Posts Tagged ‘Jacobinism’

Rebellion and Prefiguration against Refeudalization and Saktiná

December 22, 2015

Marcuse_74_ParisPublished on Heathwood Press, 21 December 2015

In Salisbury, Maryland, from Thursday 12 November 2015 to Saturday the 14th, the sixth biennual International Herbert Marcuse Society conference took place: “Praxis and Critique: Liberation, Pedagogy, and the University.” Held at Salisbury University (SU), the conference was hosted by Professor Sarah Surak. It was comprised of approximately 23 panels, together with a few workshops—notably including a collective art-making effort to “Express Your Fantasies,” inspired in part by reflecting on the above image of Marcuse speaking in Paris. The convergence brought together a number of radical philosophers and activists who spoke on historical and contemporary struggles and their relationship to Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School theorists—particularly Herbert Marcuse, of course—Marxism, and anarchism.

At the panel on “Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century” held on Friday afternoon, speakers reflected on the meaning of Critical Theory today: the question of its relevance for the present world, and its relationship to the project of liberatory social transformation. Professor Arnold Farr, host of the 2013 Marcuse Society conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, spoke to the multiple sites of oppression in capitalist society—race, gender, and sexuality, alongside class—that constitute the various contradictions through which capitalist society is “shot through.” In parallel, Farr identified the cycle whereby critique opens the possibility of change, while the possibility of change helps critique along in turn. Co-panelist Lauren Langman then observed that Critical Theory and its theorists should be primarily concerned with three matters: critiquing society, promoting open-mindedness, and having a vision. He optimistically observed that the strength of the transnational capitalist class is “based on a bowl of jello,” and that humanity “will get a better society” eventually. Stefan Gandler, author of Critical Marxism in Mexico, discussed autonomous Mexican movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), other armed left-wing guerrilla forces, and the mass-popular resistance evinced throughout the country in response to the State’s forcible disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, as well as the popular mobilizations that undermined the heavy-handed response the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) initially had launched against the EZLN during the latter’s insurrection of January 1994. In terms of militarism and non-cooperation, Gandler mentioned that several Mexican Army units refused to follow orders mandating suppression of the Zapatista rebellion, thus greatly limiting the amount of blood shed during the twelve days of war. Andrew Lamas, host of the 2011 “Critical Refusals” conference at the University of Pennsylvania, affirmed the continued relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis, emphasizing that capitalism can only be overcome in unison with the abolition of white supremacy.

Simultaneously, on the “Rationalizing Environments” panel, SU undergraduate student Jake O’Neil examined environmental and “green” discourse, posing the question, “Is Going Green Enough?” Applying a Marcusean analysis of one-dimensionality, instrumental reason, and the performance principle to the ever-failing project of attempting to “solve” the ecological crisis within the strictures of capital and the State, O’Neil provided a genealogy of the rise of “green consumerism” and the “green economy” over the past generation, contrasting the colonization of the concept from its original association with anti-capitalist politics. Once one becomes enthralled to green consumerism, one’s commitment to a better future is individualized and commodified, thus serving the end of recuperation—that is to say, falsely to integrate the contradictions of capitalism, in turn shoring up that very same system. O’Neil’s clearly Marcusean alternative is to “open up” the realm of environmental discourse, subject hegemonic approaches to critique, and hence allow for “the possibility of liberating, radical change”: namely, a global transformation propelled by the flowering of a Marcusean “new sensibility” among the general populace that would valorize the importance of all terrestrial and marine life, in place of the prevailing valorization of capital and destruction.

Meanwhile, at the panel “Popular Culture and Prefigurative Politics—on which the Brazilian Marcuse scholar Imaculada Kangussu addressed the question of how art can help to advance the new sensibility and provoke “inner revolutions”—John-Patrick Schultz intervened on “Walter Benjamin and Prefigurative Politics: The Utopian Hermeneutic of Space.” Schultz opened immediately by juxtaposing the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image”—whereby “capitalist materiality converges with radically democratic possibility” through direct action and decolonization—with the 30 November 1999 (“N30”) actions taken by the ACME collective, the anarchist Black Bloc, and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) as a whole against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle—otherwise known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The speaker stressed how the GJM instituted prefigurative politics in its actions, seeking not a utopian futural break with capital but instead the immediate founding of “an alternative social order” based on direct or horizontal democracy—these being demands and orientations that “reject[ed] the idea that there can be no other future and provid[ed] a concrete illustration of that alternative.” In Benjaminian terms, Schultz detects in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and in the recent “movement of squares” of 2011 to the present a “surviving historical desire for democratic social control.” Through their prefiguration of a “novel future,” Schultz emphasized, such movements disprove David Harvey’s questionable claim in Rebel Cities (2013) that autonomous, decentralized models of opposition are incapable of presenting a serious challenge to capitalism and the State. Instead, as Schultz writes, their “utopian hermeneutic […] entails a highly antagonistic demand for collective, egalitarian enjoyment [that is] wholly at odds with neoliberalism” and the capitalist system.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, a number of conference-goers attended a reception at an art gallery in downtown Salisbury, featuring a number of beautiful surrealistic paintings by Antje Wichtrey that appear in the volume Versprechen, dass e sanders sein kann (“Promises that it can be different”), edited by Peter Erwin-Jansen. Besides this, the gallery exhibited works that had been created by graduate students attending the “Express Your Fantasies” workshop on Thursday. Apparently, the discrepancy seen between the original Marcuse photograph discovered in the Paris lectures that served as the conference’s main image and the edited version reproduced by the university administration on campus—one lacking the graffiti depicting female breasts, as above—inspired many of the students to express artistic fantasies involving breasts. In addition, those assembled at the gallery celebrated the birthday of Herbert’s son Peter that night—in the presence of Peter himself and his wife—but negatively, it was while we were indulging in art and enjoying the gathering that we first learned about the attacks in Paris. One of the participants made an announcement about the scores of lives taken, and he invited conference-goers to share in a collective discussion about the events and their likely impacts on war, international relations, and the fate of refugees at lunch-time the next day.

