Posts Tagged ‘Lev Tolstoy’

John le Carré: A Radical Spy Novelist Playing with the System

March 2, 2019


“I am not a nihilist. I am a humanist. If it is given to us to play a part for the future, we must play it.” – Katya Orlova, The Russia House (1989)

Spanning five decades, from the Cold War to the present, John le Carré’s best-selling collection of spy novels are well-known for the way they immerse the reader in the world of international relations, espionage, and statecraft. The author’s aptitude for transporting his audiences in this way stems at least partly from the six years he worked in British Intelligence, both MI5 and MI6 (1958-1964). Yet, while le Carré—or David Cornwell, to use his given name—was a spy and focuses his literary output mostly on spying and the State intrigue, he shows himself in his fictional writings to also be highly critical of the hegemony of State and capitalism.

In a dialectical sense, le Carré “plays” with his novels to similarly “play” the system: while, at first glance, readers of le Carré are suffused with the ruthless worlds of statist power plays, militarism, and realpolitik, soon they are confronted with grand indictments of the domination of capitalism, imperialism, and the State over humanity. The novelist’s political perspective is generally anti-authoritarian, rationalist, and humanist—like that of Katya Orlova from The Russia House, who is an enthusiast of the anarchist Alexander Herzen, the “father of Russian socialism” and Populism—and it was opposed to both sides of the Cold War during its existence, just as the author has been critical of the persistence of capitalist hegemony that has followed during the past two-plus decades. In a sense, le Carré’s writings may be considered a sort of Trojan Horse within the capitalist citadel, but we can’t be sure exactly how much his subversive attitudes concretely influence or have influenced ongoing or future revolt against the system.

From Call for the Dead (1961) to The Mission Song (2006), le Carré weaves stories and conflicts that lay bare the dehumanization, instrumentalization, and super-exploitation underpinning capitalist society—accomplishing this precisely through gaming the system, by setting such critique within mass-, seemingly mainstream media. Absolute Friends (2003), a novel about two revolutionary anarchists, British and German, may come closest to le Carré’s own views—or if not, we can at least say that he is very sympathetic to such ideas.

To investigate how le Carré presents his social critique in discreet and then increasingly fervent fashion over the course of his career, this essay summarizes the pertinent details of the plots of 11 of the author’s novels, and then passes to a discussion and conclusion about the militant perspectives found therein, being like collectivities of free radicals joyously roaming to destabilize unjust structures.

Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The story of Call for the Dead (1961) revolves around one Samuel Fennan, a former Marxist and Communist Party member working in the British Foreign Office (FO), who unexpectedly dies in his home by gunshot, presumably due to suicide. Yet le Carré’s hero George Smiley, an MI6 officer who had just met with Fennan hours before his death, probes more deeply into the case, only to discover that he was in fact murdered by Hans-Dieter Mundt, a hitman working under Dieter Frey. Dieter is an operative of the Abteilung—the East German Security Service1—and a former radical student of Smiley’s whose father had been killed by the Nazis and who himself concretely resisted Fascism by bursting into the British consulate in Dresden during World War II, demanding that the Allies do more to protect the Jews. The cover-up of Samuel’s murder is assisted by his wife Elsa, who herself is Jewish.

Dieter orders Fennan’s murder out of suspicion that he had become Smiley’s agent after seeing the two together, afraid that the Abteilung’s operation in Britain had been compromised. While Fennan had been sharing intelligence with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a continuation of sorts of his former Marxism and anti-fascism, Smiley discovers that he had to some degree cooled in his fervor for sharing information in the months leading up to his death, possibly reflecting disillusionment with the USSR after its suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This finding leads Smiley to realize that it was really Elsa who was spying for East Germany, and that Samuel had initiated contact with him precisely to raise the point. Although her performance sustaining the lie that Fennan had indeed killed himself does not in the end save her from being sacrificed by Dieter as he tries to escape a trap set by Smiley—one that ends with the East German agent dying at Smiley’s hands, drowned in London’s Thames River—the British spy concludes that her support for the GDR could not be divorced from her desire for world peace as well as her immediate horror at a resurgent, militaristic West Germany. Dieter and Mundt, on the other hand, come in for criticism for their established Lenino-Stalinist tendency to violate the means toward the end of realizing socialism, as seen in their disregard for the lives of Samuel and Elsa Fennan, among others.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) continues depicting the struggle between MI6 and the Abteilung. It opens with the British protagonist, Alec Leamas, head of MI6 in Berlin, watching as an East German agent of his is shot dead while trying to escape the Eastern Sector. This is the fourth agent of Leamas’ murdered in succession by the GDR—precisely on the orders of Mundt, the new head of the Abteilung’s Counter-Espionage division, following his return after having escaped Britain. These killings lead Leamas to be declared useless to British Intelligence, and he falls into a downward spiral of alcoholism and illness. Yet this disregard for self is to some degree feigned, a ploy to attract the attention of the Abteilung within the larger goal of vengeance and the destruction of Mundt. In their conversation discussing this mission, Leamas and Control—MI6 chief—acknowledge the similarity in methods used by the Soviet and Western powers. Referring to Mundt, Control observes:

“‘He is a very distasteful man. Ex-Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war.’

“’Like us,’ Leamas observed drily.”

After formally leaving MI6, Leamas briefly works at a library in London, there to meet the Communist Elizabeth Gold. The two become lovers. Yet Leamas cuts the relationship off to proceed with his mission, which sees him imprisoned for three months for having assaulted a grocer who denied him credit—with all of this being part of his cover. Just after his release, Leamas is recruited by the East Germans, who take him to the Netherlands and then to the GDR to be “debriefed” regarding the secrets he knows. After passing into the GDR, Leamas is interrogated by Fiedler, a prominent German-Jewish member of the Abteilung and the son of Marxist refugees from WWII, who explains to him the Stalinist view that human life is but a means toward the end of the construction of Party Socialism, thus delineating his theoretical differences with Christianity, which the Western authorities putatively follow but in reality utterly ignore.2 Leamas reveals to Fiedler that the latter’s superior, Mundt, is in fact a British agent, and that he was allowed to leave Britain following the various murders he committed after coming to an agreement with MI6, which has been sending him vast quantities of money in exchange for information from the East German State. Mundt becomes aware of this plot to oust him, and orders the arrest of both Leamas and Fiedler—with the latter receiving “special treatment” by Mundt the former Nazi for being Jewish—but not before Fiedler had applied to the State for a warrant to arrest Mundt as an imperialist agent.

Thereafter follows a dramatic tribunal at which Fiedler argues his case, detailing the ease with which Mundt turned to murder “in the name of the people to protect his fascist treachery and advanc[e] his own career,” whereas the defense accuses Fiedler in turn of collaborating with imperialism to undermine GDR security, claiming the prosecution’s evidence to be merely circumstantial. The counter-coup is completed, nonetheless, when Mundt’s counsel calls Liz Gold as a witness—Gold having been mysteriously and suddenly “invited” as a member of the British Communist Party to visit the GDR—to have her reveal how George Smiley in fact had supported her financially following Leamas’ disappearance. Smiley, it would seem, did so specifically to discredit the accusations against Mundt and so allow for the elimination of his subordinate Fiedler, who had been suspecting the British mole for some time. As the tables are turned and Fiedler comes to be the one to be immediately executed, MI6’s “filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin” is revealed. The saved Mundt then provides Leamas and Gold with the means to escape to the West. During this journey, Gold becomes le Carré’s voice, which critiques the authoritarian instrumentalization of life carried on by East and West alike: the supposed opposites are seen to converge in their grossly inhuman behavior, discarding Fiedler to uphold an ex-Nazi double agent. Ultimately, as Leamas and Gold arrive at the Berlin Wall and attempt to scale it, they are shot dead by GDR sentries.

The Karla Trilogy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) concerns the fall of Control and dismissal of Smiley following a botched mission in Czechoslovakia, the ascendancy to top MI6 positions of four officers suspected of being double-agents, and Smiley’s counter-mobilization to investigate and defeat these moles. The text introduces Karla, the Soviet intelligence chief, who is shown to have penetrated MI6 through the recruitment of Bill Haydon, head of London Station. Smiley continues to face off against his Soviet counterpart in the next two volumes of the so-called Karla trilogy.

In The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), le Carré portrays a shaken British Intelligence being resurrected by Smiley, as he focuses on the new MI6 chief’s machinations to avenge the “fall” engineered by Karla through his compromise of Haydon. In his study of Haydon’s treason, Smiley discovers a “gold seam” of half a million dollars run by Karla to a bank in Vientiane, Laos. The journalist Jerry Westerby, an aristocrat by origin and a Southeast Asia correspondent, is dispatched to begin investigating in British-occupied Hong Kong. There, amidst the raging U.S. war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Westerby discovers that the gold seam is being directed to Drake Ko, a prominent exiled Chinese capitalist and former Kuomintang (KMT) conscript, whose brother Nelson, having fought the KMT as a Communist in Shanghai and thereafter studied shipbuilding in the USSR, is a high-ranking insider within the Chinese Defense Ministry and an agent of Karla’s (that is, Soviet intelligence). The gold seam sent to Drake, then, represents the sum to be paid to Nelson if he can manage to escape China. Continuing his investigation, Westerby travels to a Phnom Penh besieged by the Khmer Rouge to learn that Drake had commissioned a Mexican pilot, Ricardo—himself a collaborator with the U.S. military in its wars on the region—to run opium into Red China in exchange for extracting his brother. Though this plan didn’t come to fruition, Westerby suggests to Ricardo that MI6 will use this information to blackmail Drake—and shortly thereafter his fellow journalist Luke is assassinated, having been mistaken for Westerby.

At the same time, MI6 and its CIA “Cousins” learn that Drake is imminently orchestrating a new operation to extract his brother, this time by sea. The Western spy agencies’ plans to instead capture Nelson for exploitative purposes, taken together with Luke’s murder, lead Westerby to rebel and warn Drake as Nelson’s fleet of fishing junks approach the rendezvous point on Po Toi Island, south of Hong Kong. Yet this intervention proves useless, for MI6 and the CIA launch a joint strike involving helicopters to interdict Nelson and kill Westerby just as the former’s sampans reach shore—with the hope of reuniting the brothers thus crushed. Once the honorable schoolboy is eliminated, the CIA proceeds to transfer Nelson to the U.S. for thorough interrogation, and the MI6 chief is awarded retirement for having secured a major agent of Karla’s.

Smiley’s People (1979) brings the titular character out of retirement following the murder in London of General Vladimir, a former Soviet general who had been Smiley’s agent. Vladimir, the Estonian believer in communism, is killed on Karla’s orders after having been written by the Soviet émigré Maria Andreyevna Ostrokova regarding contact she had had with a Soviet agent who suggested that she could soon be reunited with her daughter Alexandra if she would only apply for French citizenship on her behalf. Yet as Smiley discovers through his probe into Vladimir’s murder, this entreaty was made as an unprofessional attempt by Karla himself to secure treatment in Switzerland for his mentally ill daughter Tatiana, alias Alexandra, who was diagnosed politically in the USSR with schizophrenia. In parallel, Tatiana’s own mother and Karla’s mistress had been purged for holding that “history had taken the wrong course” in the Soviet Union, and for not being “obedient to history.” It was presumably to avoid a similar fate for his daughter as a psychical non-conformist that led Karla to smuggle her to a hospital abroad.

As Soviet agents relentlessly pursue Maria Ostrokova to silence her once and for all and so complete the cover-up of General Vladimir’s murder, Smiley mobilizes to counter Karla, ultimately presenting him with an ultimatum whereby he could defect to the West and save his daughter’s life or remain in the Soviet Union as MI6 released this information to the Soviet authorities, inexorably leading to Karla’s destruction and presumably Tatiana’s as well. How ironic that the top Soviet spy master would be compromised through love for his daughter! Smiley and le Carré alike recognize this gambit as representing the utter ruthlessness by which is secured relative superiority and hegemony in the Cold War in particular and international relations generally. This is commentary that clearly critiques the infamous “prisoners’ dilemma” of game theory, which has been used by the ‘experts in legitimation’ to excuse militarism and oppression.

The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) depicts a Mossad operation to use Charlie, a young radical British actress, to penetrate and disrupt a militant group called Palestine Agony, being comprised of two brothers, Salim and Khalil. The context is a series of deadly bombings against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe ordered by Khalil in reprisal for the ongoing Occupation of Palestine and the intensifying bombardment of the positions of exiled Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Salim and Khalil’s family themselves had been displaced first from Palestine to Jordan, then to Syria, and lastly Lebanon.

Following a new Mossad directive to diversify the identity of its operatives beyond being exclusively Jewish, the Israeli agent Joseph kidnaps Charlie on vacation in Mykonos and transports her to his handlers, Martin Kurtz and Litvak, who exploitatively subject her to interrogation, psychologically manipulating her—an anti-apartheid activist, pacifist, nuclear marcher, anti-vivisectionist, anti-fascist, and critic of Israel—into becoming the very opposite of who she believes herself to be. After having thus been broken, Charlie is guided through her transition by her captor Joseph, who takes the protagonist on a journey of discovery of Palestine, whereby he becomes Salim and she plays the part of his lover.

Though this education is imparted by an Israeli oppressor rather than a Palestinian survivor, le Carré makes clear that the entire colonialist project of Israeli State-building is built on the dispossession of the Palestinian population, and that with each act of counter-violence taken by Palestinian militants, the Israeli military takes the lives of dozens times more Palestinians. Yet her first mission as an Israeli-Palestinian double agent is to drive a car laden with explosives from Greece through Yugoslavia to Austria. This same car explodes after arriving to its destination, while Salim is driving it to Munich with an accomplice.

Fleeing to the UK after this naked assassination, which is entirely consistent with established Israeli policy,3 Charlie learns that she is under investigation by the Home Office for being an Israeli agent—only that, while her house is ransacked by the police, she is allowed to leave the place unharmed. She then activates emergency channels with Khalil’s group, and clandestinely she is sent to Beirut, where she experiences Israeli siege first-hand and commits herself to the Anti-Imperialist Revolution, having become enamored by the beauty of the Palestinians’ sumoud, or steadfastness. Among other things, Charlie’s Commander Tayeh teaches her to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—echoing Salim and Khalil’s view that anti-Semitism is a Christian invention (as well as Hamad Dabashi’s emphasis on the common Judeo-Islamic philosophical tradition).

After being recalled from Beirut, Charlie finally meets Khalil, who convinces her to accept a mission to assassinate the Jewish Professor Minkel, a public advocate of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories who does not agree with the Palestinian demand for a single, bi-national State. As he is a “moderate,” Minkel must be eliminated, according to Khalil, who believes in an extreme employment of counter-violence by Palestinians against both Israel and all Jews. Charlie ruthlessly delivers the suitcase-bomb to Minkel before he is scheduled to give a public address, presumably killing him and several others off-stage. Subsequently, Charlie presents Mossad with its coup, for she meets the delighted Khalil again and reveals his position, leading Joseph and company to burst in and kill him in cold blood. Charlie then returns to the UK, where the Mossad has once again made inquiries with the police to ensure that she need fear no prosecution, in addition to giving her access to the inheritance of a recently deceased friend, just as the Israeli war-machine assassinates Tayeh and invades Lebanona development that, as le Carré summarizes, “meant roughly that bulldozers were brought in to bury the bodies and complete what the tanks and artillery bombing raids had started.”

