis that the rate of emissions of carbon dioxide has burgeoned in recent decades: while said emissions expanded by 1.3% annually from 1970 to 2000, they increased by 2.2% each year during the first decade of the new millennium, leading to a disturbing annual increase of 3% in the most recent data, for 2010 and 2011.12 What is more, in early 2015, after having evaluated the twin threats of nuclear war and environmental crisis as it does every year, the association of atomic scientists which has run the “Doomsday Clock” since 1947 reported that it believed humanity to have only three minutes left before midnight: that is to say, before annihilation. This new symbolic revision of the time indicates that, in the analysis of these scientists, the present moment is the gravest moment since 1983, when there existed a serious risk that Ronald Reagan would initiate a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.13

t should thus be very clear that capital and authority have no solution for the climate or environmental crises, nor for the multidimensional crisis that is comprised of the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, beyond the ecological. The Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has since 2012 demonstrated its clear nature: to dawdle and babble on aimlessly amidst such an absolutely severe situation. In 2012 itself, the member-nations met in Doha for COP18, being for this reason the guests of the emir of Qatar. It is emblematic of the farcical nature of the COP that the Qatari emir, together with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the USA, has supported Islamist rebels in Syria that later would form the very basis of the Wahhabi forces of Islamic State (ISIS), and that thousands of migrant workers have lost their lives in recent years in this Gulf kingdom, where gargantuan buildings are constructed, as is evident in the case of the Qatar Foundation Stadium, which is to house the 2022 World Cup.14 As was seen in the experience of this COP in Doha, as well as during COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), all the recent UN conferences have left us with utter unreason: in Qatar, the member-nations effectively allowed the Kyoto Protocol to expire, while in terms of COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, nearly 30% of the world’s governments failed to even send ministerial representations.15 The most recent conference in Lima, Peru—COP20—appears to have been little more than preparation for the next meeting, to be held in Paris at the end of this year, where it is to be imagined that international conflicts will surge between the European Union and many Southern countries against the United States, which under the Obama administration has systematically ignored international law in favor of neoliberal deregulation and the false alternative of a “voluntary” climatic regime on the global level.16 In parallel terms, true authoritarianism was seen emanating from the “Citizens’ Revolution” of Rafael Correa during COP20, when several members of the Climate Caravan through Latin America were arrested for having expressed their opposition to the State’s plan to open the Yasuní National Park to oil drilling by Chinese capital.17 With regard to the bilateral accord signed between China and the U.S. at the end of 2014, it is clear that this agreement certainly would not limit the average-global temperature increase to 2°C higher than the average global temperatures which prevailed during preindustrial human history—with this being the level that is said to the “upper limit” before the triggering of a truly global suicide, though even this assessment might be overly optimistic—even if such minimal changes were observed in reality.18  Given the present trajectory of economic expansion that is foreseen for both the People’s Republic of China and the U.S., the chance that such demands would be observed is rather slim.

In light of the gravity of the present situation, we must not resign ourselves to the facts at hand—for, if there is no global social revolution in the near term, there would seem to be no future for the life of humanity and the rest of nature. There exist several historical and contemporary examples of how to mobilize so as to promote and carry out profound changes in society. I agree with Peter Stanchev in holding the neo-Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the anarchistic experiment of the Kurds in Rojava to be stars that illuminate our path toward the possible anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecological future.19  In reflecting on the proposals set forth by the Mexican anarchists Ricardo Flores Magón and Práxedis G. Guerrero a century ago, it is elemental to affirm the place of direct action as a means of achieving social equality and climate justice.20 I would like to call special attention to the proposal made by the Environmental Union Caucus of the International Workers of the World (IWW EUC) for an ecological general strike, which shares many commonalities with the concept of climate Satyagraha that has been advanced by Ecosocialist Horizons.21 In both cases, the idea is that the masses of associated people express their “truth-force” by intervening and interrupting the functioning of the global machine of production and death while they also develop an inclusive, participatory, and liberatory counter-power—a global confederation of humanity instituting ecological self-management.

The question for the moment, then, is how to contribute to the flowering of this global people’s uprising toward happiness, liberation, and Eros, in the words of George Katsiaficas.22 I will leave the final word for the slogan thought up by B. R. Ambedkar, the twentieth-century Dalit social critic: “Educate! Agitate! Organize!”

1 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 56.

2 Suzanne Goldenberg, “2014 officially the hottest year on record,” The Guardian, 16 January 2015.

3 John Vidal, “August was hottest on record worldwide, says Nasa,” The Guardian, 16 September 2014.

4 Goldenberg; Shaun A. Marcott et al., “A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperatures for the Past 11,300 Years,” Science, 8 March 2013. Available online: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1198.abstract.

5 Robert Scribbler, “Arctic Heat Wave Sets off Hottest Ever Winter-Time Temperatures, Major Melt, Disasters for Coastal and Interior Alaska,” 28 January 2014. Available online: https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/arctic-heat-wave-sets-off-hottest-ever-winter-time-temperatures-major-melt-disasters-for-coastal-and-interior-alaska. Jon Queally, “Burning ‘Deep Purple’: Australia So Hot New Color Added to Index,” Common Dreams, 8 January 2013.

6 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

7 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

8 Damian Carrington, “Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian, 29 September 2014; Robin McKie, “Earth faces ‘sixth extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo,” The Guardian, 13 December 2014; Tom Bawden, “A quarter of the world’s marine species in danger of extinction,” The Independent, 30 January 2015.

9 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

10 Emir Olivares Alonso, “El planeta ante un crisis que pone en riesgo la humanidad,” La Jornada, 4 June 2014; Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.

11 Heather Stewart, “Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change,’” The Guardian, 26 January 2013.

12 Suzanne Goldenberg, “UN: rate of emissions growth nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century,” The Guardian, 11 April 2014.

13 Tom Bawden, “Doomsday clock: We are closer to doom than at any time since the Cold War, say scientists,” The Independent, 22 January 2015.

14 Josh Rogin, “America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS,” The Daily Beast, 14 June 2014; Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson, “Death toll among Qatar’s 2022 World Cup workers revealed,” The Guardian, 23 December 2014.

15 Sophie Yeo, “Warsaw climate talks: nearly 3 in 10 countries not sending ministers,” The Guardian, 13 November 2013.

16 John Vidal, “Is the Lima deal a travesty of global climate justice?” The Guardian, 15 December 2014.

17 Red Contra la Represión, “Libertad a Cristian Rosendahl Guerrero y contra las agresiones a la Caravana Climatica,” Enlace Zapatista, 14 December 2014; David Hill, “Ecuador pursued China oil deal while pledging to protect Yasuni, papers show,” The Guardian, 19 February 2014.

18 Ibid.

19 Peter Stanchev, “From Chiapas to Rojava—more than just coincidences,” Kurdish Question, 6 February 2015.

20 Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (New York: Zone Books, 2014); Práxedis G. Guerrero, Artículos literarios y de combate: pensamientos; crónicas revolucionarias, etc. Placer Armado Ediciones, 2012 (1924), 28.

21 Elliott Hughes and Steve Ongerth, “Towards an Ecological General Strike: the Earth Day to May Day Assembly and Days of Direct Action,” IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, 30 March 2014. Available online:

http://ecology.iww.org/node/391. “Call for Climate Satyagraha!” Ecosocialist Horizons, 3 November 2014. Available online:

http://ecosocialisthorizons.com/2014/11/call-for-climate-satyagraha.

22 George Katsiaficas, “Toward a Global People’s Uprising” (2009). Available online: http://www.eroseffect.com/spanish/levantamiento_global.htm.

Publicación de Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución con Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica en México

May 3, 2015

CER portada

Durante la Sexta Feria Anarquista del Libro en México Distrito Federal que tuvo lugar el 25 y 26 de abril, salió a la luz pública la traducción al castellano de mi primer libro, Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución, que originalmente llevaba el título de Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (Institute for Anarchist Studies/AK Press, 2012).  Gracias a la colaboración de mi madre, quien tradujo el texto, y la voluntad de los compañer@s integrantes de Bloque Libertario y la casa editorial Revuelta Epistémica de publicar la obra, ya está disponible para l@s lectores hispanoparlantes.  La obra se puede pedir a través del sitio web de Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica.  Cuesta $60 pesos mexicanos el ejemplar.

El texto es casi lo mismo que el original, aunque incluye un prólogo nuevo que actualiza la situación ambiental y climatológica en el mundo, cubriendo los tres años que han transcurrido desde la fecha original de publicación.  A continuación, el resumen:

Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución sintetiza los avisos alarmantes procedentes tanto a partir de los análisis de l@s climatolog@s como acerca del estado actual de nuestro planeta Tierra que indican las consecuencias potencialmente terminales del cambio climático que el capitalismo ha impulsado hasta ahora.  A pesar de ello, esta obra reivindica la posibilidad de una salida de emergencia.  En su contemplación de este fenómeno catastrófico en sus vertientes climatológicas, políticas y sociales, Javier Sethness Castro promueve el cambio de nuestra trayectoria historica por medio del pensamiento crítico, y ofrece una visión regeneradora que se inspira en las tradiciones intelectuales ácratas.

“Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución es una disección rabiosa y urgente del sistema económico omnívoro actual, que despiadadamente está conviertiendo el planeta Tierra en un campo de aniquilación.”

— Jeffrey St. Clair, redactor de Counterpunch y de Caso Perdido: Barack Obama y la Política de Ilusión

At the 2015 NYC Anarchist Bookfair: Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

April 12, 2015

MAB MAB poster 1-1

I will be speaking at this year’s New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF), this Saturday, 18 April, at 3:30pm in the New School.  The topic of my comments will be “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  I hope to see you there!  A description follows:

“This talk will examine the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and biographies. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin share an enthusiasm for journalism and the written word in subverting bourgeois society and converge in their views on revolutionary armed struggle, in addition to having both experienced a sordidly tragic fate in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of European Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling I have suggested. With this presentation, I seek to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and then to present some reflections on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today, particularly in terms of ecology, feminism, and global anti-authoritarianism.”

NYC ABF

On the Life and Death of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón

March 13, 2015

Against Capital, Authority, and the Church”

This is part II of an interview with Claudio Lomnitz regarding his book, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014). Part I can be found here.


Continuing in the vein of the last question from the first part of our conversation, which had to do with the profoundly romantic love-relations, both platonic and sexual, that developed among the central figures of the Junta Organizadora of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and those closest to them, what role would you say art and
beauty played in this movement? In the chapter on Magón’s bohemian period, “La Bohème,” you observe that an aesthetic sensibility was intimately related to the humanistic and revolutionary sensitivities felt by the militants affiliated with this group. Indeed, such a philosophical connection between art and social revolution has been identified at different times by Herbert Marcuse and Albert Camus, among others. G. W. F. Hegel is known for his view that aesthetic heroism is seen in one’s commitment to the cause of changing the world.

Although it is tough to respond to a question like this for the entire movement, because there was a fair amount of variation amongst its participants, one can say for the movement as a whole relied crucially on reading and writing—and that beauty was a key reason to gain access to literacy. Ricardo was very explicit in his correspondence on the significance of words, of discussion and thought, and insistent on the fact that it was consciousness, not violence, that really did the work of Revolution. Yet there was quite a lot more beyond the question of revolution itself. First, the contents of Regeneración and The Border included a fair amount of art and beauty—emphasis on poetry, for instance, interest in graphic art, and the recognition of literary authors and works. This emphasis was also critical in the development of interpersonal affinities—a factor that was indispensable for the social life of the militant, as we saw in the discussion of love.

There was also a philosophical principle at stake, which was that the movement felt that humanity was being degraded by contemporary forms of exploitation and oppression, and that beauty was in fact key to the human vocation. So, for instance, in one letter written from Leavenworth to Ellen White, Ricardo wrote: “I could not help laughing a little—only a little—at your lovely naiveté. You say that it is superfluous to speak to me of Beauty, and you say this when it is Beauty what I love most.” More philosophically, again from Leavenworth, Ricardo wrote to the socialist activist Winnie Branstetter that “Man has wronged the Beautiful. Being the most intelligent animal, the one most favored by Nature, Man has lived in moral and material filth.”

I would say that beauty and art were key to the formation of the militants, in the socialization of the movement, in the definition of the movement’s goals, in the formation of spiritual affinities between strangers who could then reach out and support one another spontaneously, and in the philosophical attitude that led individuals to revolt against what might otherwise have been naturalized as “their lot.”

This is also, I think, one of the reasons why we see important militants of the group tending to artistic production at different moments of their lives. In some cases—Práxedis Guerrero, Juan Sarabia, or Santiago de la Hoz come to mind—poetic writing was happening at the height of their role as political organizers. In others—with this to some extent being the case of Ricardo’s plays, for instance—the turn to artistic production is an alternative space for communitarian organization and militancy, at a point in time when political effectiveness in the armed revolutionary struggle had declined significantly. But it is generally true that a great number of militants wrote poetry or found forms of artistic expression, even if it was simply to court a potential lover.

For those who are more familiar with a reductive account of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that prioritizes the reformist landowner Francisco I. Madero’s Anti-Reelectionist campaign against the Porfiriato—or at least, early on, the Maderista opposition to Díaz’s choice for vice-president in the planned 1910 election—it may come as a surprise to consider that the PLM organized a number of armed revolt in the border region during the lead-up to the Revolution in the hopes of catalyzing a generalized popular insurrection across Mexico. The first came in 1906, the second in 1908, and the third when the Revolution was very young, in December 1910, and then in Baja California during the first half of 1911. The most ambitious of these planned revolts was the first, slated to commemorate Independence Day in September 1906: with the central figures of the Junta Organizadora fully participating, the idea was to attack and take three major Mexican border towns—Ciudad Juárez, Nogales, and Jiménez. However, the machinations of the transnational spy network foiled the uprising, with part of the Junta being arrested and another part managing to escape capture. Díaz thereafter opted to have the U.S. State prosecute the revoltosos for their violation of neutrality laws which had been established during the Spanish-American War in exchange for his non-intervention in that conflict—with this being the very charge on which Magón and his comrades were imprisoned once again for three years in 1907, as retribution for their attempted insurrection. The 1908 revolt, an attack led by Práxedis Guerrero and Francisco Manrique on Las Palomas, Chihuahua, while the rest of the Junta was behind bars, seems to have been ill-advised, and a similar analysis could perhaps be applied to the December 1910 uprising in which Práxedis himself was killed.

In addition, in no small part due to this new jail sentence for many of the key figures of the Junta Organizadora, the PLM seems to have been relatively eclipsed in the years leading up to the Revolution itself by Maderismo, which provided a more incrementalist, familiar, and accommodating alternative to the one advanced by the PLM: for Francisco I. Madero (“Don Panchito”) stood for “law and order,” constitutionality, and bourgeois-democratic reform, in contrast to Magón’s stress on direct action, radical land redistribution, expropriation, and proletarian emancipation. You discuss the fascinating history whereby Madero approached Magón early on to offer him the position of vice-presidential candidate at his side—an offer which Magón readily rejected out of hand. Then, you show how Madero appropriated Díaz’s federal army to reign in and defeat the Liberal troops who had taken Mexicali and Tijuana in the months leading up to Díaz’s fall in 1911, and subsequently activated diplomatic channels with the U.S. to have the Junta and a number of PLM commanders imprisoned once again after Ricardo’s rejection—even if Madero had requested and received military support from the Liberals in good faith up to that point in the Revolution! Madero’s opportunistic traición (betrayal) clearly demonstrates his commitment to practicing authoritarian-Weberian statecraft, and it can explain the reason for which Regeneración came to refer to him variously as a “dictator,” a “second Porfirio Díaz,” and “a slave owner.” Can you expand upon the various dilemmas faced by the PLM in the early phase of the Revolution? You argue that, following its split with Madero, the PLM became a more marginal current in the revolutionary process, even as it became free to openly express its anarchist philosophy. Could it have been different?

Counterfactuals are always difficult. People will always debate whether Ricardo made a mistake in rebelling against Madero or not. At the very least, from a political point of view, his timing seemed ill-advised. Ricardo pronounced that Madero was a traitor while the revolt against Porfirio Díaz was still raging. This opened the group that was loyal to his position to being represented as traitors, paid for by the científicos, and doing Díaz’s dirty work for him. Many honest revolutionaries felt this way—including old PLM sympathizers like Esteban Baca Calderón and Manuel Diéguez, of Cananea vintage. Perhaps Ricardo felt that he would lose credibility if he supported Madero and then rebelled once Madero was in power. It’s hard to say. It is clear though that the Junta under Ricardo’s leadership had no effective military strategist, and its position with regard to Madero first, and then with regard to Huerta, Carranza, Villa and the rest of them, left the military leadership that it had in Mexico very vulnerable, since they always needed alliances, and these alliances opened them up to being labeled as traitors by the Junta in Los Angeles. So Ricardo’s decision on Madero in effect paved the way to a quick military defeat, but perhaps also to more lasting ideological influence.

Junta 1910

The Junta Organizadora of the PLM in 1910. From left: Anselmo Figueroa, Práxedis Guerrero, Ricardo Flores Magón (seated), Enrique Flores Magón, and Librado Rivera. Práxedis’ face has been superimposed onto that of another central figure in the PLM, most likely Antonio Villarreal, who broke from the group early on within the development of the Mexican Revolution. Besides the question of Villarreal’s defection to Francisco Madero, Ricardo held his rumored homosexuality in contempt. (Courtesy El Hijo del Ahuizote)

For Magón, armed struggle certainly was an important tactic, but given his view that the counterrevolution was concentrated in the three-headed hydra of capital, State, and clergy, social revolution to him was more expansive than mere insurrection—hence his belief in the need for agitational intellectual work to continue to inspire militant direct action, as through the issues of Regeneración. Magón’s decision after the failure of 1906 and the subsequent imprisonment of the Junta to prevent his brother Enrique from participating in the 1908 uprising and thereafter to emphasize the protection of the physical integrity of the PLM’s intellectuals led to conflict with Práxedis, who—perhaps in a more consistently anarchist way—felt he could not ask others to risk their lives in insurrection without doing the same. The twenty-eight year old militant died in the December 1910 revolt for having observed this belief, thus expiating his guilt for surviving Manrique, who was killed in the 1908 revolt—in a parallel to the fate of the EZLN’s Subcomandante Pedro, who similarly lost his life during the neo-Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994.