At our Saturday morning panel on “Post-Soviet Marxism: Marcuse in the Developing World,” George Katsiaficas began with a presentation on “Eurocentric Views of Civil Society.” Katsiaficas argued that the established power of Western capitalism has often led to the repression of consideration of alternative views of the meaning of civil society, especially in non-bourgeois and non-Western terms. He offered the politeness and fairness of Confucian social norms on hand in Korea and the enlightening thought of Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-1198 CE) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as promotive of different forms of individuality. Furthermore, he mentioned the early republican governance structure of Lugash under Gudea in classical Mesopotamia (ca. 2144-2124 BCE) as well as the assembly-based republics that arose along the Ganges River from approximately 600 to 300 BCE, together with the parallel birth of Buddhism and Jainism as more egalitarian off-shoots of Hinduism. Moreover, the investigator declared forthrightly that the “theory of Oriental despotism” which permeates much of Western political sociology vastly underplays the very real Western despotism imposed on the non-Western world through imperialism—as starkly illustrated in the estimated 10 million Asians who were murdered by the U.S. military during the twentieth century. Katsiaficas remarked that civil society played an enormously important role in the Gwanju Commune (1980), adding that it still has a great task to accomplish today, in light of the propulsion of domination—the “gangsters running society” and “freedom of war and private property”—intensifying reification and what Jürgen Habermas has called outright “refeudalization” of the globe. I then followed, examining Marcuse’s views on authority and the transition away from capitalism—the question of whether the critical theorist is more in keeping with anarchism and libertarian socialism or Jacobinism and authoritarian socialism. Though the answer is not entirely clear, given the ambiguity Marcuse expressed at times about the need for an “intellectual” or “education” dictatorship to lead humanity and history out of the capitalist impasse, my view is that Marcuse’s political philosophy is more consistently libertarian than authoritarian—it is more concerned with decentralization and autonomy than temporary or “transitional” dictatorship. This is clear from “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis Based on Bahro’s Method” (1979), Marcuse’s last essay. Still, like the EZLN, which has a political system governed by assemblies and a parallel military command-structure, Marcuse may have felt that there was some degree of a need for both: a “Committee for Public Safety” alongside mass-popular intervention and the creation of the commune. Next, comrade Nick Zeller spoke on the fascinating case of Marxism in Thailand, a cause advanced by one Jit Phumisak, who originally and dialectically had been contracted by the CIA to translate Capital into Thai in an attempt to pressure the Chakri monarchy to take evermore authoritarian-repressive measures against the regional specter of agrarian and proletarian revolution. While translating and thus confronting Marx’s work on political economy, Phumisak himself became a communist militant. He went on to write The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and was for this reason imprisoned. After being released, Phumisak joined Thai communist guerrillas—this being a commitment that would lead to his martyrdom in battle against the State. Zeller shared the radical theorist’s analysis of the joint exploitation of the Thai masses, as prosecuted by imperialism and feudalism (saktiná); discussed the similarities and differences between this analysis and that of Marx’s views on non-Western societies like India and Russia; and related the stress Phumisak placed on an alliance between the peasantry and the small but expanding industrial proletariat of Thailand and Southeast Asia in overthrowing the “Western saktiná stage” of world-history. Zeller even mentioned the possibility of engaging in historiography from the vantage point of “saktiná history”—that is, of analyzing history as domination and the struggle against it. Such could be a dialectical counterpart to the “dharma history” or “Bodhisattva history” Kim Stanley Robinson envisions in his alternate-history book, The Years of Rice and Salt: namely, “any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world [… or] which suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward […]” (Stanley Robinson, 2002, p. 733).