The book’s title is a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s depiction in Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) of Kattrina, one of Anna Fierling’s three children, all of whom perish over the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648): Kattrina most courageously by constantly drumming to inspire the peasants’ defense of the town of Halle from the Emperor’s troops, leading to her targeted assassination.

The Russia House

The Russia House (1989) tells the story of the publisher-spy B. Scott Blair, or Barley, and his intrigues in the USSR with Katya Orlova, a romantic revolutionary, and Yakov Savelyev, a dissident Soviet nuclear physicist known as “Goethe” to his friends. During the gradualist period of glasnost and perestroika overseen by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985, Savelyev/Goethe writes a manuscript detailing Soviet military secrets in order to precipitate the collapse of the arms race between the US/NATO and the USSR. Orlova acts as his go-between with Barley, specifying that the first-hand report Goethe has composed reveals Soviet research into the development of particularly atrocious weapons of mass destruction, makes public Soviet strategic nuclear-weapons policy, and explores various other vast ethical failures of the “Red Tsars” in the Cold War. Goethe, whose father was killed while participating in an uprising at the Vorkuta Gulag, is said to primarily be influenced by a certain nineteenth-century Russian known as Vladimir Pecherin, though this may well be a pseudonym for Mikhail Bakunin, for Pecherin “hates [his] native land and avidly await[s] its ruins,” and in the prospect of these “discern[s] the dawn of universal renaissance.”

In seeking to make public the nuclear secrets to which he has special access, Goethe aims at cutting short the Cold War, thus putting an end to the grave threat posed by nuclear weapons amidst highly militaristic competition between the superpowers.iv In this way, he expresses his belief in the revolutionary potential of science without borders—his “frantic dream of unleashing the forces of sanity.”

Barley, whose father was a Fabian socialist publisher who promoted Soviet literature, is a bit of a rogue himself. During his first meeting with Goethe, he tells his counterpart, presumably in good faith, that the Western States consciously accelerated the arms race to try to bankrupt the USSR, and that such imperial militarism in turn served as the pretext for the Soviets to continue “run[ning] a garrison state.” Barley scoffs at the hegemonic Western idea that the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) through nuclear annihilation had “kept the peace” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pointing to the wars on Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. He expresses clearly his belief that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that does away with militarism, imperialism, and the “elective dictatorship” of parliamentary capitalism. He thus finds a willing partner and co-conspirator in Orlova, as she wishes to “move together to destroy the destruction and castrate the monster we have created”—this, by facilitating the publication of Goethe’s manuscript. Indeed, when faced with Barley’s inquiries into Orlova’s national pride and love for her two children in light of her participation in this plot, the militant replies by saying that she and Goethe prefer the fall of the USSR to the destruction of the world, and that she must think of all the world’s children, not just her own, when considering her choices. Her courageous commitment is likely inspired to some degree by her uncle Matvey, a revolutionary follower of Lev Tolstoy.

The tragic hero Goethe is ultimately discovered by the Soviet authorities and summarily executed. Barley is similarly arrested and imprisoned as a political prisoner, but he escapes death and saves Katya and her family in exchange for divulging secrets of British intelligence to his tormentors.

Modern Trilogy

Le Carré’s Tailor of Panama (1996) is set in a Panama City marred by gross social inequality, with the “cocaine towers” of the financial district overlooking vast swathes of impoverished proletarian districts in this riverine environment. The action takes place after the U.S. invasion (1989-1990) to depose Manuel Noriega—a former CIA agent—in the run-up to the transfer of control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. military to local authorities that occurred in 1999.

Andy Osnard, a former MI6 agent assigned to the country by a revanchist conglomerate of private interests tasked with the mission of preventing the Canal from being sold off to any rivals of the West, coercively recruits Harry Pendel, a British expatriate tailor with a past history of imprisonment in the UK for insurance fraud, into being his source among the Panamanian elite he serves. Threatened by Osnard with having his criminal past revealed to his wife and children, Pendel learns from the Panamanian president of a Japanese plot to purchase the Canal and communicates this to his handler, setting in motion a joint mobilization by the British and U.S. military-security apparatuses to reinvade Panama and thus ensure continued neocolonial control.

Toward this end, Osnard exploits Pendel’s largely invented idea of a “Silent Opposition” to be led by personal friends who previously had organized against Noriega, including the tailor’s assistant Marta and his comrade Mickie. When Mickie in turn takes his life out of fear of returning to political imprisonment after the authorities, having become aware of the propagation of Pendel’s fantasies, increasingly harass him, the U.S. and British use the pretext of his execution for renewed military intervention. Osnard then appropriates for himself the $15 million destined emergently by the U.S. and Britain governments for the operations of the spectral oppositional group, fleeing in a private jet to Switzerland as U.S. attack helicopters initiate their assault on Panama City.

The Constant Gardener (2001) revolves around the partnership of Tessa Abbott, a British radical, and Justin Quayle, a British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The book opens with the announcement that Tessa has been found murdered with her medical colleague, Dr. Bloom, near Lake Turkana. Justin investigates the killings, ultimately discovering that the victims had co-authored a report exposing medical experimentation carried out by KDH, a Western pharmaceutical corporation, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and submitted it to the British government—only to meet precisely this fate as a consequence. Fatally, Justin learns that, while Dr. Bloom sought to publish the findings directly, Tessa had insisted that they go through official channels first, in deference to her husband’s example. She did not consider the possibility that the State might be captured by these same corporate interests.

Quayle determines that dozens of Kenyans had died in the trials for Dypraxa, a tuberculosis drug, and that KDH covered up this “side effect” to press forward with the medication’s development, thus avoiding the costs of redesign and further delay. After all, KDH expected a considerable futures market for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the twenty-first century. In the end, Quayle makes Tessa and Dr. Bloom’s findings known, exposing the scandal and State-corporate nexus, but meets the same fate they did on the very shores of Lake Turkana.

This work title alludes to Voltaire’s always-germane conclusion to Candide (1759), a parody of optimism à la Leibniz (and, by extension, contemporary conservatives and apologists): “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Sharing affinities with the previous two works, The Mission Song (2006) is centered around the plot of a shadowy international Syndicate nominally dedicated to providing agricultural equipment to African countries which conspires to finance an armed uprising in eastern Congo to plunder the region’s mineral resources: coltan, gold, and oil. Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, who is half-Congolese and a graduate of languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), interprets the planning meeting set up between the Syndicate and representatives of two militias and a trading family from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—Dieudonné, Franco, and Haj, respectively—on a remote island in the North Sea. Naturally, the ruling Rwandan invaders, who have gravely exploited the eastern Congo since overrunning it two decades ago, having fled the coming to a power of a Tutsi-led government that put an end to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Hutus of Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus, were excluded from this meeting.

The Syndicate proposes to the Congolese warlords staging an insurgency that would disrupt the existing “peace” in order to create a crisis that would result in the installation of the Mwangaza, an aging semi-messianic figure who promises to unite all of Kivu, or eastern Congo, against the Rwandan militias and armies as well as central control from the capital city, Kinshasa. The Mwangaza speaks about installing an interim government that would expel the Rwandans and take control of the airport, mines, and cities of Kivu, though it is clear that, above all, he desires political power, and is willing to endorse the Syndicate’s proposal to amply supply arms, ammunition, and mercenaries toward this end. Indeed, part of the contract negotiated during these talks stipulates that the Syndicate would be granted special investment access after the coup’s success in exchange for its contributions up front to bringing the war about, while the Kinshasa government is to be bought off using the revenue extracted from Kivu’s mines that was supposed to be set aside as “The People’s Portion.”

Salvo does not take this plan lightly, however. He discreetly manages to appropriate seven cassettes of recordings of the meeting and keeps his own notes upon return to London. Then, unsure of whom to turn to, he first approaches Lord Brinkley, a distinguished “friend of Africa” in the British Parliament, with the idea of bringing the plans to light so as to prevent their execution—only to find Brinkley conspiring to have Salvo’s evidence destroyed or secured so that the coup can proceed. After taking leave of Brinkley, though, Salvo and his partner Hannah, a Congolese nurse, approach the Mwangaza’s London-based aide, Baptiste, who completely denies the possibility of the Mwangaza participating in such a plot. Salvo then meets with Mr. Anderson, his contact at MI6 who first assigned him to the clandestine meeting as interpreter, to express his concerns, only to find Anderson reacting much the same way as Brinkley—even going so far as to rationalize the plundering of Africa’s mineral wealth as based on the prerogatives of supposedly more highly civilized European peoples.

Upon escaping from Anderson, Salvo resorts to contacting his ex-wife’s colleague in the press about running the story before the coup is staged, yet he finds that the two most important cassettes have been taken by Hannah to be recorded and sent to Haj to disrupt the plans once and for all. This courageous effort that finally breaks with Salvo’s “misguided loyalty” to the system indeed saves Kivu from a new war, as the mercenaries’ conspiracy is foiled, but it leads Hannah immediately to be deported to Congo, while Salvo is stripped of his British citizenship and placed in a migrant camp similarly to await deportation to central Africa.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends (2003) is likely le Carré’s most openly subversive and radical spy novel. In this work, le Carré depicts the life-long friendship of the British subject Ted Mundy and Sasha, a German anarchist. Mundy, the son of a Scottish military officer and Irish maid born in British-occupied India, begins his “radical reappraisal” of Britain and the Raj in childhood due to the horrors of Partition (1947) and his sense, as suggested later by his father, that the British authorities were largely responsible for these atrocities, and specifically the deaths of the entirety of the family members of his beloved Muslim nurse, Ayah. In adolescence, the protagonist further develops his critical perspective in concert with Dr. Mandelbaum, his radical German-language and cello tutor, who suggests that, “as long as [humanity] is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.” The development of Ted’s radical spirit continues precipitously at Oxford University, where he enrolls to deepen his knowledge of German and meets Ilse, his first partner and a militant anarchist. They participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the junta of Greek colonels, and then decide to go study together at the Free University of Berlin. The only problem is that Ilse reneges at the last moment, but not before referring Ted to Sasha, a well-known revolutionary in Berlin. As Mundy departs by train from Waterloo Station in London, the narrator regards him and asks:

“Is he an anarchist? It will depend. To be an anarchist one must have a glimmer of hope.”

Certainly, both Mundy’s anarchism and radical hope are considerably nourished upon making the acquaintance of Sasha in Berlin. Listening to Mundy’s answer to the question of what the meaning of revolution is at their first meeting, Sasha at once tells Mundy that “[a]ll authority is irrational” and inquires into his knowledge of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer’s writings. Their relationship of fraternal love is thus immediately forged, and they become roommates. Le Carré shows how Mundy’s participation in the radical youth movement in Berlin represents an epoch of self-realization for him, as he becomes “part of a brave new family determined to rebuild the world.” Such immersion leads Mundy to rejoice: “So many brothers and sisters everywhere! So many comrades who share the dream!” The author clearly acknowledges that this militant movement, impelled by the children of the Auschwitz generation, sought to purge from the world the “multiple diseases of fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colonization, imperialism, and pseudo-democracy.”

At the Free University, Sasha is depicted giving a speech at an action denouncing the Vietnam War, specifically demanding that the Nuremburg Tribunal be reconvened to prosecute the “fascist-imperialist American leadership […] on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.” Le Carré then shows the West German State brutally suppressing the demonstration, with Mundy valiantly rescuing Sasha from the riot police and becoming injured, hospitalized, and deported in the process.

After his formative time in Berlin, Mundy spends some years wandering: he briefly works at a journalist in the East Midlands, until he publishes an unauthorized exposé of labor conditions for Asian workers at a local cannery itself owned by the newspaper’s owner; he tries life as an artist in Taos, New Mexico; he gets married with Kate Andrews, a dedicated Labor Party member who wishes to rout the Trotskyists, Communists, and “closet anarchists” she sees as threatening the Party’s future, and fathers a son with her; and he himself secures employment with the British Council.

As part of this work, Mundy once again meets Sasha in East Germany, and the militant reveals to him intelligence vital to GDR security—a move that speaks to the anarchist’s integration into the State, yet also his continued dialectical commitment to destabilizing it. By sharing this information in turn with MI6 upon return to West Berlin, Mundy himself becomes an agent, and so begins a new phase in this “absolute friendship” whereby Mundy handles Sasha’s efforts to undermine what the latter considers to be the “Red Fascist” State. For Sasha, in so compromising the GDR and the USSR, it is not a matter of serving Western interests, but rather of fighting “tyranny wherever I have found it, with whatever weapons were available to me.”

The conclusion of Absolute Friends is contemporary, set in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mundy mobilizes against this mad plot, encouraging his son to organize protests at his university, but can find no concrete way for himself to do so until Sasha approaches him with a proposal to join a mysterious billionaire known as Mr. Dimitri from the New Planet Foundation in his ploy to supposedly create a global “Counter-University” and advance the revolutionary cause through the creation of “intellectual guerrillas” who will resist the “insane [capitalist] concept of limitless expansion on a limited planet, with permanent conflict as its desired outcome” (orig. emphasis). Yet Dimitri is not all he seems: following 9/11, the CIA claims, he increasingly comes to insist on an “alliance” between European anarchists and Islamist terrorists—given the view imputed to him that “[t]hese Al Qaeda boys have brought off just about everything Mikhail Bakunin ever dreamed of [sic]”—and he uses Mundy to rent out a school in Heidelberg at which the Brit used to teach for the first “demonstration project” for the Counter-University.

Though Mundy increasingly suspects Dimitri, Sasha faithfully does not doubt the sincerity of the project. Ultimately, one evening, as Mundy is preparing the shipments that he understands to be filled with books for the Counter-University’s Heidelberg campus, he realizes that he and Sasha have been set up: he discovers boxes of grenades, bomb-making devices, and so on. Just then, a massive police-military operation descends on the school, and the friends are killed off as putative terrorists who had been planning to attack the U.S. airbase at Heidelberg.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is revealed as enjoying Witness Protection in Montana for having warned the authorities about the radical friends’ non-existent terrorist plot, and the heist is shown as amounting to a “second burning of the Reichstag,” whereby an ex-CIA operative representing a coalition of oil barons, arms dealers, and security executives framed Mundy and Sasha as extremists who were preparing to bomb the air-force base precisely in order to silence the opposition from the German and French States to the U.S. drive to war on Iraq and thus expanded profits for such corporate sectors. Le Carré depicts the Heidelberg siege as blunting the Germans’ criticisms of Bush and company, whereas Russia is seen as capitalizing on the terrorized Zeitgeist to clamp down on protests and intensify its terrible war on Chechnya.

Conclusion: Let’s Start the Avalanche

We can see, then, that le Carré is a very serious and astute thinker and commentator about a number of pressing socio-economic, political, and ethical issues of recent history and our day. Yet it is evident that le Carré wields his critique of Statism, authoritarianism, and exploitation in an ironic fashion: generally speaking, it is not from an external standpoint, such as that of a protester or victim of militarism, that such critique issues in le Carré’s novels, but rather through the operation of the internal dynamics governing the system. Le Carré’s writings are therefore unexpected or “playful” in the sense that, unlike an external critique of the system raised for example by anarchists who want to take down that system, they typically begin from inside the system and move outward, developing into condemnations of the same. Clearly, le Carré’s spy writings are quite apart from those by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy, novelists who start from within the State-capitalist system and have no wish to critique or overthrow it. This is another reason why the author’s art-works are consciously ironic, for the genre of espionage generally connotes mainstream, statist perspectives, not critical ones.