Intriguingly, given this difference of opinion on theory and practice, you discuss how Práxedis was more wary of the employment of hatred than Magón in the revolutionary struggle, with the former declaring in some of his final articles for Regeneración that “[d]espotism can be annihilated without hatred,” and that “[w]e are going off to a violent struggle without making violence our ideal and without dreaming of the execution of our tyrants as if that was the supreme victory of justice. Our violence is not justice; it is simply a necessity.” What was Magón’s take on hatred, in contrast? Beyond this, I will say that your assessment of Práxedis’ supposed youthful lack of comprehension of the “value of survival” potentially runs the risk of betraying ageism. Do you disagree?

Your charge of “ageism” against me is probably right. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there is a kind of paternal identification in my sympathy with Ricardo’s attempt to try to keep Práxedis away from battle.

Having said that, though, it is also true that I sympathize more with Práxedis than with Ricardo on the question of hatred. I think that Ricardo at a certain point was filled with a lot of bile. Many of his attacks on enemies, and on comrades who he came to see as enemies, are simply horrifying. One can understand why Ricardo hated when one considers the hardship and sacrifices that he endured, but that does not make his attitude attractive. Ricardo had many great virtues; his promotion of hatred was not one of them. Práxedis, by contrast, was more conscious of this problem, and one of the beauties of Práxedis is that he wrote his thoughts on this question down and published them.

Ricardo’s fanning of hatred was also predicated on his view of history, and not only on rancor. He was convinced that he was living at the cusp of world revolution, and he was by no means alone in that belief—particularly after the start of World War I. In some ways this sense might justify to a degree Ricardo’s continuous call for violence and even for murder, but I must say that this aspect of Ricardo is to me one of the most problematic. And one sees its negative effects in some of the people who were closest to him, as well as in loss of support for revolution by a people who were exhausted by continual and unending violence. This was an aspect of the Mexican situation that Ricardo did not live directly, but that is very relevant for understanding what Enrique and other Liberals experienced when they returned to Mexico after the revolution.

As the early phase of the Revolution developed and increasingly more former members of the PLM decided to join Madero, the transnational network supporting the “Mexican Cause” began to break down, as you detail—in part as a response to the virulent aggressivity Ricardo expressed to a number of his former comrades who would defect to Madero. One critical component of this uncomradely behavior has to do with Ricardo’s evident prejudice against non-heterosexuals: he reserved special ire for the lesbian Juana B. Gutiérrez de Mendoza, outing her publicly as a “degenerate” engaged in a “quarrel with Nature” following her break with the PLM, and Antonio I. Villarreal, who left the Junta for Madero and thereafter was accused of having had relations with a certain barber. Despite Gutiérrez de Mendoza’s “betrayal,” she would go on to help Zapata compose the Plan de Ayala (1911/1914) following her disillusionment with Maderista reformism, while Villareal the socialist served under Madero and received a promotion to lieutenant colonel for having done so, before founding a Mexico City version of Regeneración (which Magón considered “Degeneración” or “Regeneración burguesa”) and later charging Ricardo with having sold out.

Of course, the “charge” of homosexuality raised by Magón played into popular knowledge of the “Scandal of the 41,” which refers to a police raid of an upper-class ball in Mexico City in 1901 that involved the arrest of 41 young males who were found dancing with each other, half of them in drag. The implication is that the Porfiriato’s ruling class was effeminate, emasculated, and “degenerate,” whereas what was needed was masculine, masculinizing—and to a certain degree, patriarchal—regeneration! Unfortunately, with regard to the present, a similar dynamic seems to operate to an extent now in Mexico in terms of President Enrique Peña Nieto and Manuel Velasco Coello, State Governor of Chiapas. Certainly, these PRI potentates are horrid reactionaries, but it is known that one current of the opposition against them is expressed in terms of their being supposed putos, or gays (“fags”), in Magonist style. Several questions come to mind. First, to what degree does Ricardo’s homophobia mirror the prevailing prejudices of Mexican society at that time? It rather self-evidently contradicts the militant anti-authoritarian philosophy governing the PLM, which, being profoundly transgressive, “confronted the status quo and sought to create an alternative to it,” as you write. Furthermore, how much do you think Mexican society has progressed on questions of sexual and gender diversity in the century since the Mexican Revolution—no thanks to Magón, unfortunately?

It is probably impossible to gauge the depth or extent of “homophobia” during Magón’s day. The term itself did not exist and, as Carlos Monsivais once pointed out, the affair of the 41 was Mexico’s first homosexual scandal, and it happened in 1901. So my response to the first part of your question is tentative—but here it is: I have the impression that Ricardo was more intensively “homophobic” than many of his contemporaries, and I think that he was that for a couple of different reasons. The first was to do with the idea of regeneration itself—a notion that constantly relied on the view that Mexico was prostrated, humiliated, enslaved, and so on. These ideas all involved undermining virility. And indeed “virility” was a key value for the movement. This does not automatically lead to homosexual panic, but it can play in as a factor, and I think that for Ricardo, it did.

A second factor in my view is Ricardo’s extensive prison experience. Homosexual relations were extremely common in prison, and this was well-known in Mexico. Mexico’s chief positivist criminologist, Carlos Roumagnac, had published a study of criminal types based on extensive interviews in Belem Prison—one of the places where Ricardo had been held—and claimed that almost all of the prison inmates had sex with one another. Antonio Villarreal’s description of the Junta’s experience in federal prison in Arizona also dwelled on this point. It is possible that Ricardo developed an aversion to sexual advances that he’d been subjected to in prison, or that he developed a view concerning homosexuality and weakness, or that he himself was a homosexual and was terrified to be “outed.” We cannot say from the historical documents, but I think that we can say that experiences in prison were relevant.

Finally, the third factor is the political utility of the accusation. In the press, Ricardo was constantly on the attack, and he tended to use whatever he could to defile his enemies. The accusation of homosexuality was useful, and he used it—I would say not only that he used it, but that he indulged.

As for changes with present-day Mexico, Mexico has had tremendous transformations in gender and sexual relations—tremendous. Even in my life-time, let alone with regard to what was happening in the Porfiriato. Now, ideas of homosexual conspiracy, and of homosexual conspiracy in the elite, like anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, are still common and commonly indulged. In this regard, Ricardo was much less pernicious than contemporary conspiracy theorists, because he did not believe that Mexico was in the hands of a homosexual ring. I think that the fact that Ricardo was for the most part anti-nationalistic spared him from some of the worst aspects of conspiracy theories like the kind to which you refer, that tend to imagine the nation as pure, and then to posit its exploiters as a cabal of ill-born perverts. Ricardo’s homophobia was also directed to people who he saw as traitors, but to traitors of a Cause rather than traitors of a “pure” nation.

Given, as you say, that the anarchist revolution “was the most radical revolution that the Enlightenment spawned,” I was curious if you have any comments to share about the influence postmodernism and poststructuralism have had on the anarchist tradition in recent decades, as in the concept of “post-structuralist anarchism.” As you know, both these schools of thought reject the Enlightenment wholesale.

I don’t know enough about these tendencies to comment, but I think that there is good reason why postmodernism and post-structuralism would have a serious interest in anarchism. On the one hand, Michel Foucault’s criticism of the State and of sovereignty can easily lead to the exploration of anarchism as an alternative space; on the other, postmodernism’s rejection of the grand récit of progress provides ample space for the valorization of the peasantry, of artisans, and of modes of life that are distinct from the old Marxist romance with the industrial proletariat. Those connections were always extremely important to the anarchists, who were not at all committed to uprooting the peasantry and transforming it into industrial labor.

When I say that anarchism was the most radical current of the Enlightenment, I mean this especially with regard to the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” They took this further than anyone else.

Importantly, you observe that vegetarianism was an innovative social practice taken up by some members of the PLM and U.S.-based supporters of the Mexican Cause: namely, Práxedis Guerrero and Elizabeth Trowbridge, a young Boston heiress sympathetic to socialism who made a substantial proportion of her inheritance available to the struggle. Presumably, as you write, she and Práxedis adopted vegetarianism as an affirmation of their love for animals and a repudiation of the cruelty and suffering unnecessarily visited on them—such that their keen rejection of social injustice among humans was extended also to the animal and natural worlds. Perhaps they were also influenced in this decision by the examples of the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy and Élisée Reclus, theVegetarian Communard,” which were in turn echoed by the vegetarian clubs that arose in the Spanish anarchist cultural revolution as well as among the Sarvodaya vegetarian-anarchists.1 In a parallel to the question of LGBTQ emancipation, to what extent do you see progress or regression in terms of the struggle for animal rights and liberation at present?

Yes to your comment on Tolstoy and Reclus. I think that the question of animals and animal rights is a sign of deep progress, and extends much further today than it did at the time of Elizabeth or Práxedis, because the question of the environment and of our responsibility as subjects no longer of human history, but of the history of life on the planet, is today of a different order than it was then. Remember that the Mexican Revolution occurred before the existence of the atomic bomb or of atomic energy. The sense that humans could actually destroy the planet was not yet there, even though there were ideas of conservation and concerns with destruction of environments. Frances Noel, one of the American radicals that I write about, was an environmentalist and supporter of conservation in California. More generally, the question of health, fresh air, and environment was part of the discourse not only of hygienists and eugenicists, but also of labor organizers and urban reformers at that time. So I don’t mean to say that environmental issues were absent then, but simply that they were of a different order. Today the environmental struggle is of the very highest priority. It was not then. This makes the vegetarianism of a Práxedis or an Elizabeth all the more interesting, relevant, and attractive today.

With reference to the Baja California campaign of 1911—the PLM’s most famous military struggle, which resembled a fiasco more than any successful revolution—you note a number of problematics: for one, that only an estimated 10 percent of the insurrectos who captured Tijuana were Mexicans, with the remainder being Wobblies from the U.S. and foreign soldiers of fortune. Secondly, this material dynamic led to the awkward situation whereby more experienced Anglo volunteers were elected as officers—in accordance with anarchist-democratic principles—to wage war against Mexicans, as in the case of the British aristocrat Carl Ap Rhys Pryce, who promptly announced the independence of Baja California following Díaz’s resignation in Ciudad Juárez in May 1911. Juxtaposed with the clownish venture capitalist Dick Ferris’ proposal for outright colonization of the peninsula in the interest of U.S. capital, Pryce’s move—which was not supported by the Junta in Los Angeles or by Liberals and Wobblies in the field—inexorably led many Mexican observers to conclude that the Liberal campaign in reality sought to facilitate the annexation of Baja to the U.S., as in the concept of filibusterismo, in a parallel to the previous loss of Texas and the entire Southwest after the war waged by James K. Polk against Mexico some sixty-five years prior.

This framing of the Baja campaign immediately served to delegitimize the Liberal efforts there, and furthermore aided in the ease with which Madero employed the federal troops whose command he had inherited against the PLM—with Mexicali and Tijuana falling within a month of Díaz’s abdication. While the Junta felt Baja was but one among several fronts, or puntos rojos, for libertarian upheaval in the country, this association made between the PLM and secessionism may well have marred its relationship with Mexican public opinion. Do you consider Ricardo’s decision to remain physically aloof from the Baja operation to have been a mistake, or believe that he was insufficiently forceful in distancing the Liberal campaign from the charges of filibusterism raised against it, his stress on direct action and revolutionary expropriation notwithstanding? In part, as you observe, this problem is inherent to the Junta’s anarchism, which was not concerned with “national integrity,” as patriots and statists are.

This is a difficult question to respond to, because we don’t actually know what Ricardo and the Junta was thinking, so my response is very tentative. It is clear that in 1911 Ricardo did not think or believe that the United States was close to a revolution (a notion that he might have thought in 1917), but if he felt that the Wobblies and Socialists in the Southwest were in fact strongly increasing in force and might be building to a position where they might aspire to take power, he might have been indifferent as to whether Baja stayed in Mexico, became independent, or was annexed to the United States.

My impression is that he may not have cared all that much if Baja had become an independent republic, but that he would have been adamantly opposed to annexation by the United States at that time. This is all speculation, you understand. According to Ricardo, he rejected both alternatives and wanted the peninsula in Mexico where it belonged—but this was after he was accused of filibusterism. I certainly don’t think that he cared what proportion of troops were Mexicans and which were foreign. The struggle was for liberation from economic and political exploitation, not for national independence. Ricardo was for extending Mexican nationality to foreigners who participated in the Revolution.

Should Ricardo have gone to Baja California to lead the fight? From the viewpoint of the fighters who sympathized with the Liberals, yes. At the very least, they should have been in more direct contact. The Junta tended to use John Kenneth Turner and Antonio de Pío Araujo as intermediaries, and the troops in Mexicali and Tijuana were never visited by Ricardo, or by Anselmo Figueroa, or Enrique, who were the senior members of the Junta then.

But on the other hand, Ricardo and the Junta always viewed Baja as one front, and not as their principal goal. In this respect, it made sense for Ricardo not to go there to lead the fight, because Baja was extremely isolated then, and he could not have led a propaganda effort comparable to what he could do from Los Angeles. And yet, the Junta was all imprisoned and sent to McNeil Island in Washington State after the fall of Tijuana. So it is possible that they would have been able to do more from Baja California after all.

Faced with the progression of the Revolution and particularly the coup d’etat of February 1913 led by General Victoriano Huerta that killed Madero and his vice president Pino Suárez—a coup which the U.S. Embassy helped to coordinate, in fact, as you show—Regeneración reacted by claiming all politicians to be the same, whether they be dictators, bourgeois reformists, or generals. Yet you suggest that this ultra-left type of analysis was not shared by the Mexican people at large. Could you speak, then, to the tensions between the “vanguardist” anti-authoritarianism of the PLM and the reality of the popular sentiments regarding the course of the Revolution, particularly in terms of the fate of Madero?

Maligning Madero was a bad political mistake that showed lack of regard for popular sentiment. Or maybe, as you say, it simply reflected the degree to which this was a vanguardist movement that saw its role as educating the people and weaning them from deception. Although by the time of the coup Madero’s popularity was very much in question, at least in some areas of Mexico—certainly in Mexico City—his assassination was deeply unpopular. Jibes in Regeneración against Madero and his wife and family at the time of their assassination were deeply insensitive, and might have guaranteed that the movement would remain marginal as a political force, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the movement was so deeply marginalized in Mexico by then in any case. Recall that at the time of the coup, the Junta was in prison in Washington, and many of the old militants of the PLM had left its ranks and joined other movements—often as those movements’ radical fringe.

Beyond the tactical blunder, there seems to me to have also been insufficient appreciation for liberal-democratic reform by the Junta, which is why they viewed Huerta and Madero as being the same. It is true that they were pretty similar from the point of view of economic policies. In fact, Huerta even made some concessions to the union movement in order to buttress some of his popular support. But the fact of parliamentary democracy was more of a value than the PLM recognized, in my opinion, including for the future of the labor movement.

What can you say about the relationship between the PLM and other insurgent movements opposed to Madero and his successors Huerta and Venustiano Carranza: that is to say, Emiliano Zapata and the Ejército Libertador del Sur, as well as Pancho Villa and his División del Norte? You observe that Zapata sympathized with the PLM’s September 1911 manifesto, and he would seem to have consciously taken the concept of “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Freedom”) directly from the Liberals, with the practical manifestations of Zapatista strategy arguably advancing in consonance with Magón’s call for generalized and decentralized armed revolt designed to expropriate the means of production. However, the situation would seem to have been rather different in the case of Villa.

I think that it is fair to say that Zapatismo got its main ideas from the Liberals, and that Zapatismo ended up being the best example of the sort of politics that Ricardo was advocating for. Obviously, ideology was not everything—and much of what Zapatismo did responded directly to conditions on the ground, rather than to ideology, so I don’t think that the PLM can take all of the credit, or all of the flak, for what the Zapatistas did and did not do. But their ideological influence was very real, and their points of confluence were many. The problem of the caudillo and of personalismo was a concern for the PLM—probably not shared by Zapatistas overall—but because Zapatismo did not really aspire to take power nationally, this concern was in the end secondary.

The PLM had a terrible opinion of Villa. This was in large part due to Villa’s role fighting the PLM during the Madero revolution, and to the fact that he was directly responsible for butchering many of their comrades. But differences with Villa also went beyond that sphere—to Ricardo, Villa was a typical politiquillo: corrupt, blood-thirsty, self-aggrandizing, in the pay of the Americans at first, and of the highest bidder after that…

The fact that PLM opinion on Villa was so negative, though, does not mean that there were no points of coincidence with this movement, or with Carrancismo, for that matter. The PLM’s 1906 platform had pretty broad influence in the Mexican revolutionary process. Because of Villa’s personal animosity to the PLM, there weren’t a lot of former PLM militants in his movement, but there were many prominent people in Carranza’s camp for a while, including people like Antonio Villarreal and Juan Sarabia, who were relevant players for the agrarian ideas of that movement.

A century now after the Revolution, do you see any movements taking from the example of Magón and the PLM? In an April 1994 interview, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of the EZLN explicitly tied Zapatismo to the thought of Ricardo, among others, while in Rojava a number of parallel developments taken up by the Kurds have seen the flowering of “democratic confederalism” and anarchistic self-management during the past few years. Self-evidently, as well, Magón remains a key reference for the movimiento social in Mexico to this day.

Ricardo Flores Magón was one of the few ideologues of stature in the Mexican Revolution. Other important figures, like Luis Cabrera or José Vasconcelos, for instance, were probably much better political analysts than Ricardo, but they were not visionaries, in the sense of imagining a truly alternative society. Hence, despite all of their shortcomings, Ricardo’s thought and experience return constantly. What is more, the transnational, feminist, anti-racist and anti-nationalist component is unique for the Mexican Revolution, as well as being a source of inspiration to any contemporary Mexican-American social movement worth its salt, starting with the Chicano movement in the 1970s. So PLM influence returns in social movements, just as you say, and it also often happens with individuals as well—I know that I was impacted by Ricardo’s writings when I first read some of them, when I was 17 (years ago!) and yet I knew very little about the Mexican Revolution then, and did not have any special interest in the subject.

As with many other complicated figures, there are people who claim inspiration from Ricardo but who have a politics that is not very compatible with his. This deserves to be noted, certainly, but the deeper point is that there are movements today looking to formulate various alternative forms of self-management, democracy and equality that have found—and will continue to find—much to learn from Ricardo’s thought, and from the collective experience of the PLM and of their friends and allies.

