An anarchist to the end

The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón
Claudio Lomnitz
2014, Zone Books,
594 pages, paperback

WHEN Ricardo Flores Magón and his comrades returned to Los Angeles after three years behind bars in Arizona, they were greeted at the station by a crowd of hundreds. Ricardo’s leadership of the newspaper Regeneración had made him the leading voice of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) and of the movement against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz for almost a decade, his name was well known from the southern states of the US to the southern states of Mexico.

Yet soon after this celebrated return, Flores Magón and the PLM – which had done so much over the years to ferment social change in Mexico – found themselves left in the shadow of rapidly unfolding events, and rather than leading the revolution against the dictatorship, they would eventually be celebrated only as its precursors.

In The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, Claudio Lomnitz – one of Mexico’s most prominent scholars – has produced a ground-breaking work of thorough research combined with an accessibility for the reader that transcends the subject matter of its title.

Ricardo Flores Magón was a leading voice of a movement that crossed boarders, initially focused on ending a barbarous regime, but came to promote a radical reshaping of society under the slogan of “Land and Liberty”. This new slogan reflected the radical turn the PLM had made, in the years leading up to the revolution, from liberal reformism to revolutionary anarchism.

The bibliographic record

Over the years since the Mexican Revolution, a lot has been written about Flores Magón and the PLM, and Lomnitz dedicates some space in the book to analysing this bibliography. Much of the work supportive of Magón comes from sources sympathetic to anarchism, or at least interested in unbiased study of this much maligned figure and the political and social movement which he led. In the past decade there has been a turn in “anarchist studies” to the transnational – viewing anarchist activists and their activities from a cross-border perspective – highlighting how much of the historical movement occurred interchangeably in different nation states, as anarchists were chased in to exile and formed relationships and maintained correspondence across borders. It is in the transnational perspective that The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón sits. A book that focuses not just on Magón but on a multitude of different characters, and not just in Mexico but in the US, as the players cross the border, to and thro, in exile and subversion, in agitation and in revolution.

Beyond Flores Magón, there are his closest confidants who suffered with him in exile and prison: his younger brother, Enrique, his oldest ally, Librado Rivera, and the young protégé Práxedis Guerrero, among others.  Lomnitz had done an excellent job at highlighting the suffering many men and women experienced for “the cause”, constantly wary of agents of Díaz, and regularly facing arrest in the US for breaking the neutrality laws that prohibited political agitation south of the border. Lomnitz delves into the psyche of these activists, uncovering what it is that makes them strive for their ideals under constant persecution, living day to day on the poverty line.

Contrasted with the poverty and sufferings of the Mexican revolutionaries are the cohort of American radicals that took up the cause alongside them. Visiting Ricardo and other PLM activists in prison in in 1908, socialists John Kenneth Turner, and John Murray discovered a cause on their doorstep that matched those of the exiles of Russian autocracy. They soon formed a release committee with others such as the lawyer, Job Harriman, the Boston heiress, Elizabeth Trowbridge, and the activist Ethel Duffy Turner.

What makes these groups of people interesting is the unique interrelationships that developed among them. As Lomnitz puts it, “the crisscrossing relationships between the two circles developed the framework of what became the first major grassroots Mexican-American solidarity network.

Lomnitz traces the efforts of these people to build a campaign, first for the freedom of the imprisoned PLM leaders, and then for the overthrow of the Díaz regime. To that end, John Kenneth Turner becomes the focal point of the narrative as he takes a clandestine tour posing as a businessman, guided by PLM activist Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, acting as his interpreter, across some of the most impoverished regions of Mexico.

What Turner saw, and subsequently exposed through newspaper articles and ultimately his book Barbarous Mexico, shocked American society. With the Civil War and abolition of slavery still in living memory at the time, Turner told of a Mexico where slavery was a very real and present phenomenon, and US companies were heavily invested in the bondage of the Mexican poor. The shockwaves of this revelation that rippled through US society helped make Turner’s name, and the book became so famous that Lomnitz points to a contemporary writer comparing his work to Thomas Paine’s writings on the American Revolution.

The success of Regeneración

It was these conditions, coupled with the lack of political freedom in Mexico under the Díaz dictatorship that drove the formation of the Mexican Liberal Party at the turn of the century. Lomnitz takes us through the conditions in Mexico City in the 1890s, and Ricardo Flores Magón’s involvement in student protests that led to his first taste of jail. He traces Ricardo’s journalistic apprenticeship at this time to his establishing the newspaper Regeneración, a turning point in his life that would shape it for years to come.

In fact, the success of Regeneración, gaining a huge following across Mexico, helped spur the formation of the Liberal Party. Underground Liberal Clubs were formed nationwide as the first concerted opposition to Díaz formed. But the inevitable backlash of state repression saw the jails fill, and it was this persecution that led the leaders of the Liberal movement to escape into exile north of the border.