While le Carré achieves his purposes of entertainment and enlightenment by “playing” in a certain way, the content of his art is clearly very serious. More often than not, the protagonists of his novels serve as martyrs who are sacrificed by the State or capital to ensure stability and expanded profitability in the Cold War and subsequent neoliberal period: there are Samuel and Elsa Fennan in Call for the Dead; Fiedler, Leamas, and Gold in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Jerry, Luke, and Nelson in The Honourable Schoolboy; Salim and Khalil in The Little Drummer Girl; Savelyev in The Russia House; Mickie in The Tailor Panama; Tessa, Dr. Bloom, and Justin in The Constant Gardener; Salvo and Hannah in The Mission Song; and Mundy and Sasha in Absolute Friends. Within his earlier Cold War-era novels, le Carré advances a critique of the bureaucratic “grey men” on both sides, showing the way forward as developing through the courageous and tragic resistance of people like Savelyev and Katya Orlova, who dream of a better world as they labor to undermine the system; a very similar analysis could be made of Absolute Friends. The question which Katya poses to Barley about his intentions to publish Savelyev’s manuscript underpin much of le Carré’s subversive commentary throughout his oeuvre:

“Ask them which is more dangerous to [humanity]: to conform like a slave or resist like a [person]?”

As part of this dynamic of submission versus resistance, le Carré clearly acknowledges the extensive participation of former Nazi officers in the Western intelligence and security services after World War II, and he communicates the hegemonic Western concept that, once Hitler had been defeated, the rest of the West could get back to the “real war” against the Soviet Union and the “Red Menace.” Indeed, Absolute Friends opens with Mundy announcing to his tour group that Britain and the U.S. initially did not oppose Hitler, and indeed saw in him an attack-dog to be unleashed on the Reds. Moreover, our author does not shy from illustrating mainstream British anti-Semitic and bourgeois prejudices or depicting an MI6 officer making a Nazi salute. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré adopts the view of the Palestinian resistance that the Zionist State is fascist and genocidal, and in The Honourable Schoolboy, he has Ricardo’s fellow pilot express the thanotic imperative that drives individual capitalists and the system as a whole:

“hear me? They kill me, they kill Ricardo, they kill you, they kill the whole damn human race!”

In sum, then, le Carré, through his critical plots and his alter egos (Smiley, Gold, Barley, Mundy), examines the violence of despotism, brilliantly revealing the depths of nihilism and destruction for which the ruling class is responsible. In his more contemporary works, our author forthrightly points to the capitalist super-exploitation of the non-Western world, as Western firms and powers mobilize to extract evermore resources through militarism and genocide. The results are plain for all to see, or they should be; keeping these in full view, le Carré denounces the system as a whole. In parallel, he identifies the State’s established tendency to crush the possibilities of liberation, as seen in The Russia House, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, and The Mission Song, and even the authorities’ willingness to exploit radicalism to promote reaction, as we see in The Little Drummer Girl.

Yet le Carré strongly endorses Barley’s view that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that abolishes militarism, imperialism, and capitalism. The author even depicts this type of non-cooperation in a number of his works, especially in his illustration of State officials who defect, rebel, or otherwise sabotage their work. Nonetheless, the critique he raises against the State for instrumentalizing human life applies also to movements resisting oppression: that the Israelis, British, Soviets, or Americans cannot cease violating the means toward the ends they seek does not justify those who oppose them doing the same, even if the revolutionary end is superior to the end of maintaining the status quo. The Little Drummer Girl’s plot makes this clear. Like Lev Tolstoy and Albert Camus, then, le Carré is concerned about the replication of nihilism and authoritarianism within resistance movements, and he advises us—quite rightly, I think—to do all we can to harmonize means and ends. Quite like Tolstoy, le Carré declares through Barley that “[w]e must cut down the grey men inside ourselves, we must burn our grey suits and set our good hearts free, which is the dream of every decent soul, and even—believe it or not—of certain grey men too.”

Works Cited

1 Compare the East German Abteilung with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi brownshirts, followers of the Strasser brothers, who were purged by the Waffen SS on Hitler’s orders. Is this etymological similitarity between the names of the respective State agencies just coincidental, or actually reflective of red-brown cross-over?

2 Compare Lev Trotsky’s declaration in Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky (1920), published in response to Kautsky’s criticisms of Bolshevik repressiveness and the brutality of the Russian Civil War: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’”

3 See Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007), especially ch. 9, “Targeted Assassinations: The Airborne Occupation.”

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Repudiating the Stalinist Legacy: Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part III/III)

November 19, 2018

“In a totally fictitious world, failures need not be recorded, admitted, or remembered. […] Systematic lying to the whole world can be safely carried out only under the conditions of totalitarian rule.” – Hannah Arendt1

Lenin Stalin

Lenin and Stalin in 1922 (courtesy Keystone/Getty Images)

So far, in parts I and II of this response to “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective on Stalin,” we have seen how the “Proles of the Round Table” and their host Breht Ó Séaghdha have systematically lied on their infamous ‘Stalin podcast’ about the history of the Soviet Union, from covering up the Barcelona May Days (1937), the GULAG slave-labor camp system, the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939), and the NKVD’s mass-deportation of Muslim and Buddhist minorities during World War II to declaring mass-death through Stalin’s forced collectivization of the peasantry to have been “extremely successful.” It is clear why Jeremy and Justin confidently present such a fraudulent version of history: were they even to mention any of these realities, it would become clear that their presence as Stalin apologists on a radio show ostensibly dedicated to an examination of “revolutionary left” history and theory would be immediately revealed as absurd. Yet here we are.

In this final third of my critique of this travesty, we will examine Jeremy and Justin’s genocide denial and their enthusiasm for the Moscow Show Trials. In contrast to the “Proles of the Round Table,” we will explore how anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and sexism are essential aspects of the Stalinist legacy. We will then close with some comments about Soviet ecocide and a critical analysis of neo-Stalinist international relations today, which cover for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners.

Holodomor Denial

While the breadth of Jeremy and Justin’s Stalin’s apologia on this interview is quite astounding, few aspects are as vile as their denial of the genocidal Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. Justin is very clear about their view: “there was no mass-famine,” and the idea of Holodomor (the “Great Ukrainian Famine”) is a “myth.” Jeremy jumps in to claim that “Ukrainian nationalists” sought to undermine Stalin and “intentionally starv[e] the Soviet Union.” First, let’s note that, in making the latter claim, Jeremy unwittingly admits that the Soviet Union was imperialist, and should be that way: the implication is that Ukraine and other former colonies of the Tsarist Empire exist to serve Russia, or, in this case, Stalin’s regime. Beyond that, certainly there was famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933: the “Proles of the Round Table” are almost unique among neo-Stalinists, in that, rather than claim that the reported Holodomor death-toll has somehow been exaggerated for political purposes, they claim that it never happened. In so doing, they quite literally ape Stalin’s refusal to accept the reality of famine in Ukraine in spring 1932 upon receiving word of it from Vlas Chubar, Bolshevik leader of Ukraine, after which the General Secretary denied famine relief and banned the use of the word from all official correspondence.2 While climatic conditions played a part, it was arguably the unrealistic quotas for the extraction of grain from the Ukrainian peasantry following in the wake of the “extremely successful” experience of forced collectivization that tipped the peasants into the first famine (spring 1932); once Stalin doubled down on the confiscation of grain and cattle after hearing initial reports of the famine, adding reprisals against those villages that failed to meet production quotas by cutting them off, this exacerbated an already disastrous situation. The result was the death of nearly 4 million Ukrainians, more than 10% of the population, with an additional 1-2 million Caucasians, Russians, and Kazakhs succumbing as well.3 Unsurprisingly, Justin and Jeremy have nothing to say about these Central Asian and Caucasian Muslim victims of famine.

To advance their lies about Ukraine, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on one Grover Furr, a Stalin propagandist who also denies the Holodomor by citing the work of Mark Tauger, a supposed historiographer who actually quite fraudulently argues against the idea that the British Empire or the Soviet Union were responsible for the Great Irish Famine or the Bengal Famine, in the former case, or Holodomor, in the latter. As Louis Proyect has shown, Tauger wants to exclusively blame “environmental conditions” for these devastating catastrophes, and thus hide the role of political economy, power relations, and imperialism. This is the kind of ideology that the “Proles of Round Table” hold up as legitimate historical investigation.

Following the argument of the Jewish Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, originator of the concept of genocide, historian Norman Naimark holds Stalin responsible for genocide, if we consider the term’s original definition, which meant to include social and political groups. In targeting the “kulaks” for elimination and thus provoking the Holodomor, Stalin certainly was genocidal. This conclusion becomes even clearer when we review Stalin’s imperialist policies, his regime’s concurrent purging of most of the Ukrainian Communist Party leadership for their putative “nationalism,” and his August 1932 letter to fellow Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich, in which the General Secretary “set [forth] the goal of turning Ukraine into a real fortress of the USSR, a truly model republic.”4

Apologism for the Moscow Show Trials and Terror

“The insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses.” – Hannah Arendt5

While we have examined the Purges in parts I and II, let us now focus specifically on Justin and Jeremy’s apologism for the infamous Moscow Trials of the “Old Bolsheviks” (1936-1938), which were clearly nothing more than show trials. Justin begins by mistaking the Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev for “Alexander Zinoviev,” a Soviet philosopher, and then mentions Trotsky’s analysis of “Soviet Thermidor” without in any way clarifying its application to Stalinism in power: that is, with reference to its historical antecedent—the French Revolution—whereby the bourgeois Directory seized power after overthrowing the Jacobin leaders Maximilien Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. To be clear, Stalin’s counter-revolution is highly suggestive of the legacy of the Directory—which is not to suggest that either Lenin or Robespierre were revolutionaries. In parallel, the “Proles of the Round Table” will mention Trotsky’s analysis of Stalin’s guilt over Hitler’s rise—written years after his expulsion from the party—and somehow consider this as retroactive criminal evidence for Trotsky’s supposed conspiracy against the General-Secretary-to be (as in the Left and United Opposition). Yet tellingly, they will not present the actual content of Trotsky’s argument: namely, that Stalin’s Comintern policy on “social fascism” facilitated the Nazi takeover of Germany.

Continuing on, Justin states that Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev “recanted” following their joining with Trotsky in the United Opposition to Stalin—but no reason is given as to why. Certainly, as in the case of Nikolai Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev feared for their lives and that of their loved ones, particularly after seeing the example made of Trotsky, who was expelled ignominiously first from the Communist Party, and then the Soviet Union altogether (in 1928). Instead of contemplating such factors, the “Proles of the Round Table” begin to attempt to explain “why […] the Purge [is] beginning to become a necessity [sic].” Attempting to insert a victim-blaming narrative, Justin and Jeremy suggest that not all the “Old Bolsheviks” were “Communists”—meaning Stalinists—and therefore imply the necessity of their liquidation—and, in many cases, that of their families, who were also murdered so as to prevent revenge attacks against the Party emanating from the “clan” of those executed.6

This is a positively ghoulish illogic—one that is reproduced in Jeremy and Justin’s distortions about Bukharin, another victim of the Terror, whom they portray as a “social democrat.” In the first place, Bukharin was not a social democrat. Social democracy is incompatible with dictatorship: as Karl Kautsky, the preeminent theoretician of orthodox Marxism and German Social Democracy, insisted, there can be “no Socialism without democracy.”7 As a “believer in party dictatorship, Bukharin was no democrat”: though he disagreed with Trotsky and Stalin in desiring a continuation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and “peace with the villages” in place of rapid “super-industrialization,” he and his supporters, known as the ‘Right Opposition,’ had no plan to institute a participatory form of government in the Soviet Union.8 Therefore, it would appear that Justin and Jeremy are being rather dishonest about Bukharin’s ideology, claiming that he’s been “waging a counter-revolution for years,” in an attempt to prepare their rationalization of his execution following the Moscow Show Trials of 1938. They make much of Bukharin’s confession to the charges of being an agent of foreign, imperialist powers—but they do not admit the reality that Bukharin confronted credible threats against the lives of his young wife and baby if he failed to confess. As Catherine Evtuhov observes,

“The question of why the falsely accused confessed to the fantastic crimes is not really an intellectual puzzle: Some feared for the lives of loved ones […]. Others were subjected to unbearable torture. A few many may have been convinced of the rightness of false confession for a higher good: the future of communism.”9

Once again, then, we find the “Proles of the Round Table” lying to their audience: referring to Bukharin, they suggest, “it’s not like he had a gun at his head […].” Actually, he most certainly did. Yet such spurious ‘analysis’ of historical events is one with their expressed faith in the official transcripts of Bukharin’s trial, which, in being “thorough,” are somehow to be considered legitimate evidence against him. They mention how the U.S. ambassador to Moscow endorsed the Moscow Show Trials, but fail to note that the U.S. philosopher John Dewey wrote the report Not Guilty in defense of those falsely charged by Stalin.10

For a more honest perspective, consider that Jean-Paul Sartre had by 1947 in Les Temps Modernes identified Stalin’s Soviet Union as a class society based on a “concentration-camp system.”11 According to Hannah Arendt, within totalitarian regimes, “th[e] place of positive laws is taken by total terror.”12 Indeed, the Comintern’s efforts to propagate its top-down vision for “revolution” were greatly hindered by the disillusionment of many Western sympathizers in light of the Terror of the 1930s and, ironically, the execution of many foreign communist leaders who had previously taken refuge in the Soviet Union.13 Alongside killing an astonishing 90% of Soviet trade-union leaders, Stalin ordered the following far-reaching executions:

“The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party fell victim, as did the many other foreign Communists and those who had served in Spain and China. Comintern activists were recalled to Moscow from all over the world and shot. Non-Russian nationalities were assailed; a large segment of the party leadership in Ukraine was annihilated.”14

Imagine framing these sweeping atrocities, as Jeremy does, as the “defense of the Revolution,” and denying that they served the ends of Stalin’s consolidation of power. Imagine unironically claiming that “Stalin was a critic of Stalin: he was able to self-criticize.” Such naked apologism represents nothing more than the regurgitation of Soviet State propaganda and the worship of power.