RFM Pics_6

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón and Librado Rivera were imprisoned during the First Red Scare for violating neutrality laws and the Espionage Act. This would be Ricardo’s place of death during the early morning of 21 November 1922, whether due to conscious medical neglect or outright murder. (Courtesy John Murray Papers)

The ascendancy of Huerta in 1913 provoked a crisis in Texas and the rest of the border region which would ultimately prove fatal to Magón. In response to Huerta’s coup, Jesús María Rangel, a respected Liberal commander, organized an expeditionary force to cross into Chihuahua, do battle with the Carrancistas, and progress south to deal with Huerta himself, but they were forcibly prevented from doing so by Texas Rangers who met them at the border, fired on them, and arrested the revolutionaries who survived the shoot-out. The PLM immediately took up the cause of the “Texas Martyrs” and the surviving political prisoners. Then, in 1915, a Mexican uprising in Texas following the Plan de San Diego was met with a fierce, all-out reprisal against Mexicans located in the state: thousands were shot, lynched, or otherwise summarily executed by white-supremacist gangs. Such atrocities led Magón to declare in Regeneración that it was not the San Diego rebels but their executioners who should be shot. It was this declaration, together with Ricardo’s apt designation of Carranza as “another Díaz” and another “lackey of the White House” who would work to “subject the Mexican proletarian and turn him [sic] over to the foreign and domestic capitalist class, hand and foot,” as well as the accompanying call he made for Mexicans fighting in Carranza’s army to turn their guns on the officer class which landed him and Enrique once again in jail in 1916, until Emma Goldman’s efforts to raise bail gave them a temporary reprieve.

Then, with the coming of the Red Scare, the Magón brothers were tried and convicted yet again in 1918. Ricardo was sentenced to twenty-one years’ imprisonment, thanks to a new charge of violation of the Espionage Act, which had just been passed the year before. Such a sentence amounted to capital punishment for Ricardo, whose health was already declining. In point of fact, two years after coming to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, where he had requested medical assistance no fewer than 22 times, Magón died of a heart attack. Ricardo’s death came just days after he was transferred to a different cell farther away from Librado Rivera, who was also interned in Leavenworth on the same charge as Magón. While there is no question that Venustiano Carranza ordered Zapata’s assassination in Chinameca, Morelos in 1919, it is less clear that Magón’s end was due to outright execution rather than conscious medical neglect. Do you think Ricardo was murdered?

I myself don’t think that Ricardo was murdered, but probably we will never know for sure. I do believe that there was deliberate medical negligence with regard to Ricardo’s serious condition, and that his death might have been postponed or averted had he been given proper medical attention, but I don’t believe that he was strangled, as the theory goes.

We know for sure that one of the theories of his “murder” is false—as I show in the book—and we know for sure about the medical negligence. Whether Ricardo might have been murdered by a guard in any case is possible, and I am sure that there will be many who subscribe to that theory.

The reasons why I don’t think that he was murdered are, first, that Librado Rivera did not say that Ricardo was murdered in a letter that he wrote to a comrade from prison telling the tale of Ricardo’s death, at a time when Librado did not know what was being said outside the prison. After Librado’s release from Leavenworth, he did subscribe to the theory of Ricardo’s murder, but by that point the productivity of that tale was clear, and going against it would have been costly and unnecessary since, in a deeper sense, Ricardo was of course killed by his oppressors.

I also don’t believe that Ricardo was murdered because I don’t think that the Americans saw him as such a threat at that point. The Obregón government was willing to repatriate him to Mexico. If Obregón did not see Ricardo as a threat, why would the US government? Remember that Ricardo was practically blind by the time that he died, and in very poor health. Finally, Ricardo’s death was an embarrassment to the warden of the prison, who had repeatedly claimed that the prisoner’s health was good. It earned him a direct inquiry from the Attorney General. So I don’t see much motivation there either.

My sense is that the story of Ricardo’s assassination was a way of figuring and expressing the potency of his subversive ideas, and a way of pointing to the repression to which he was subjected by the American government. Ricardo’s ideas were indeed powerful. And he was indeed condemned to life in prison because of his resistance to the draft and to World War I, and because of his adscription to anarchism. All of that is true. I just don’t think that he was murdered by the guard, that’s all.

While the twilight of Magón’s life was full of pathos, given the decline of Regeneración, the poverty and marginalization experienced by the Junta members prior to imprisonment in Leavenworth, and the estrangement with Enrique, you make clear that Ricardo was encouraged in the end by an optimistic, almost Hegelian sense that the Mexican and Russian Revolutions illuminated the way forward for humanity, hearkening the beginning of a universal social transformation that would overthrow capital and all authority. In a letter written in Leavenworth less than a year before his death, indeed, Ricardo expressed his certainty regarding the “bright future which is [now] opened to the human race,” and he even identifies this as his “consolation.” A little less than a century on, we see that the multidimensional crisis of the capitalist world-order persists precisely because the revolutions of the twentieth century failed to displace the reactionary enemies identified by Magón from the stage of world history. In light of the intimate and profound knowledge of social revolution you have collected and presented to us in The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, do you have any concrete suggestions to make to anarchists and other radicals today?

Thank you for this question—it is not one that I had dared to ask myself. As long as I’m not taken as some sort of Delphian oracle, here’s my response. I think that the most powerful aspect of this story and experience is the idea of the centrality of mutual aid. Also, I believe that the movement’s feminism, its punctilious resistance to nationalism, its commitment to love and to art and beauty, and its criticism of the State and of organized religion are all exemplary. I do not have as high an opinion of the movement’s embrace of violence or of its revolutionary theory, which was simply wrong.

Concerning the latter, Ricardo believed that each town and village in Mexico replicated a fundamental struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, and that a revolutionary spark had the power to explode the whole tinder-box. In this sense, he can be seen as a precursor to foquismo and Che Guevara—with some of the same limitations as that theory, too. What Ricardo did not visualize though is that revolutionary processes are civil wars, and that in civil wars all of the fractures of society become politically productive and material for political exploitation. The dynamic of war was not, as Ricardo imagined, a kind of purgatorial fire that would end up cleansing society of its ills and giving birth to pure communism. Instead, civil war proved to be a process wherein coalitions were formed, leaderships emerged, and the life and freedom of the best people were bargained with. There were major gains in the process, to be sure, but the costs were huge, and the results were not what the PLM hoped for, so much so that many of its militants continued to struggle, and continue to rise up in arms until they were finally shot. I give the example of Lázaro Alanís at the very start of the book, who rose up in arms first against Porfirio Díaz, then against Madero, then against Huerta, then against Carranza, and was finally executed after participating in the De la Huerta rebellion against Obregón.

I don’t think much of Bakuninist theories of violence. But to my mind there’s deep philosophical truth in much of the doctrines of Kropotkin and others who believe in the primacy of mutual aid, and I also feel that there are communications media and organizational possibilities in the present that make at least some anarchist ideals more viable today than they were in the early twentieth century. Of course, new theorists will be necessary to put these resources into play in a way that is different from those that were tried in that earlier generation.

Thank you again, Javier, for offering me this conversation, which has given me much to reflect on.

1 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 145-6, 180, 229.

“Murió por la anarquía”

March 13, 2015

Sobre el Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón

Versión original publicada el 27 de febrero de 2015 en Counterpunch.  Elaborada por el entrevistador y María A. Castro, la traducción fue publicada el 12 de marzo de 2015 en el Portal Libertario OACA.

Primera parte

Profesor Lomnitz, agradezco mucho su voluntad de hablar conmigo acerca de su nueva biografía colectiva, El Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón (The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014).  Igual le quiero agradecer a mi compañero Allen Kim por haberme recomendado este libro tan maravilloso, obra que presenta un examen íntimo y amplio de la vida del anarquista mexicano Ricardo Flores Magón (1874-1922) y de sus compañeros más cercanos—principalmente, sus hermanos Jesús (mayor) y Enrique (menor), Librado Rivera y Práxedis G. Guerrero, todos integrantes de la Junta Organizadora del Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM).  Como resultado de su compromiso durante toda su vida a la causa de la revolución social, Ricardo estuvo encarcelado en calidad de preso político durante gran parte de su vida: de hecho, pasó más de la quinta parte del curso de su vida en la cárcel.  Murió en noviembre del 1922 tras dos años de encarcelamiento en la Prisión Federal de Leavenworth en Kansas por haber hecho un llamamiento a sus compañer@s mexican@s a alzarse en armas en contra de l@s blanc@s racistas en Tejas y del ejército reaccionario de Venustiano Carranza.  Podemos afirmar de esta manera que tanto la vida de Magón, como la de sus compañer@s estuvo colmada de Eros y Thanatos, o revolución y represión.

Ante todo, Profesor Lomnitz, me gustaría que hablara acerca del título que eligió Ud. para su obra.  Su idea era hacer referencia al “retorno” procesional del cuerpo de Magón a México Distrito Federal tras su muerte en Leavenworth, o tal vez desea implicar que hoy en día se ve un resurgimiento o hasta una regeneración del espíritu contenido en la alternativa anarco-comunista del PLM, como una aparición shakespeareana o hegeliana—le revenant (“la fantasma,” o literalmente “lo que vuelve”) de la que habla Jacques Derrida en Espectros de Marx?

Quisiera comenzar agradeciéndote por haber tomado el tiempo y las dificultades para leer El Retorno de Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón. La labor de l@s lectores es crítica y fundamental, nunca fácil.  Gracias especialmente por eso.

Como dijiste, el título está lleno de sentido.  En primer lugar, se refiere al retorno de Ricardo a México (como cadáver tras su muerte), lo cual implícitamente plantea la cuestión del significado de su exilio: ¿por qué Ricardo volvió como cuerpo venerado?  ¿Cuál fue la razón de la contradicción entre ausencia física y presencia espiritual en México?  Se podría decir que el título representa un reconocimiento de la cuestión histórica central del libro, es decir, la relación entre ideología y exilio en la Revolución Mexicana.

También hay un segundo aspecto que resumiste mucho mejor en tu pregunta de lo que yo podría haber hecho. Se trata de la relevancia y de la sensibilidad del movimiento con respecto al apoyo mútuo, tanto como proyecto político como imperativo biológico.  Dada esta relevancia, ya existen formas de anarquía y organización social comunista en el horizonte de la posibilidad, y el personaje de Ricardo sigue conteniendo ese poder fantástico/fantasmagórico al que haces referencia.  Sí, el poder de una aparición shakespeareana.

El Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón es un estudio importante de las dimensiones específicamente transnacionales de la Revolución Mexicana—como explica Ud. en la introducción al libro, donde dice Ud. que los esfuerzos organizativos revolucionarios de los anarquistas de la Junta Organizadora del PLM y de sus colegas socialistas, tant@s mexican@s como estadunidenses, constituyeron la “primera red de solidaridad entre l@s mexican@s y l@s estadunidenses.”  Usted agrega que esta historia es “la historia de una red transnacional revolucionaria que colectivamente se pensaba a sí misma como portadora de un ideal inspirado en la novela de Don Quijote, una historia de hombres y mujeres que dedicaron su tiempo a leer libros y a actuar de acuerdo con sus lecturas. Sus actos se consideraron excéntricos.  Como en el caso de Don Quijote, su actuación parecía estar fuera de lugar—ser utópica—o con más precisión, fuera del tiempo.” Le pido el favor de explicar de qué manera estos personajes fueron percibidos como loc@s, quijotesco@s y utopic@s.

Sus acciones se consideraron excéntricas debido a que en realidad así fueron, tal como explico en el libro.  En este milieu había un elemento de revolución sexual y familiar que fue muy transgresivo y que se manifestó de varias maneras.  Elizabeth Trowbridge, una bostoniana de dinero, se casó con Manuel Sarabia, un revoltoso mexicano encarcelado, y pagó su fianza antes de convencerle de huir junto con ella a Inglaterra para evitar su condena judicial.  Ricardo Flores Magón vivió en pecado con María Brousse y consideró a la hija de ella como suya propia.  Enrique Flores Magón escribió acerca de la ignominia de la brutalización y el trato despectivo, abusivo y controlador por parte de los esposos a sus esposas. De manera similar, Emma Goldman fue una gran defensora de la utilización de métodos anticonceptivos, posición que Enrique y Ricardo apoyaban en Regeneración.  Naturalmente, a los integrantes del PLM no se les permitió casarse por la Iglesia Católica.  En los Estados Unidos, much@s de l@s radicales mexican@s fundaron hogares híbridos, compuestos por familiares y no-familiares.  Este fenómeno se observa igualmente en el hogar—tipo comuna—que ocuparon Enrique, Ricardo, y sus familias, junto con varias otras familias, en las afueras de Los Ángeles. De hecho, algun@s de los aliad@s estadunidenses y europe@s, como el socialista Job Harriman, crearon comunas agriculturales en los Estados Unidos.  Además de la existencia de este nivel íntimo de “locura,” hubo un nivel político de excentricidad: la clandestinidad, el trabajo de propaganda, las huelgas, el apoyo a revueltas armadas, y más.

No creo que este grupo se autoconsiderara utópic@—sino que al contrario, sus participantes creían que había posibilidades reales e inmediatas para la institución de sus ideales, particularmente tras el inicio de la Revolución Mexicana, durante la Primera Guerra Mundial y en el periodo inicial de la Revolución Rusa.  Esta idea de las posibilidades inmanentes decayó después.  Ricardo ya no vivía en ese entonces, pero Enrique sí continuaba vivo.  Ya en las décadas de 1940 y 1950, Enrique consideró que sus ideales libertarios anteriores no se podrían realizar en el presente.

Por supuesto que much@s contemporane@s del PLM creían que sus ideas ácratas eran utópicas, entre ell@s integrantes de renombre del PLM e incluso miembros de la Junta.  Militantes tales como Juan Sarabia y Antonio I. Villarreal, quienes participaron activamente en la Revolucion Mexicana pero creyeron en el incrementalismo y en la participación en la política liberal-democrática mexicana.  Así que la cuestión de si su estrategia fue utópica o realista es una cuestión a debatir.

En cuanto a la cuestión de que sí estos personajes fueron quijotescos o no, es algo asimismo complejo.  Sin duda, todos los que etiquetan a este grupo como “precursores de la Revolución Mexicana” los consideran quijotesc@s, en el sentido de anacrónic@s—antes de su tiempo, en su lucha por algo que aún no se podía lograr.  Claro que éste no fue el propósito de los integrantes del PLM.  Hubo otra manera en la cual los integrantes del PLM podrían haberse visto a sí mismos como quijotesc@s ya que pasaron sus vidas leyendo y actuaron de acuerdo con los principios de sus lecturas.  No fueron lectores pasivos.  Además, dieron todo y renunciaron a todo a favor del mundo que estaban imaginando y creando.  En este sentido, creo que varios de estos militantes se habrían identificado con el Quijote por propia voluntad.

Ud. afirma que ningun@ de l@s militantes estadunidenses que colaboraban con la “Causa mexicana” sentía atracción o conexión con México, con su gente, con su historia o con su política, antes de sumarse a los esfuerzos del PLM en contra de Porfirio Díaz en 1908, y ¡Ud. sostiene también que ningun@ de ell@s hablaba el castellano hasta ese momento! En su consideración y reflexión tanto sobre las denuncias, expresadas en Regeneración, de la terrible esclavitud impuesta y administrada por el Porfiriato como sobre las dimensiones feministas, proletarias, cristianas, cosmopolitas e internacionalistas que parecen haber contribuido al apoyo que est@s norteñ@s dedicaron a la causa— incluyendo los enlaces creados entre el PLM y l@s Obreros Industriales del Mundo, Emma Goldman y Alexander Berkman—cree Ud. que la participación de tod@s ell@s en la lucha refleja una manifestación particular de la lucha mundial por la justicia social?

Yo diría eso sin duda, y tod@s ell@s también lo dirían, probablemente sin excepción alguna.

Como explica Ud., el PLM y sus colaboradores estadunidenses establecieron un paralelo importante entre Díaz y el osificado despotismo ruso, liderado por el Zar Romanov Nicolas II.  Este paralelo crítico se iluminó a través de las investigaciones impulsadas por John Kenneth Turner en referencia a la “Siberia tropical” de México, la Peninsula del Yucatán, donde cientos de miles de mayas, yaquis y corean@s fueron esclavizad@s.  Las investigaciones de Turner, publicadas originalmente en American Magazine en 1909 y después en el libro Barbarous Mexico (1910), impactaron de manera importante a lectores estadunidenses, porque estas investigaciones mostraron “la tradición reaccionaria estadunidense de la esclavitud en su penetración y expansion hacia el sur bajo la protección oculta de una dictadura apoyada con entusiasmo por el gobierno y capital estadunidense,” y al mismo tiempo revelaron otra manifestación de la aniquilación de la América indígena—otro Camino de las Lágrimas acontecido en el destino lamentable de los yaquis deportad@s, desplazad@s y masacrad@s.  La lectura del capitulo,“El Pueblo fue el Sacrificio,” me recordó al libro Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World de Mike Davis (2000).  ¿Podría Ud. hablar acerca del significado de la obra de Turner en cuanto a la campaña de cambio de opinión pública mundial con relación a México, frente a la narrativa hegemónica avanzada en ese tiempo por medios de comunicación tales como el San Francisco Chronicle y Los Angeles Times, cuyos propietarios eran entonces William Randolph Hearst y Harrison Gray Otis respectivamente, quienes eran asimismo beneficiarios de 2,5 millones de hectáreas de territorio en Chihuahua y Baja California que Díaz les había vendido—e impulsar un analisis que afirma que el Porfiriato fue el facilitador de una “colonia esclavista-capitalista”?

Porfirio Díaz contaba con una prensa excelente en los Estados Unidos. En parte, esto tuvo que ver con el éxito innegable de los primeros años de su dictadura, cuando creó una coalición que permitió que el gobierno federal mexicano reprimiera a los bandidos de carretera, cubriera su deuda externa, importara capital en cantidades masivas, construyera ferrocarriles y consolidara el mercado doméstico.  También estos éxitos tuvieron que ver con la gran entrada del capital estadunidense a México durante su larga administración.  El historiador John Hart nos ha mostrado que México fue el recipiente de más del 60% de las inversiones estadunidenses en el extranjero, así que defender a Díaz era defender los intereses estadunidenses.  De manera similar, hubo una campaña deliberada y activa que Díaz impulsó para atraer una opinión favorable desde los Estados Unidos, campaña que incluyó la concesión de territorios masivos a un par de magnates: Hearst y Otis, como mencionaste.

La cuestión de cambiar la opinión pública estadunidense con relación a Diaz y México fue una demanda algo exigente.  Una parte de esa transformación dio inicio gracias a los esfuerzos de l@s mexican@s en los Estados Unidos, incluyendo l@s PLMistas, pero no solo ell@s.  Parte de la transformación se dio debido a los sentimientos de l@s estadunidenses en cuanto a la injusticia en México—por ejemplo, existieron cambios de opinión que favorecieron la causa de l@s yaquis en la zona fronteriza de Arizona.  John Kenneth Turner merece ser reconocido por su labor.

