Posts Tagged ‘Mexico City’

What Were Stalin’s Real Crimes? Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part II/III)

November 15, 2018
Fergana

The meaning of forced collectivization: an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

“It is in the nature of ideological politics […] that the real content of the ideology […] which originally had brought about the ‘idea’ […] is devoured by the logic with which the ‘idea’ is carried out.”

– Hannah Arendt1

What’s the biggest problem with the “criticisms” of Stalin raised by the “Proles of the Round Table”? That they are so disingenuous and anemic. One of the three critiques raised—about Spain—in fact isn’t critical of Stalin, while we’ve seen (in part I) how the “criticism” on deportations is entirely misleading. A related question might be to ask how it looks for two presumably white U.S. Americans to criticize Stalin for some (1-2%) of his deportations of ethnic Germans, but not to do so when it comes to the dictator’s mass-deportations of Muslims, Buddhists, and other indigenous peoples. At least Mao Zedong judged Stalin as being “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”2 For Jeremy and Justin, though, Stalin appears to have been at least 90%, if not 95%, right. Maybe we can soon expect the “Proles of the Round Table” Patreon to begin selling wearables proclaiming that “Stalin did nothing wrong.”

Besides the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the May Days, and the mass-deportations of ethnic minorities, let’s now consider five of Stalin’s real crimes.

1. “Socialism in One Country”: Stalinist Ideology

His revision, together with fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, of the tradition of socialist internationalism to the reactionary, ultra-nationalist idea of “socialism in one country.” Stalin and Bukharin arrived at this conclusion to compete against Lev Trotsky’s rival concept of “permanent revolution,” which calls first for a European and then global federation of socialist republics. This Stalinist doctrine, which demanded that the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy be considered first within the Third International (or Comintern), can explain both the General Secretary’s demand to crush the anarchists in Spain in 1937 and his effective facilitation of Hitler’s rise to power by means of the disastrous Comintern policy that considered the social-democratic (that is, non-Stalinist) opposition to Hitler to be “social-fascist.” The General Secretary would only reverse course and endorse a “Popular Front” strategy after Hitler had taken power.3 Stalinist ultra-nationalism finds contemporary purchase among neo-fascist, national-Bolshevik movements, whereas—perhaps ironically—the Comintern doctrine on “social fascism” has echoes today among ultra-leftists disdainful of coalition-building with more moderate political forces (e.g., as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election). Moreover, Stalin’s preference for “socialism in one country” can help us understand the Soviet Union’s continued sale of petroleum to Mussolini following this fascist’s military invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.4 Within this same vein, and anticipating the affinity of today’s neo-Stalinists for campist “analyses” of international relations, Moscow variously supported the feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD) in China, the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Afghan King Amanullah Khan, and Ibn al-Sa’ud (founder of Saudi Arabia) during this time on the grounds that these leaders staunchly opposed the West, despite their great distance from any kind of socialist paradigm.5

Civilizatsia

Courtesy Voline, The Unknown Revolution

2. Stalinist Imperialism

His “Great-Russian” chauvinism, as manifested in his brutally imperialist policies toward ethnic minorities—particularly the deportations of Muslims (as mentioned above in part I)—and other subject-peoples of the former Tsarist empire, whose colonial project Stalin enthusiastically embraced. Though Georgian by origin (his birth name was Ioseb Jughashvili), Stalin (whose Russian nom de guerre means “man of steel”) was “the most ‘Russian’ of the early leaders” who advanced not only “socialism in one country,’ but […] a socialism built on a predominantly Russian foundation.”6 According to Dunayevskaya, Stalin’s “national arrogance” was “as rabid as that of any Tsarist official.”7 In contrast to his mentor and supervisor Vladimir I. Lenin, who at least formally supported the right of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire while greatly violating this principle in practice, Stalin was openly imperialist on the national question: according to the terms of this relationship, the colonies were to be “plundered for raw materials and food to serve the industrialisation of Russia.”8 It therefore remains clear that, under the Soviet Union, “Russia was not a nation state but an empire, an ideological state. Any definition as a nation-state would probably have excluded at least the non-Slavs, and certainly the Muslims.”9 Accordingly, the official history taught in Stalin’s USSR rehabilitated the mythical Tsarist narrative that the Russian “Empire had brought progress and civilisation to backward peoples.”10

Map_of_the_ethnic_groups_living_in_the_Soviet_Union

Ethnographic map of the former Soviet Union. Date unknown

In Georgia, a former Tsarist-era colony located in the Caucasus Mountains, the social-democratic Menshevik Party declared independence in 1918 to found the Georgian Democratic Republic, otherwise known as the Georgian Commune, wherein parliamentary democracy and a relatively collaborative relationship among the peasantry, proletariat, and political leadership lasted for three years, until Stalin and his fellow Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Ordzhonikidze organized a Red Army invasion in 1921 which crushed this courageous experiment in democratic socialism. The errant ex-colony of Georgia was thus forcibly reincorporated into the ex-Tsarist Empire—by then, the “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic,” part of the Soviet Union.11 Besides Georgia, this “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic” would include Azerbaijan and Armenia, which had also been occupied by the Red Army in 1920.12