To accommodate fetishizing the Stalinist cult of personality in 2018—harkening back to a 1930’s view which sees the General Secretary as both “hero and father-protector”—Jeremy and Justin are fully prepared to falsify history and deny Stalin’s world-historical crimes.15

Repression of Tolstoyan Peasants

To demonstrate how terribly mistaken this view is, let us briefly consider the testimony of three Tolstoyan peasants who lived and worked in the “Life and Labor Commune,” which was founded in 1921 just outside Moscow and then relocated to Western Siberia in 1931. As Tolstoyans, these peasants followed the Christian anarchist Lev Tolstoy, who had proclaimed altruism, humanism, internationalism, anti-militarism, and vegetarianism in his late novels and essays.16 Yet in 1936, Stalin’s regime retaliated against the Commune for what might be termed excessive ‘idealism’: “You are building communism too soon [sic]; it is too early for you to refuse to support violence and murder,” declared the judge passing sentence on these pacifist stateless communists.17

Life and Labor

Courtesy William Edgerton

Boris Mazurin, a Tolstoyan leader of the “Life and Labor Commune,” writes in his memoirs that NKVD agents arrested several comrades from the Commune on the arbitrary basis of Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, which was utilized by the State to suppress anyone considered to be a threat. Between 1936 and 1940, sixty-five Tolstoyans detained by the NKVD for being “counter-revolutionaries” never returned; the loss of so many members destabilized the ability of the Commune to continue operating. In addition, more than a hundred male Tolstoyan communards were executed by the Soviet power for refusing military service in World War II.18 Ivan Dragunovsky, another communard whose father Yakov was executed by the State in 1938, elicits the frightful night in October 1937 when NKVD agents came to arrest him and several of his young comrades, most of them never to be seen again, simply because they were Tolstoyans.19

Dimitry Morgachëv, a peasant-intellectual from the “Life and Labor Commune,” recalls his experiences in the Cheremoshniki transfer prison:

“There was terrible despotism in that camp, the kind you might think would be inadmissible in a land of workers and peasants […]. More than thirty years have gone by, and it still makes my flesh crawl when I remember how we lived, not for hours or days but for whole years, in that savage, inhuman life where people died like flies in autumn from the hard labor, from starvation, from the smarting consciousness of our innocence and our undeserved infamy and punishment […]. Could this be done by the representatives of Communist power, whose ideal—the withering away of the state, and a society without violence—was dear to them and to me alike? Could all this be perpetrated by the same people who had grown so indignant about the savagery and arbitrary rule of the tsarist authorities over the common people?20

Defending an Anti-Semitic, Ultra-Nationalist, and Sexist Legacy

By interview’s end, Jeremy, Justin, and Ó Séaghdha all sound quite pleased with themselves. The host praises his guests’ uncritical take on the Soviet Union, which he claims to have represented “a socialist [sic] f*cking powerhouse” that was “so successful at so many things.” Right. That’s just as ideological as Jeremy and Justin’s denial of the charges of anti-Semitism and Russian chauvinism raised against Stalin which Ó Séaghdha meekly poses before the triumphant conclusion. In this section, we will examine Stalin’s anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and misogyny—the latter being a category that goes virtually unmentioned by the “Proles of the Round Table” and Ó Séaghdha.

Stalinist Anti-Semitism

Responding to Ó Séaghdha’s question about Stalin’s anti-Semitism, these “Proles of the Round Table” say that they “don’t know where you get the idea that he was anti-Semitic.” No? Let us count the ways.

  • Vis-à-vis Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky’s United Opposition (1926), Stalin at the least took advantage of the anti-Semitic hatred among Party members directed against these men as Jews to outmaneuver and disarm them and expel Trotsky from the country in 1928;21
  • The matter of conspiring to assassinate Trotsky (1940), exiled in Mexico;
  • The Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet Pact, of August 1939, which partitioned Poland, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before World War II, between the two totalitarian regimes: with the Hitler-Stalin Pact in mind, it’s simply untenable to pretend that Stalin bore no responsibility for the deaths of millions of Polish Jews at the hands of the Nazis, the question of the Comintern’s facilitation of Hitler’s coup to the side for the moment;
  • Tellingly, Hitler clarified that the only man for whom he had “unqualified respect” was “Stalin the genius [sic],” in an echo perhaps of his earlier view (from the 1920’s) that “in our movement the two extremes come together: the Communists from the Left and the officers and the students from the Right,” and reflected as well in his May 1943 declaration that, “in this war bourgeois and revolutionary states are facing each other,” with ‘bourgeois’ meaning ‘Western’ and ‘revolutionary’ [sic] referring to Nazi Germany and the USSR;22
  • The murder of Shlomo (Solomon) Mikhoels in January 1948, as mentioned in part I, and the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) he had led later that year, resulting in at least twenty death sentences and nearly a hundred others being sent to the GULAG—as the historian Bożena Szaynok confirms, “Stalin personally supervised all activities directed against [the] JAC”;23
  • Gripped by fear and paranoia in the post-war environment regarding the possibility of a third world war, Stalin became increasingly suspicious of all elements considered “disloyal,” and, within the context of Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov’s triumphalist demand for the fetishization of nationalism in culture, his regime launched an anti-Semitic campaign that was first announced in Pravda in January 1949 against the “emissaries of rootless cosmopolitanism,” meaning Soviet Jewish artists and intellectuals, for their supposed Zionism and attendant lack of pride in the Soviet Union, leading often to their being replaced in the State sector by non-Jews, expelled from the Party and their professional organizations, and having their works censored;24
  • Stalinist repression against Yiddish-language newspapers and institutions in the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) located in Birobijan in the Soviet Far East, together with prison and death sentences for JAR leaders, accused of “anti-State activity, espionage, and attempts to create a Jewish state in the USSR”;25
  • In parallel to the shuttering of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the Jewish Labor Bund was dissolved in Soviet-occupied Poland in 1949;26
  • Whereas Stalin’s regime was the first country to recognize Israel in May 1948—in an attempt to undermine British imperial power—Soviet authorities regarded the Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Moscow in August 1948 which coincided with the visit of Israeli envoy Golda Meyerson (later Meir), who was received enthusiastically, as highly disloyal;27
  • The announcement in January 1953 in Pravda of the “discovery” of the supposed “Kremlin doctors’ plot,” whereby dozens of physicians, many of them Jewish, were accused of having conspired with Britain and the U.S. to murder Zhdanov by medical malpractice, and of planning to similarly murder Stalin.28

Thankfully, Stalin died before this vile campaign could escalate into another Purge, this one exclusively targeting Jews. There is ominous evidence of orders for the construction of new concentration camps in the Soviet Far East from early 1953, confirming that Soviet authorities were preparing for a large influx of new political prisoners at a time when few remained after World War II.” For Arendt, this shift from accusing Soviet Jews of Zionism to implicating them in a putative Jewish world conspiracy ultimately signals the true affinities between Hitler and Stalin:

“The open, unashamed adoption of what had become to the whole world the most prominent sign of Nazism was the last compliment Stalin paid to his late colleague and rival in total domination with whom, much to his chagrin, he had not been able to come to a lasting agreement.”29

Stalinist Ultra-Nationalism

We have just seen how, toward the end of his life, Stalin contemptibly promoted open anti-Semitism and may well have been preparing another Holocaust. Yet even before this, as examined in parts I and II, Stalin combined Great Russian chauvinism, authoritarian high modernism, and a continuation of Tsarist imperialism from the beginning of his rule to “stabilize” his control over the Soviet Union and pursue its becoming a superpower. As such, “Stalinism was a deeply conservative structure of privilege for a ruling class that rejected many of the utopian ideals of the [Russian] revolution.”30 The emergence of “national Bolshevism” as Stalinist ideology in the 1930’s owes much to nationalism within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the revision of Marxist principles—as reflected in the catastrophic Comintern policies not only to facilitate Hitler’s rise but also, in seeking to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, to order the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ally with the nationalist-feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD), led by Chiang Kai-Shek, who promptly and murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927.31 Mao bitterly noted Stalin’s refusal to seriously assist the CCP during the Civil War against the GMD.32

In 1934, Stalin, Kaganovich, and Zhdanov mandated nationalist revisions to the Soviet history curricula which would do away with what the General Secretary and his colleagues saw as an excessively “sociological” understanding of history that had, in promoting internationalism since 1917, supposedly failed to promote a unified sense of Soviet identity. Stalin and co. demanded a narrative emphasis on the “progressive interpretation” of centralizing and “state-building” Tsarist heroes such as Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), and an attendant de-emphasis on historically insurgent rebels such as Yemelyan Pugachëv and Stenka Razin; a focus on medieval Rus’ while excluding consideration of medieval Western Europe; and the communication of the ‘lesser evil theory’ to explain Russia’s colonization of Ukraine and Georgia, among other questions.33 According to this rationale, Stalin essentially appealed to a continuity between his regime and the Tsarist Empire for legitimation: as such, Stalinist historiography “virtually ignored the history of Ukrainians and Belorussians, not to mention other, non-Slav peoples of the USSR.”34 This was the age of ‘socialist realism,’ when Soviet novels were written without any conflict, and it was understood that music should be melodious, optimistic, exuberant, and nationalist: hence Zhdanov’s attacks on the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev for their putative “formalism,” which was supposedly related to an imitation of Western modernist styles.35 Indeed, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, which depicts the medieval war in the Baltic region between Nevsky’s forces and the German Teutonic Knights, incorporates classic Stalinist tropes regarding the “urgency of strong leadership, the courage of the Russian people, and the purported sadistic impulses of the German invader.”36 As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick observes, this ideological transformation from a discourse of internationalism to national-Bolshevism reflected Stalinism’s “shift in emphasis from the workers as the vanguard class of the Soviet experiment to the Russian people as its vanguard nation.37

In addition to the invasion and occupation of Georgia; forced collectivization, “dekulakization,” and Holodomor in Ukraine; and counter-insurgency, famine, and the imposition of ethno-linguistic divisions in Central Asia, Stalin was also responsible for occupying and then subordinating the ill-named Eastern European “People’s Democracies” following the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Though these countries remained formally independent of the USSR, they essentially were (with the exception of Yugoslavia) “Sovietized” after WWII, such that Purges and dictatorship rather than self-determination and democratic self-rule followed the end of the war for millions of Eastern Europeans.38 Stalin’s end-of-life anti-Semitic campaign, then, noxiously spread to several of these “People’s Democracies,” particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia.39

Stalinist Patriarchy

Ó Séaghdha begins this interview on an actually promising note: he emphasizes that he wants to get away from the “Great Man of History” narrative when discussing Stalin. As with his parallel introductory comment about combating anti-Semitism, however, this is a purely opportunistic assertion, given that he provides the “Proles of the Round Table” nearly three hours to espouse historical lies that are framed within this very same narrative about the singular importance of the General Secretary.

As a putative “Great Man of History,” it should not therefore be surprising that Stalin was quite a sexist and a traditionalist on the woman’s question: he was after all responsible for advancing an “authoritarian and patriarchal political culture that […] pervaded social relations.”40 In 1930, the Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the Soviet Communist Party, which had been established by Alexandra Kollontai and others to promote female literacy and knowledge about marriage and property rights, was shuttered, and the perspectives of Communist feminists marginalized; in 1936, Stalin’s regime restricted divorce and abortion. Whereas the regime publicly recognized “Heroines of Motherhood” for bearing several children to serve the State, his officials engaged in rape campaigns in the GULAG camps and detention centers as a means of torture and humilation.41 When the Red Army entered Germany, moreover, toward the end of World War II, Soviet troops engaged in mass-rape of “thousands of females of all ages.”42 Additionally, in the wake of M. I. Ryutin’s appeal to depose Stalin in 1932, and following the General Secretary’s reprisals against Ryutin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, his second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, reportedly became very disillusioned with him; when Stalin rudely insulted her one evening at a dinner party, she was found dead the next morning, the result of an apparent suicide.43

central asian harvest mural

A Soviet mosaic in the Uzbek city of Bukhara (Courtesy The Guardian)

In Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, Stalinist high modernism coupled with a paradoxical mix of Soviet feminism, imperialism, and Orientalism led authorities to attempt to promote sexual equality in the region beginning in the late 1920’s. This campaign “threatened a total abrogation of the primordial status system,” and in promoting it, Soviet officials “meant to pose a fundamental challenge to the structure and life style of local communities.”44 Soviet family legislation in Turkestan sought to outlaw polygamy, allow women to divorce their husbands, establish a minimum age for marriage, and prevent arranged marriages, among other things; yet in response, many Muslim men divorced their wives, forcing them onto the streets. When some women employed the new rights afforded them by divorcing their husbands and publicly unveiling themselves, many Muslim men “responded with an explosion of hostility and violence apparently unequaled in scope and intensity until then on any other grounds.”45 Prompted by clerics, many men began persecuting, assaulting, and murdering unveiled women, female activists and their families, and those related to these figures. This conservative backlash resulted not only in the reveiling of unveiled women but also the spread of veiling among women who had not previously been veiled. Even some men who had benefited from Soviet land redistribution turned against the regime after this imposition of sexual equality. Soviet authorities then doubled down against the emergence of such male-supremacist resistance, reconstituting crimes against women as counter-revolutionary, carrying the obligatory penalty of execution; outlawing not only the Islamic veil but all other forms of traditional dress; and beginning to exclude veiled women from Soviet programs. The result of such intensification proved to be rather counter-productive, as many men tended to become more resistant to efforts to emancipate women, more violent, and less cooperative with overall Soviet policy. Ultimately, Soviet officials realized that deeply embedded cultural norms could not be eradicated merely by decree, such that this policy of “feminism from above” was promptly reversed, with accommodation and stability coming to replace the pursuit of fundamental social changes in gender relations.46

CA women

Courtesy Catherine Evtuhov et al.

Stalinist Ecocide

Though this critique of a “Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin is focused primarily on history and politics, I would be remiss not to at least mention some of the environmental depredations resulting from Stalinist industrialization and the USSR’s self-assertion as a superpower. Against Ó Séaghdha’s characterization of Soviet mass-industrialization as representing “proletarian beauty,” these ecological ill-effects range from persistent radioactivity resulting from Soviet nuclear tests, particularly in Kazakhstan, to the near-collapse of the Aral Sea as a viable ecosystem and natural-resource provider secondary to the industrial-scale expansion of cotton production in the USSR, which was based on the mass-diversion of water for irrigation from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that supply the Aral Sea, together with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the legacy of mass-chemical pollution.47 These lamentable realities provide a stark reminder that “[s]ocieties that have abolished or statized private profit have not escaped the most brutal dimensions of the ecological crisis.”48 Furthermore, a landmark 2013 study regarding historical responsibility for global warming which blames a sum total of 90 companies for fossil-fuel extraction holds investor-owned capitalist energy firms responsible for about one-fifth (21%) of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and Soviet State-owned oil, gas, and coal corporations responsible for just under 9% of total emissions.

tank prod

Soviet women working on wartime production of tanks (courtesy David Goldfrank)

Neo-Stalinist International Relations: Siding with Executioners Globally

“The Nazis were well aware of the protective wall of incredulity which surrounded their enterprise.” – Hannah Arendt49

Besides peddling historical lies to rehabilitate genocidal totalitarians of the past, neo-Stalinists notoriously run interference for authoritarian, neo-fascist, and (sub)imperialist States of today, if they judge them to be sufficiently “anti-imperialist”—by which these opportunists do not mean opposed to imperialism as such , but rather U.S. imperialism. Instead of internalizing Hensman’s critical points that “anti-imperialists [must] oppose all oppression by one country of another” and “understand that socialist internationalism demands solidarity with democratic revolutions, not with the counterrevolutions trying to crush them,” contemporary neo-Stalinists very typically adhere to a “campist” analysis, following Stalin’s identification of “the two camps” at the Potsdam conference of July 1945: the British and U.S. vs. the USSR.50 Overlaying the various complexities of international relations with a manichean worldview, Western neo-Stalinists prioritize Karl Liebknecht’s identification of the main enemy [being] at home”: whereas U.S. imperialism certainly must be opposed, their excessive attachment to this principle leads them often to the fallacious conclusion that popular uprisings against putative enemies of the U.S.—such as the Syrian Revolution, the Iranian revolt of late 2017 and early 2018, or the Ahwazi struggle for justice and self-determination—must be “CIA,” “Gulf,” or “Zionist” conspiracies. Given this framing, which is ideological rather than empirical or materialist, neo-Stalinists will implicitly—and evermore so recently, overtly—provide passive and/or active support for despots such as Bashar al-Assad, (the overthrown and now-defunct) Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, they side with executioners, hence violating the basic responsibility Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky assigned to intellectuals—however much Chomsky himself appears to have violated this principle when it comes to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslim Bosniak men and boys by Serbian ultra-nationalists.51 In light of Stalin’s mass-deportation of Muslims during World War II, and considering also the vile, potentially genocidal anti-Semitic campaign launched by the General Secretary toward life’s end, it should be clear how much of a continuity the neo-Stalinist “analysis” of popular uprisings against reactionary, pseudo-anti-imperialist regimes represents relative to Stalin’s own attitude toward “fifth columns” and putatively “disloyal elements.”