En primer lugar, John pudo publicar sus artículos en la prensa de corriente dominante—en el American Magazine, publicación que solía hacer periodismo de investigación—en vez de publicar en la prensa socialista, que en ese entonces tenía muchos lectores, pero que de cierta manera hubiera implicado “predicar a l@s convers@s.”  Él lo pudo hacer así por haberse enfocado tan claramente y de modo tan conmovedor en el problema de la esclavitud y de la destrucción de l@s indigenas.  Y también porque lo pudo hacer a través de periodismo directo y en primera persona.  Fue un gran éxito.  Él tuvo otros éxitos también, pero éste fue clave en su papel de presentar la situación en México como algo escandaloso.

Hablando acerca de la historia familiar de los hermanos Flores Magón, Ud. nos muestra que Enrique, en su autobiografía, intenta presentar su línea paterna ancestral de nobles aztecas como instauradora de un “comunismo primitivo” entre l@s indigenas campesinos mazatecparlantes de Oaxaca que habían sido conquistados por ellos anteriormente.  Su versión de la historia familiar podría evidentemente representar un método de aliviar su ansiedad en cuanto a sus origenes relativamente priviligiados, aunque no parece ser que Teodoro Flores era tan rico como los padres de Práxedis, considerando en particular la compulsión del jóven Ricardo de entrar al mercado laboral como sirviente doméstico a principios de los 1890s, tras las muerte de Teodoro y la encarcelación de Jesús por haber escrito artículos críticos del Porfiriato. De manera similar, Ud. nos enseña que Enrique oculta la afinidad entre Díaz y su padre, y ni menciona la participación de su progenitor en la “Revolución de Tuxtepec” que instaló a Díaz como dictador. Enrique prefería recordar el servicio militar que rindió Teodoro en defensa de la soberanía mexicana y el liberalismo, personificadas en la persona de Benito Juárez y la Constitución de 1857, en contra de los invasores franceses imperialistas y sus aliados mexicanos reaccionarios, quienes de hecho vengaron la resistencia heroica de Teodoro cuando mataron a su padre, a su cuñada y a su esposa en un emboscada cobarde contra la hacienda familiar en 1865.  ¿Ve Ud. la memoria selectiva de Enrique nada más como una expresión normal de la represión socio-psicológica entre las familias, que es aún más aguda en el caso de los hermanos revolucionarios Flores Magón?  Otro ejemplo similar, aunque sea mas desagradable en cuanto a la cuestión del oportunismo, se ve en que Enrique en sus memorias se atribuye haber sido el comandante de la revuelta armada del PLM en 1908, la cual en realidad fue liderada por Práxedis y Francisco Manrique, siendo cierto que Enrique no se encontraba remotamente cerca del sitio de la batalla.

Esta es una pregunta complicada.  La cuestión de la genealogía azteca falsa no era rara entre ést@s militantes, ni fue particular en el caso de Enrique.  Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara la reivindicaba también, y creo que esto tiene que ver con el proceso de autonarración mexicana en los Estados Unidos y tendencia radicalmente indigenista, dado que la opinión pública en Estados Unidos estaba de acuerdo con la idea de que l@s españoles eran asqueros@s, mientras que se veía a l@s indígenas de México en términos nobles.  En el caso de los hermanos Flores Magón, había también un deseo desde México de presentar a su padre como un integrante de una élite indígena, en vez de un hacendado.  De todas maneras, Teodoro no era hacendado de la misma manera que lo habían sido los padres de Práxedis Guerrero y Francisco Manríque, como dices.

Lo que queda de la pregunta tiene que ver con el problema de la memoria dentro de México después de la Revolución.  Enrique sobrevivió a la mayoria de sus contemporane@s principales, y se puede decir que se vio absorbido por la lógica del “Estado Revolucionario.”  En los 1930s estuvo involucrado activamente en el desarrollo de la organización “Precursores de la Revolución Mexicana,” institución que recibía pensiones del gobierno por los servicios proveidos. Enrique y su esposa Teresa Arteaga estuvieron encargados de certificar quiénes eran precursores, y quiénes no lo eran. Además, en los 1940s Enrique escribió semanalmente para El Nacional, narrando historias de l@s revolucionari@s del pasado.

Dentro de tal contexto, no fue fácil admitir las contradicciones de la historia de la revolución, de la historia del PLM y de su propia historia familiar.  Su ruptura con Ricardo, por ejemplo, casi fue totalmente imposible de reconocer en público, y mucho menos explicar a una audiencia mexicana típica.  En ese sentido, estas tergiversaciones por parte de Enrique no son simplemente distorsiones tipicas entre familias. Y es sabido que Enrique en sus últimos años solía inventarse cuentos excéntricos, aunque, como demuestro en la biografia, había una lógica en su enajenación.

Con relación al periodo “bohemio” juvenil de Ricardo en la Ciudad de México, Ud. presenta el enfásis que pone el historiador José Valadés en la importancia de este momento de su vida, cuando Magón llegó a conocer “la realidad en la que vivía el pueblo mexicano” en la que “no había ni paz, ni luz, ni salud para l@s pobres.”  Más tarde, Ricardo escribiría que “sólo [la persona] que sufre puede entender el sufrimiento de los demás.”  Diría Ud. que existe una conexión entre las experiencias de Ricardo durante su periodo bohemio y la declaración pública que hizo en el Primer Congreso Liberal que tuvo lugar en San Luis Potosí en febrero de 1901, declaración que le haría tan famoso, y que indicaría el cambio definitivo impulsado por los redactores de Regeneración de “periodismo jurídico independiente” a “periodismo combativo” en 1900, resumida en la frase “la administración de Díaz es una cueva de ladrones?”

Aunque esa parte de la historia familiar es la más dificil de reconstruir—durante los 1890s, quiero decir—tengo la impresión que sí fue formativa, como lo plantea José Valadés.  Valadés recalca la importancia que tuvo en Ricardo la iniciación sexual con prostitutas en los barrios pobres que los estudiantes solían visitar.  Segun Valadés, Ricardo contrajo cierto tipo de enfermedad sexual entonces, y por eso supuestamente no pudo reproducirse después.  Valadés igual cree que el conocimiento íntimo de las vidas miserables de las prostitutas mexicanas y de sus familias fue importante para el desarollo de la sensibilidad política y la educación de Ricardo.  Valadés tuvo entrevistas directas con l@s contemporane@s de Ricardo a las que no puedo yo acceder, y creo en su palabra.  Tal vez él falla en su análisis sobre la importancia que tuvo este período bohemio en la historia inicial de Regeneración, dado que es obvio que durante esa década, estos jóvenes claramente proseguían el ejemplo de l@s revolucionari@s franceses, y también de los liberales mexicanos.  En mi opinión, la declaración de Ricardo, que “¡la administración de Díaz es una cueva de ladrones!”, repetida tres veces en San Luis Potosí, fue una reinstauración de la declaración de Ignacio Ramírez en 1836 que “¡Dios no existe!” (también repetido tres veces, en Toluca).  Este tipo de actitud teatral en 1900-1 se desarrolló durante el período bohemio.

Es muy conmovedora la historia que Ud. relata en cuanto a la muerte de Doña Margarita Magón mientras que sus hijos Ricardo y Jesús estaban detenidos en la Cárcel de Belem en la Ciudad de México (1901-2) por cargo de libelo por aseveraciones fácticas que habían planteado en Regeneración.  En sus notas acerca de la muerte de Margarita Magón, como nos dice Ud., los medios de comunicación supusieron que la angustia que resultó de ver a sus hijos sufrir de esa manera precipitó su fin—de una manera similar al caso de Anticleia de la Odisea, quien le dice a su hijo en Hades que “nada más mi soledad y la fuerza de mi cariño hacia ti, querido Ulises, causó que mi vida se terminara.”  En su opinión, ¿cómo se distinguieron las reacciones de los tres hermanos en relación a este lamentable evento—el sacrificio “de su relación mas sagrada […] para la vida política,” evento que reflejó la desgracia que cayó sobre Teodoro por haber servido en la resistencia militar a los invasores franceses—particularmente con respecto a los sentimientos de Ricardo?

Esta es una pregunta crítica para poder comprender las decisiones y también cierta parte de la constitución psicológica de los tres hermanos, y ésta es una cuestión que me preocupa en el libro porque veo que el ser humano tiene la tendencia de imputar sus motivaciones en los demás, sin importar si existe o no existe un interés en su psicología.  Por lo tanto es mejor clarificar, de manera explícita, las ideas acerca de las motivaciones, con el fin de facilitar el debate y el desarrollo de perspectivas alternativas.

En realidad, yo siento que la muerte de Margarita provocó en Jesús, el hermano mayor, la idea de abandonar la alternativa de política clandestina y cualquier práctica política que le llevara a la cárcel de nuevo.  Para Jesús, la muerte de Margarita fue de alguna manera como una repetición, considerando que él fue el primer hermano al que detuvieron, y la primera vez que esto sucedió tuvo lugar sólo cuatro días despues de la muerte de Teodoro, el padre de los tres hermanos.  La primera detención de Jesús dejó a su madre y a los dos hermanos menores en una situación de inseguridad económica, ya que se vieron obligad@s a abandonar su casa y mudarse debido a la falta de recursos, y viéndose Ricardo obligado a trabajar durante un tiempo como sirviente.  Tras la muerte de Margarita y la liberación de Jesús y Ricardo de la carcel, Jesús se casó con su novia, Clara Wong, se hizo abogado y experimentó una profesión política prominente tanto bajo el gobierno de Madero como el de Victoriano Huerta, llegando a diputado del Congreso.

La reacción de Ricardo fue proseguir en la lucha para derribar a Díaz hasta el fin.  Entre sus amigos, él era conocido como ascético y como revolucionario comprometido únicamente a sus ideales, y fue este tipo de dedicación el que le ganó el liderazgo de la Junta Organizadora cuando el grupo del PLM abandonó México hacia el exilio.  Ricardo nunca renunció esa posición en la Junta.  Tampoco se casó nunca, y cuando desarrolló una relación profundamente romántica, fue con una mujer, María Brousse, quien estaba igualmente comprometida con la revolución social.  De hecho, María actuó voluntariamente en el asesinato de un político mexicano famoso, Enrique Creel, para que Ricardo pudiera estar junto a ella y no sentirse que estaba causando una ruptura en la familia.

Enrique tal vez es el hermano mas complejo, debido a su situación ambígua.  Él no estaba encarcelado cuando su madre Margarita falleció, sino que se dedicó a cuidarla durante el último período de su vida, a pesar de su joven edad.  Por eso, él no experimentó ni la culpabilidad ni el arrepentimiento de Ricardo y de Jesús.  De todas maneras, Enrique tampoco se benifició de la idolatría popular que recibieron sus hermanos debido a su sacrificio.  Esta situación le causó oscilar entre seguir el ejemplo de Jesús o el de Ricardo.  Creo que Enrique era un jóven que quería demostrar que era igualmente capaz de cualquier sacrificio—de hecho, más tarde en la vida, se le denegó el acceso a sus hij@s tras un conflicto ideológico con el abuelo materno de sus niñ@s.  Por otra parte, Enrique tuvo por un tiempo la idea de casarse y volver a México.  Fue la experiencia del exilio y sus consecuencias prácticas lo que le provocó continuar en la dirección que Ricardo había impulsado.  Tras el fin de la Revolución, se enfrentó con una situación que fue similar a la de Jesús.

Me gustaría ahora hablar acerca de los precursores filosóficos e ideológicos de la alternativa ácrata avanzada por el PLM y Regeneración.  Ud. enfatiza que el pensamiento de Peter Kropotkin, el “príncipe ácrata”— y particularmente sus investigaciones científicas de apoyo mutuo—influyeron en el pensamiento y la actuación de la Junta Organizadora.  Un buen ejemplo de esta tendencia se ve en el análisis que Magón presenta en una carta escrita en Leavenworth en 1920 a María Brousse en donde argumenta en términos kropotkinianos y naturalistas que el egoismo “es el resultado de siglo tras siglo de una educación y capacitación individualista para las masas,” y que “el instinto primordial del ser humano de cooperar y proveer apoyo mutuo se ha suprimido y a cambio ha aparecido y se ha desarrollado una tendencia que promueve una educación individualista.”  Por su parte, Práxedis favoreció la fundación en México de un contrasistema de educación racionalista para l@s nin@s que seguía el ejemplo del ácrata español Francisco Ferrer.  Además, Ud. nos enseña que el PLM siguió tanto el ejemplo jacobino como la tradición política liberal mexicana en cuanto a su adhesión al anticlericalismo y a la defensa de la democracia popular.  Con relación a la Constitución de 1857, Librado Rivera puntualiza que “La Constitución ha muerto…”

Otro precursor crítico del naciente movimiento liberal mexicano tuvo que ver con las experiencias de la “generación de 1892” a la que Magón y l@s otr@s integrantes del PLM pertenecían.  1892 fue el año en el que Díaz “ganó” su tercera reelección consecutiva, lo cual provocó movilizaciones estudiantiles de resistencia al Porfiriato.  Una acción organizada por estudiantes en mayo de ese año con las consignas “¡Muerte al centralismo!” y “¡Abajo la reeleción!” fue fuertemente reprimida, con docenas de estudiantes detenidos y amenazados con ejecución extrajudicial—en la que Magón y varios de sus compañeros fueron rescatados por “una multitud [que] amenazó asaltar el Palacio Municipal de la Ciudad de México, donde nos tenían encarcelados como resultado de nuestra movilización en contra de la dictadura.”  Ricardo agrega que esta fue su “primera experiencia en la lucha”!

Además, como explica Ud., l@s que sentían atracción hacia el PLM en los años 1900 resistían abiertamente al grupo tecnocrático de los “cientificos” quienes habían ganado poder tras la nueva reelección de Díaz.  Est@s revolucionari@s intentaron utilizar el liberalismo en contra de la corrupción observada que instituía un positivismo institucionalizado amigable al Porfiriato.  Es igualmente curioso que, menos Ricardo, casi todos los personajes centrales del PLM fueron masones comprometidos, tal como dice Ud.  Ahora bien, se sabe que la Junta Organizadora no se presentó públicamente como ácrata hasta que publicó el manifiesto del 23 de septiembre de 1911, tras las derrota militar de su campaña en Baja California y el surgimiento de conflictos dramáticos dentro del mismo PLM, tal como veremos en la segunda parte de nuestra conversación.  Entonces, ¿cómo es que el anarquismo, el jacobinismo, y el liberalismo mexicano se combinaron para inspirar el grupo mas radical dentro del PLM: el de los comunistas libertarios Ricardo y Enrique Flores Magón, Librado Rivera y Práxides Guerrero?  Y por añadidura, ¿Ud. no cree que las influencias ácratas y jacobinas se contradicen entre si con relación a cuestiones de filosofía política, dada la dictadura centralizada que se instaló a través del Comité de la Seguridad Publica Jacobina durante el Reino del Terror en 1793-4?

Esta es una pregunta muy difícil.  Déjame intentar responder brevemente.  El liberalismo mexicano, el anarquismo y el jacobinismo comparten el elemento anticlerical, y eso fue algo en común importante.  La idea de que la religión, o sea la religión organizada, es una fuente de represión y subdesarrollo fue común en las tres escuelas de pensamiento.  Ademas, l@s ácratas sentían apasionadamente que la autoridad religiosa servía para fortalecer el capital y la explotación de las mujeres, y que además era la raíz de la falsa moralidad de su sociedad.  Las tres tendencias compartían el “culto a la libertad,” y el rechazo profundo de la esclavitud y la servitud.  La consigna “Libertad, Igualdad, Fraternidad” fue muy importante para los tres sistemas filosóficos, aunque cada cual la intepretó de manera diferente.  Es por esta razón que la Marseillaise también fue una canción ácrata.

Naturalmente hubo diferencias importantes aparte de estos puntos en común.  Los liberales mexicanos favorecían la propiedad privada y se oponían rotundamente a la propiedad corporativa—no sólo a la propiedad corporativa de la Iglesia, sino que también a la de las comunidades indígenas, mientras que l@s ácratas claramente favorecían la propiedad corporativa comunal.  Los jacobinos compartían con l@s ácratas la creencia en la soberanía popular, directa y sin mediaciones, pero ellos igual creían que la soberanía se materializaba en el control del Estado.  Así que el Terror de Estado fue en cierta manera la consecuencia natural del jacobinismo, porque utilizaron el Estado en contra de los elementos reacccionarios de la sociedad.  L@s ácratas creían en la soberanía popular sin mediaciones y sin Estado.  Su alternativa era la acción directa—el tomar los medios de producción y gestionarlos bajo el control comunitario.

En términos históricos, el Porfiriato es conocido por el “progreso” económico que impulsó: la industrialización, el aumento del extractivismo, y el “liberar” la economía mexicana (mejor dicho, el venderla), con claros paralelos con el momento actual, dominado por el Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).  Bajo Díaz, esta expansión económica dependía de manera crítica del sistema de esclavitud junto con la explotación brutal de la dizque “libre” mano de obra, como se vio en el caso de los obreros en huelga en la mina Cananea en el desierto de Sonora, quienes fueron reprimidos de manera violenta por el Ejército Mexicano en el verano del 1906, evento que llevó al PLM a partir de ahí a planificar e intentar su primera revuelta revolucionaria.  ¿Diría Ud. que la alternativa social que Ricardo y sus camaradas favorecían representaba un verdadero polo opuesto al “México oscuro y satánico” del que fue responsable Díaz, en términos de la contrapropuesta hacia una visión anarcocomunista agraria, à la Lev Tolstoy?  Al parecer, el énfasis que puso Ricardo en la estrategia de acción directa colectiva le separó radicalmente del análisis de algun@s de sus contrapartes socialistas, quienes creían en contra de Magón que México todavía no estaba “listo” para el comunismo.  Nos demuestra que, durante su encarcelación en Leavenworth en 1919, Enrique provee su definición de una “vida que valga vivirla,” la cual incluiría la distribución mundial egalitaria “de las comodidades y avances científicos de hoy” junto con los estilos de vida supuestamente tranquilos de sus abuelos indígenas, “que trabajaban sus tierras comunales […] libres del yugo del patrón.”