In the Muslim-majority provinces of Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, the poorest region of the former Tsarist Empire, Lenin and Stalin sided with the interests of the Russian settlers against the Muslim peasantry.13 In Orientalist fashion, the Bolsheviks considered Central Asia’s “Muslims as culturally backward, not really suitable to be communists and needing to be kept under a kind of tutelage.”14 Yet in light of the sustained Basmachi revolt waged by Muslim guerrillas against Soviet imperialism in the first decade after October 1917, Stalin also recognized the significant threat these colonized Muslims could pose to the Soviet Union—hence his active discouragement of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism by means of cutting off the USSR’s Muslims “subjects,” many of them ethnically and linguistically Turkic, from the rest of the Ummah (Islamic global brotherhood or community) abroad. An early 1930’s law punishing unauthorized exit from the USSR made observation of hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, quite impossible.15 The expulsion from the Communist Party (1923) and subsequent imprisonment (1928) of the Volga Tatar Sultan Galiev, a pan-Islamist “national-communist” who envisioned organizing the Turkic Muslims into a fighting force against Western imperialism, followed a similar logic.16

In the Stalinist conception, the numerous subject-peoples of the Soviet Union could be classified hierarchically according to their “stage of development,” as based on their mode of production and whether or not they had a written language, such that supposedly more ‘advanced’ peoples would qualify as ‘nations’ that were granted the status of “Soviet Socialist Republic” (SSR), whereas “less developed” peoples would be granted “Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics” (ASSR), while those without written languages would be placed in “Autonomous Regions” (AR), or “National Territories” (NT). In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, there existed 14 SSR’s, 20 ASSR’s, 8 AR’s, and 10 NT’s in the USSR.17

Soviet_Union_Administrative_Divisions_1989

Map of Soviet administrative subdivisions, 1989. Notice the numerous ASSR subdivisions in Central Asia

This systematic atomization of oppressed nationalities followed Stalin’s “principle of the dual bridgehead,” whereby the State would favor those minorities that could assist the USSR in expanding its reach while repressing other minorities whose existence could serve as a “fifth column” for the USSR’s rivals. In part I of this critique, we saw how this rationale played out in Stalin’s mass-deportations: the General Secretary felt justified in forcibly transferring the Turkic Muslim Meskhetian people, among others, because they were supposedly too close to the Turkish State headed by Kemal Atatürk. Furthermore, this principle can be gleaned in the Soviet Communist Party’s initial favoring of Uzbeks over Tajiks beginning in 1924, followed by a 180° shift in perspective upon the overthrow of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah (a Pashtun) by Bacha-i Saqqao, a Tajik, in 1928—leading to the proclamation of the Tajikistan SSR in 1929.18 The capital city of Dushanbe was subsequently renamed as “Stalinabad.”19 In addition, whereas the Communist Party favored its own Kurdish minority, some of whom included refugees, because it could use them in the future as pawns against Iran and Turkey, it had refused to support Kurdish and Turkmen rebellions abroad against Turkey and Iran in 1925. Above all, Stalin’s nationalities policy achieved its greatest “success” in its complex partition of Turkestan by means of the drawing-up of borders that were defined along ethno-nationalist lines: just look at the region’s current borders (see map above), which are based on those concluded by Stalin’s regime. In thus pitting Central Asia’s mosaic of different ethno-linguistic groups against each other, Stalin definitively laid the pan-Islamist specter to rest.20 Dunayevskaya’s observation here seems apt: it was in Stalin’s “attitude to the many [oppressed] nationalities” that the General Secretary’s “passion for bossing came out in full bloom.”21

soviet imperial mural

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

Stalin’s imperialist assertion of power over Central Asia, which imposed the collectivization of cattle herds and the nationalization of bazaars and caravans managed by indigenous peoples while promoting Russian settlements, resulted in famine and revolt.22 It involved a high-modernist assault on Islam in the name of emancipating women and remaking traditional patriarchal Turkic social relations, as we shall examine in more detail in the third part of this response.

Regarding Ukraine, see the section on Jeremy and Justin’s Holodomor denial in the third part of this response. Briefly, Jeremy’s Russian-chauvinist attitude toward all matters Ukrainian comes through at a fundamental linguistical level when he refers to Ukraine as “the Ukraine.” This formulation, like the Russian «на Украине» (“in the Ukraine”), is an imperialist way of referring to the country, which is not just a colony of Russia or the Soviet Union (as in, “the Ukrain[ian province]”). The proper way is to refer just to Ukraine, as in the Russian equivalent «в Украине» (“in Ukraine”).