Despite the success of the US support base of Duffy Turner, Trowbridge and the others, US persecution of the Mexican rebels was as unforgiving as it was consistent. Much of this persecution was led by requests from the Díaz political machine to help silence their critics. The liberal application of neutrality laws was the result. This meant the influential voice of Ricardo Flores Magón in the pages of Regeneración, which at its height had tens of thousands of subscribers across  Mexico and the US, including a sizable number of a “determined readership” of illiterates across Mexico, was ever increasingly silenced.

With an underground membership base and a journal facing challenges to its regular publication, there was ever increasing space in Mexico for other actors to emerge in the resistance to Díaz. Enter Francisco Madero.

The anti-re-electionists

The author gives a detailed and compelling analysis of the differences between the Liberals under Flores Magón and Madero’s anti-re-electionist party that was calling for an end to the dictator’s control over the sham of an electoral process that had seen him or his stooges win consistent elections for decades. Fundamentally, the difference between the two was that the PLM never established itself as a political party, and as it moved further towards anarchism, it rejected political parties outright. Lomnitz also points to the fact that Ricardo Flores Magón’s leadership of the movement was that of an influential voice, not an authority over others. The PLM, in its attacks on Díaz, had long since come to reject personalismo, the glorification of an individual over the cause. Ricardo was always considered a comrade among comrades. Madero, by contrast, was from a wealthy background, and formed his own political party with himself at the head.

Lomnitz point to the different styles of movement building of the different organisations, highlighting the fact that while the liberal leadership were in exile, consistently finding themselves languishing in US prisons, Madero was travelling across Mexico building a network of anti-re-election clubs that soon outnumbered the clandestine Liberal clubs that had emerged a decade before. For Lomnitz, this focus on electoral politics was key to the growth of Madero’s movement. While the PLM had attempted uprisings in the past that, rather than spreading across the country as expected, had ended in defeat, Madero’s focus on the rigged election provided the impetus for rebellion to spread when the Madero uprising was declared. For Lomnitz, this is the key to why the PLM was  very much seen as a supporter rather than a leader in the revolution of 1910.

That said, the PLM was still a force to be reckoned with, and its leaders (particularly Ricardo) still held a strong influence over their supporter base and the begrudging respect of many detractors. As evidence of the prominence of the PLM as an anti-Díaz movement in Mexico even as late as 1910, Lomnitz points to the offer made by Madero to Ricardo of the position of vice-president in the post-Díaz government; an offer that Flores Magón flatly rejected, in line with his ever more anarchist stance. As Lomnitz says, for Ricardo, “political reform was but the substitution of one dictator for another.”

From liberalism to anarchism

This political shift towards anarchism by a number of leaders of the PLM is one area that is not greatly analysed in the book. There is no great moment of clarity for Ricardo or his closest associates, and the reason for the radicalisation from liberalism to anarchism remains unclear. But, the answer is hinted at when we look at the experiences of the exiles in the US and the realisation that liberal democracy would not necessarily bring freedom and justice to the people of Mexico. Seeing the hardship and privations many people faced in the ‘land of the free’ would no doubt have had an impact on their political thinking.

The radicalisation of ideas was coupled with a radicalisation of lifestyle for the PLM living in exile. Leaders of the PLM, or the Junta, that produced Regeneración often lived, ate, and worked together. Lomnitz suggests that the clandestine nature of their work in the US; the struggle to raise funds for both living and the cause; their dedication of their leisure time to propaganda work, all led to the forming of deep intimacies that bound members of the group together. Consequentially, this close bond made perceived transgressions and argument all the more intense and hostile. These arguments would often become vicious and personal, and lead to public denouncements made in the pages of Regeneración. This takes us to a dark part of the history of the PLM, and Ricardo in particular, that is often glossed over or ignored, particularly by writers sympathetic to the group, but which Lomnitz does not shy away from.

With a work that deals with the public and private lives of historical figures there often come aspects of their lives that today do not sit comfortably with the reader. In the case of the PLM, it is that the intense relationships and sacrifices made to the cause would, on numerous occasions lead to confrontations that expose the darker sides of personalities, and denunciations of people as homosexuals and degenerates appear all too often in the historical record.

Ricardo and other prominent activists in the PLM saw homosexuality as degeneracy and either used it as a reason to break with activists, as in the case of two dedicated women comrades, Juana Guitérrez de Mendoza and Elisa Acuña, who reportedly became lovers and were ostracised from the movement;  or used the accusation of homosexuality as a form of abuse against detractors and those with ideological differences, as in the case of one of Ricardo’s closest comrades in the PLM, Antonio Villareal.

It was ideological differences that Lomnitz shows to be the major cause of the split in the PLM following Madero’s declaration of war against Díaz; moderate liberal members of the PLM increasingly sided with Madero over Ricardo on questions of tactics and goals for a post-Díaz Mexico, spurred on by Ricardo’s vicious attacks against Madero in print, while socialist and anarchist-leaning members would back Flores Magón.