Indeed, substituting formulaic scripts for actual investigation, many neo-Stalinists of today completely fail on an analytical level to understand U.S. policy toward Syria. They ignore clear collaboration between the U.S. and the Assad Regime, from Hafez al-Assad’s deployment of 1500 Syrian troops to fight in Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s forces to Bashar al-Assad’s torture of ‘terror suspects’ detained by the U.S. in the ‘War on Terror.’52 Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the U.S. has not been committed to overthrowing Assad and does not appear ever to have supported the democratic opposition against him. Yet prominent “tankies” in the media, including Ó Séaghdha himself, continue to hold that the U.S. empire seeks Assad’s downfall and his replacement with “Salafi-jihadists.” Yet this is the opposite of what the U.S. or Israel want. The “tank” zeal to blame the Syrian catastrophe on Western imperialism quite clearly overlooks the very obvious imperialist role played there by Russia, especially since September 2015, when Putin intervened decisively to save Assad’s Regime. Neo-Stalinists have nothing to say about the estimated 18,000 Syrian victims of Russian aerial bombardment, or the destruction of entire cities by the Russian air force. To accord with their campist perspective—and, indeed, continuing in their denialist pedigree regarding Stalin’s world-historical crimes—they deny Assad’s vast atrocities, from the extermination of detainees to the numerous occasions on which the Regime has resorted to using chemical weapons.

As such, they lend their support to neo-fascist and genocidal ruling classes, such as the Assad Regime, or as the neo-Stalinist propagandist and “Revolutionary Left Radio” veteran Ajit Singh does with regard to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): in August 2018, he co-authored with Ben Norton an infamous article on the campist disinformation site Grayzone which denies the well-documented mass-internment of indigenous Muslim Uighurs. It is simply a non-sensical piece, given that the official Chinese State newspaper, The Global Times, had already defended the suppression of the Uighurs two weeks before the Grayzone article was published by alluding to the supposed need to prevent the Xinjiang province from becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.” Moreover, in early October, the Xinjiang government legalized the camps. To date, the Grayzone article’s fraudulent title continues to be “No, the UN Did Not Report China Has ‘Massive Internment Camps’ for Uighur Muslims,” and it does not appear that either Singh or Norton has published an update or a correction; indeed, the article is still live. How telling that these Stalinist ‘journalists’ are comfortable with legitimizing the neo-fascist war on truth, as reflected in Donald Trump’s belittling of “fake news.”

Whereas for most neo-Stalinists, support for Palestinian self-determination against Israeli settler-colonialism is a matter of principle, Hensman clearly identifies their opportunism when she asks:

“How can anyone who feels anguish when Palestinian children are targeted and killed in Gaza not feel anguish when Syrian children are targeted and killed in Aleppo?”53

This pointed question is implicitly raised in the new film A Private War (2018), which shows the American journalist Marie Colvin interviewing a Syrian mother with her young infant daughter in a bomb shelter in Homs in early 2012—sheltering, of course, from the Assad Regime’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas. While we would consider it very difficult to deny human solidarity to this oppressed Syrian mother, just the same as an oppressed Palestinian woman, neo-Stalinists are “quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what [they] assum[e] to be the law of History.”54 Everything else, from mass-death in Assad’s dungeons to mass-imprisonment of Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps, are details to them, whether historical or contemporary. Decisively, the CCP’s rationalization of its mass-internment of Muslim Uighurs very closely echoes Stalinist propaganda about and policy toward the supposedly “backward” Muslim peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains: note that Uighur Muslims have been cut off from the Ummah, just as Soviet Muslims were in Stalin’s era, and that the CCP, in seeking to forcibly divorce the Uighur youth from Islam, has consciously sought to suppress Uighur nationalism and the related possibility of independence for Eastern Turkestan, as Xinjiang is also known.

central asian imperial sport mural

A Soviet mosaic in Semey, Kazakhstan (Courtesy The Guardian)

In the U.S., it is the ill-named Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers’ World Party (WWP), together with their front-groups, such as the Act Now to End War and Stop Racism (ANSWER) Coalition and the International Action Center (IAC), that propagate neo-Stalinist and campist approaches to international relations, which inevitably end up translating into passive and/or active support for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners. Yet it is not only the PSL, the WWP, ANSWER, or IAC which do so in the U.S.: just on Sunday, November 11, 2018, in Los Angeles, members of the similarly ill-named Peace and Freedom Party picketed a presentation about the Syrian Revolution and the occupation of Syria by Russia and Iran that was given by the Syrian pro-democratic activist Samir Twair, whose 39-year old brother was murdered by Assad’s forces in the notorious Sednaya prison, and hosted by LA Jews for Peace. While these “tank” trolls’ aggressive booing, hissing, and intimidation of the speaker during his presentation and the discussion which followed was lamentable enough, the sign one of them brought to the event (shown below) itself speaks volumes to the naked opportunism, ruthlessness, and atrocity-denial that today grips a part of the Western so-called left, reflecting the persistence of the shameful Stalinist legacy.

As Theodor W. Adorno observed correctly, “the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”

Screenshot_2018-11-18 Global Anarchy 🏴Ⓥ ( intlibecosoc) Twitter

Notes

1Arendt 388, 413.

2Plokhy 250-251.

3Ibid 253-254; Evtuhov 669.

4Evtuhov 675; Plokhy 252 (emphasis added).

5Arendt 447.

6Evtuhov 676.

7Lee 236.

8Evtuhov 642-644.

9Evtuhov 674.

10Ibid 674.

11Ian H. Birchall, Sartre against Stalinism (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), 53.

12Arendt 464.

13Meyer 102.

14Evtuhov 675.

15Ibid 693.

16See for example Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), Resurrection (1899), or Hadji Murat (1912).

17Ivan Dragunovsky, “From the Book One of My Lives,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 251.

18Boris Mazurin, “The Life and Labor Commune: A History and Some Reflections,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 91-108; Dimitry Morgachëv, “My Life,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 177.

19Dragunovsky 252-257.

20Morgachëv 166-167, 171 (emphasis added).

21Evtuhov 642.

22Arendt 309n12-13.

23Evtuhov 723; Boena Szaynok, “The Anti-Jewish Policy of the USSR in the Last Decade of Stalin’s Rule and Its Impact of the East European Countries with Special Reference to Poland,” Russian History, 29, nos. 2-4 (2002), 302.

24Evtuhov 722-723; Szaynok 302-303.

25Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 303.

26Szaynok 310.

27Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 304.

28Evtuhov 728-729; Syaznok 305.

29Arendt xxxix-xl.

30Evtuhov 729.

31D. L. Brandenberger and A. M. Dubrovsky, “’The People Need a Tsar’: The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931-1941,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 50, no. 5 (1998), 873; Liu 8-13.

32Evtuhov 721.

33Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 874-881.

34Ibid 879.

35Evtuhov 722-723.

36Ibid 693.

37Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 882 (emphasis in original).

38Evtuhov 716-720.

39Szaynok 305-315.

40Evtuhov 729.

41Ibid 686-687.

42Ibid 711.

43Ibid 671.

44Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 250.

45Ibid 275

46Ibid 284, 316, 320-325, 351-354.

47Evtuhov 755.

48Jean-Paul Deléage, “Eco-Marxist Critique of Political Economy,” in Is Capitalism Sustainable: Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, ed. Martin O’Connor (New York: Guilford, 1994), 45.

49Arendt 437n124.

50Hensman 15 (emphasis in original); Evtuhov 717.

51Hensman 283.

52Reese Ehrlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 71, 146-149.

53Hensman 284.

54Arendt 461.

Review: The Anarchist Roots of Geography

March 29, 2017

Springer cover

Originally published on Marx and Philosophy, 28 March 2017

In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, a “proverbial call to nonviolent arms,” Simon Springer discusses some of the past, present, and future relationships between anarchism and geography. He mobilizes the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Lev Tolstoy to denounce global capitalism and oppression—declaring, with Kropotkin, that anarchism is “what geography ought to be”—while also affirming the more contemporary approaches of Saul Newman and Todd May, who have advanced the idea of “post-structuralist anarchism” in opposition to classical approaches through a turn to thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others. Springer therefore presents his own perspective as amounting variably to “anarchism without adjectives” or “post-anarchism,” neither of which is the same. The former refers to the synthesist approach favored by Voline and others in opposition to the anarcho-communist Platformism advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, and other exiled militants following the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Post-anarchism, a more recent development, integrates the nihilism, irrationalism, and defeatism of postmodern analyses in expressing opposition to social revolution and universalism as “totalizing narratives.” In this way, while The Anarchist Roots of Geography provides many compelling insights, it itself presents a synthesis of a number of anarchist or anarchistic approaches that cannot so readily be melded together.

Springer’s main project in this volume is to bring geography back to its radical anarchist roots, thus issuing a course correction of sorts beyond those set by the hegemonic presence of Marxists within academic geography departments starting in the late 1960s. The author presents the works of Kropotkin and Reclus as luminous alternatives to the ethnocentrism and state-centricity that has plagued the discipline since its origins. Springer wishes to wield anarchism, defined as the practice of mutual aid with the concern for universal geography in mind, to undermine statism, capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and speciesism (or anthroparchy). For him, anarchism is the “only meaningful form of postcolonialism” (38), as the State-form effectively continues colonization even after formal independence, and—following Reclus—it must centrally express concern for the integrity of the planetary system by means of nature conservation, vegetarianism, and opposition to animal cruelty. Springer here traces the philosophical arc linking Reclus with social ecology and the animal-rights and animal-liberation movements. The author holds that direct action, cooperation, and prefigurative politics can allow humanity to affiliate by free federation, reestablish equality among humans, rebuild the commons, and overturn the domination of nature. Taking after Proudhon (1840), who analyzed property as originating in the Roman concept of sovereignty, or patriarchal despotism, Springer defines property as violence and calls for insurrection—but not revolution—against oppression. Echoing Reclus, he emphasizes the place of beauty in the struggle, citing Albert Einstein’s view that “[o]ur task” must be to “wide[n] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (137), and he declares the importance of unity for anarchy, in parallel to the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Baruch de Spinoza.

Some of the specific suggestions Springer makes for future research into the intersection of anarchism with geography include the following topics:

  • State theory and sovereignty
  • Capital accumulation and flows, land rights, property relations
  • Gentrification, homelessness, housing, environmental justice
  • Labor, logistics, policing, and incarceration geographies
  • Critical geopolitics, geographies of debt and economic crisis, geographies of war and peace, etc.

In advocating an anarchist understanding of geography, Springer seeks to depose the dominance of Marxian and Marxist approaches within the discipline, holding these responsible for the perpetuation of State-centric analyses in place of a geographical exploration of alternatives to the State altogether. Springer argues against Marx’s statism and “dialectical” enthusiasm for colonialism, defending instead the anarchist emphasis on the need for consistency between means and ends. Stating openly that “[f]lirtation with authority has always been a central problem with Marxism” (158), he discusses how anarchists do not share Marx’s positivistic-utilitarian enthusiasm for the centralizing and despotic features of capitalism. In the anarchist view, capitalist exploitation and imperial domination are not considered necessary parts of the Geist. “The means of capitalism and its violences do not justify the eventual end state of communism, nor does this end justify such means” (52). For Springer, then, anarchism is a more integral approach than Marxism, as the former recognizes the multiple dimensions of oppression in opposition to the latter, which is said to focus almost exclusively on class, while misrepresenting anarchism as being opposed only to the State. Springer believes that Marxism allows no space for addressing oppressions outside of exploitation. Moreover, anarchists prescribe action in the here and now, rather than advocating a dialectical waiting period until the “objective conditions” are supposedly ripe.

Indeed, Springer shows how Proudhon’s analyses of property, the State, wage labor, exploitation, and religion were highly influential for Marx, despite the fact that the German Communist was reticent to acknowledge as much. As Proudhon wrote after Marx’s diatribe against him in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847): “The true meaning of Marx’s work is that he regrets that I have thought like him everywhere and that I was the first to say it.”

Springer also communicates the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s view that it was Proudhon who first expressed the labor theory of value, and he hypothesizes that it was Kropotkin’s years spent in Siberia which led this anarcho-communist to emphasize a naturalist, decentralized, agrarian, and cooperative vision for the future, in contrast to Marx’s centralist and industrialist-positivist views. For the present and future, the author calls for the creation of radical democracy, which arises when la part sans-part (“the part without part”) intervenes to disturb the established sovereign order, rebuilding the commons where now prevail exclusive spaces, whether they be private or public. Springer particularly endorses Murray Bookchin’s concept of the “Commune of communes” as a restatement of the “continua[l] unfolding” of organization by free federation, and affirms Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of struggle to be a means without end, or infinitely demanding (Simon Critchley).

Springer certainly presents several critical contributions to a revolutionary analysis and understanding of geography. Yet as stated before, there are philosophical and political tensions among the variegated sources he calls on to develop his argument. To take one example, he initially affirms the views of several classical anarchist revolutionists but then challenges Neil Smith’s call for a “revival of the revolutionary imperative” against capitalism and the State, preferring instead insurrection—defined as prefiguration, spontaneity, and a Stirnerist sense of disregarding oppressive structures rather than overthrowing them—because revolution is putatively governed by a “totalizing logic” and somehow “ageographical” (68). This questionable understanding of revolution to the side for the moment, it bears clarifying that Max Stirner was a reactionary individualist whose views are incompatible with those of the anarcho-communists. Yet this lapse on Springer’s part is one with his general approach of blurring distinct anarchist philosophies with ones that may seem anarchistic—most prominently, post-structuralism. To return to the question of revolution, the author favorably reproduces Newman’s dismissal of social revolution as a rationalist, Promethean, and authoritarian project, noting that “not everything needs to be remade” and that revolution is inseparable from tyranny (88). This attitude fundamentally contradicts the thought of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, and other anarchist militants. Indeed, absent a commitment to revolutionism, it becomes difficult to claim that “post-structuralist anarchism” is anarchist. The same is true for “post-anarchism,” a category that Springer embraces on multiple occasions in the text. To weld “post-anarchism” together with classical anarchism would require more than passing references to the supposed superiority of more contemporary anti-essentialist perspectives informed by Foucault, Butler, and company. Amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction, the accelerating destabilization of the climate, and Donald Trump’s war on the scientific method, why should we accept post-anarchism’s rejection of science, truth, and ethics? In point of fact, classical anarchism shows itself more appropriate to the times.