Such attitudes are shared by Ó Séaghdha, who falsely claims Ukraine today to be a “bastion of the far right and neo-Nazism,” just as Justin compares “Ukrainian nationalists” to the U.S.-based Proud Boys. One’s mind is boggled: as of July 2018, the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party had only 6 seats, or 1.3%, in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, while in both rounds of elections held in 2014, Svoboda and Right Sector alike gained less than 5% of the vote.23 In fact, Ukraine has held its first major LGBT Pride marches following the Euromaidan protests which overthrew the Putin-affiliated President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Meanwhile, by focusing on the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ukrainians,24 Ó Séaghdha and his guests deny the global reach of Putin’s neo-Nazism, from his 2014 occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine and his subsequent mass-detention of Crimean Tatar Muslims, including in psychiatric hospitals, to his regime’s criminalization of homosexuality, decriminalization of domestic violence, and genocidal intervention in support of the Assad Regime in Syria—to say nothing of his mutual affinities for the Trump Regime. How ironic is this misrepresentation, then, considering that Ukraine was the “centerpiece of Hitler’s vision of Lebensraum.25

Soviet harvest

A typically socialist-realist depiction of a collective farm celebration, by Arkady Plastov (1937): presumably, this is how neo-Stalinists and ‘Marxist-Leninists’ idealize the outcomes of forcible collectivization in the Soviet Union.

3. Stalinist State-Capitalism

His advocacy and implementation of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, whereby the basic relationship of exploitation between capital and labor persisted after the Russian Revolution, with the difference that capital in this case was managed and expanded by the Communist Party bureaucracy rather than the private capitalist class.26 Upheld by the Army and police, the Soviet economy reduced workers to mere slaves: during the existence of the USSR, workers could not regulate, choose, or control their overseers and administrators, much less anticipate not having any, as through anarcho-syndicalist organization, or autogestion (самоуправление). In the USSR,

“[t]he State [wa]s [the worker’s] only employer. Instead of having thousands of ‘choices,’ as is the case in the nations where private capitalism prevails, in the U.S.S.R. (the U.S.C.R. [Union of State-Capitalist Republics: Voline]) the worker ha[d] only one. Any change of employer [wa]s impossible there.”27

Following the Revolution, “[f]or the Russian workers, […] nothing had changed; they were merely faced by another set of bosses, politicians and indoctrinators.”28

Peasants under Stalin were similarly reduced to serfs, particularly during and following the forced collectivization process that began in 1928. Continuing with the precedent of the Bolshevik policy of “War Communism,” which had involved considerable extraction of grain and the conscription of young men from the peasantry, Stalin declared war on the countryside, expropriating all lands held by these peasants and concentrating these into kolkhozi, or “collective possessions,” and sovkhozi, or State farms, which were to be worked by the peasants in the interests of the State.29 This nationalization did not discriminate between “rich” peasant, or kulak, and poor—in contrast to the misleading presentation Jeremy and Justin make of Stalin’s forcible collectivization campaign. The “Proles of the Round Table” deceptively explain the emergence of the “kulaks” by referring to the Tsarist Interior Minister Peter Stolypin’s land reforms of 1906, while saying nothing about Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” of 1921, which formally reintroduced private property. They also completely misrepresent Stalin’s collectivization policy, which proceeded at the points of bayonets, as a natural outgrowth of the traditional peasant commune (mir or obshchina), which had resisted the Tsarist State for centuries. In fact, it was arguably through Stalinist forcible collectivization that the Russian countryside fell under the control for the first time.30 As peasant resistance to this “total reordering of a rural civilization from the top down” mounted, including an estimated 13,000 “mass disturbances” just in 1930, Stalin’s regime resorted to atrocious counter-insurgent tactics to bring the countryside to heel, including mass-executions, reprisals, and the resulting famines of 1931-1933 in Ukraine, South Russia, and Kazakhstan.31 The Stalinist regime conveniently expanded the definition of exactly who was a “kulak” from a class-based to a political definition, such that even poor peasants who opposed forcible collectivization could be labeled “kulaks” and deported to Siberia, the Far North, and Central Asia, as about 1.8 million peasants were in 1930-1931. As during the numerous other episodes of mass-deportations devised by Stalin, mortality rates among “dekulakized” peasants were high.32

Puzzlingly, the “Proles of the Round Table” claim this collectivization to have been “extremely successful” in providing “stability” by the mid-1930’s, the resistance of at least 120 million peasants to the Terror campaign and the “excess mortality” of between 6 and 13 million people such Terror caused during this period notwithstanding. By precisely which standards can this campaign have said to have been “successful”? The historian Catherine Evtuhov observes: “From any humane perspective, the terrible costs were far greater than the rewards.”33 In contrast, Jeremy and Justin either do not recognize the brutality of the Stalinist regime’s campaign, or they simply explain away mass-death during collectivization as resulting from natural disasters—thus ‘naturalizing’ the Soviet regime’s contributions to famines—and/or “kulak resistance.” By so easily dismissing mass-death, they imply that the millions of poor peasants who were destroyed as a result of forcible collectivization deserved such a fate.