By May 1911, Madero was victorious in ousting Díaz, and began setting up the new democratic government. The PLM was not content in ending the revolution with mere political reform. During the revolution the Liberals had mustered their forces and taken part in battles. PLM soldiers had given their lives for the cause, including one of the leading lights of the PLM’s new generation,       Práxedis Guerrero, whom Lomnitz describes as the poster boy of the PLM, while detailing his impressive skills as a writer and activist and the huge contribution he made to the PLM cause in the brief period before his untimely death.

Tension in the PLM

Práxedis’ decision to leave for the front at the start of the revolution was the source of great tension in the headquarters of the PLM. Práxedis believed it was the duty of the PLM leaders to lead the charge into battle. Ricardo argued that it was more important to stay in the US and keep the presses rolling with copies of Regeneración that can help direct the ideology of the revolution. Lomnitz points out that this debate has continued in the history books ever since, questioning whether it was a genuine ideological strategy that kept Ricardo away from the front lines, or cowardice. While historians have favoured the latter explanation, Lomnitz does not give a definitive answer but does go on to highlight the fact that Regeneración’s continuation and its unceasing call for ‘Land and Liberty’ soon became the major influence on the ideology of the peasant revolutionaries from the south under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata.

By 1911, at the close of the first phase of what would become a decade-long revolution, the PLM held the region of Baja California and faced down the Federal Army, now under the command of President Madero. Lomnitz’s detailed analysis of the situation in Baja shows that the “ideological prominence of the PLM in Mexico was not matched by its military significance in the Revolution.”

The case of the Baja campaign in the Mexican Revolution really brings home the transnational nature of the PLM. Ideologically aligned the radical left, anarchists and socialists, this led to strong ties to the International Workers of the World (IWW), members of which (known as Wobblies) chose to travel south across the border to fight alongside their Mexican comrades in the PLM. However, joining them were mercenaries, veterans of the Spanish-American War, answering the call for soldiers who joined up for pay rather than any ideological commitment. The appearance of gringos in the region led to claims that the PLM was involved in filibustering, attempting to annex Baja California to the US; accusations Lomnitz shows Flores Magón was slow to respond to, and which again have been hotly debated in the history books ever since.

The historiography of both this period and the wider history of Ricardo and the PLM are well worked through in this book, and Lomnitz gives a very objective account of the differing strands of thought. For his own part, Lomnitz’s work clearly shows some sympathy with his subjects but does not shy away from difficult issues. In many ways, with his analysis of individual lives set against the backdrop of fast-changing political events, he strikes a fine balance between biography and history.

Lomnitz states clearly that this “is not a biography of Ricardo Flores Magón”, and it is true – it is so much more. As Lomnitz says, Ricardo’s figure simply “best articulates the biography of the larger network with which the book is concerned.”

“Exile and return, ideological purity and pragmatic accommodation, personalismo and its principled refusal” are how the author describes the main tenets of his work. There are detailed analyses of all these throughout, but nonetheless its biographies of the activists involved are thoroughly researched and enlightening in themselves.

We learn of the fates of all the protagonists that pass through the pages of this sizable study. We learn of the huge rift that occurred in the Regeneración family in the commune they had eventually established on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which literally set brother against brother as close comrades took sides with either Ricardo or Enrique Flores Magón. And, as biography eventually wins out over historical analysis, we are left with the death of Ricardo and the mystery that surrounds the question of his murder in Leavenworth Prison in 1922.

The Return of Comrade Flores Magón is a welcome contribution to the bibliography of both Ricardo and the PLM. It delicately balances competing disciplines, both in terms of biography and historical writing, but also balances the line between academic and popular history. While its academic credentials are beyond question, the book is more accessible than many of its academic counterparts, and its subject matter is treated objectively but fondly, giving credit to their successes while not shying away from more uncomfortable topics. Claudio Lomnitz states that this is not intended to be the final word on the subject, and in history there rarely is a final word, but he has certainly helped advance our understanding of the Mexican Revolution in taking a transnational perspective and analysing a grassroots movement often overlooked in the traditional narrative of the first major revolution of the 20th century.

The title Lomnitz chose for this book begs questions as to where Flores Magón returned to, and where from. Scattered throughout, are moments of departure and return for both Flores Magón and other members of the PLM, and also the members of the American group that worked to support the cause. But finally, the inevitable close to the biography of the exiled revolutionary ends with the posthumous return of Ricardo Flores Magón himself to his homeland, and the political fallout generated by such an act.

Today, when much of this grassroots history is overlooked or compartmentalised, when the story of the Flores Magón brothers is taught in Mexican schools as historical precursors of the revolution, when they are celebrated by the state as heroes rather than enemies, Lomnitz reminds us that Ricardo Flores Magón and the leaders of the PLM rejected any compromise over their anarchist ideals. Even after the dust had settled on the revolution years hence, many of them chose not to return to Mexico, and instead continued their struggle for a truly free society from within the US under their slogan, Land and Liberty – and held out for a time when such a return to their homeland would mean stepping into a new future in which their vision was becoming reality for all.