La respuesta breve sería que sí.  Una respuesta más matizada tendría que incluir los cambios en las posiciones de Ricardo.  En 1906, el programa que desarrolló la Junta, y que Ricardo apoyaba, más o menos era el mismo que el de l@s socialistas—el promover la reforma agraria, política y electoral así como los derechos sociales y políticos de la clase obrera, pero no la destrucción del Estado.  A pesar de eso, en 1910, y durante el transcurso de la Revolución Mexicana, Ricardo favoreció la acción directa y una visión anarcocomunista.

Para cerrar esta primera parte de nuestra conversación, deberíamos de considerar las condiciones sociales “bastante peculiares” que Ud. identifica que han sido necesarias para “imaginar” y “esforzarse” hacia la revolución ácrata que el PLM avanzaba, lo cual para Ud. fue “la revolución mas radical que produjo la Ilustración.”  Los puntos claves que Ud. identifica incluyen la movilidad de la mano de obra, la migración, el exilio, y el internacionalismo proletario, además del vivir en comun (una dinámica que Ud. llama el “sistema liberal familiar en conjunto” experimentado en las oficinas de Regeneración, de las que se decía que parecían representar una comuna, o uno de los “hospitales” de Thomas More) y tener un amor profundamente apasionado tanto por el pueblo como por l@s camaradas en la lucha.  Esta segunda dinámica se refleja bien en las conexiones diádicas que se desarrollaron entre Práxedis y Francisco Manrique, y Magón con Librado Rivera.  Ud. observa que, en la vida cotidiana de est@s revolucionari@s militantes, el comunismo no era una utopia, sino “una realidad de cada día que se creaba debido a la necesidad de compartir los recursos, […] de derrocar las estructuras familiares tradicionales para poder admitir a desconocid@s en las situaciones más intimas, y […] de construir metas trascendentales ante la plena descomposición de la moralidad tradicional, de las costumbres, y de los hábitos.”  Ud. pone énfasis en este sentido dual del amor platónico y conyugal, y Ud. dice que el amor fue “mucho mas importante para [l@s ácratas], tanto en su faceta ideal como en su práctica cotidiana, que para los Villas y Zapatas, los Obregones y los Pascuales Orozcos.”  ¿Por qué cree que así fue?

Hablaré acerca del significado del amor en este movimiento, y su distinción con relación a los ejércitos revolucionarios en Mexico.  Existen razones ideológicas que favorecen el amor entre l@s ácratas sobre las que aquí no voy a hablar.  Lo que me parece más interesante es que las condiciones sociales de militancia entre l@s integrantes del PLM resultaron en el desarrollo de relaciones amorosas entre hombres y mujeres y también entre amig@s del mismo sexo, fueran éstas segundas relaciones plenamente eróticas o simplemente platónicas.

El PLM creció bajo condiciones de clandestinidad y siempre fue objeto de persecución e infiltración de espías y traidores.  Esto significó que la confianza profunda personal fue crítica, dado que estaban poniendo su vida y el futuro del movimiento en las manos de otras personas. Éste fue un factor que favoreció el desarrollo de enlaces personales profundos, que claramente incluían el amor.  Un segundo factor fue que l@s integrantes del PLM tenían que depender de una autodisciplina tremenda.  Eran ascétic@s en el sentido de que tenían que trabajar por el día y movilizarse por la noche.  Tenían que ahorrar e invertir lo que les sobraba en la causa.  Tenían que leer y reflexionar.  El leer y escribir eran actividades claramente importantes para l@s ácratas, y tendían a impulsar el amor, debido a que era una práctica de correspondencia.  Se podría decir que el movimiento fomentaba investigaciones profundas del ser y del autocultivo, y que esto favoreció el desarrollo del amor.  Además, las comunidades que sirvieron como base del movimiento de exiliados se basaban en la afinidad.  Dada la movilidad intensiva de este grupo, sus integrantes dependían de la afinidad para poder encontrar un hogar a alguien recién llegad@ a una ciudad nueva, o para organizarse.  La solidaridad era necesaria en la vida cotidiana, y esta solidaridad se basaba en la afinidad, factor que asimismo fomentaba el florecimiento del amor.

Para l@s revolucionari@s en Mexico, en contraste, la experiencia de la revolución fue algo como un vendaval que barrió todo en su camino.  La revolución se representó popularmente como la bola.  Los ejércitos revolucionarios pasaron por los pueblos como chapulínes. Muchas personas se unieron al ejército revolucionario en su paso por diferentes comunidades, a veces reclutad@s como soldados o soldaderas.  Los enlaces entre los hombres y las mujeres fueron frágiles por esa razón.  La falta de relaciones matrimoniales no fue el producto de cierto repudio ideológico hacia la Iglesia o la famila como instrumento de opresión, sino que fue simplemente el producto del desplazo y de la vida cotidiana en el ejército.  Los líderes revolucionarios solían tener varias esposas, a veces docenas.  Algunos de tales líderes—Zapata, por ejemplo—intentaron crear enlaces con las comunidades a través de una esposa o amante local.  Es difícil hallar el tipo de relación que se experimentaba entre Ricardo y María o Enrique y Teresa o Librado y Conchita o Práxedis y Francisco Manrique en los movimientos revolucionarios de México.  A lo mejor las relaciones románticas homosociales o homoeróticas eran similares, dado el fenómeno de “compañeros de guerra,” y la confianza profunda entre l@s compañer@s en México.  Pero no es claro que estos enlaces involucraran conexiones tan espiritualmente profundas y las similitudes ideológicas que vemos en una relación como la de Práxedis con Manrique, la cual fue una relación que se gobernaba no tanto por la circunstancia sino por el compromiso mútuo.

On the Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón

February 27, 2015

He died for Anarchy”

Part I of II

First published on Counterpunch, 27 February 2015

Professor Lomnitz, I am most grateful to you for being so kind as to discuss your new collective biography The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014) with me. I wish also to thank my friend Allen Kim for bringing my attention to this marvelous work, which provides an intimate and far-reaching examination of the life of the renowned Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón (1874-1922) and of those closest to him—principally, his brothers Jesús (elder) and Enrique (junior), Librado Rivera, and Práxedis G. Guerrero, all of whom were associates of the Junta Organizadora of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). As a result of his lifelong commitment to social revolution, Ricardo was a political prisoner for much of his life: he spent over a fifth of his lifespan incarcerated, in fact. He died in November 1922 after two years’ imprisonment in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas for having called on his fellow Mexicans to take up arms against both white-supremacists in Texas and Venustiano Carranza’s reactionary army. The life of Magón, like those of his comrades, then, was full of Eros and Thanatos, or revolution and repression.

First things first: please speak to the title you chose for your work, if you would. Do you mean to refer to the processional “return” of Magón’s physical body to Mexico City in the weeks after his death in Leavenworth Prison, or do you perhaps mean to suggest that a resurgence or regeneration of the spirit of the Mexican Liberal Party’s (PLM) anarchist-communist alternative is taking place in our own day, like a Shakespearean or Hegelian apparition—le revenant (“the ghost,” or literally “the returning”) discussed by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx?1

I would like to begin by thanking you for having taken the work and trouble to read The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón. The work of readers is critical and precious, and never easy. So thank you, especially for that.

The title is, as you imply, freighted with meaning. It does, in the first instance, refer to the return of Ricardo to Mexico (as a corpse), and thus implicitly raises the question of the significance of his exile: why did Ricardo return as a (venerated) corpse? Why the disjoint between physical absence and spiritual presence in Mexico? At that level, the title is a nod to the central historical question in the book, which is the relationship between ideology and exile in the Mexican Revolution.

But there is also a second aspect, one you summarized in your question better than I could. And this is the currency of the movement’s concern with mutual aid as both political project and as a biological imperative. Because of this currency—because forms of communistic organization and anarchy are today on the horizon of possibility—the figure of Ricardo has that phantasmic power that you refer to. Yes, of a Shakespearean apparition.

The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón is an important study of the specifically transnational dimensions of the Mexican Revolution—a point you stress explicitly in the introduction to the book, where you point to the revolutionary organizational efforts of the anarchists in the PLM’s Junta Organizadora and their fellow socialists, both Mexican and U.S., as amounting to the “first major grassroots Mexican-American solidarity network.” You describe this history as “the story of a transnational revolutionary network that thought of itself collectively as the servant of an ideal [that] could be told in the mold of Don Quijote—the story of a group of men and women who read books and acted on them […]. Their acts were seen as wild. Like Don Quijote, they seemed to be out of place—utopian—or more precisely, out of time.” Please explain how this unique cast of characters was wild, quixotic, and utopian.

Their acts were seen as wild, as I said, in large part because they were. There is in this milieu an element of sexual revolution and of familial transformation that was wild, for example. This manifests itself in different ways. Elizabeth Trowbridge, a wealthy Bostonian, married Manuel Sarabia, an imprisoned Mexican revoltoso, not before having paid his bail, and she then convinced him to jump bail and flee with her to England in order to escape conviction. Ricardo Flores Magón lived in sin with María Brousse and regarded her daughter as his. Enrique Flores Magón wrote pieces about the ignominy of husbands brutalizing and commanding their wives. Emma Goldman, of course, was a great advocate of birth control, and this was also a position supported explicitly by Enrique and Ricardo in Regeneración. Naturally, too, the members of the Partido Liberal Mexicano were not allowed to marry by the Church. In the United States, many of the Mexican radicals created homes that were composite dwellings, that included both kin and non-kin. So there was also some “wildness” there—the dwelling that was occupied by Enrique and Ricardo and their families, along with a number of other families, outside of Los Angeles can be appropriately described as a commune, and indeed some of the group’s old U.S. and European allies, like socialist Job Harriman, for instance, created agricultural communes in the United States. In addition to this intimate level of “wildness,” there was of course also the political level of wildness—clandestinity, propaganda work, striking, supporting armed revolt, and so on.

I don’t believe that this group saw itself as utopian—they believed that there were real and very immediate possibilities for their ideas, especially once the Mexican Revolution began, during World War I, and in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution. This sense of immanent possibilities declined later. Ricardo did not live that moment, but Enrique certainly did. By the 1940s and 50s, Enrique saw their old ideas as not attainable in the present.

Of course, many contemporaries did believe that the anarchist ideas were utopian. This included some prominent members of the Mexican Liberal Party, and even former members of the Junta. Militants like Juan Sarabia and Antonio Villarreal, who participated actively in the Mexican Revolution, but believed in a kind of gradualism, and in participation in Mexican democratic politics. So the question of whether their strategy was utopian or attainable was very much a matter of debate.

As for being quixotic, this too is complex. Certainly everyone who labels this group “precursors of the Mexican Revolution” thinks of them as quixotic, in the sense of anachronistic—prior to their time, fighting a fight that could not yet be won. This, of course, was not this group’s own sense. But there was another way in which its members might well have seen themselves as quixotic: they spent their lives reading, and acted on what they read. They were not passive readers. Moreover, they invested everything, gave everything up, for the world that they were imagining and creating. In this sense, I think that many of these militants would willingly have identified with Quijote.

You observe that none of the principal U.S. militants affiliated with the “Mexican Cause” were attracted or connected to Mexico—its people, history, or politics—in any special way before coalescing in 1908 to support the PLM’s struggle to overthrow Porfirio Díaz, and that none of them even knew Spanish before that time! Considering the PLM’s denunciations in Regeneración of the outright slavery instituted and overseen by the Porfiriato together with the feminist, proletarian, Christian, and cosmopolitan-internationalist dimensions that would seem to have contributed to the Norteños’ collaboration with the cause—including that of the International Workers of the World (IWW), Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman—would you say their participation in the struggle to have reflected a particular manifestation of the universal struggle for justice?

I certainly would say that, and all of them would have said it, too. Probably without a single exception.

As you explain, one key parallel the PLM group and U.S. supporters of the “Mexican Cause” were wont to draw was between Díaz and the ossified Russian autocracy, headed by the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II. One of the most momentous such parallels came to light through John Kenneth Turner’s investigation of Mexico’s “tropical Siberia,” the Yucatán Peninsula, where hundreds of thousands of Mayas, Yaquis, and Koreans were enslaved. Turner’s exposé, first published as two reports in American Magazine in 1909 and thereafter as Barbarous Mexico (1910), resonated importantly with U.S. audiences, as it illuminated, in your words, “America’s reactionary slaving tradition pushing yet farther south under the shadowy cover of a dictatorship that [the U.S. government and capital] enthusiastically supported” while also bringing to light yet another manifestation of the extermination of Native America—another Trail of Tears, as seen in the lamentable fate of the deported, displaced, and massacred Yaquis. To be honest, when reading this chapter of the text, “The People Were the Sacrifice,” I was reminded of Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2000). Could you speak to the significance of Turner’s work in terms of changing international public opinion about Mexico amidst the hegemonic narrative then advanced by media outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times—owned at that time by William Randolph Hearst and Harrison Gray Otis, respectively, who in turn were the respective beneficiaries of two and one-half million acres of land in Chihuahua and Baja California which Díaz had sold them—toward an analysis that affirmed the Porfiriato as effectively facilitating a “capitalist slave colony”?

Porfirio Díaz had really excellent press in the United States. In part, this was due to the undeniable success of the early years of his dictatorship, when Díaz cobbled together a coalition that allowed the Mexican federal government to quash highway banditry, pay its foreign debt, succeed in importing massive capital, build railways, and consolidate a national market. In part this was due to the incredible influx of U.S. foreign direct investment into Mexico during his long mandate. Historian John Hart has documented that Mexico absorbed more than 60% of the US’s investments abroad, so to defend Díaz was to defend American investments. But there was also a deliberate and very active courting of opinion by Díaz, including, as you say, by giving exceedingly juicy concessions to a couple of prominent moguls: Hearst and Otis.

Changing U.S. opinion on Díaz and Mexico was a pretty tall order. Some of that transformation was beginning to happen thanks to the work of Mexicans in the United States including the members of the PLM, but not only them. Some of the transformation was happening because of Americans’ own sentiments regarding justice and injustice in Mexico—for example, there was some turn of opinion in favor of the Yaqui Indians in Arizona border towns. But John Kenneth Turner deserves a lot of credit for his work—a lot!

First of all, John was able to get his pieces into the mainstream press—the muckraking American Magazine—rather than in the socialist press, which had quite large runs in those days, but to some degree implied preaching to the choir. He was able to do this because he focused so clearly and poignantly on the problem of slavery, and on the extermination of the Indians. And because he was able to do this through first-hand, direct reporting. These are major accomplishments. He had others, too, but this was key to his role in making a scandal out of Mexico.

RFM revised

In discussing the family background of the Flores Magón brothers, you relate how Enrique in his memoir attempts to portray his ancestral paternal line of Aztec nobles as instituting a form of “primitive communism” among the Mazatec-speaking indigenous peasants of Oaxaca they had conquered as a means of alleviating his anxiety over hailing from relative class privilege. This point notwithstanding, it does not seem that Teodoro Flores was as wealthy as Práxedis’ family of origin, for example, considering Ricardo’s teenage compulsion to enter the workforce as a domestic servant in the early 1890’s, following Teodoro’s death and Jesús’ imprisonment for writing articles critical of the Porfiriato. You also show that Enrique papers over his father’s closeness with Díaz and the latter’s participation—indeed!—in the 1876 “Tuxtepec Revolution” which installed Díaz as dictator, preferring instead to recall Teodoro’s previous military service in defense of Mexican sovereignty and Liberalism, as embodied in Benito Juárez’s person and the 1857 Constitution, against the imperialist French invasion forces and their reactionary Mexican affiliates, who avenged Flores’ heroic resistance by murdering his father, mother-in-law, and wife in a cowardly attack on the family ranch in 1865. To what degree do you see Enrique’s selective memory as a normal expression of socio-psychological repression within families—one that is accentuated in this case, to accord with the revolutionism of the Flores Magón brothers? A similar example—if more disturbing for its opportunism—is seen in the credit Enrique takes in his memoirs for commanding the PLM’s 1908 revolt, which in point of fact was led by Práxedis and Francisco Manrique, with Enrique being nowhere remotely near the site of battle.

A complicated question. The question of false Aztec genealogy was not unusual among these militants, and not peculiar to Enrique. Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara also had it, for instance, and I think that it is related to Mexican self-narration in the United States, which tended to take a radically Indianist turn, because American opinion agreed that Spaniards were disgusting and tended to see the Indians as noble. In the case of the Flores Magón brothers, there was also some impetus from within Mexico to present their father as member of an indigenous elite, rather than as an hacendado. As you say, Teodoro was not an hacendado in the way that Práxedis Guerrero or Francisco Manríque’s parents had been.

The rest of the question, though, pertains to the problem of memory within Mexico, and after the Revolution. Enrique survived most of his main peers, and he can be said to have been swallowed by the Revolutionary State and its logic. In the 1930s he was actively involved in shaping an organization of “Precursors of the Mexican Revolution” that received government pensions for services rendered, and he and his wife Teresa Arteaga were amongst those charged with certifying and authenticating who was and who was not a precursor. In the 1940s Enrique wrote weekly for El Nacional, telling the tales of that revolutionary group.

In a context of this kind, the contradictions of the history of the revolution, of the history of the PLM, and of their own family history were not easy to admit to. His break with Ricardo, for instance, was virtually impossible to admit, let alone to explain to a general Mexican audience. So that part of Enrique’s distortions are not simply the typical family distortion. Finally, Enrique in his later years was very prone to somewhat wild story-telling. As I show in the book, though, there was method to his madness.

With reference to Ricardo’s youthful “bohemian” period in Mexico City, you present historian José Valadés’ stress on the importance of this life-stage, when Magón came to know “the reality in which the Mexican people lived”: that “there was no peace, light, or health for the poor.” As Ricardo would write later, “only [ze] who suffers can understand the suffering of others.” Would you say there is a direct line between the experiences Ricardo had during his bohemian phase and the public declaration he would make at the First Liberal Congress in San Luis Potosí (February 1901)—the statement which would make him so famous, and that would echo the definitive shift made by the editors of Regeneración from “independent juridical journalism” to “combative journalism” in late 1900—that “the Diaz administration is a den of thieves”?

Although that portion of the family history is the most difficult to reconstruct—during the 1890s, I mean—I do have the impression that it was formative, as José Valadés claimed. Valadés emphasizes the role that sexual initiation with prostitutes and in the low-class dives that the students frequented had in Ricardo. According to Valadés, Ricardo got some sort of venereal disease then, and it was for this reason that he was unable later to have children. He also believes that intimate knowledge of the miserable lives of Mexico’s prostitutes and their families was important for Ricardo’s political sensibility and education. Valadés had direct conversations with Ricardo’s contemporaries that were not available to me, and I tend to believe his account. If anything, Valadés falls a bit short in his analysis of the influence of the bohemian period on the early Regeneración, for what is obvious is that during that decade, these young men actively fashioned themselves not only after French Revolutionaries, but also after Mexican Liberals. To my mind, Ricardo’s “The Díaz administration is a den of thieves!”, repeated thrice in San Luis Potosí, was a re-enactment of Ignacio Ramírez’s 1836 “God does not exist” (also repeated thrice, in Toluca). The self-fashioning and theatrics of the 1900-01 effervescence was crafted in the Bohemian period.