Jeremy and Justin are very insistent on arguing that the deaths associated with collectivization were “not due” to Stalin’s policies—against both logic and evidence. They have nothing to say about Stalin’s reconstitution in 1932 of the Tsarist-era internal-passport system, or propiska, in order to tightly control the movements of the Soviet peasantry and proletariat during forced collectivization. Upon its proclamation in December 1932, such “passportization” was effected and mandated in “towns, urban settlements, district centers, and Machine and Tractor Stations, within 100-kilometer radiuses around certain large towns, in frontier zones, on building sites and state farms”: it thus openly revoked the freedom of movement of the majority of the Soviet population, including peasants and ethnic minorities.34 With this in mind, it would appear that the “Proles of the Round Table” do not to want to concede the possibility—and reality—that Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign involved the oppression and dispossession of many poor peasants, whether these were insurgents against whom the State retaliated for defending their communities against Stalinist incursion or simply peasants whom the parasitic bureaucracy considered mere objects of exploitation and either killed outright or left to die during forcible collectivization—thus reflecting the extent to which internal colonialism characterized the Stalinist State.35

Indeed, Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign followed a very clearly state-capitalist rationale, both requiring and (once established) providing mass-labor inputs. Based on the economic theory of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Stalin’s massive State project to centralize the peasantry so as to more deeply exploit it represented the phase of “primitive socialist accumulation” that was considered as necessary to finance a rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. In parallel to the colonization of the New World, the enslavement of Africans, and the enclosure of the commons by which capitalism arose as a historical mode of production,36 Preobrazhensky essentially argued that the Soviet State must exploit the peasants and use the surplus value extracted from them to accelerate the growth of capital and industry.37 This brutally mechanistic logic, which has served as the model for similar industrialization processes in countries led by Stalinist bureaucracies such as Maoist China and Ethiopia under the Derg,38 openly exhibits Marxist-Leninism’s fundamental bias against the peasantry, whether “kulak” or otherwise. Such bias was clearly on display on Ó Séaghdha’s podcast, given the embarrassing side-comments about “comrades cuddling” during the horrors of forced collectivization, and Jeremy and Justin’s astonishing conclusion that this collectivization which took the lives of millions of poor peasants had been “extremely successful.” These Stalinists thus appear to have no class analysis of the peasantry, instead considering them all as reactionaries and “capitalists” whose oppression and destruction signifies progress. They malign the peasants and laugh over their corpses while saying nothing about the conditions of “second serfdom”—represented by barshchina (State labor requirements), extraction, and low pay—that formed the basis of Stalinist industrialization.39

Within Soviet class society, according to Voline (writing in 1947), there existed approximately 10 million privileged workers, peasants, functionaries, Bolshevik Party members, police, and soldiers (comprising approximately 6% of the population of the USSR/USCR), as against 160 million effectively enslaved workers and peasants (or 94% of the USSR/USCR’s population).40 The basic structure of the Soviet Union, on Paul Mattick’s account, was “a centrally-directed social order for the perpetuation of the capitalistic divorce of the workers from the means of production and the consequent restoration of Russia as a competing imperialist power.”41 This ‘total State’ “resembled an army in terms of rank and discipline,” and atop it all “lived Stalin, moving between his Kremlin apartment and his heavily guarded dachas. He and his cronies indulged themselves night after night, in between issuing commands and execution orders, feasting and toasting in the manner of gangland chiefs.”42

child labor

The meaning of forcible collectivization: child labor on an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

4. The GULAG Slave-Labor Camp System

The deaths of the conquered are necessary for the conqueror’s peace of mind.” Chinggis Khan: a phrase of which Stalin was fond (Evtuhov 676)

His regime’s founding (in 1930), mass-expansion, and vast utilization of the GULAG slave-labor camp system, known officially as the “State Camp Administration,” which played a central role in the General Secretary’s “Great Purge,” otherwise known as his “Terror.” These purges served the goal of “ensur[ing] the survival of the regime and Stalin’s position as its supreme leader” by eliminating the remaining “General Staff of the [Russian] Revolution” as well as the workers, peasants, and intellectuals who resisted Stalin’s state-capitalist plans.43 The General Secretary’s insistence on obedience, his paranoid vengefulness, his equation of any kind of opposition with treason, and the fear felt by Communists that the Soviet Union was militarily encircled, particularly in light of a newly remilitarized and fascist Germany, can help explain the Terror, which involved the arrest of at least 1.5 million people, the deportation of a half-million to camps, and the execution of hundreds of thousands. The total camp population reached 2.5 million in 1950.44