In distinction to the author’s endorsement of post-anarchism, Springer’s Tolstoyan advocacy of a peaceful uprising is intriguing but not entirely clear. The author argues that anarchism typically had a pacifist orientation to social change before Errico Malatesta, Alexander Berkman, and other militants came to publicly endorse tactics of assassination. Springer fails to mention that Kropotkin did so as well, and he misrepresents Emma Goldman’s trajectory as initially being supportive of counter-violence but then coming to pacifism by her life’s end—for the geographer overlooks Goldman’s support for armed struggle in the Spanish Revolution. Like Goldman, Springer is not a strict pacifist in that he allows for violent self-defense and endorses insurrection as forms of “permanent resistance.” Still, he is not very precise in the parameters of violence, nonviolence, and self-defense he discusses. What is clear is that the very possibilities for peace and emancipation require a different society. In this sense, Springer’s citation of Edward Said is poignantly apt: the “stability of the victors and rulers” must be “consider[ed] […] a state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction.” Under the prevailing conditions in which capitalism and militarism indeed threaten human survival and planetary integrity, Springer is correct to emphasize the importance of “perpetual contestation” and “[e]xperimentation in and through space” (3). We must become the horizon!

“Contra el Capital, la Autoridad y la Iglesia”

March 27, 2015

Sobre la vida y la muerte del compañero Ricardo Flores Magón

Esta es la segunda parte de una entrevista a Claudio Lomnitz acerca de su libro, El Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón (The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, Zone Books, 2014). Traducción elaborada por el entrevistador y revisada por María A. Castro.  Publicada en linea en Portal Libertario OACA y Bloque Libertario.


Para continuar con el tema de la última pregunta de la primera parte de nuestra conversación sobre las relaciones profundamente románticas, tanto platónicas como sexuales, que se desarrollaron entre las figuras centrales de la Junta Organizadora del Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) y l@s más cercanos a ell@s, ¿qué papeles jugaron el arte y la belleza en este movimiento? En su capítulo sobre la época bohemia de Magón, “La Bohème,” Ud. observa que la sensibilidad estética estaba íntimamente asociada a la sensibilidad humanista y revolucionaria que sentían l@s militantes que formaban parte de este grupo. De hecho, tal conexión filosófica entre el arte y la revolución social ha sido identificada por Herbert Marcuse y Albert Camus y a G. W. F. Hegel se le conoce por la idea de que el heroismo estético se ve en la responsabilidad en la causa de cambiar el mundo.

Aunque sería difícil responder a tal tipo de pregunta en términos del movimiento en general, dadas las variedades entre sus integrantes, se puede decir que el movimiento en general dependía críticamente de la lectura y la escritura, siendo la belleza una razón fundamental para ganar acceso a la alfabetización. Ricardo era muy explícito en sus cartas en cuanto a la importancia de la palabra, del conversar y del pensar. El insistía que era la conciencia y no la violencia la que verdaderamente llevó a cabo la Revolución, aunque hubo mucho más que la cuestión de la propia revolución. En primer lugar, los contenidos de Regeneración y The Border (La Frontera) incluían mucho arte y belleza y se daba énfasis a la poesía, por ejemplo, además de existir un gran interés en el arte gráfico así como en el reconocimiento de autores y obras literarias. Este énfasis también era crítico en el desarrollo de las afinidades interpersonales, las cuales eran un factor indispensable en la vida social del militante, como vimos en cuanto al amor. 

Había asimismo un principio filosófico involucrado en todo esto, expresado en la idea de que el movimiento sentía que las formas contemporáneas de explotación y opresión estaban degradando a los seres humanos del mundo, y que la belleza era clave para la vocación humana. Para poner un ejemplo, en una carta que escribió desde Leavenworth a Ellen White, Ricardo dijo que “No pude evitar reirme un poco—sólo un poco—pensando en tu inocencia. Tú dices que es supérfluo que yo hable de la Belleza, y lo dices cuando es la Belleza aquéllo que yo amo más que nada.” En términos más filosóficos, y otra vez desde Leavenworth, Ricardo escribió al activista socialista Winnie Branstetter que la humanidad “ha violado la Belleza. Siendo el animal más inteligente, y el más favorecido por la Naturaleza, la [humanidad] ha vivido en la suciedad moral y material.”

Diría que la belleza y el arte eran realidades claves en la formación política de l@s militantes, en la socialización del movimiento, en la definición de las metas del movimiento, en la formación de las afinidades espirituales entre desconocid@s que podían entonces apoyarse el un@ al otr@ de manera espontánea, y en la actitud filosófica que les impulsaba a l@s individu@s a rebelarse en contra de la situación que, en caso contrario, se podría haber naturalizado. Esa es una de las razones por las cuales vemos que vari@s militantes importantes crearon obras artísticas en diferentes periodos de sus vidas. En ciertos casos—como el de Práxedis Guerrero, Juan Sarabia o Santiago de la Hoz, por ejemplo—la poesía se creó en el momento cumbre de sus vidas como organizadores políticos. En otros casos—siendo ésta la dinámica de las obras de teatro de Ricardo—la vuelta hacia la producción artística llega a ser un espacio alternativo hacia la militancia y a organización comunal, en un momento histórico en que la eficacia política a través de la lucha armada revolucionaria había decaido de manera significativa. Pero hablando en general, sí es verdad que vari@s militantes escribían poesía o buscaban formas de expresión artística, incluso para atraer a amantes potenciales.

Para l@s que están más familiarizados con una narrativa reduccionista de la Revolución Mexicana (1910-1920) que da prioridad a la Campaña Anti-Reeleccionista del terrateniente reformista Francisco I. Madero—o, al mínimo, a la oposición maderista inicial a la elección que Díaz había hecho para su vicepresidente en los comicios previstos para el año 1910—podría resultar sorprendente considerar que el PLM organizó varias revueltas armadas en la región fronteriza antes de la Revolución, con la esperanza de catalizar una insurrección popular general en México. La primera revuelta tuvo lugar en 1906, la segunda en 1908, y la tercera siendo todavía la Revolución muy joven, en diciembre del 1910, e igual en Baja California durante el primer semestre de 1911. La revuelta armada más ambiciosa fue la primera, siendo organizada para coincidir con el Día de la Independencia en septiembre del 1906 y con las figuras centrales de la Junta Organizadora en participación activa. La idea era asaltar e invadir tres ciudades mexicanas importantes en la frontera: Ciudad Juárez, Nogales y Jiménez. Lamentablemente, los esfuerzos de la red transnacional de espías causaron que fallara la insurrección, y parte de la Junta fue detenida, mientras que la otra parte se escapó. Desde entonces, Díaz decidió dejar que el Estado estadunidense procesara a los revoltosos por haber violado las leyes de neutralidad que se habían establecido durante la Guerra entre España y EUA, a cambio de la no-intervención del dictador mexicano en ese conflicto. Este fue el cargo por el que Magón y sus camaradas fueron encarcelados de nuevo en 1907 por tres años, castigo por la revuelta que habían planificado. La revuelta de 1908, que consistió en un ataque en contra de Las Palomas, Chihuahua, liderado por Práxedis Guerrero y Francisco Manrique mientras los demás integrantes de la Junta Organizadora estaban encarcelados, parece haber sido desaconsejable, y lo mismo tal vez se podría decir de la revuelta de diciembre del 1910 en la que el mismo Práxedis murió.

Además, tomando en cuenta esta nueva encarcelación de varios de los integrantes claves de la Junta Organizadora, el PLM parecer haber sido eclipsado, en los años antes de la Revolución, por el Maderismo, sistema que proveía un alternativa más incrementalista, familiar y complaciente que la que avanzaba el PLM: Francisco I. Madero (“Don Panchito”) representaba “el Estado de Derecho” y la reforma burguesa-democrática, mientras Magón recalcaba la acción directa, la redistribución de las tierras, la expropriación, y la autoemancipación proletaria. Ud. nos cuenta la historia fascinante en la que Madero se aproximó a Magón para ofrecerle la posición de vicepresidente a su lado—siendo ésta una propuesta que Magón rechazó inmediatamente. Entonces, Ud. nos enseña como fue que Madero se apropió del Ejército Federal de Díaz para regular y vencer las fuerzas Liberales que habían tomado Mexicali y Tijuana en los meses antes de la caída de Díaz en 1911, y después que él activó las relaciones diplomáticas con EUA para exigir que la Junta y varios comandantes del PLM fueran encarcelados de nuevo, tras el repudio de Magón hacia Madero, ¡a no ser que Madero hubiera pedido y recibido apoyo militar a los Liberales en un acto de buena fe hasta ese punto en la Revolución! En este sentido, la traición oportunista de Madero claramente demuestra su compromiso al practicar un arte de gobernar autoritario y Weberiano, y puede explicar la razón por la cual Regeneración llegó a considerarle un “dictador,” un “segundo Porfirio Díaz,” y un “dueño de esclav@s.” ¿Podría Ud. hablar más acerca de los varios dilemas con los cuales el PLM se enfrentó en la fase inicial de la Revolución? Ud. plantea que, tras su división con Madero, el PLM se convirtió en una corriente más marginal en el proceso revolucionario, aunque se pudo liberar para expresar su filosofia ácrata abiertamente. ¿Podría haber sido diferente?

Lo hipotético siempre es difícil. La gente siempre va a debatir si Ricardo se equivocó o no al rebelarse en contra de Madero. Por lo menos, y desde una perspectiva política, su sentido del tiempo no fue aconsejable. Ricardo pronunció que Madero era un traidor mientras que la revuelta en contra de Díaz todavía estaba ardiendo. Esta posición abrió al grupo la acusación de que sus integrantes eran traidores financiados por los científicos y de que hacían trabajo sucio para Diaz. Varios auténticos revolucionarios lo sintieron así, entre ellos simpatizantes anteriores del PLM, como Esteban Baca Calderón y Manuel Diéguez, del caso de Cananea. Puede ser que Ricardo creyera que perdería la confianza si apoyaba a Madero y después se rebelaba en contra de él una vez llegado al poder. No es fácil decirlo con precisión. Pero sí es claro que la Junta bajo el liderazgo de Ricardo carecía de un estrategista militar, y que su posición con relación a Madero, y después con Huerta, Carranza, Villa, y los demás, vulneraba el liderazgo militar que sí tenía en México, dado que siempre necesitaban alianzas. Estas alianzas hicieron posible que la Junta de Los Ángeles considerara a los comandantes PLMistas como traidores. En este sentido, la decisión de Magón en cuanto a Madero aseguró una derrota militar rápida, y quizá también causó una influencia ideológica más amplia y duradera.

Para Magón, la lucha armada era indudablemente una táctica importante, pero considerando su opinión de que el dominio contrarevolucionario se concentraba en la hidra de tres cabezas fatales—el capital, el Estado y el clero—la revolución social, según él, se extendía más alla de la insurrección, y de ahí su idea de que el esfuerzo intelectual de agitación se tenía que mantener para inspirar las acciones militantes directas, tal como se ve en los ejemplares de Regeneración. La decisión de Magón tras el fracaso de 1906 y la encarcelación de ciertos integrantes de la Junta para prevenir que su hermano Enrique participara en la revuelta de 1908 y a partir de allí para asegurar la protección de la integridad física de los intelectuales del PLM provocó un conflicto con Práxedis, quien—a lo mejor de manera más verdaderamente ácrata—sentía que no podía pedir a otr@s que arriesgaran sus vidas en la revuelta armada sin hacer él lo mismo. El joven militante de veintiocho anos murió en la revuelta de diciembre de 1910 en observación de este credo, expiando su culpa por haber sobrevivido a Manrique, quien murió en la revuelta de 1908, siendo éste un caso paralelo al del Subcomandante Pedro del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), quien cayó en la insurrección neozapatista de enero del 1994.

Dada esta diferencia de opinión acerca de la relación entre la teoría y la práctica, Ud. pone de relieve que Práxedis tenía más dudas que Magón en cuanto al uso del odio en la lucha revolucionaria. El dijo en algunos de sus últimos artículos en Regeneración que “sin odio se pueden aniquilar los despotismos,” y que “Vamos a la lucha violenta sin hacer de ella el ideal nuestro, sin soñar en la ejecución de los tiranos como suprema victoria de la justicia. Nuestra violencia no es justicia: es simplemente necesidad.” ¿Y cómo veía Magón el odio? Me gustaría añadir que su presentación de la supuesta falta de comprensión juvenil que le faltaba a Práxedis del “valor de la supervivencia,” corre el riesgo de reflejar un sentido discriminatorio por edad. ¿Cómo ve la acusación?

Tu acusación de “discriminación por edad” en contra de mí probablemente tiene razón. No lo había considerado en ese sentido, pero sí hay un tipo de identificación paterna con respecto a la simpatía que siento en referencia al intento de Ricardo de prevenir que Práxedis fuera a la guerra.

Pero de todas maneras, también es verdad que siento más simpatía por Práxedis que por Ricardo en cuanto a la cuestión del odio. Varios de sus ataques en contra de sus enemig@s, y en contra de sus compañer@s a l@s que llegó a ver como enemig@s, son verdaderamente horripilantes. Se puede comprender la razón por la cual Ricardo odía si se contemplan las numerosas dificultades y sacrificios que él experimentó en la vida, pero eso no hace que su actitud fuera atractiva. Ricardo tenía varias virtudes, pero su promoción del odio no se puede incluir aquí. En cambio, Práxedis tenía más conciencia de este problema, y una de las cosas más bellas de Práxedis es que el escribía sus pensamientos acerca de esta cuestión, y los publicaba en Regeneración.

El odio que Ricardo sentía también tenía que ver con su perspectiva histórica, no sólo con el rencor. Él estaba convencido que vivía en el inicio de la revolución mundial, y no era el único que tenía esa opinión, especialmente tras el comienzo de la Primera Guerra Mundial. En cierto sentido, esta consideración podría justificar hasta cierto punto los contínuos llamamientos que Ricardo hacía por la violencia e incluso por los asesinatos, pero tengo que decir que esta parte de la vida de Ricardo es para mí una de las más problemáticas. Se ven los efectos negativos que tuvo esta orientación tanto en las relaciones interpersonales entre Ricardo y algunas de las personas a quienes él consideraba más confiables, como en la decaida de apoyo a la Revolución por un pueblo que estaba agotado por tanta violencia incesante. Esta fue una de las cosas que Ricardo no vivió directamente, pero esta cuestión es muy relevante para poder comprender lo que Enrique y otr@s Liberales experimentaron cuando volvieron a México tras la Revolución.