Pathos certainly grips the story you relate of how Doña Margarita Magón died while her sons Ricardo and Jesús were incarcerated in Belem Prison in Mexico City (1901-2) on the charge of libel for factual claims they had made in Regeneración. In their reports on her death, as you relate, the media of the time claimed Margarita’s anguish over her sons’ ordeal to have precipitated her end—much in the way that Anticleia of The Odyssey expresses that it was “only my loneliness and the force of my affection for you, dear Odysseus, that took my own life away.” In your estimation, how did the reactions of the three brothers differ to this tragedy—the sacrifice “of their most sacred relationship […] for political life,” one which echoed the misfortune visited on Teodoro for his military service opposing the French invaders—especially in the case of Ricardo?

This is a crucial question for understanding the decisions, and some of the psychological make-up, of the three brothers, which is an issue that concerns me in the book because I find that one tends to impute motivations on actors, regardless of whether or not one claims to have an interest in their psychology. So it’s best to make one’s views on motivations more, rather than less, explicit, if only for the purpose of facilitating debate and the development of alternative views.

Briefly, then, my sense is that Margarita’s death led the eldest of the brothers, Jesús, to abandon the alternative of clandestine politics and any political practice that would land him in jail again. For Jesús, Margarita’s death was in some regards a replay, since Jesús was the first of the brothers to have landed in prison, and the first time that this had happened to him was but four days after Teodoro, the boys’ father, had died. Jesús’s first imprisonment left his mother and his younger brothers unprotected economically—they had to leave their home and change address for lack of resources, and Ricardo briefly took on a job as a servant. After Margarita’s death and Jesús and Ricardo’s release from prison, Jesús married his girlfriend, Clara Wong, worked as a well-established lawyer, and had a prominent political career under both Madero and Victoriano Huerta (as a member of Congress).

Ricardo’s reaction was to continue in the fight to overthrow Díaz to the bitter end. Ricardo came to be known as an ascetic, single-mindedly committed revolutionary amongst his group of friends, and it was this dedication that gained him the leadership of the Junta Organizadora when that group left Mexico in exile. Ricardo never renounced that position. He also never married, and when he did develop an intensely romantic relationship, it was to a woman, María Brousse, who was equally committed to revolution, and who had in fact even volunteered to assassinate a prominent Mexican politician, Enrique Creel, so that Ricardo could be with her and not feel that he was tearing his family asunder.

Finally, Enrique is in some ways the most complex, because of his ambiguous situation. Enrique was not in prison when his mother Margarita died, but, on the contrary, had been in charge of her during her final period, despite his young age. Thus he felt neither the guilt nor the regret of Ricardo or Jesús. However, neither did he benefit from the popular idolization that his brothers got, precise due to their sacrifice. This situation made him oscillate between imitating Jesús’s choices and imitating Ricardo’s. I think that Enrique was a youth that wanted very much to demonstrate that he, too, was capable of any sacrifice—and in fact, later in life, he lost contact with his daughter and son because of an ideological rift with their mother’s father. On the other hand, for some time Enrique harbored the ideal of marriage and return to Mexico. It was the experience of exile, and its practical consequences, that leaned him so decisively in Ricardo’s direction. But after the revolution, I think that he again found a situation that tended more to Jesús’s position.

constitucion ha muerto

The Constitution has died…” (Librado Rivera) On Constitution Day, 4 February 1904, the staff of the radical newspaper El Hijo del Ahuizote gathered to commemorate the death of the 1857 Constitution under Porfirio Díaz.

Let us now please turn to discussing the philosophical and ideological precursors of the anarchist alternative advanced by the PLM and Regeneración. You emphasize the thought of Peter Kropotkin, the “Anarchist Prince”—particularly his scientific investigations of mutual aid—as influencing the theory and practice of the Junta Organizadora. As a reflection of this, writing to María Brousse from Leavenworth in 1920, Magón would argue naturalistically along Kropotkinian lines that selfishness “is the outcome of century upon century of individualistic education and training for the masses,” and that the “primordial human instinct of cooperation and mutual aid has been suppressed in favor of an individualistic education.” Práxedis, for his part, favored the foundation in Mexico of a counter-system of rationalist education for children, following the example of the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer.2 Additionally, you show that the PLM took from the Jacobin example and the Liberal Mexican political tradition it nominally adhered to a strong sense of anticlericalism and a championing of popular democracy. With reference to the Liberal Constitution of 1857, in point of fact, Librado Rivera wrote that “The Constitution has died…”

Another critical precursor of the resurgent Liberal Mexican movement, of course, was the experiences of the so-called “generation of 1892” to which Magón and the other principal Liberals belong. 1892 was the year in which Díaz “won” his third consecutive reelection, leading to student protests that openly defied the Porfiriato, with one action in May organized by students crying “Death to Centralism!” and “Down with Reelection!” Such youthful militancy was repressed in turn, with dozens arrested and threatened with execution—until Magón and several other young comrades were saved from this fate by an “indignant mob [… that] threatened to attack Mexico City’s Municipal Palace, where we were being held as a result of our demonstration against the dictatorship.” As a telling sidenote, Ricardo discloses that that was his “first experience in the struggle”!

As you explain, moreover, those who gravitated toward the PLM in the early 1900’s openly resisted the technocratic group of “cientificos” (“scientists”) who had been empowered by Díaz’s reelection, and they sought to wield Liberalism against its observed corruption into an institutionalized positivism that was friendly to the Porfiriato. Save for Ricardo, in addition, most of the central figures in the PLM were committed Masons, as you detail. Now, it is known that the Junta did not come out openly as anarchist until the manifesto it released on September 23, 1911, following the military defeat of its Baja California campaign and the emergence of dramatic fissures within the PLM itself, as we shall explore in the second part of our conversation. So how did anarchist thought, Jacobinism, and Mexican Liberalism combine to inspire the most radical group within the PLM: that of the libertarian communists Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, Librado Rivera, and Práxedis Guerrero? In addition, do you not think that the anarchist and Jacobin influences contradict themselves in terms of political philosophy, particularly in light of the centralized dictatorship instituted by the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror of 1793-4?

This is a very difficult question. Let me give it a try—but only briefly. Mexican Liberalism, anarchism, and Jacobinism all share the anti-clerical element, and that was one important commonality. The sense that religion—I mean organized religion—was a source of repression and backwardness was common to all three strands; in addition, anarchists felt strongly that religious authority served to reinforce capital, the exploitation of women, the State, and was at the root of the false morality of their society. The three strands also shared in their cult of liberty, and in their deep rejection of slavery and servitude. The slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was very important to all three strands, even if it was interpreted differently by each. That is why the
Marseillaise was also an anarchist hymn.

Naturally, there were fundamental differences beneath these points in common. Mexican Liberals favored private property and were adamantly against corporate property—not only the corporate property of the Church, but also of indigenous communities, whereas the anarchists were very much in favor of corporate communal property. Jacobins shared with anarchists the belief in unmediated and direct popular sovereignty, but Jacobins believed that sovereignty was materialized in control of the State. So that State terror was in some ways a natural consequence of Jacobinism: they used the State against the backward elements of society. Anarchists believed in unmediated popular sovereignty, but not in the State. They favored direct action—taking the means of production and placing them in communitarian control.

Historically speaking, the Porfiriato is known for the economic “progress” it brought, in terms of the growth of industry, the burgeoning of extractivism, and the “opening up” of the Mexican economy (or its outright selling off), with clear parallels to the present situation, ruled over by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Of course, under Díaz, this economic expansion depended critically on widespread chattel slavery alongside the brutal exploitation of putatively “free” labor, as in the case of the striking workers at the Cananea mine in the Sonoran Desert who were violently suppressed by the Mexican Army in summer 1906, leading the PLM to plan and attempt to execute its first revolutionary uprising shortly thereafter. Would you say that the social alternative favored by Ricardo and his comrades represented a true mirror-opposite to the “dark and satanic Mexico” for which Díaz was responsible, in terms of counterposing an agrarian anarcho-communist vision, à la Lev Tolstoy in a way? It would seem that Ricardo’s stress on a strategy of collective direct action separated him radically from the analysis shared by many of his socialist counterparts, who held against Magón that Mexico was not yet “ready” for communism. Plus, you show us that, while imprisoned in Leavenworth in 1919, Enrique defines a “life worth living” as one consisting of the universally egalitarian distribution “of the comforts and scientific advances of today,” as integrated with the purportedly tranquil lives enjoyed by his indigenous grandparents, “working on their communal lands […] free of the master’s yoke.”

The short answer to your question is yes. A more nuanced response would have to include changes in Ricardo’s position. In 1906, the program that the Junta developed, and to which Ricardo also subscribed, was pretty much that of the socialist group—promoting land reform, political and electoral reform, social and political rights for workers, but not the destruction of the state. By 1910, however, and throughout the Mexican Revolution, Ricardo favored direct action and an anarcho-communist vision.

To close this first part of our conversation, let us shift to considering the “rather peculiar” social conditions you identify as necessary for “imagin[ing]” and “striv[ing] for” the prospect of anarchist revolution advanced by the PLM, which for you is “the most radical revolution that the Enlightenment spawned.” The key factors to which you point are labor mobility, migration, exile, and proletarian internationalism, in addition to living-in-common (which you refer to as the “Liberal Joint Family System,” as evinced for example in the Regeneración offices, which were said to resemble a commune, or one of Thomas More’s “hospitals”), as well as a profoundly passionate love for “the people” (el pueblo) and for comrades in the struggle. This latter dynamic is reflected well in the dyadic connections forged between Práxedis and Francisco Manrique and Magón and Librado Rivera. You observe that, in the daily lives of these militant revolutionists, communism was not a utopia but rather “an everyday reality, created by the need to pool resources, […] to explode traditional family structures so as to admit perfect strangers to the most intimate situations, and […] to build transcendental goals in the face of the breakdown of traditional morality, customs, and habits.” You emphasize this dual sense of platonic and conjugal love to have been “much more important to [the anarchists], both as an ideal and as a daily practice, than it was for the Villas and Zapatas, the Obregons and Pascual Orozcos.” Why do you suppose this was the case?

I’ll speak to the significance of love in this movement, and its contrast with revolutionary armies in Mexico. There are ideological reasons for favoring love amongst the anarchists which I won’t get into. What I found more interesting is that the actual social conditions of militancy of the PLM led to developing love relationships—amongst men and women and amongst same-sex friends (whether or not the latter developed into fully erotic relationships).

The PLM developed in clandestinity, and was always subjected to persecution and infiltration by spies and traitors. This meant that trust, deep personal trust, was of critical significance, since you were placing your life and the future of the movement in the hands of another. That is one factor favoring the development of deep personal ties, including love. A second is that the members of the PLM had to rely on enormous self-discipline. They were ascetics, in the sense that they had to work by day and mobilize by night. They needed to save their earnings and invest savings in the cause. They needed to read and to reflect. Reading and writing—which was so important to the anarchists—tended to foment love, in that it was a practice of correspondence. One might say that the movement fostered deep investments in the self and in self-fashioning, and that this favored the development of love. Finally, the communities that the exiles built were based to a large degree on affinity. Because of the intense mobility of this group, it relied on affinity in order, for instance, to find lodging when an individual arrived in a new city, or to find work, or to organize. Solidarity was needed in the everyday, and it was solidarity based on affinity—a factor that also fomented the flourishing of love.

For revolutionaries in Mexico, by contrast, the experience of revolution was like a gale that swept everything in its path. The revolution was popularly represented as la bola—sort of like tumble-weed. Revolutionary armies passed through villages like locusts. Individuals joined the revolutionary army as it passed through. Sometimes they were abducted into armies, either as soldiers or as soldaderas. Connections between men and women were therefore fragile. The lack of marriage bonds was not the product of some deep ideological rejection of the church or of the family as an institution of oppression, but simply a product of displacement and everyday life in the army. Revolutionary leaders tended to have multiple wives—dozens, sometimes. A few of them—Zapata is an example—tended to cement ties to villages by having a local wife or lover. One is hard-put to find relationships comparable, say, to Ricardo and María’s or Enrique and Teresa’s or Librado and Conchita’s or Práxedis’s and Francisco Manrique’s in Mexico’s revolutionary movements. Perhaps the homosocial or homoerotic romantic relationships may have been a little more similar—insofar as you had “war buddies,” and deep reliance and trust amongst close comrades in Mexico, but it is not clear that these involved the sort of deep soul commitments and ideological commonalities that we see in a relationship like that of Práxedis and Manrique, a relationship that was not governed so much by circumstance as by mutual commitment.

1 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994).

2 Práxedis G. Guerrero, Artículos literarios y de combate: pensamientos; crónicas revolucionarias, etc. Placer Armado Ediciones, 2012 (1924), 80-2.

An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

February 24, 2015
A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

Published originally on Anarkismo

ABSTRACT: The devastating civil war that has followed the popular uprising in Syria which began in March 2011 has to an extent drowned out the legitimate grievances of the civil-protest movement against Assad and Ba’athism. This war has been greatly inflamed by support by the U.S. and Israel along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies for anti-Assad rebels on the one hand, and aid provided to the regime by Iran and Russia on the other. In addition, clearly, this geopolitical dynamic has driven the rise of ISIS/Islamic State, and it informs the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.” In contrast to the neoliberal authoritarianism of Assad and the reactionary fanaticism of ISIS and associated rebel-groupings, though, the Kurds of northeastern Syria (Rojava) are working to institute a more or less anti-authoritarian society. Hope may be found in this social model, as in the direct action of the uprising.

“Behold where stands the usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free.”

– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 8

The popular uprising in Syria that has demanded the fall of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Ba’athist domination since its beginning in March 2011 poses a number of questions for the international left, particularly anti-authoritarians. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab State in steadfast resistance (sumoud) to U.S./Israeli designs in the Middle East, as well as a government that is more representative of Arab public opinion, compared with the various Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is significant, in this sense, that Syria’s official title under Ba’athism has been the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), a name no doubt adopted as a marker of anti-monarchical distinction.1 The SAR’s progressive stance of resistance to monarchy notwithstanding, Syrian Ba’athism is clearly dictatorial, and it uses democratic centralism to attempt to legitimate its rule. As basic reflection on Assad’s response to the initial uprising makes clear, the Ba’athist State is brutally elitist in both theory and practice.

The profundity of horror of the civil war that has followed the popular mobilizations in Syria is evident, and though not all the violence which has now raged for nearly four years can be attributed to the regime, its choice to respond to the explosion of popular protests in 2011 with ruthlessness no doubt precipitated the armed insurgency that subsequently developed against it. The civil war midwived by this conflict between people and State has taken on a decidedly international scope—for to understand events in Syria itself, one must also consider the geopolitical situation, wherein Syria is allied with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as part of the “resistance axis” arrayed against the US, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond such considerations, transnational jihadist networks from the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have greatly inflamed the situation, having been born from the flames of this war—though not without considerable foreign support.

As against reactionary currents like al-Nusra and ISIS, progressive movements that have emerged from the activist movement against Assad and the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) show promise in terms of anti-authoritarianism, however much their efforts have seem to have been drowned out by the fighting. Above all, it would seem that the Kurdish libertarian-socialist currents which have grown considerably in northeastern Syria—Rojava—in connection with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) show the most promise in terms of social revolution, though the substantial military aid such forces have received from the US and NATO to help break ISIS’ siege of the border town of Kobanê since last September does raise some questions. An additional factor to consider when reflecting on the reported adoption and partial implementation by the PYD and its sister PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) of anarchist Murray Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism is that the Kurds of Rojava have enjoyed autonomy from the Ba’athist state since its withdrawal of troops from the area in 2012. As a comrade pointed out in the question-and-answer period that followed the recent presentation by a representative of the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) on Rojava at the 2014 London Anachist Bookfair, the more central regions of Syria have borne far more repression and destruction, due to the actions of regime and rebels alike.

In sheer terms of scale, it is overwhelmingly the Sunni majority of Syria that has suffered the most during the uprising and war, in light of the disproportionate number of dead and displaced who belong to this majority community. It has been Sunni neighborhoods and villages that have been the primary targets of the Ba’athist regime’s brutal counter-insurgent strategy, which has involved indiscriminate artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and SCUD missile attacks.2 Different casualty estimates claim between 130,000 and 200,000 people to have been killed in Syria in the past five years, and the UN reports that 9 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war, 3 million across international borders. Clearly, the war in Syria must be taken as among the most devastating ongoing conflicts in the world.

A Brief History of Modern Syria

To begin to make sense of Syria’s uprising and civil war, one must consider the history of the country and region. Excluding consideration of classical antiquity, the rise and spread of Islam, and the domination of the Levant by the Ottoman Empire, a truncated version of Syrian history would begin from the time of European colonization after the First World War, when the defeat of the Ottomans opened the possibility of self-determination for the Arabs who had previously been subjects of Istanbul. Characteristically, however, French and British imperialists decided themselves to appropriate former Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, dividing these into two regions that were demarcated by the infamous Sykes-Picot Line, agreed to in 1916. Thanks in no small part to the dialectically subversive and colonial machinations of T. E. Lawrence, Britain awarded itself Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, when French General Henri Gourard entered Damascus after defeating indigenous forces allied to Faisal bin Hussein—a Hashemite royal, related to the present Jordanian King Abdullah II—he is reported to have repaired to the tomb of the world-historical Kurdish general Salah-ad-din (Saladin), located in the Old City, and to have announced, “We’re back!”3 Such imperial arrogance notwithstanding, French colonialism did not survive long in the Levant, as an Arab-nationalist insurrection led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash raged from 1925-1927, and mass civil-disobedience demanded respect for the popular will in favor of independence in Lebanon and Syria at the end of World War II.4 Though the French military tried to suppress both major uprisings using disproportionate force, it ultimately was forced to recognize that it had lost control of the Levant, and so granted these countries independence (Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946)—in a preview of further losses to the French Empire incurred at Dienbienphu in Vietnam and later, during the Algerian Revolution.