As Yevgenia Semënovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind attests to, the GULAG system was designed in such a way as to partially recoup the financial losses involved in the mass-imprisonments which followed from Stalin’s Purges of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: instead of summarily being executed or idly rotting away in prison, many detainees were forced to work for the State with little to no material compensation. Ginzburg shows as well that political prisoners suffered greater discrimination in access to health services, nutritional intake, shelter, and types of labor performed in the GULAG, relative to other convict groups: the ‘politicals’ were always assigned hard labor. Many GULAG prisoners died performing slave-labor, whether clearing forests or constructing railroads: such was the fate of numerous enslaved prisoners forced to construct the Moscow-Volga Canal from 1932-1937.45 Within the Magadan camp located in Eastern Siberia where Ginzburg was held, the discrepancy between the housing conditions of Hut No. 8, a “freezing cold” “wild animals’ den” where the female political prisoners lived, and the abodes of those convicted for lesser offenses, in which lived individuals with “healthy complexions and lively faces” enjoying “blankets in check patterns” and “pillows with hemstitched linen covers,” clearly illustrates the discrimination.46 This same dynamic seems to explain the contrast in appearance—and physical comfort—among the female slave-labor teams assigned to the Kilometer 7 work site: the “peasant women” “had managed to keep their own coarse scarves” and some of the “ordinary criminals” had sheepskin coats, while the political prisoners “had not a rag of [their own]” and wore footwear which was “full of holes [and] let in the snow.”47 Ginzburg’s fellow inmate Olga was therefore right to anticipate that Stalin’s regime would expand the use of “hard-labor camps” in the wake of the downfall of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov in 1939, especially considering that the majority of those imprisoned by Stalin were of prime working age.48

In a reflection of the maxims of Stalinist state-capitalism, Ginzburg reports that the slave-labor system to which she was subjected in the GULAG would dole out food only in proportion to the output that a given team would achieve. For teams like hers comprised of intellectuals and ex-Party officials who lacked experience with manual labor, then, this dynamic would result in a downward spiral of production—and welfare, since they were unable to achieve a basic threshold for production which would allow them access to the very food they needed to maintain and increase production in the future.49 Yet slave-laborers were sometimes provided with food relief if mortality rates were deemed ‘excessive.’50 Ginzburg’s memoirs thus suggest that, as far as political prisoners were concerned, the GULAG system was designed to torment such ‘politicals’ by maintaining them at a minimal level of sustenance, rather than starving or otherwise killing them outright.

On a more positive note, Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought “hope [to] the [inmates of the GULAG] camps,” inspiring both the June 1953 workers’ uprising against Stalinism, which not only overthrew State power in several cities and work-sites in East Germany but also involved workers’ liberation of prisons and concentration camps, and the unprecedented strike by political prisoners at the Vorkuta slave-labor camp which followed just two weeks later.51 Dunayevskaya comments in a manner that remains completely germane today that both of these episodes represented an “unmistakable affirmative” response to the question of whether humanity can “achieve freedom out of the totalitarianism of our age.”52

5. Assassination of Trotsky

What specific characteristics in a man enable him to become the receptacle and the executor of class impulses from an alien class[…]?” – Raya Dunayevskaya53


His ordering of the assassination of Lev Trotsky, as carried out by the Spanish NKVD agent Ramón Mercader in Trotsky’s residence in Coyoacán, Mexico, in August 1940. Whereas there is little love lost between us and the “Old Man,” as Trotsky was known, given his status as the butcher of the Kronstadt Commune, the would-be executioner of Nestor Makhno, an advocate of the militarization of labor, and an apologist for State slavery54—still, Stalin’s brazen attempts to assassinate him in Mexico City not once but twice remain shocking in their brutality to this day. They may well have inspired the commission of similar atrocities on the part of the C.I.A.,55 the Israeli Mossad, and even Mohammed bin Salman’s recent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

First, on May 24, 1940, the Mexican surrealist and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros led an assassination-squad in an assault on Trotsky’s fortified family residence, which the exiled Bolshevik leader had been granted by Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had afforded him asylum and personal protection. Mercader represented Stalin’s back-up plan. Having adopted an elaborate “deep-cover” false identity as “Jacques Mornard,” a Belgian aristocrat unconcerned with political questions, Mercader had seduced and used Sylvia Ageloff, herself a leftist Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn connected through her sisters to Trotsky, for two years to get close enough to facilitate both assassination attempts. While the complicity of “Jacques” in the first plot remained undetected, this was only possible because Siqueiros’ team captured and murdered Trotsky’s young American security guard Robert Sheldon Harte, whom Mercader knew and also used to gain access to Trotsky’s residence in the early morning of May 24. Yet a combination of luck; quick-thinking by Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife, who isolated and shielded her partner’s body from the would-be assassin’s bullets; and the imprecise strategy to kill Trotsky that morning ensured his survival.56 Nevertheless, following a dry-run to assassinate Trotsky in his study using an ice-pick on the pretext of discussing a political article he had begun to write, Mercader invited himself back to Trotsky’s residence on the hot summer day of August 20, 1940, to discuss some revisions he had supposedly made to improve the same article. Concealing his ice-pick under a heavy raincoat, Mercader provoked Natalia Sedova’s suspicions about his presentation:

Yes, you don’t look well. Not well at all. Why are you wearing your hat and raincoat? You never wear a hat, and the sun is shining.”57

