Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

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!

Review – The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left

February 9, 2016


First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2015. 320pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781893638501

In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.


Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. “Society,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge).

Claussen, Detlev 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1969. An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).

Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press)

John Bellamy Foster: “The Great Capitalist Climacteric”

November 6, 2015
Ongoing Indonesian fires clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

Ongoing Indonesian fires, worsened by this year’s El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), are clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

This is a link to John Bellamy Foster’s new essay on “The Great Capitalist Climacteric: Marxism and ‘System Change not Climate Change,'” published in the November 2015 issue of Monthly Review.  While we disagree with Foster’s endorsement of Naomi Klein’s criticism of capitalism–in the sense, that is, that Klein is not in fact critical of capitalism as such, as Paul Street discusses–and do not accept the MR editor’s defense of “second-stage ecosocialism,” which distorts Karl Marx’s record on industrialism, Prometheanism, and the domination of nature, the issues of climate destruction and exterminism are self-evidently severe enough to merit reproduction of the analysis and recommendations Foster sets forth this month.

‘The 2°C “guardrail” officially adopted by world governments in Copenhagen in 2009 is meant to safeguard humanity from plunging into what prominent UK climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change has called “extremely dangerous” climate change. Yet, stopping carbon emissions prior to the 2°C boundary, Anderson tells us, will at this point require “revolutionary change to the political economic hegemony,” going against the accumulation of capital or economic growth characteristics that define the capitalist system. More concretely, staying within the carbon budget means that global carbon emissions must at present be cut by around 3 percent a year, and in the rich countries by approximately 10 percent per annum—moving quickly to zero net emissions (or carbon neutrality). For an “outside chance” of staying below 2°C, Anderson declared in 2012, the rich (OECD, Annex I) countries would need to cut their emissions by 70 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.

Yet, despite the widespread awareness of the planetary emergency represented by global warming, carbon emissions have continued to rise throughout the world. The failure of capitalism to implement the necessary cuts in carbon dioxide can be explained by the threat that this poses to its very existence as a system of capital accumulation. As a result civilization is faced by a threat of self-extermination that over the long run is as great as that posed by a full nuclear exchange—and in a process that is more inexorable. The present reality of global capitalism makes it appear utopian to call for a revolutionary strategy of “System Change Not Climate Change.” But the objective of stopping climate change leaves the world with no other option, since avoiding climate-change disaster will be even more difficult—and may prove impossible—if the global population does not act quickly and decisively.

[…] conventional thought, with only minor exceptions, has virtually no serious social scientific analysis on which to rely in confronting today’s Great Capitalist Climacteric. Those who swallow whole the notion that there is no future beyond capitalism are prone to conclude—in defiance of the facts—that the climate crisis can be mitigated within the present system. It is this social denialism of liberal-left approaches to the climate crisis, and of the dominant social science, that led Naomi Klein to declare in This Changes Everything that “the right is right” in viewing climate change as a threat to capitalism. The greatest obstacle before us, she insists, is not the outright denialism of the science by the far right, but rather the social denialism of the dominant liberal discourse, which, while giving lip service to the science, refuses to face reality and recognize that capitalism must go.16

If conventional social science is crippled at every point by corrupt adherence to a prevailing class reality, the postmodern turn over the last few decades has generated a left discourse that is just as ill-equipped to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric. Largely abandoning historical analysis (grand narratives) and the negation of the negation—that is, the idea of a revolutionary forward movement—the left has given way to extreme skepticism and the deconstruction of everything in existence, constituting a profound “dialectic of defeat.”17

Although some hope is to be found in the Green theory or “ecologism” that has emerged in the context of the environmental movement, such views are typically devoid of any secure moorings within social (or natural) science, relying on neo-Malthusian assumptions coupled with an abstract ethical orientation that focuses on the need for a new, ecocentric world-view aimed at protecting the earth and other species.18 The main weakness of this new ecological conscience is the absence of anything remotely resembling “the confrontation of reason with reality,” in the form of a serious ecological and social critique of capitalism as a system.19 Abstract notions like growth, industrialism, or consumption take the place of investigations into the laws of motion of capitalism as an economic and social order, and how these laws of motion have led to a collision course with the Earth system.

It is therefore the socialist tradition, building on the powerful foundations of historical materialism—and returning once more to its radical foundations to reinvent and re-revolutionize itself—to which we must necessarily turn in order to find the main critical tools with which to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric and the problem of the transition to a just and sustainable society.’

In his conclusion, Foster also sets forth strategic recommendations, particularly with regard to a “two-stage theory” of transition that incorporates an “ecodemocratic” and then “ecosocialist” phase.  His characterization of the former phase bears reproduction here:

‘In the ecodemocratic phase, the goal would be to carry out those radical reforms that would arrest the current destructive logic of capital, by fighting for changes that are radical, even revolutionary, in that they go against the logic of capital, but are nonetheless conceivable as concrete, meaningful forms of struggle in the present context. These would include measures like: (1) an emergency plan of reduction in carbon emissions in the rich economies by 8–10 percent a year; (2) implementing a moratorium on economic growth coupled with radical redistribution of income and wealth, conservation of resources, rationing, and reductions in economic waste; (3) diverting military spending, now universally called “defense spending” to the defense of the planet as a place of human habitation; (4) the creation of an alternative energy infrastructure designed to stay within the solar budget; (5) closing down coal-fired plants and blocking unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands oil; (6) a carbon fee and dividend system of the kind proposed by Hansen, that would redistribute 100 percent of the revenue to the population on a per capita basis; (7) global initiatives to aid emerging economies to move toward sustainable development; (8) implementation of principles of environmental justice throughout the society and linking this to adaptation to climate change (which cannot be stopped completely) to ensure that people of color, the poor, women, indigenous populations, and third world populations do not bear the brunt of catastrophe; and (9) adoption of climate negotiations and policies on the model proposed in the Peoples’ Agreement on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010. Such radical change proposals can be multiplied, and would need to effect all aspects of society and individual human development. The rule in the ecodemocratic phase of development would be to address the epochal crisis (ecological and economic) in which the world is now caught, and to do so in ways that go against the logic of business as usual, which is indisputably leading the world toward cumulative catastrophe.’

Foster’s close is as bleak as it is true:

‘In 1980, the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote a cautionary essay for New Left Review entitled “Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization.” Although directed particularly at the growth of nuclear arsenals and the dangers of global holocaust from a nuclear exchange in the final phase of the Cold War, Thompson’s thesis was also concerned with the larger realm of ecological destruction wrought by the system. Rudolf Bahro later commented on Thompson’s ideas in his Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster, explaining: “To express the exterminism-thesis in Marxist terms, one could say that the relationship between productive and destructive forces is turned upside down. Marx had seen the trail of blood running through it, and that ‘civilisation leaves deserts behind it.’”63 Today this ecologically ruinous trend has been extended to the entire planet with capitalism’s proverbial “creative destruction” being transformed into a destructive creativity endangering humanity and life in general.64 […]

Turning this economics of exterminism around, and creating a more just and sustainable world at peace with the planet is our task in the Great Capitalist Climacteric. If we cannot accomplish this humanity will surely die with capitalism.’

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.