Durante el desarrollo de la fase inicial de la Revolución y mientras más integrantes del PLM decidieron juntarse a Madero, la red transnacional que apoyaba la “Causa Mexicana” empezó a deteriorarse, como Ud. nos dice—en parte como respuesta a la agresividad virulenta que Ricardo expresaba hacia varios ex-compañer@s que abandonaron el Liberalismo por Madero. Un componente clave de tal actitud impropia entre camaradas tuvo que ver con el prejuicio evidente que Ricardo tenía en contra de la gente LGBTQ. Él expresó su ira de manera particular en contra de la lesbiana Juana B. Gutiérrez de Mendoza, cuando reveló su homosexualidad públicamente tras su deserción, presentándola como alguien “degenerada” que estaba involucrada en una “lucha contra la Naturaleza.” Igual ocurrió en el caso de Antonio I. Villarreal, quien dejó la Junta Organizadora para unirse al maderismo, y después fue acusado de haber tenido relaciones sexuales con cierto peluquero. A pesar de la “traición” de Gutiérrez de Mendoza, hay que clarificar que ella ayudó a Zapata a escribir el Plan de Ayala (1911/1914) tras su desilusión con el reformismo maderista, mientras que Villarreal el socialista sirvió bajo Madero y en cambio fue nombrado coronel antes de que él fundara una versión en la Ciudad de México de Regeneración (que Magón consideraba “Degeneración” o “Regeneración burguesa”), y luego acusara a Ricardo de haberse vendido.

Sin duda, las “acusaciones” de homosexualidad que Magón perseguía se afiliaron con el conocimiento popular del “Escándalo de los ’41,” operación policiaca en contra de un baile de la clase alta en la Ciudad de México en 1901, evento que resultó en la detención de 41 muchachos que estaban bailando el un@ con el otr@, la mitad vestidos de mujer. La implicación fue que la clase dominante del Porfiriato era afeminada, emasculada y “degenerada,” y que lo que se necesitaba era la regeneración masculina, masculinizando una regeneración ¡patriarcal! Lamentablemente, y con relación al momento actual, una dinámica de tono similar parece operar ahora en Mexico, en relación al Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto y Manuel Velasco Coello, Gobernador del Estado de Chiapas. No hay duda que estos priístas son tiranos, pero se conoce que una corriente entre la oposición en contra de ellos se expresa en términos tales como “putos” putativos, casi en estilo magonista. A partir de esto surgen varias preguntas. En primer lugar, ¿hasta qué punto se reflejaban los prejuicios de la sociedad mexicana en la homofobía de Ricardo? Es evidente que este prejuicio viola la filosofía militante y anti-autoritaria del PLM, siendo si no profundamente transgresiva, dado que sus adherentes “se enfrentaban con el status quo e intentaban crear una alternativa frente a ello.” Otra cosa es preguntarle, ¿cuánto es que Ud. cree que la sociedad mexicana ha avanzado, en términos de la diversidad sexual y de género en el siglo que ha pasado desde la Revolución?

Con toda probabilidad, sería imposible evaluar la profundidad o el alcance de la “homofobía” durante la epoca de Magon. Ese término ni existía en ese entonces, y como Carlos Monsivais ha observado, el “Escándalo de los ’41” fue el primer escándalo homosexual en México (1901). Así que mi respuesta a la primera parte de tu pregunta es tentativa, pero aquí va: Tengo la impresión que Ricardo era más intensamente “homofóbico” que vari@s de sus contemporane@s, y creo que así era por dos razones. La primera tiene que ver con la idea de regeneración en sí— idea que dependía de la perspectiva de que México estaba postrado, humillado, esclavizado, etc. Todas estas ideas minaban la virilidad, lo cual era un valor clave en el movimiento. Esta dinámica no necesariamente lleva al pánico homosexual, pero sí puede contribuir al mismo. Creo que en el caso de Ricardo, sí contribuyó.

Un segundo factor, en mi opinion, fue la gran cantidad de tiempo que Ricardo estuvo encarcelado. Las relaciones homosexuales eran muy comunes en la cárcel, y eso se sabía bien en Mexico. Carlos Roumagnac, el principal criminólogo mexicano, publicó un estudio de “tipos criminales” basado en entrevistas de gran duración en la Prisión de Belem—donde Ricardo había estado internado—y concluyó que casi todos los encarcelados tenían relaciones sexuales entre sí. Los cuentos que contó Antonio Villarreal acerca de las experiencias de la Junta en la prisión federal en Arizona se enfocaban asimismo en esta cuestión. Es posible que Ricardo desarrollara una aversión a los avances sexuales que había experimentado en la cárcel, o tal vez existíera para él un enlace entre la homosexualidad y la debilidad, o también es posible que él fuera homosexual, y que le horrorizara la posibilidad de que su homosexualidad se desvelara. No se puede decir nada definitivo a partir de los documentos históricos, pero creo que se puede decir que sus experiencias en la cárcel fueron relevantes.

Por último, el tercer factor es la utilidad política de la acusación. En la prensa, Ricardo era constantemente atacado, y el solía utilizar cualquier cosa que pudiera para profanar a sus enemig@s. La acusación de homosexualidad le era útil, y él la utilizaba. Diría que no sólo la utilizaba, sino que se satisfacía haciéndolo.

En cuanto a la situación de México en la actualidad, yo diría que la sociedad mexicana ha experimentado transformaciones tremendas en términos de género y relaciones sexuales—tremendas. Aún durante el curso de mi vida, ni hablar de lo que estaba pasando durante el Porfiriato. Ahora si, las ideas de la conspiración homosexual, en particular entre la élite, como las teorías conspiratorias antisemíticas, todavía son comunes. En este sentido, Ricardo era mucho menos pernicioso que algunos teoristas de conspiración contemporáneos, dado que él no creía que México estaba bajo el control de un círculo gay. Creo que el hecho de que Ricardo en general era antinacionalista le conservó en cuanto a las teorias de conspiracion de las cuales hablas—las que dicen que la gente es pura, pero que sus explotadores son una camarilla de malditos perversos. La homofobía de Ricardo se dirigía hacia las personas que él consideraba traidoras, pero ést@s según él habian traicionado una Causa en vez de una nación “pura.”

Dado, como dice Ud., que la revolución ácrata es “la revolución más radical que la Ilustración ha engendrado,” siento curiosidad por saber si Ud. tendría algún comentario acerca de la influencia que el posmodernismo y el posestructuralismo han tenido en la tradición ácrata en las ultimas décadas, como se ve por ejemplo en la propuesta para un “anarquismo posestructuralista.” Como sabrá Ud., ambas escuelas rechazan la Ilustración.

No conozco estas tendencias bien, en cuanto a las posibilidades de hacer tal comentario, aunque creo que hay buenas razones por las cuales el posmodernismo y el posestructuralismo tendrían un interés serio en el anarquismo. Para ilustrar, la crítica del Michel Foucault en cuanto al Estado y la soberanía fácilmente podría resultar en la exploración del anarquismo como espacio político alternativo. Además, el rechazo del posmodernismo hacia el grand récit del progreso podría proveer un amplio espacio para la valoración de l@s campesin@s, l@s artesan@s, y los modos de vida que se diferencian del antiguo romance marxista con el proletariado industrial. Esas conexiones siempre fueron muy importante para l@s ácratas, ya que ell@s no tenían el compromiso de despojar a l@s campesin@s y transformarl@s en mano de obra industrial.

Cuando digo que el anarquismo ha sido la corriente más radical de la Ilustración, quiero resaltar la consigna “Libertad, Igualdad y Fraternidad [o Solidaridad].” Estas palabras tuvieron una gran influencia, una influencia máxima.

De manera crítica, Ud. menciona que el vegetarianismo era una práctica social innovadora que algun@s integrantes del PLM y l@s estadunidenses que apoyaban la Causa Mexicana adoptaron: es decir, Práxedis Guerrero y Elizabeth Trowbridge. Es de presumir, como escribe Ud., que l@s dos se convirtieron en vegetariani@s para afirmar su amor hacia los animales y repudiar la crueldad y sufrimiento impuestos sin necesidad hacia estos seres, de manera que su rechazo de la injusticia social entre los seres humanos se extendió hacia la esfera de los otros animales y de la naturaleza. Tal vez en esto les habrían influido los ejemplos del ácrata-pacifista Lev Tolstoy y Élisée Reclus, el Communard vegetariano,” algo que también se reflejaba en las sociedades vegetarianas que surgieron durante la revolución social de l@s ácratas españoles, además de entre l@s ácratas-vegetarian@s del movimiento Sarvodaya en India y Sri Lanka.1 Como paralelo a la pregunta que trataba de la emancipación LGBTQ, ¿hasta qué punto ve Ud. progreso o regresión en cuanto a la lucha por los derechos de los animales y su liberación en el momento actual?

Sí, a tu comentario acerca de Tolstoy y Reclus. Creo que la cuestión de los animales y sus derechos es una señal de progreso profundo, y que hoy se extiende mucho más que en la época de Elizabeth y Práxedis, dado que los problemas ambientales y nuestra responsabilidad como sujetos no simplemente de la historia humana, sino de la historia del planeta, actualmente son de un orden distinto al que existía anteriormente. Recuerda que la Revolución Mexicana tuvo lugar antes de que se desarrollaran las bombas átomicas y la energía nuclear. El sentido de que los seres humanos de verdad podían destruir el planeta entero todavía no existía, aunque las ideas de conservar el medio ambiente y oponerse a su destrucción ya existían. Frances Noel, uno de l@s estadunidenses radicales sobre quien escribo, fue un ambientalista que apoyaba la política de conservación en California. Hablando en términos más generales, las cuestiones de salud, aire puro, y medio ambiente formaban parte del discurso entonces no solamente de l@s higienistas y eugenistas, sino que también de l@s organizadores de la clase obrera y l@s reformistas urbanistas. Así que no quiero decir que no existiera el ambientalismo en esa época, sólo que era diferente. Hoy en día, la lucha ambiental tiene una máxima prioridad, mientras que entonces no era así. Esta dinámica causa que el vegetarianismo de un Práxedis o una Elizabeth resulte mucho más interesante, relevante y atractivo actualmente.

Pasando a la consideración de la campaña militar en Baja California (1911)—la lucha armada del PLM más conocida, aunque parece haber sido más un fiasco que una revolución exitosa—Ud. habla de varias problematicas: por ejemplo, que solo un 10 por cien de los insurrectos que “liberaron” a Tijuana eran mexican@s, los demás siendo Wobblies estadunidenses y mercenarios extranjeros. En primer lugar, esta dinámica material resultó en la situación inoportuna en la que los voluntariados anglos con más experiencia militar fueron elegidos oficiales, según los principios ácratas-democráticos, para luchar en la guerra contra l@s mexican@s “leales” a Díaz. Un ejemplo es el caso del aristócrata británico Carl Ap Rhys Pryce, quien anunció sin demora la independencia de Baja California tras la renuncia de Díaz en Ciudad Juárez en mayo del 1911. Junto con las propuestas fantásticas del capitalista “emprendedor” Dick Ferris de colonizar abiertamente la peninsula en interés del capital estadunidense, la decisión de Pryce—que no recibió apoyo ni de la Junta en Los Ángeles, ni de los guerreros Liberales y Wobblies—llevó a vari@s mexican@s a concluir que la campaña Liberal en realidad intentaba facilitar la anexión de Baja California a los EUA, en un paralelo a la pérdida anterior de Tejas, territorio que se convirtió en el Suroeste de EUA tras la guerra iniciada por James K. Polk contra Mexico unos 65 años antes, así que los Liberales eran nada más unos filibusteros, en su opinión.

Esta manera de presentar la campaña en Baja California sirvió para deslegitimizar de inmediato los esfuerzos de los Liberales al, y de hecho facilitó que Madero utilizara las fuerzas federales que había heredado en contra del PLM. Mexicali y Tijuana cayeron antes de pasar un mes después de la caída de Diaz. Aunque la Junta creía que Baja era un punto rojo entre varios, es de imaginarse que este vínculo que se estableció entre el PLM y el separatismo dañó su relación con la opinión pública mexicana. ¿Considera Ud. que Ricardo se equivocó al permanecer lejos de la operación en Baja, o cree que él no fue suficientemente directo para distinguir entre la campaña Liberal y las acusaciones del filibusterismo que se alzaron en su contra, a pesar del énfasis que el ponía en la acción directa y la expropriación revolucionaria? Como observa Ud., este problema es inherente al anarquismo de la Junta Organizadora, que no se preocupaba por la “integridad nacional,” como sí lo hacen los nacionalistas y estatistas.

Esta es una pregunta difícil de responder, dado que no sabemos lo que estaban pensando Ricardo y los otros integrantes de la Junta, y por eso mi respuesta va a ser muy provisional. Es claro que en 1911 Ricardo ni pensaba ni creía que la situación en los Estados Unidos se acercaba a una revolución—aunque tal vez sí así pensaba en el 1917—pero si él pensaba que los Wobblies y socialistas en el Suroeste estadunidense estaban creciendo rápidamente en fuerza y así podrían estar de camino para tomar el poder en esa región en un futuro próximo, podría ser que a él no le importaba si Baja permanecía en Mexico, se convirtiera en una república independente, o fuera anexada a EUA.

Mi impresión es que no le importaba mucho si Baja llegara a ser independiente, pero que sí se oponía totalmente a su anexión a EUA en ese momento. Ya sabes que todo esto es pura conjetura. Según Ricardo, él rechazaba ambas alternativas y quería que la peninsula permaneciera en México, donde debería de estar—pero todo esto salió después de que le acusaron de ser filibustero. Sin duda, creo que a él no le importaba nada cuáles eran los porcentajes de las fuerzas Liberales, entre mexicanos y extranjeros. La lucha era para la liberación de la explotación económica y política, no para la independencia nacional. Ricardo estaba a favor de extenderles la nacionalidad mexicana a l@s extranjer@s que participaron en la Revolución.

¿Debería haberse ido Ricardo a Baja California a ser comandante? Desde el punto de vista de los guerreros que simpatizaban con los Liberales, sí. Al mínimo, debería de haber estado en mejor contacto. La Junta utilizaba a John Kenneth Turner y a Antonio de Pío Araujo como intermediarios, y los insurrectos en Mexicali y Tijuana nunca recibieron la visita de Ricardo, Anselmo Figueroa o Enrique, quienes eran los integrantes principales de la Junta en ese entonces.

Pero de todas maneras, Ricardo y la Junta siempre consideraron que Baja era sólo un frente, no su meta principal. Desde esta perspectiva, tuvo sentido que Ricardo no viajara hacia allá para mandar, dado que Baja estaba muy aislada en esa época, y él no podía haber encabezado un esfuerzo propagandístico allí, en comparación con lo que podía hacer desde Los Ángeles. No obstante, tras la caída de Tijuana, todos los integrantes de la Junta fueron encarcelados, y les mandaron a la isla de McNeil en el estado de Washington. Por esta razón, es posible que pudieran haber logrado mucho más desde Baja California, después de todo.

Enfrentándose con el “avance” de la Revolución, y en particular con el coup d’etat de febrero de 1913 encabezado por el General Victoriano Huerta que mató a Madero y su vicepresidente Pino Suárez—una toma de poder que la Embajada de EUA ayudó a coordinar, como Ud. dice—Regeneración reaccionó, diciendo que tod@s l@s polític@s eran la misma cosa, fueran tiran@s, reformistas burgueses o generales. No obstante, Ud. implica que este tipo de análisis ultra-izquierdista no lo compartía la mayoría de la sociedad mexicana. Entonces, ¿podría hablar acerca de los conflictos entre el anti-autoritarianismo “vanguardista” del PLM y las realidades de los sentimientos populares en cuanto al curso de la Revolución, especialmente en relación con el fin de Madero?