Nevertheless, despite Natalia Sedova and Trotsky’s own intuitive misgivings, this Stalinist agent did ‘succeed’ in assassinating the exiled Bolshevik that day—precisely by burying an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head from behind, as the “Old Man” was distracted turning the page while reading the very essay Mercader had brought him:

The moment was rehearsed. Wait until he finishes the first page, [NKVD officer] Eitington had coached. Wait until he is turning the page, when he will be most distracted.”58

What a fitting allegory for Leninism and Stalinism: conflict-resolution according to the principle of “might makes right.”59 Trotsky’s fate also openly displays Stalin’s anti-Semitism: in so ruthlessly murdering his primary political rival, a world-renowned Bolshevik leader and Jewish dissident,60 in Coyoacán, which lies approximately 6,000 miles (or 10,000 kilometers) from Moscow—after having exploited Sylvia Ageloff, a fellow Jewish intellectual, to gain access to the desired target—the “Man of Steel” flaunts his attitude toward the relationship between Jews and his false “Revolution.” Mercader’s assassination of Trotsky therefore illuminates the clear continuities between Stalin and the bourgeoisie, in terms of their shared instrumentalization of human life, and the “full-circle” development of the Russian Revolution, proving Voline’s point that “Lenin, Trotsky, and their colleagues [as Stalin’s predecessors] were never revolutionaries. They were only rather brutal reformers, and like all reformers and politicians, always had recourse to the old bourgeois methods, in dealing with both internal and military problems.”61

Notes

1Arendt 472.

2Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), 68).

3Evtuhov 697-698.

4Henry Wolfe, The Imperial Soviets (New York: Doubleday, 1940).

5Alfred Meyer, Communism (New York: Random House, 1984), 92-93.

6E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926, vol. 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 195-196.

7Dunayevskaya 318.

8Hensman 36.

9Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 52.

10Hensman 53-60.

11Eric Lee, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921 (London, Zed Books, 2017). See a review here.

12Ibid 160-166.

13Roy 50-51, 83.

14Ibid 50.

15Evtuhov 692.

16Roy 45-46, 52-53, 66.

17Ibid 64-65.

18Roy 67.

19Evtuhov 692.

20Roy 46, 68, 73.

21Dunayevskaya 318.

22Evtuhov 689-690.

23Hensman 88-89.

24This line is disturbingly close to that of the neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin, who welcomed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine by calling for “genocide… of the race of Ukrainian bastards [sic].” Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep (Chico, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 233.

25Plokhy 259.

26Wayne Price, Anarchism and Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? 3rd ed. (Edmonton, Alberta: Thoughtcrime, 2010), 186-189; Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 282.

27Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 359-361.

28Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 271.

29Voline 372-375.

30Evtuhov 670.

31Ibid 668; Voline 374.

32Evtuhov 668-669.

33Ibid 670.

34For a translation of the text of the December, 1932 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars, see M. Matthews, Soviet Government: a Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policy, J. Cape, 1974, 74-77.

35Hensman 34-35; Plokhy 249-250.

36Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin: London, 1976), 873-904.

37Evtuhov 642.

38Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, Politics and Famine in Ethiopia (Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival, 1985).

39Evtuhov 685.

40Voline 380, 388.

41Mattick 264.

42Evtuhov 688, 730.

43Plokhy 255; Dunayevskaya 320.

44Evtuhov 671, 676, 693, 730.

45Ibid 675, 688.

46Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (San Diego: Harcourt, 1967), 366, 368.

47Ibid 402.

48Ibid 258.

49Ibid 405-406.

50Ibid 415.

51Dunayaevskaya 325-329.

52Ibid 327-329.

53Ibid 317.

54Ida Mett, “The Kronstadt Commune,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 185-190; Voline 592-600; Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (London: Solidarity, 1970).

55Arendt xxn4.

56John P. Davidson, The Obedient Assassin (Harrison, NY: Delphinium Books, 2014), 48, 193-199.

57Ibid 274.

58Ibid 276.

59Voline 374.

60A dissident relative to Stalinism in power, that is, but not relative to anarchism or libertarian communism.

61Voline 431-432 (emphasis added).

Review: Critical Marxism in Mexico

November 25, 2016

cmim

Published on Marx and Philosophy25 November 2016

Stefan Gandler’s volume Critical Marxism in Mexico investigates the radical political philosophy of two twentieth-century exiles who became naturalized citizens of Mexico: the Spanish Marxist Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1915-2011) and the Ecuadorean leftist Bolívar Echeverría (1914-2010). Focusing on Latin America, this text places at its center the philosophical and practical critique of Eurocentrism. Indeed, the German Gandler envisions the book as being an initial step toward “overcoming Eurocentric bigotry,” and he declares that he is “profoundly convinced that Eurocentrism in its ‘philosophical’ and general forms […] is one of the principal reasons for the current disaster that humanity is living through at the global level,” considering its responsibility for vast material suffering and for repressing alternative forms of social organization. Given that Eurocentrism underpins capitalism, the critique of Eurocentrism in turn forms a central pillar of the “critical Marxism” developed by Sánchez Vázquez and Echeverría, in terms of their repudiation of the racism and positivism evinced at times by Marx, Engels, and many who have claimed Marxism. This alternative Marxism is critical also in that it is anti-Stalinist, non-Marxist-Leninist, relatively libertarian, and non-dogmatic.