Following formal independence and the election to power of Arab-nationalists in Syria, the country joined the Arab League and resisted the expanding Zionist enterprise—though to little avail, in light of the events of May 1948. The Arab Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party was founded in 1946 by Michel Aflaq, a Damascene independent Marxist and pan-Arabist, and it enjoyed electoral successes during Syria’s first decade of independence.5 The country engaged in an unprecedented federation with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt under the aegis of the “United Arab Republic,” though this collaboration lasted only three years (1958-1961). In 1963, the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup, proclaiming the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), but it was not until 1970 that air force commander Hafez al-Assad took power. It was during this time of Assad’s rise that the Syrian Ba’ath Party was purged of its more radical elements.6 Prior to Assad’s takeover, Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union, this being an alliance that has survived the USSR’s collapse: indeed, the ongoing relationship between post-Soviet Russia and the SAR is key to understanding the “balance of forces” in the present conflict, which has been marked by asymmetrical superiority on the part of the regime, at least in the early period of the uprising and war, before the rise of ISIS. In 2011, Syria was Russia’s second largest export-market for arms (a value of $500 million), and Putin sympathizes with Assad’s presentation of the conflict as a struggle against militant Islamists, for this framing has clear echoes of the counter-insurgent campaign he and Yeltsin have pursued in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, during the post-Soviet period.7

Special note should be made of the SAR’s foreign policies, since these have accounted for the relative historical and geographical uniqueness of Syrian Ba’athism, and the legitimacy that has been afforded it within many circles. Assad the elder and Assad the younger have kept up the appearance of making up a key part of the “rejectionist front” against the U.S. and Israel, as seen in the 1973 war Hafez al-Assad launched jointly with Egypt against the Jewish State, and the long-standing material and financial support the regime has provided to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Historically, Syrian Ba’athism has supported the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as provided safe haven for PKK fighters fleeing Turkish military repression across Syria’s northern border.8 Significantly, moreover, Assad had hosted Hamas since 1999, when it was expelled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, until the coming of the uprising, which led the group to break with the Syrian leader, in accordance with the international Muslim Brotherhood’s position of opposition to the regime. Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal ordered the Damascus headquarters to be packed up in January 2012, and since then, Hamas’s HQ-in-exile has tellingly been based in Doha, Qatar!9 Nonetheless, according to the analysis of Ramzy Baroud, Hamas may in fact be considered now as seeking to mend ties with the Shia resistance axis, in light of a lack of alternative sources of support, particularly as regards relations with neighboring Egypt following the junta’s coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013. In turn, the SAR’s historical support for Hamas can in some ways be considered an outgrowth of its opposition to Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a conflict that goes back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). As regards Lebanon, the Ba’athist alliance with Hezbollah cannot be considered as separate from the regime’s close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which the elder Assad quickly allied himself upon its establishment in 1979—however strange the image of a secular dictator embracing a fundamentalist Shi’ite clerical regime may be. In part, of course, the Assads’ alliance with Iran has been driven by the split in Ba’athism between its Syrian and Iraqi branches, a division that took place in 1966: Assad supported Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, and he even sent 1500 troops to aid coalition forces against Saddam during Desert Storm a decade later.10 Significantly, moreover, with regard to neighboring Lebanon, the SAR sent an invasion-occupation force to the country in 1976, supposedly to reduce tensions in the raging civil war, though tens of thousands of troops remained until they were forced out in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an act that was widely blamed on the Assad regime. In terms of the politics of occupation, the elder Assad’s support for right-wing Maronite Christian militias against the PLO in the Lebanese Civil War complicated the Ba’athist State’s claim to serve revolutionary ends, even if Israel’s 1982 incursion of Beirut and southern Lebanon was motivated in large part by the prospect of removing Syrian forces from the country.11

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez following the latter’s death in 2000. The younger Assad (34 at the time) was readily welcomed by the Syrian Parliament, which promptly lowered the minimum age of candidacy for the presidency to accommodate him, and he was “elected” with 97% of the vote in that year. While Bashar al-Assad has no doubt preserved the dictatorial nature of the Ba’athist State, thus carrying over the work of his father, earlier in his reign there was hope that he would bring liberalizing reforms to the SAR. Such hopes were motivated to a degree by the younger Assad’s background, profession, and personal life—he was an opthalmologist, not a military man, and was married to the British-raised daughter of a Sunni surgeon, and for this reason was personally acquainted with life in the United Kingdom.12 The beginning of the younger Assad’s rule thus coincided with the emergence of the ill-fated “Damascus Spring,” a movement that sought to demand that the transition in power from father to son be accompanied by suspension of the State of Emergency Law (live since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the implementation of liberal electoral reforms. Though Assad ultimately suspended such political reform efforts, he certainly has delivered in neoliberal terms—that is, in terms of serving the domestic and transnational capitalist class. After taking the reigns of the Ba’athist State, the younger Assad opened up the Syrian economy, selling off firms that previously had been State-owned, slashing subsidies for food and energy, and squeezing the financing of social services that had previously benefited the popular classes under the slogan of “Arab socialism.” Besides, in 2001 Assad opened negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).13 As has been noted, these economic reforms were not matched by a parallel opening in politics. According to Alan George, author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom (2003), Assad’s reform proposal was for a “China-style economic liberalization.”14 Ironically, and to an extent reflecting a Marxian dialectic, Assad’s neoliberalism has adversely impacted the living standards of the majority of Syrians, particularly rural residents, many of whom would go on to join the burgeoning popular mobilizations against the regime in 2011, even while it was precisely these elements that had constituted Syrian Ba’athism’s primary social base in previous decades.15 Political reform in the SAR would not come until the first month of the uprising, when Assad was forced to announce the suspension of the Emergency Law and a limited amnesty for political prisoners, in addition to granting citizenship to Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who to that point had been stateless under Ba’athism.

While Assad’s economic policies are neoliberal and orthodox, given their empowerment of a high bourgeois Sunni class that forms a critical pillar of support for Ba’athism—and in this sense, one sees a clear parallel to post-Soviet Russian society, with the oligarchs and grand capitalists who have supported Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s closest allies—he has maintained the SAR’s posturing of resistance to US/Israeli and reactionary-Gulf monarch designs in the Middle East. Assad greatly opposed the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian State has hosted more than a million refugees from that conflict. What is more, Assad facilitated the entry of Sunni jihadists into western Iraq to resist the US occupation.16 Taking these factors into account, and thinking of the SAR’s support for Palestinian and Kurdish resistance movements, a fruitful parallel can perhaps be drawn between Assad and Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi, who during his tenure championed Pan-Africanism and supported guerrilla groups resisting Israel and the West both financially and materially. The difference in fate between these two Arab dictatorships would seem to have to do with timing more than anything else: the unexpected NATO war to topple Qadhafi served as a precedent for Russia and China in terms of any possible repeat-action vis-à-vis Syria at the UN Security Council. After Qadhafi’s ouster, Putin and China would not countenance another opportunistic authorization of use of force by US/NATO forces. In fact, this geopolitical dynamic can to a degree explain the increasingly desperate recourse Obama made in September 2013 to try to commence an open air-bombardment campaign against Assad in the wake of the sarin gas attack in al-Ghouta, outside Damascus: first, POTUS claimed he would—much like his predecessor, on a similar pretext—act unilaterally with force, but he then backed down amidst marked opposition at home and on the international stage. When John Kerry off-handedly observed that the war-drive could be demobilized if Assad gave up his chemicals weapons, Putin’s diplomats jumped at the opportunity, arranging a deal whereby Assad would surrender his non-conventional weapons stocks—though significantly, while not demanding the same of Syria’s Zionist neighbor. This compromise contributed greatly to a de-escalation of tensions, thus averting a Libya-type operation in the Levant, which imaginably would have had similar results in terms of the fate of the regime and Syrian society. Tripoli’s official government has seen it necessary to flee the rampaging fundamentalist Islamists unleashed by NATO; it now bases its operations on a Greek car-ferry off-shore the eastern city of Tobruk.

March 2011: The Beginning of the Uprising

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations against the regime in 2011 raised legitimate grievances against Ba’athism: its corruption, inequalities, and authoritarianism. As is known, the Syrian uprising came late in the process known as the “Arab Spring,” months after the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen had begun. The popular rebellion started as a response to the imprisonment of several elementary-school boys who had painted the famous saying from the Arab revolts (al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam, “the people want the fall of the regime”) as graffiti on their school in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. When their parents and other local adults mobilized to demand their return, the police are reported to have denied them access, and even threatened that the children would never be seen again. This grave insult to popular dignity catalyzed progressively larger protests in Deraa that ultimately met the bullets of State authorities, in turn leading to the explosion of protests in other parts of the country, first in the traditional anti-Assad bastions of Homs and Hama. (This latter city, comprised of the Sunni majority, was the site of a ghastly repression inflicted by Ba’athist paratroopers in response to an uprising organized there by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982; between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians were killed.17) Even in Damascus, poor and middle-class individuals and families demonstrated against the regime in the early months of the rebellion, though in Aleppo and Latakia, home to more minorities, protests were less forthcoming.18 In terms of class and geography, the character of the protest movements seems to have been sharply divided between poor rural and urban Syrians, Sunni and secular, from the working classes and middle classes, as arrayed against big business (including and especially the Sunni high bourgeoisie), the military/State apparatus, Alawites, and Assad himself. Christians certainly also have been targeted by chauvinist currents within the opposition, and many have supported the regime from the beginning due to fears of the specter of Islamist domination. Another factor has been the rural-urban divide, with palpable tensions between the better-off, presumably “progressive” urban dwellers of Damascus and the supposedly conservative, peasant background of many regime opponents.19

With reference to this early period of the conflict between people and State, it is important to clearly state that the militaristic and carceral violence imposed by Assad’s regime from above was stark and grossly disproportionate—and arguably, it was consciously so—in light of the detention of ten thousand Syrians in the first six months of the uprising, and a total of nearly sixty-thousand imprisoned since then. Such fascist tactics notwithstanding, regime soldiers and police were attacked and often shot dead at this time as well, most likely by armed Islamist groups who opportunistically took advantage of the destabilization initiated by the popular protests against Assad and Ba’athist domination. Over 100 State security officers were killed in the first month and a half of the uprising, with an additional hundred massacred at Jisr al-Shughour in June 2011. This death-toll on the regime side is certainly orders of magnitude smaller than the number of casualties inflicted on protestors in the early months of the uprising—nearly 2500 are reported to have been killed in the uprising’s first six months alone—but it can help explain the regime’s resort to an iron-fisted response, which its regime propaganda rationalized by playing up the angles of “foreign conspiracy” and “Islamist terrorist gangs.” Assad definitely missed a huge opportunity for de-escalating tensions when he failed to intervene and punish the elements of the security forces who had reacted brutally and contemptuously to the first protests in Deraa, but then again, he may well have believed from the start that only a highly authoritarian approach to dealing with the popular revolt would allow his regime to survive.20

With the passage of time and the transition from popular uprising to insurgency and civil war, as spurred on by regime brutality, the regime’s military-police apparatus took increasingly macabre means to suppress the civil uprising: it began employing artillery against rebel positions and civilian areas alike in fall 2011, followed by aerial bombardment in spring 2012, cluster bombs that summer, and then missiles in the fall.21 Though the cities of Hama and Homs have met with great violence from the regime from the beginning of the uprising, Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib, and the suburbs of Damascus have been subjected to as much devastation, if not more. Intriguingly, it would seem that Assad’s commanders have chosen to rely more on artillery and air-power than the infantry and armored divisions to serve the end of repression, due to the greater risks of defection involved in the use of regular ground-troops, who are overwhelmingly Sunni conscripts.22 Indeed, to ensure the loyalty of the military and security services to Assad, the officer class and intelligence agencies are mostly constituted by Alawites.23

After months of initial civil protest against the regime—some currents of which had demanded mere parliamentary reforms at the outset, but then were subsequently radicalized by the regime crackdown, coming to demand no less than the fall of Assad and Ba’athism altogether—the popular-activist movement was eclipsed by the resort to armed struggle, as prosecuted both by Islamist opportunists and more secular rebels, including thousands of defectors from regime forces, a handful of whom proclaimed the foundation of the Free Syria Army (FSA) in June 2011. In addition to army defectors, it is understood that FSA ranks were filled at the beginning as well by volunteer civilian-militants driven to resist the regime by force of arms. In this sense, the beginnings of the FSA must not be conflated with what the FSA subsequently has become, following the pernicious influences the CIA, GCC, and competing Islamist rebels have had on the FSA brigades. In parallel to the FSA’s armed struggle, an important anti-authoritarian development has taken place among the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that have managed regions of Syrian territory from which the regime has been expelled during the war. According to the estimation of Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, the praxis of the LCCs has made the Syrian uprising “the most democratically organized” of all the Arab revolts that began in 2011.24 As a matter of fact, the decision regime forces made early on to dismantle these decentralized units by arresting their principal organizers played an important part in the general shift from civil to armed tactics on the part of increasingly more regime opponents.25

Speaking of the oppositional movements to Assad—besides class considerations, which can again be summarized broadly as pitting the poor and middle classes among the Sunni majority against Sunni capitalists, Alawites, and the regime’s repressive apparatus, religious identification has been a critical factor in the course of the uprising and civil war. Due to the particularities of Syrian Ba’athism, especially the younger Assad’s neoliberal turn, Syria’s rural poor hail overwhelmingly from the Sunni majority (74% of the population), while families and members of the Alawite and Christian minorities (12% and 10%, respectively) have been the most economically privileged groups under Ba’athism, besides the Sunni high bourgeoisie. Though notable exceptions exist to the established trend of Alawite and Christian support for the regime, it generally holds to be true: like the even smaller Druze and Shia minority groups of Syria (4% of the population), Alawites and Christians fear domination by chauvinist interpretations of Islam, like those expressed and affirmed by the majority of the armed groups that have lined up against Assad.26 If one looks to history and especially the present, one can understand such fears: consider the collusion between the Egyptian military and Wahhabis to attack and massacre Coptic Christians after Mubarak’s fall, or ISIS’s ethnic-cleansing operations against Christian Yazidis and Shia in Iraq and eastern Syria.

Islamization of the Anti-Assad Opposition

During this time, early on within the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, the oppositional movement was largely “hijacked” by Islamization and sectarian jihad. The “pro-rebel” narrative on this evolutionary process, which is accepted by some on the left, indeed, is that the regime’s violent repressiveness made a non-violent social transformation of Syria impossible, such that protestors were forced to take up arms. However, as the Angry Arab News Service editor As’ad Abu-Khalil rightly notes, this explanation leaves unclear why the armed insurgency so quickly became dominated by jihadist elements, with the more secular FSA units progressively eclipsed on the battlefield over time. Realizing the fears of many reasonable regime opponents regarding the option for an armed approach to resistance, the option for armed insurgency has brought the imposition of a reified power on the Syrian masses who previously had struggled legitimately against Ba’athist domination, as militarization, sectarianism, and Sunni chauvinism took hold.27 Besides the FSA, one cannot overlook the primacy of reactionary movements like Ahrar al-Sham (Free Islamic Men of the Levant), Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Islamiyya (Islamic Front), Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and ISIS itself in this second phase of the Syrian saga. All of these groupings have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, otherwise known as Salafism, or openly endorse it—this being an extremely intolerant and highly authoritarian interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abed al-Wahhab (1703-1792 CE). It is well-known that the opposition driving many of these extremist Sunni groups has been hatred of the SAR’s secularism and the regime’s privileging of Alawites, who are considered by Wahhabis as “nusayris,” or fake Muslims—that is, infidels!

This process toward the militarization and Islamization of the opposition to Syrian Ba’athism has not primarily been an organic Syrian process, as it has undoubtedly been fueled greatly by the influx of thousands of foreign fighters pertaining to these various Islamist gangs and the significant support provided to these in terms of funding, arms, and training by the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. The degree to which these outside imperialist interests have provided support to the different currents within the anti-Assad opposition has been variable, yet it has been considerable nonetheless: a “conservative” estimate of the quantity of arms supplied to rebels by the US/GCC has been calculated as amounting to at least 3,500 tons, in acccordance with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad cites estimates that Qatar has provided between $2 and $6 billion to rebel forces in Syria. Officially, the U.S. gave only “non-lethal aid” to Free Syrian Army units in the first couple years of the civil war, though numerous stockpiles of US-made heavy weapons as well as tanks and armored-personnel personnel carriers have made it into the hands of ISIS—“appropriated,” the story goes, as they were by ISIS from other anti-regime forces, as well as Iraqi Army units, who surrendered Mosul so quickly when confronted with IS hordes this past June. Turkey and Jordan both host CIA bases where arms have been “coordinated” and “moderate rebels” trained. Additionally, it has come to light that Israel provides medical aid to rebel fighters injured by regime forces in southern Syria—recall that the Israeli military shot down a regime jet over the Golan Heights in September 2014 that was bombarding al-Nusra positions, and consider that the Jewish State has bombed Syria on at least six separate occasions since the start of the uprising and civil war, with the most recent coming being just in December 2014.28 With regard to the relationship between ISIS and the GCC, it is not necessarily true that KSA and Qatar State interests have funded ISIS specifically, but the evidence does suggest that private interests from these countries, as well as in Kuwait and the UAE, have been seminal in ISIS’ meteoric rise. Besides, what is ISIS but an extreme expression of the “moderate” rebels that have been openly supported by Qatar and the KSA for years? It would seem that, other than for the Kurds and certain elements within what remains of the FSA, the spectrum of armed resistance to Assad is limited to the far-right dimensions of political thought.

Foreign Factors Prolonging and Intensifying the War: Empire and Climate Catastrophe

The Syrian Civil War has been as bloody as it has been drawn-out principally due to the material and financial support of broadly different imperialisms for the two (or three, or four) sides of the conflict**: Russia and Iran supporting Assad on the one hand, and the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the US/Israel supporting various rebel factions on the other. Shamus Cooke makes this point knowingly on in a July 2013 piece on Truthout, though he does not name the Russian/Iranian support for the SAR as similarly contributing to the war’s prolongation. To an extent, the different constituent parties on the NATO/GCC side would seem to disagree on exactly which oppositional groups to aid and favor, and there has been some speculation that the US and Israel in fact prefer Assad to any Wahhabi or Salafist movement that could follow him, which would likely be allied to forces like ISIS—such that US/Israeli support for the rebels could be argued as seeking simply to install a solidly pro-Western strong man to replace Assad, perhaps someone like FSA General Salim Idris. This end clearly would serve US/Israeli designs for regional hegemony, as it would GCC interests—the excision or neutralization of a major component of the “resistance axis” in the Middle East. Yet this goal seems very illusory at the present time, when the FSA is greatly weakened in terms of the balance of forces in the civil war. Indeed, many former FSA units have reportedly abandoned the brigades to join the more successful Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Besides the ongoing conflict between people and State, the main military conflict at this time is between the regime and ISIS, with the newly forged NATO-Arab monarch coalition’s air-war against ISIS arguably and ironically serving Assad’s strategic objectives in some ways.