El difamarle a Madero fue un mal error político que reflejó una falta de consideración por los sentimientos populares en el mismo México. O tal vez, como dices, simplemente reflejaba el grado de movimiento vanguardista y su responsabilidad de educar al pueblo y destetar a la humanidad del engaño. Aunque antes de ocurrir el coup, la popularidad de Madero se estaba cuestionando, en ciertas regiones mexicanas—claramente, en el Distrito Federal—su asesinato fue profundamente repudiado. Las críticas que surgieron en Regeneración en contra de Madero, su esposa, y su familia tras sus asesinatos fueron muy insensibles, y podrían haber garantizado que el movimiento se quedara como marginal en cuanto a fuerza política, si no hubiera sido por el hecho de que ya estaba marginalizado en Mexico en ese período en cualquier caso. Recuerda que mientras que derribaron a Madero, la Junta estaba encarcelada en Washington, y varios ex-militantes del PLM se habían unido a otros movimientos, frecuentemente como los bordes más radicales de tales.

Este fallo táctico aparte, al parecer igual había un desprestigio entre los integrantes de la Junta hacia la reforma liberal-democrática, y es por esto que les veían a Huerta y a Madero como la misma cosa. Sí es verdad que eran muy similares en términos económicos, pero Huerta hasta le dio unas concesiones al movimiento sindical para reforzar su régimen. Las posibilidades de la democracia parlamentaria tenían más valor de lo que el PLM reconocía, en mi opinión, incluso para el futuro del movimiento laboral.

¿Qué nos puede decir acerca de las relaciones entre el PLM y otros movimientos insurgentes que se oponían a Madero y a sus sucesores Huerta y Venustiano Carranza: es decir, Emiliano Zapata y el Ejército Libertador del Sur, o Pancho Villa y su División del Norte? Ud. plantea que Zapata simpatizaba con el manifiesto del PLM de septiembre de 1911, y que él tomó el concepto de “Tierra y Libertad” directamente de los Liberales, con las manifestaciones prácticas de la estrategia zapatista avanzando de cierta manera de acuerdo con le llamamiento de Magón hacia la revuelta armada decentralizada y generalizada para expropriar los bienes de la producción. Sin embargo, la situación parecer haber sido muy diferente en el caso de Villa.

Creo que sí es justo decir que el Zapatismo encontró sus ideas principales en el ejemplo de los Liberales, y que el Zapatismo terminó siendo el mejor ejemplo del tipo de política que Ricardo favorecía. Es obvio que la filosofía no era todo, y mucha de la práctica zapatista tenía que ver con las condiciones particulares de la región sureña mexicana, así que no creo que el PLM tiene toda la responsabilidad por lo que el Zapatismo hizo o no hizo. Su influencia filosófica fue muy real, y hubo varios puntos en común entre los dos movimientos. Los problemas del caudillo y del personalismo preocupaban a los integrantes del PLM, pero probablemente no tanto a l@s zapatistas. De todos modos, dado que el Zapatismo no intentaba tomar el poder federal, esta preocupación terminó siendo secundaria.

El PLM tenía una opinión horrible de Villa y ello se relacionaba mucho con su papel en la lucha contra el PLM bajo el mando de Madero, especialmente dado que él era directamente responsable por la muerte de varios de sus compañeros. Las diferencias con Villa igual transcendieron a esa esfera: para Ricardo, Villa era un politiquillo típico: corrupto, sanguinario, autobombástico, comprado por las autoridades estadunidenses primero, y después por quienquiera pagara más…

Aunque la opinión del PLM era muy negativa en contra de Villa, eso no quiere decir que no existía ningun punto de coincidencia con el Villismo, o el Carrancismo. El manifiesto del PLM de 1906 tuvo mucha influencia sobre el proceso revolucionario mexicano. Dado el odio mutuo entre Villa y el PLM, no había muchos ex-militantes PLMistas en su División del Norte, pero sí había varios individuos prominentes que se afiliaron con Carranza durante un tiempo: gente como Antonio Villarreal y Juan Sarabia, quienes fueron protagonistas en el desarrollo de las ideas agrarias de este movimiento.

Ahora, un siglo tras la Revolución, ¿ve Ud. algún movimiento actual que siga el ejemplo de Magón y el PLM? En una entrevista que dio en abril del 1994, el Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (ahora Galeano) del EZLN explícitamente vinculó el neo-Zapatismo con el pensamiento de Ricardo, entre otras figuras históricas mexicanas, mientras que en Rojava, varios acontecimientos en paralelo entre l@s kurd@s han resultado en el florecimiento del “confederalismo democrático” y la autogestión ácrata durante los últimos años. También es claro que Magón sigue siendo un punto de referencia clave para el movimiento social en México hoy en día.

Ricardo Flores Magón fue unos de los pocos ideólogos de estatura en la Revolución Mexicana. Otras figuras importantes, como Luis Cabrera o José Vasconcelos, muy probablemente fueron mejores analistas políticos que Ricardo, pero ellos no fueron visionarios en el sentido de poder imaginar una sociedad verdaderamente diferente. Por eso, no obstante sus varias deficiencias, el pensar y vivir de Ricardo vuelven constantemente. Además, las dimensiones transnacionales, feministas, antiracistas y antinacionalistas eran únicas en el caso de la Revolución, y han sido una gran inspiración para todos los movimientos mexicanos-estadunidenses auténticos, empezando con el movimiento chicano de los 1970s. La influencia del PLM vuelve en los movimientos sociales, como dices, igual que en la vida de los individuos. Sé que me impactaron mucho los escritos de Ricardo cuando los leí por primera vez a los 17 años (¡ya hace muchos anos!), aunque entonces todavía no sabía mucho de la Revolución, y no tenía ningún interés particular en la cuestión.

De manera similar con el caso de otras figuras complicadas, hay personas que dicen haber sido inspirad@s por Ricardo, pero que no avanzan una política que coincide mucho con la suya. Estas diferencias se deberían de reconocer, sin duda, aunque el punto más profundo es que existen movimientos sociales hoy que buscan instaurar varias formas alternativas de autogestión, democracia, e igualdad que han hallado—y que continuarán hallando—mucho que aprender en el pensamiento de Ricardo, igual que en las experiencias colectivas del PLM y de sus amigos y camaradas.

La subida al poder de Huerta en 1913 provocó en Tejas y otras partes de la región fronteriza una crisis que sería fatal para Magón. Como respuesta a la toma del poder de Huerta, Jesús María Rangel, un comandante Liberal muy respetado, organizó un contingente armado que iba a cruzar a Chihuahua para luchar en contra de los Carrancistas, y después avanzar hacia el sur a enfrentarse con el mismo Huerta, pero a estas fuerzas Liberales les impidieron el paso unos cuantos “Texas Rangers” quien les esperaban en la frontera, donde dispararon y detuvieron a los que sobrevivieron. El PLM de inmediato adoptó la causa de los “Mártires de Tejas” y de los supervivientes presos políticos. Después, en 1915, una revuelta mexicana en Tejas que seguía el Plan de San Diego resultó en una contrareacción brutal en contra de l@s mexican@s que vivían o trabajaban en el estado: miles fueron masacrad@s, víctimas de ejecuciones extrajudiciales y arbitrarias cometidas por paramilitares racistas. Tales atrocidades llevaron a Magón a declarar en Regeneración que no eran los rebeldes de San Diego sino que sus ejecutores los que deberían haber sido fusilados. Fue esta declaración, junto con la designación correcta de Ricardo en cuanto a Carranza, la que le consideraría “otro Díaz” y otro “lacayo de la Casa Blanca” en su esfuerzo por “subordinar el proletariado mexicano y entregarlo a la clase capitalista doméstica y extranjera, atado de pies y manos,” además que la llamada que él hizo hacia los mexicanos que luchaban bajo Carranza para convertir a sus comandantes en blanca, fue lo que les costó a él y a Enrique otra encarcelación (1916), hasta que los empeños de Emma Goldman por pagar su fianza les dio un aplazamiento temporal.

Con el comienzo del Temor Rojo, los hermanos Magón fueron perseguidos por las autoridades, y fueron condenados nuevamente en 1918. Ricardo recibió una sentencia por veintiun años, “gracias” a la ampliación del cargo con la nueva violación de la nueva Ley de Espionaje, que se había promulgado el año previo. Tal sentencia representaba pena de muerte para Ricardo, cuya salud ya se estaba deteriorando. De hecho, dos años después de llegar a la Prisión Federal de Leavenworth en Kansas, donde había pedido asistencia médica unas 22 veces, Magón murió debido a un infarto cardíaco. Su muerte tuvo lugar solo días después de que le habían trasladado a una celda más remota que la de Librado Rivera, quien igual estaba encarcelado en Leavenworth por la misma razón que Ricardo. Aunque no hay duda que Venustiano Carranza ordenó el asesinato de Zapata en Chinameca, Morelos, en 1919, es menos claro que el fin de Magón tuvo que ver con una ejecución extrajudicial propia, en vez de negligencia médica, sea a propósito o no. ¿Cree Ud. que le asesinaron a Ricardo?

Personalmente, no creo que a Ricardo le asesinaran, aunque probablemente nunca sabremos de manera positiva si sí o no. Creo que sí hubo negligencia médica consciente en cuanto a las condiciones serias que Ricardo sufría, y que su muerte podría haberse pospuesto o evitado si hubiera recibido la atención médica adecuada, pero no creo que le estrangularon, como dicen.

Sabemos claramente que una de las teorias de su “asesinato” es falsa, como demuestro en el libro, y también sabemos de la negligencia médica. Podría ser que un guardia le asesinara a Ricardo, y estoy seguro que habrá muchas personas que estarían convencidas de esa teoría.

Las razones por las cuales no creo que le asesinaran son, en primer lugar, que Librado Rivera no dijo que a Ricardo le habían asesinado en una carta que escribió a un compañero desde Leavenworth en la que contaba la historia de la muerte de Ricardo, eso en un momento en el cual Librado no sabía lo que se decía fuera de la prisión. Tras su liberación de Leavenworth, sí aceptó la teoría del asesinato de Ricardo, pero ya en ese momento la productividad de esa narrativa estaba clara, así que contradecirla hubiera sido costoso e insensible, dado que, considerándolo de manera profunda, es muy claro que a Ricardo sí le asesinaron sus opresores.

Otra razón por la cual no creo que a Ricardo le mataran es que entiendo que las autoridades estadunidenses ya no le veían como una amenaza, y el gobierno de Obregón estaba a favor de aceptar su retorno a México. Si Obregón no consideraba a Ricardo amenazante, ¿por qué el gobierno estadunidense? Recuerda que Ricardo casi estaba ciego cuando falleció, y de salud estaba muy mala en general. Al final, la muerte de Ricardo fue una vergüenza para el director de Leavenworth, quien había insistido de manera continua que la salud del preso estaba bien. Su muerte resultó en una investigacion directa desde la Procuraduría Federal. En este sentido, no veo mucho motivo allí tampoco.

Yo creo que la narrativa del asesinato de Ricardo fue una manera de expresar el poder de sus ideas subversivas, y de resaltar la represión que él sufrió bajo las autoridades estadunidenses. Las ideas de Ricardo sí que son poderosas, y sí es verdad que le condenaron a la vida encarcelada, dada su resistencia a la conscripción y a la Primera Guerra Mundial, y su anarquismo. Todo eso sí es verdad. La única cosa es que no creo que le asesinara un guardia en Leavenworth—eso, nada más.

Aunque el crepúsculo de la vida de Magón estuvo lleno de pathos, dadas tanto la decaída de Regeneración, como la miseria y marginación experimentadas por los integrantes de la Junta antes de la encarcelación en Leavenworth, y la separación emocional de Enrique, Ud. clarifica que a Ricardo le inspiraba al fin la idea optimista y casi hegeliana que las Revoluciones Mexicanas y Rusas iluminaban el camino adelante para la humanidad, anunciando el comienzo de una transformación social mundial que destruiría el capital y toda autoridad. En una carta escrita en Leavenworth menos de un año antes de su muerte, Ricardo expresa su certidumbre en cuanto al “futuro brillante que [ahora] se abre a la raza humana,” y hasta la identifica como su “consuelo.” Un poco menos de un siglo después, vemos que la crisis multidimensional del orden-mundial capitalista persiste precisamente porque las revoluciones del siglo XX fallaron en desplazar a los enemigos reaccionarios que Magón había identificado desde el escenario de la historia. Considerando el conocimiento íntimo y profundo de la revolución social que Ud. ha recopilado y presentado en El Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón, ¿tiene algunas recomendaciones para l@s ácratas y otr@s radicales de hoy en día que quiere compartir?

Gracias por esta pregunta, no sería ésta una pregunta que me hubiera atrevido a hacerme yo mismo. Aquí viene mi respuesta, en tanto en cuanto no me consideran un oráculo délfico. Creo que la parte más emocionante de esta historia y experiencia es la idea de la centralidad del apoyo mútuo. Además, creo que el feminismo del movimiento, su resistencia meticulosa al nacionalismo, su compromiso con el amor, el arte, la belleza, y su crítica hacia el Estado y la religión organizada son todas cosas maravillosas. No estoy de acuerdo con la afinidad del movimiento hacia la violencia o su teoria de la revolución, que simplemente estaba equivocada.

Con relación a la segunda cuestión, Ricardo creía que cada aldea y comunidad en Mexico reproducía una lucha fundamental entre l@s opresores y l@s oprimid@s, y que una chispa revolucionaria tenía la potencia de explotar la situación entera. En este sentido, se puede ver al Ricardo como un precursor del foquismo y Che Guevara—con algunas de las mismas limitaciones de tal teoría y figura histórica, igual. Lo que Ricardo no veía es que los procesos revolucionarios son guerras civiles, y en las guerras civiles, todas las divisiones sociales se pueden movilizar de maneras productivas, políticas y materiales. La dinámica de la guerra no era, como Ricardo lo imaginaba, un tipo de llama de purgatorio que resultara en el sanamiento de la sociedad y el parto del comunismo puro. No, la guerra civil llegó a ser un proceso en el cual se formaban las coaliciones, los liderazgos, y se negociaban la vida y la libertad de los mejores individuos. Sí es claro que hubo victorias mayores en este proceso, pero costó muchísimo, y los resultados no eran lo que los militantes del PLM habían esperado. Por esa razón, vari@s de sus militantes continuaban en la lucha, y continuaban alzándose en armas hasta que por fin les asesinaron las autoridades. Doy el ejemplo de Lázaro Alanís al principio del libro, quien se levantó por primera vez en contra de Porfirio Díaz, después en contra de Madero, y después se opuso a Huerta y Carranza. Por fin fue ejecutado tras haber participado en la Revuelta De la Huerta contra Obregón.

No me convencen mucho las teorias bakuninistas acerca de la violencia. Pero en mi opinión hay una verdad profunda filosófica en varias de las ideas de Kropotkin y otr@s, quienes creían en la primacia del apoyo mútuo. Igual creo que actualmente hay unos medios de comunicación y organización que podrían facilitar la adopción de los ideales ácratas, en comparación con la situación hace un siglo. Es claro que tendría que haber nuev@s teoristas para poder movilizar estos recursos de manera distinta a la que se intentó en generaciones previas.

Gracias de nuevo Javier, por ofrecerme esta conversación, que me ha proveido mucho para contemplar.

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

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.