Sánchez Vázquez is more practical, more revolutionary, and more based in Marx’s philosophical-humanist early writings than Echeverría, his fellow radical exile who took up residence in Mexico City in 1968, nearly three decades after Sánchez Vázquez arrived there as a refugee fleeing Franco’s victory in Spain. According to Gandler, the trajectory of Sánchez Vázquez’s life demonstrates that of the self-emancipation of a formerly orthodox socialist from intellectual error without his becoming a reformist or apologist or “forgetting the radical critique of everything existing which would be unthinkable without Marx.” For Sánchez Vázquez, theoretical knowledge depends on social transformation through praxis, defined by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach” as “revolutionary, practical-critical activity.” Theory, in Sánchez Vázquez’s view, “cannot exist […] without reference to praxis.” The Spanish thinker considers Marx’s very emphasis on praxis the German communist’s philosophical revolution, as summarized in the well-known final thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Such immersion in Marx’s early writings strengthened Sánchez Vázquez’s resolve to resist the Soviet Union’s corruption of Marxism, as seen in the philosopher’s critique of Diamat in his 1955 masters thesis, and his resignation from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956). The Cuban Revolution, the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring, and the Mexican student movement of 1968 greatly moved Sánchez Vázquez. His doctoral dissertation and book Philosophy of Praxis (1967) provide a libertarian presentation of Marxism that is critical of Marx, Lenin, and their followers. Such an unorthodox interpretation led Sánchez Vázquez to be criticized precisely by Marxist-Leninists such as the Cuban Jorge Luis Acanda Gonzalez, who condemned the thinker in 1988 for denying the “importance of Lenin’s political & philosophical legacy” and advancing “practical and spontaneous conceptions of the revolution.” Yet Sánchez Vázquez’s very stress on praxis—echoing Marx—led him to become one of the foremost intellectuals of emancipation of his time. He engaged with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and focused his late efforts on Marxism and aesthetics, identifying the need for “a new sensibility, a new audience, a new aesthetic attitude” to be cultivated in post-revolutionary Cuba and more broadly. Sánchez Vázquez summarizes his philosophy in his 1985 autobiography, declaring that “socialism […] continues to be a necessary, desirable, and possible alternative.”

In contrast, Echeverría tells Gandler that, while he “agreed fully” with Sánchez Vázquez’s “critical vision of Marxism,” he was not his contemporary’s follower or disciple. Whereas Sánchez Vázquez privileges emancipatory consciousness and praxis, Echeverría focuses more on ordinary consciousness and is skeptical about the possibilities of praxis. For this reason, for him, it is more a “question of discovering political possibilities within alienation.” Influenced by Heidegger, Echeverría traveled to West Germany in 1961 to study with him, for he considered the phenomenologist to be “the true revolutionary” philosopher. Gandler rightly takes issue with Echeverría’s failure to recognize Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany, in parallel to the thinker’s questionable reflections on the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, Gandler discusses Echeverría’s questionably uncritical stance on the USSR, situating it as being typical of the Latin American left at the time, which considered the Soviet Union a necessary counterbalance to US imperialism. Nonetheless, despite these problematic aspects, Echeverría developed a revolutionary concept of the intellect, which he believed must “abandon the European-bourgeois principles and ideology to complete philosophically the definitive process of decolonization, which is demanded practically by the dominated classes.” In this sense, the Ecuadorean philosopher considered Marxism “the “philosophy of workers’ struggle, the culmination and overcoming of all metaphysical European traditions.”

Yet to the matter of the fall—or, rather, destruction—of the Berlin Wall that took place on November 9, 1989, Gandler criticizes Echeverría for his perceived celebration in the Cuadernos Políticos he edited of the smashing of the “anti-fascist protective barrier,” as it was known in East Germany, on the fifty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht. In contrast to the dominant narrative of that historical event as being liberatory or anti-authoritarian, Gandler frames it as the action of a hysterically reactionary, State-sanctioned mob that sought to tear down an “unwanted monument to the millions” murdered in impunity by the Nazis. This lucid and challenging assessment yields at times in the text to questionable endorsements of the claims made by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) regarding the putatively enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans in the genocide of the European Jews (Ha’Shoah), as based in the idea of an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” supposedly deeply-rooted in German civilization and Christianity. These historical distortions about German participation in the Holocaust have been refuted adroitly by Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in their Nation on Trial (1997), and it is unfortunate to see Gandler resurrect them within a revolutionary analysis of genocide. Nevertheless, continuing in this sense, he shares Echeverría’s moving commentary on the Shoah as being, rather than merely “an accidental holocaust provoked by a madman,” the “result of a failure of the Left itself: the excessive sacrifice to be paid by the social body for the triumph of the anti-communist counter-revolution in the Europe of bourgeois civilization.”