Besides the very real arms and cash provided by the NATO/GCC side to the rebels since the beginning of the uprising and civil war, it bears mentioning that the specifically Saudi ideological influence on the rebel-currents predates the current disturbances by decades. Flush with unimaginable wealth yielded by the exploitation of its massive petroleum-deposits in the late twentieth century, the KSA has long prioritized proselytization of its particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world, with well-known noxious effects. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Deobandi school of Islam among Pashtun refugees in Pakistan was seminal to the success of the Taliban in taking power in war-torn Afghanistan, a society exhausted in 1996 by more than a decade of Soviet occupation and the years of civil war among Afghans that followed Soviet withdrawal. More fundamentally, of course, the Saudis’ matching of funds and arms supplied by the CIA to the mujahideen via Pakistan during the Soviet occupation itself played a critical role in the strengthening of reactionary, fundamentalist forces in the region. The story is not entirely dissimilar in the case of Syria, where Saudi private and public resources have been directed to chauvinist opposition forces that have to varying degrees now melded into ISIS. Moreover, the KSA’s established sectarianism in supporting Sunnis against Shi’ites and thus presumably Iran—see the Saudi invasion of Bahrain in 2011 to suppress the Sunni-Shia popular uprising against the ruling Khalifa dynasty there, itself being Sunni—has further polluted the geopolitical context of the region, such that Sunnis and Shi’ites increasingly face off against one another on religious lines, as in Iraq, rather than organize jointly against the capitalists, monarchs, Zionists, and other authoritarians. The toxic legacy of the KSA’s Wahhabism in terms of suppressing left-wing and humanist alternatives in the Middle East should be clear for all to see.29 In this sense, it is not terribly difficult to see how aspects of the Syrian and foreign opposition to Assad have been framed primarily in religious terms, with political Islam seemingly resonating far more as an identity of resistance to the regime than leftist sentiments. With this said, however, the decline of regional left-wing forces cannot be blamed exclusively on the KSA, for the Assads clearly have contributed to this dynamic as well, as the US, Israel, and Iran have.30

Another critical aspect to consider in terms of imperial power and oil politics is the role that environmental and geographical factors have played in the development of the uprising and civil war. From 2006 to 2011, Syria suffered an unprecedented drought which in all likelihood follows from the observed decline in Mediterranean winter precipitation over the past four decades, a change which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has attributed to global warming. The drought has been far worse than any experienced during the twentieth century, and has even been described as the worst since the onset of agricultural civilization itself in the Near East. As can be imagined, this new ecological situation has worsened poverty, especially for pastoralists and agriculturalists in Syria’s rural regions, and contributed to a mass-migration of these effective environmental refugees. It has been argued that this ecological-demographic shift, which has involved an estimated 1.5 million people, greatly exacerbated anti-Assad sentiments, and that it would indeed act as a “threat-multiplier” as regards the stability of the regime with the coming of the uprising. Yet it must not somehow be thought that Assad is entirely the innocent victim of climatological chance here—or really, more accurately said, the previous and ongoing legacies of mass-carbon pollution by the West—for his liberalization of the economy itself certainly gave monopoly-capital a free hand in exploiting water reserves with abandon, leading to marked falls in water-table levels and thus greater societal vulnerability to turns of events like a devastating drought that in turn is intensified by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).

Coming to the present, and to consideration of what could or should be done, an arms embargo for all parties to the conflict could be one means of de-escalating the Syrian Civil War, as would be the renunciation by the US/Israel of a war-footing against Iran, as Richard Falk recommends, in addition to progress toward transforming the Middle East into a nuclear- and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone (NWFZ and WMDFZ).31 Admittedly, is difficult to envision how such steps would realistically be implemented, given the established hegemonic interests on both sides of the conflict, both in terms of Syria itself as well as with regard to Iran behind it. So far, the three iterations of the Geneva conferences on Syria’s future and prospects for reconciliation between Assad and the opposition have accomplished little, as Shamus Cooke has reported. By excluding Iran from the talks and continuing to press forward with new funding for the FSA on the order of $500 million, Obama shows his administration’s lack of interest in seriously working toward a cessation of hostilities—in a parallel to the White House’s reactionary standpoint on a number of other pressing global issues, from support for Israel to dismissal of the increasingly radical recommendations of climate scientists. In terms of the humanitarian and political dimensions of the ongoing drought in Syria, this would only seem to show the acute importance of concerted global efforts to radically reduce carbon emissions as a means of reducing the probability of future recurrences of eventualities like this one, or ones far worse indeed, that could imaginably affect billions of lives. As is clear, though, from any contemplation of the theater of the absurd on hand seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, the global capitalist power-structure is far more interested in upholding its utter irrationality and violence than in dealing in any sort of reasonable fashion with serious existential threats like ACD.

In terms of the war itself, a cease-fire between the regime and rebel forces would be but a minimum demand for progress on the question of Syria’s future. Though such an accord would not resolve issues regarding the ultimate fate of the regime or the importance of demobilization and disarmament—to say nothing of the geopolitical power-struggle—it would seem basic in terms of beginning to attend to the devastation wrought on the Syrian people and the region by this war. Another critical aspect is to ensure that the rights of the country’s minority communities are protected in a future Syria; as has been stated, sectarianism and fears of Sunni majoritarianism have clearly driven many Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shi’ites to side with the regime.32 Granted, it is true that progress toward respect for cultural pluralism, as toward a resolution of the civil war in general, is now greatly complicated by the rise of ISIS, with the strange dynamic being symbolized by the unexpected phenomenon of NATO/GCC air-forces bombing positions within the delimitations of Syrian territory that are controlled by elements of the opposition they previously had supported against Assad.

**The two principal sides are Assad and ISIS, though the FSA could be considered a third front (one that arguably is on the way out), with the popular civil struggle against Ba’athism a fourth.

The Promise of the Rojava Revolution?

Within the course of the Syrian Civil War, which has self-evidently been so full of darkness, negation, and destruction, one potentially affirming development has been the unfolding of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast of the country, known as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava. There, the PYD and the Kurdish Group of Communities (KCK) have overseen what some observers have hailed as a thoroughgoing social revolution—the “Rojava Revolution”—inspired to some degree by the anarchism of Murray Bookchin. While the revolution is said to have followed Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, the KCK has referred to its particular praxis as “democratic confederalism,” or “Kurdish communalism.” These changes are in turn said to have reflected the recent internal reorientation of the PKK, with which the YPD and KCK are affiliated, from a traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective seeking national liberation for the Kurds to a more communitarian-anarchist approach reminiscent of that taken by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The outcomes that have been reported from KCK communities, particularly thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Society Movement, or Tev-Dem, have been a rise in councilism and direct democracy, an internal supersession of the use of currency and a shift toward cooperative production within the KCK, and a marked emphasis on women’s emancipation and ecological balance.33 Most recently, of course, the fate of the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have been in the minds and hearts of observers from around the world, who have watched as ISIS forces progressively surrounded the city of Kobanê on the Turkish border and besieged it for months on end, leading to the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and concern that the Salafist forces, if victorious, would carry out genocide in the city. Eventually, of course, the US-monarch “coalition” intervened against the ISIS menace as part of the aerial-bombardment campaign it had launched in August 2014: the estimated six hundred imperialist air-strikes targeting ISIS forces in and around Kobanê certainly contributed to the YPG’s victory against the Salafists, which was announced in late January.

The attack by ISIS on PKK affiliates in Rojava—an assault that was ultimately rebuffed by the intervention of NATO air-power—is not the first time these insurgent Kurds have had conflicts with elements opposed to Assad. In late 2012 and early 2013, the PYD and YPG/YPJ were attacked by FSA units, just as they have met with al-Nusra assaults at other times, whereas other FSA brigades have actually supported the YPG/YPJ in defending Kobanê. Relations between the Kurds and the Syrian rebels have not exactly been consistently amicable. In a parallel of sorts to the case with Alawites and Christians, Kurds in Syria—who incidentally are mostly Sunni themselves—have distrusted the mainstream Syrian opposition for being dominated by Arab nationalists who have proven unwilling to clearly ensure the rights of minorities in any post-Assad future for the country.34 A clear parallel can be drawn here with relations between Algerian Arabs and the Berber or Kabyle minority that resides in eastern Algeria, for the Kabyles have resisted trends reflecting Arab chauvinism and centralization of power in significantly militant ways in the half-century following independence from France.35

Nonetheless, despite the socio-political strides made by the PYD, KCK, and YPG/YPJ in Rojava under admittedly non-ideal conditions, skepticism and concerns abound regarding the content and direction of the Rojava Revolution. For one, an anarcho-syndicalist perspective would question the liberal-parliamentary tendencies that certain Kurdish factions have been seen to favor over the councilism of Tev-Dem and the KCK. Anarchists should regard the Rojava experiment truthfully, neither overlooking the trends toward parliamentary social-democracy and centralization in the movement, nor hold it all in utter disdain precisely due to these very tendencies. Beyond that, the recent dénouement in Kobanê, which saw NATO/GCC air-forces launch a continuous four-month bombardment of ISIS positions starting in September, just as the heroic defense had been overwhelmed and the city was in danger of falling, raises questions about the revolutionary character of the self-described Kurdish radicals. If the movement depends on the US military to save it from ISIS, then how anti-imperialist can it really claim to be? On the other hand, one could argue that the US/GCC has a responsibility to protect the town from falling to ISIS forces, given that these hegemonic powers are in fact to varying degrees to blame for the emergence of ISIS—particularly when one considers the constituent parts of the ISIS armory. Nonetheless, and while not overlooking the obvious differences in political orientation between the cases of Rojava and Libya, is this “tactical alliance” between revolution and reaction terribly distinct from the military support given by Obama and the French to the Benghazi rebels who arrayed themselves against Gadhafi? If one welcomes USAF’s intervention to “save” Kobanê, can one really reject the calls made by certain elements in the anti-Assad opposition for a US-enforced no-fly zone over the SAR? David Graeber provoked a great deal of controversy on the left when he suggested in early October—that is, early on within the airstrike campaign—that the West had to provide military assistance to the Kurds in Kobanê, or at least that it should pressure Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to open the border to resupply the embattled YPG/YPJ and allow in Kurdish reinforcements like the Peshmerga—who were in fact allowed to cross over in late October. Whatever one may think about the morality of imperialist air-strikes defending social-revolutionary processes, the truth of the matter is that the Obama administration now has an “in” with the PYD, and it has reportedly entered into direct talks with the group. Admittedly, the problem is a complex dilemma, with no clear answers.

Conclusion: Historical and Philosophical Implications of the Syrian Uprising

To conclude this discussion on Syria, which so far has been steeped in geopolitics, I would like to turn to some historical and philosophical considerations. The Syrian uprising provides yet another example of mass-popular rebellion demanding participation in the political realm; in this sense, it joins the long list of dignified popular insurrections that have aimed at the institution of People’s Power, as George Katsiaficas has chronicled them. To answer the question posed by Nader Hashemi in The Syria Dilemma (2013)—a question he takes from the left-wing and revolutionary historical tradition—the Syrian people do have the right to self-determination, and their struggle against Ba’athism resembles the earlier struggle against French imperial domination in important ways. However, it is highly questionable that the means to this desired end should be those advocated by Hashemi, in accordance with certain factions in the FSA and their civilian counterpart, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: that is, a no-fly zone over the SAR enforced by NATO and the GCC, along with increased financial and military support for the “moderate” rebels.36

Another question to ponder is whether the Syrian people have “inherited” the standpoint of sumoud and resistance from Ba’athism—with this being one of the SAR’s few positive aspects. Though the findings of current opinion polls of Syrians, both located inside the SAR and abroad, whether as refugees or as constituents of the diaspora, are unknown to me, it is to be imagined that they do support the Palestinian struggle and oppose US/Israeli/GCC designs for the region. Furthermore, if given the opportunity, it would be hoped that they carry this resistance to a dialectically higher level than what has been exhibited by the Assads, in support of the global struggle for anti-systemic change. Still, the observed collaboration of elements of the anti-Assad opposition and of the Kurdish revolutionaries with the US/Israel complicates matters, to say nothing of the ties between the far-right facets of the opposition enthralled to Wahhabism and their GCC backers.

In terms of political philosophy, the Syrian uprising and civil war present a number of intriguing ideologies to reflect on. Though clearly atavistic in its desire to re-establish a Caliphate in the Levant, ISIS is not strictly medievalist in its approach, as its sleek videos and propaganda style attest to. Moreover, as Murtaza Hussein has argued, ISIS can be considered as sharing more with Leninism, the Maoist Red Guards, and the Khmer Rouge than the early Muslims, given the theory to which it claims adherence, and which it strives to institute: that is, the liberation of the people (or Umma) from above via extreme violence, as waged by a vanguard group. Indeed, this approach would seem to echo that taken by Sayyid Qutb, a leading early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “revolutionary” Islamist theory arguably was developed on the foundation of Lenin’s philosophy, with Islam replacing communism as the world-historical resolution to class struggle and human alienation in his account.** On the other hand, the organizational style and underlying philosophies of the YPG and YPJ can be considered to recall Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian anarchist army, the Makhnovshchina, and the anarcho-syndicalist brigades of the CNT/FAI in the Spanish Revolution. To a lesser extent, certain elements of the FSA could be said to have libertarian elements—not specifically in terms of the political views of many of the affiliated fighters, particularly in light of the mass-defection that has been observed of FSA units going over to groups like al-Nusra and ISIS, but rather in operational style, for the FSA from the beginning was reportedly comprised largely of decentralized and autonomous brigades that resisted an overarching command structure, until this was imposed with the coming of the Supreme Military Command (SMC) in December 2012. At present, according to Patrick Cockburn, FSA commanders receive their marching orders directly from Washington, such that any postulated similarities between the FSA structure and historical anarchist fighting-groups can be said to have been surpassed now in the historical process. As for Assad and Syrian Ba’athism, these can be viewed as variants on the Leninist and Jacobin traditions themselves, if we were to bracket the younger Assad’s neoliberalism for the moment: as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein (and notwithstanding the conflicts between Saddam and the Assads), Ba’athism in the SAR has taken on the form of a secular dictatorship that claims to represent the wishes of the people, both Syrian and Arab as a whole, through a sort of democratic-centralist observation of “the general will,” as conceptualized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Interestingly, it is in this vanguardist sense that Ba’athism and Qutb’s proto-Leninism converge politically, their basic divergence on the role of religion in society notwithstanding. According to its own narrative, Syrian Ba’athism has “stood up” to the supposedly backward and devout attitudes of ordinary Syrians, especially rural folks and Sunnis, and in this way preserved cultural and religious pluralism, relative freedom for women, secularism, resistance to Zionism and US/GCC imperialism, and the “progress” of the Arab nation—or, so the pro-regime argument goes.

I will close by quoting Herbert Marcuse, discussing Walter Benjamin: “To a liberated people, redeemed from oppressive violence, there belongs an emancipated and redeemed nature.”37 While the Syrian uprising and civil war have self-evidently been primarily about social domination and human oppression, the popular struggle and mass-suffering seen in that country can be taken as representative of the times, a microcosm of the brutality visited by late capitalism on humanity and nature alike. Besides the evident human losses involved, the civil war has doubtless also greatly degraded the environment of the Levant, much as other wars have, including that of the Turkish State against the Kurds, as associates of the Cilo-Der Nature Association observe.38 The political struggles in the Levant, which contain liberal, reactionary, fundamentalist, and revolutionary elements aligned against State terror, the police state, and militarism, illuminate the general struggle for a free humanity, which is developing as though embryonically. Without a doubt, the global revolution is made not just for humanity, but also for nature, without which humans cannot live, as the long-standing drought in Syria shows. In fact—again with reference to the recent COP20 conference—the uprising demonstrates what would now seem to be the sole means of interrupting existing trends toward total destruction: that is, direct action, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. Though repulsed, shackled, and beaten, the humanist-insurrectional Geist seen in the Syrian uprising and the Rojava Revolution holds great promise for radical politics today and into the future: the primacy of reason over tradition and authority, an end affirmed in the ninth century by the Baghdadi heretic Ibn al-Rawandi. I will leave the last word for a famous Kurdish saying, which I have learned from anarcha-feminist Dilar Dirik, speaking on “Stateless Democracy”: Berhodan jian-e!” (“Resistance is life!”)

**As Adam Curtis explains in “The Power of Nightmares,” Qutb sought to apply authoritarian-socialist lines of analysis to the study of the Arab masses, who he thought had inauthentically internalized and accepted capitalist, materialist values from the West that fundamentally conflicted with the “truth” of Islam.

A shorter version of this talk was first presented at the November 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair.

1Firas Massouh, “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left,” Global Communism (2013), 52.

2Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: Routledge, 2013), 57, 192.

3Reese Erlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 48.

4Erlich, 50-57.

5Ibid 60-61.

6Ibid 61; Gilbert Achcar, The People Want, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 173.

7Hokayem 172-4.

8Erlich 172.

9Ibid 209.

10Erlich 146-149, 71.

11Massouh, 60; Erlich 67-68.

12Hokayem 22.

13Ibid 26-27, 43.

14Cited in Massouh, 63.

15Achcar 177.

16Ibid 178.

17Ibid 178-179.

18Hokayem 45-49.

19Ibid 54.

20Ibid 40-41.

21Ibid 57.

22Ibid 58.

23Achcar 174.

24Ibid 182.

25Hokayem 69.

26Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London: Hurst and Company, 2012), 29-54.

27Hokayem 81.

28Erlich, 250-255.

29Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

30Massouh, 58-59.

31Richard Falk, “What Should be Done About the Syrian Tragedy?” The Syria Dilemma, eds. Nader Hoshemi and Danny Postel (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013), 61-75.

32Hokayem 11.

33For more details on the KCK’s accomplishments in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), please see TATORT Kurdistan, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology, trans. Janet Biehl (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013).

34Hokayem 80.

35David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).

36Nader Hashemi, “Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists are Missing,” The Syria Dilemma, 221-234.

37Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution, and Utopia: Collected Papers. Volume 6, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (London: Routledge, 2014), 126.

38TATORT Kurdistan, 158-60.