At the panel “Biopolitical Spaces of Resistance and Domination,” Jennifer Lawrence presented on critical artworks developed in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the emancipatory potential for aesthetic eco-resistance as a means of speaking to truth to power and its propaganda in a talk called “In Order Not to Die from the Truth: Disaster, Art, Resistance.” Lawrence’s co-panelist James Stanescu then expounded on stupidity, rationality, and animality. He noted that we humans cannot suppress our similarity with the other animals with whom we have co-evolved: that children cannot but recognize themselves in apes and vice versa, and that the interest we take in clowns, metaphysics, and the aesthetic dimension reflects our prehistorical, primordial animality. The “idiot,” in the sense of an intellectually challenged person, slows everything down, and asks the questions which need answering. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, it is a question of becoming-minor, or “becoming-animal.” Stanescu cited Marcuse’s observation in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that materialism demands the overcoming of the ill-treatment of non-human animals in the historical process, and that our profound commonality with the other animals should lead us to conceive of our own selves as potential “meat,” and thus to reject speciesism on the one hand while practically adopting veganism or vegetarianism on the other. Alexander Stoner spoke next on “Human-Ecological Transformation and Contemporary Ecological Subjectivity,” addressing the dynamics of capitalism and discontents revolving around catastrophic climate change and the environmental crisis writ large. Taking an historical view, Stoner examined the challenges presented by environmentalism during the third quarter of the twentieth century (1950-1975), as more people came to question the superfluousness of work and the utter irrationality of environmental destructiveness, but he noted how the realm of necessity re-asserted itself in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation,” much as the Empire strikes back. Stoner spoke to the seeming paradox of increased environmental attention and concern amidst accelerating planetary degradation, and asked whether, as eco-crisis becomes increasingly apparent, the causes of this crisis are becoming increasingly illusory. Stoner took Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) to task in this sense, for Klein identifies the problem as neoliberal capitalism—a surface phenomenon—rather than the capitalist system as such. The speaker expressed concern that radical environmentalists who fail to advance the understanding that it is capitalism which is the problem—as expressed, for example, in Allan Schnaiberg’s formulation of the “treadmill of production”—we will in fact run the risk of enabling capital. Stoner nonetheless conceded that Klein’s examination of the alternative represented by “Blockadia” has value, though he clearly indicated the superiority of anti-capitalist analyses that concern themselves with the productive apparatus, as compared with primarily redistributional approaches like social democracy or Keynesianism.

During the final session Saturday afternoon, SU Professor Michael O’Loughlin gave a presentation on “Dispelling Ideology: Marx, Marcuse, and Chomsky.” During this talk, O’Loughlin principally counterposed the philosophies of Marcuse and Chomsky, stressing that the former—that is to say, the Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man—is far more pessimistic than Chomsky, who believes that the various problematics of capitalism and domination can be resolved through progressive activism and anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas Marx believed the subject in struggle to be the proletariat, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man more or less expresses the thought that false consciousness is all-consuming, that class-consciousness is marginal, and that there is “No Exit” from the capitalist hell. Yet O’Loughlin conceded in passing that, by the time Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) had been published, numerous radical movements had arisen across the globe to challenge regnant one-dimensionality. The professor argued that Chomsky, throughout his sustained and productive career as radical public intellectual, has sought to undermine ruling mystifications through empirical “takedowns” which activate public reason and the instinct for freedom he, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes humans innately to possess, as well as by promoting alternative modes of social organization rooted in equality, justice, and democracy. Chomsky’s intellectual and political activism was portrayed as following from the dissident’s faith in ordinary’s people capacity for reason and his belief that intellectuals must be with “the people,” and that the revolution will be made by everyday people themselves. Though O’Loughlin did not explicitly proclaim the inverse of such comments—that is, that Marcuse was an aloof elitist and authoritarian who despaired of the people’s incapacity for critical thought and revolutionary social transformation—it was to a degree implied, however great a distortion of Marcuse’s life and work such an interpretation would be! It is quite unjust to limit “Marcuse” to his most pessimistic book, One-Dimensional Man, and to suggest that he, like Vladimir Lenin or the Jacobins, did not believe that the common people proper were capable of changing the world. One need only consult Marcuse’s 1978 conversation with Habermas and company, “Theory and Politics,” to be freed of such an illusion, for in this intervention, the critical theorist declares faithfully that “everyone knows what is necessary,” and that the truth of a revolutionary general will and “the possibilities for its realization” are demonstrable to all (Marcuse et al. 1978/1979, pp. 136-138).

O’Loughlin concluded his presentation by considering three future scenarios for the U.S. in January 2016: the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, thus confirming the deepest pessimism of One-Dimensional Man; the alternate presidential inauguration of Bernie Sanders, an eventuality which O’Loughlin believed would be consonant with the spirit of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation; and the inauguration of Hillary Rodham Clinton, signifying a compromise between these two options, and a “partial” victory for social movements, in O’Loughlin’s analysis. Whatever the outcome of the elections, though, it ultimately remains puzzling to associate Marcuse with electoral politics at all, given his well-established emphasis on extra-parliamentary opposition as the primary means of historical progress.

 

References

Marcuse, H, Habermas, J, Lubasz, H, & Spengler, T. (1978/1979). “Theory and Politics,” Telos 38.

Stanley Robinson, K. (2002). The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam.

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.