In light of the genocides for which capitalism bears responsibility, the notion of praxis takes on a special urgency. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx defines praxis as revolutionary because it “transforms reality.” The stress that Sánchez Vázquez places on this category echoes that previously made by Gramsci, who referred to Marxism in his Prison Notebooks as the “philosophy of praxis” in order precisely to recognize the centrality of revolutionary activity to this philosophy. Praxis poses a great threat to authority, capital, and the State precisely because it represents the ever-present risk of the “spontaneous rebellion of the oppressed and exploited” beyond the strictures of the Iron Cage. As Gandler declares, “[t]he concept of praxis […] contains an element of rebellion against all those who, from their desk, from the Party headquarters, or from the workers’ fatherland, aspire to lead the activities of the rebels of all countries.”

In parallel to Sánchez Vázquez’s emphasis on praxis, Echeverría contributes to the deepening of a non-dogmatic Marxism by criticizing Marx, Engels, and many of their followers for their ethnocentrism, naïve progressivism, and determinism—this, while dialectically acknowledging the clearly emancipatory and revolutionary analyses pervading Marxian analysis. After all, as Gandler stresses, it was Marx’s horror at “the destruction of human existences, of children, of the populations of entire regions” that led him to “pic[k] up his pen and wr[i]te Capital” (1867). Yet Marx and Engels, particularly early on, held racist views that are not totally inseparable from their overall method: in 1849, after the U.S. defeated Mexico and appropriated the Southwest, Engels hailed the result, which he considered to have been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization,” as California had been “taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it.” Moreover, Marx and Engels employed anti-Slavic prejudice during their struggle against Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International—doubtless in part in response to Bakunin’s own Germanophobia—while both Marx and Bakunin are known for their anti-Semitic comments, however much worse the latter’s were.

For his part, Echeverría uses Marxist analysis to theorize that the oppressed countries of the Global South are not in a “pre-capitalist phase,” but rather that they have been fully subjected to capitalism since its birth. In this sense, all the world’s countries are capitalist, but the system of accumulation requires differing levels of industrialization and political power for different regions. Moreover, the philosopher takes issues with the deterministic, mechanical interpretation of history that Marx and Engels bequeathed to the world, and he outright claims Revolution to be a modern myth and a mirror-image of bourgeois delusion. Thus, whereas he clearly identifies the twentieth century as the “era of unprecedented genocides and ecocides” and wishes for an egalitarian universalism of all peoples, Echeverría is left with only conceptually envisioning the chance for a non- or post-capitalist modernity.

Echeverría identifies four ethe, or cultural spirits, as upholding Eurocentrism and capitalist modernity.

  • The currently dominant realist ethos, which is associated with Nordic-Protestant Europe, defined as principally engaging in denial regarding the destructiveness of capitalism precisely while it pretends that production and consumption are more important than anything else. It also denies the possibility of an alternative world.
  • The classic ethos, associated with Western Europe, which differs from realism only in terms of its recognition of the tragedy but necessity of capital.
  • The romantic ethos, associated with Central Europe, which supposedly transforms all of life under capitalism into a great adventure wherein entrepreneurs become heroes.
  • The baroque ethos, associated with the Mediterranean region, Catholicism, and the Iberian conquest of the New World, which is said to identify some of the contradictions in capitalist society but not be able to conceive of the possibility of abolishing it.

Perhaps a combination in the surge of realistic-romantic sentiments can help explain the recent election of Trump, bolstered by white nationalism—while Clinton and Obama’s concession speeches could be considered expressions of the classic ethos. Yet Echeverría can justly be critiqued for reducing Romanticism to an approach that naturalizes capitalism and oppression, for it certainly has served to propagate liberatory impulses. Writing in the text’s prologue, Michael Löwy is right to declare that the Romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Morris, Ernst Bloch, and others is hostile to capitalism, not integral to it.

In sum, Gandler has provided his readers an illuminating investigation into critical Marxism, the necessity of praxis, and the critique of Eurocentrism. Yet the question must be raised, as the author does, of just how anti-Eurocentric it is to explore the thought of two intellectuals—one of them Spanish—who focused above all on European writers. This doubt notwithstanding, in a world in which the Western core-imperial societies are lurching evermore to right-wing reaction, fascism, and “open-self destruction,” it may well be the case, as Gandler asserts, that only movements from the periphery will be able to stop the capitalist death-train. It is to be hoped, then, that resistance elements in imperialist countries can join with their international comrades to advance the cause of critical Marxism or libertarian socialism, which “continues to be the most fertile theory for those of us who are convinced of the need to transform the world in which today there exists not only the exploitation and oppression of [humanity] and peoples, but also a mortal risk for the survival of humanity [and nature].”

On the Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón

February 27, 2015

He died for Anarchy”

Part I of II

First published on Counterpunch, 27 February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RFM revised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

constitucion ha muerto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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