The death of Ricardo Flores Magon

Ricardo Flores Magon is dead. Usually the news of a death affects me little, but in this case I feel differently. It is not because after long years of imprisonment and exile, this indomitable battler for Liberty has died in jail. Some larger sense than that of pity or personal bereavement possesses me. For reasons I cannot analyse, this death appears to me as summing up a period, and arouses thoughts and feelings I find it hard to put in words. I have the feeling that some force which was essential has ceased to operate.

It seems to me that all who were brought into close relations with Ricardo Magon will feel as I do. Something had set on him its special mark. No matter what the conditions in which he found himself, he remained always a Somebody, a force to be reckoned with, a personality that could not be ignored. Even court and penitentiary officials, whose natural instinct it was to regard him merely as a law-breaker, appeared to me, when I discussed the matter with them, fully conscious of that fact.

As I think, it was because the man was so obviously sincere; so set in his conviction that, whatever else might be tamed into silence, he must speak; so intense in his determination to play out his part in that great struggle for the overthrow of human slavery which he individually, at any cost, must fight out to the bitter end. Whatever oppressed he hated, be it Government or Land Monopoly, Religious Superstition or High Finance. As a Mexican he knew how these had wrecked the life of his own people; as an Anarchist he understood that this was the fate also of the disinherited of all who have allowed themselves to be reduced to helplessness, throughout the world. To most of is there comes at intervals a fit of righteous indignation, but Magon seemed to me a volcano that never slept.

If I remember right it was at San Luis Potosi, some thirty years ago, that Ricardo Magon, then a young journalist, first leaped into prominence. Characteristically he came with a leap. The Freethought Party was in convention and, in accordance with its traditions, was centering all its denunciations on the Roman Catholic Church. Ricardo, as the story has come to me, literally stampeded the convention by a speech in which he attacked Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s omnipotent dictator as the man who was selling Mexico to Wall Street and was, therefore, the real source of all the country’s evils.

The point of course, is that denunciation of the Church was at that time both popular and safe, whereas the attack on Diaz was unprecedented and full of danger. It brought Ricardo the lifelong comradeship of Librado Rivera, who henceforth shared all his fortunes and now survives him in Leavenworth Penitentiary; but it made him, his brother Enrique, and Rivera the special target of the Dictator’s wrath. The trio however, started and pressed with great activity an agitation on the lines suggested until, after several imprisonments, they found Mexico no longer possible and migrated to the United States. They had set the ball rolling. With great boldness they had started the economic movement that ultimately drove Porfirio Diaz into exile. As I see things, the mover of the movers is always the real man; but, for him, the road he opens leads directly to the Cross.

Ricardo Magon, I am very certain, foresaw this clearly, for in conversation he accepted it stoically as the price that must be paid. He was often far too greatly swayed by personal affection or dislike and he seldom could find any virtue in those whom he opposed. But on fundamental issues I always thought him sound, because fundamental facts he would not flinch. Repeatedly I considered his condemnations most unjust, but usually the men he had criticised so harshly turned out to be the time-serving politicians he had branded them as being. He was most aggressive, most positive, and he made friends and enemies by the score.

I myself became interested in the Magons through the reading of John Kenneth Turner’s “Barbarous Mexico” but it was their passionate hatred of a social system which seems capable of thinking only in dollars which drew me closely to them. For many years past it has been my settled conviction that the worship of the Calf of Gold is the most ignoble of all worships and the greatest of all barriers to that long step upwards which our race, by reason of the intellectual conquests of recent centuries, is now summoned to make. I have met many men and women who shared that view, but never any so saturated with it as were the Magons. I believe Ricardo to have been completely persuaded that for Mexico the worst of all possible fates would be to lie helpless beneath Wall Street’s yoke. The one great fact he saw was that all humanity was being bound to the chariot-wheels of a brutally triumphant Money Power, and that it must either free itself or perish. I myself hold that view. My study of the Mexican Revolution, and my contemplation of the manner in which Plutocracy had taken away from Mexico about everything which was worth taking, converted thought which had been largely vague and theoretical into unshakeable conviction.

Ricardo Magon was one of the most powerful writers the revolutionary movement has produced. Except when he allowed himself to be allured into deplorable polemics he did not waste himself on minor details. He struck invariably the major chords, and with extraordinary firmness. Throughout his work there ran always the appeal to the highest and, therefore, most powerful emotions; to the heroic. He demanded much of men. I doubt his having been acquainted with Nietzsche’s writings, but he seemed to me another Nietzsche, though a democratic one. However, in such characters there is always a strong aristocratic strain. They insist on the best; on the realisation of their ideal in all its fullness; and for that realisation no sacrifice seems to them too great.

I have no wish to write either a biography or eulogy, and confine myself to a few personal reminiscences which may give some insight to the actual man. I remember him being forewarned of an impending prosecution, and his refusal to withdraw to a safe refuge, because it would “disorganise the movement.” When, after a delay of many weeks, we got him out on bail, he marched directly to the Regeneracion office and within an hour he was labouring once more at the enormous correspondence to which he probably devoted fully eight hours a day. Never have I met so industrious a propagandist, his brother Enrique perhaps excepted. He lived poorly, and so far as I know, had no personal vices. Indeed he had no time for them.

On my first visit to the offices of Regeneracion I noticed a large packing case and learned that it contained only copies of Kropotkin’s “Conquest of Bread” for shipment to Mexico. For years these men pursued, with infinite tenacity and at a great strain on their slender personal resources, such spadework. Their great idea was the development of revolutionary personalities. They had an overwhelming admiration for Kropotkin; one, in my opinion too uncritical.

When I succeeded John Kenneth Turner as editor of the English section of Regeneracion the circulation was about 17,000 and the paper must have been making money. Every cent of it was spent on spreading the propaganda. We had between 600 and 700 papers on our free exchange list, and got extraordinarily full notices throughout the Latin world. Our great aim was the uniting of Latin opinion, in Mexico, Central and South America, against invasion by the Plutocracy, and the creation in the United States of a sentiment strong enough to hold in check the intervention perpetually threatened. I believe Ricardo regarded this last as Regeneracion’s special task, and that on this account he opposed the transfer of the paper to Mexico, a step I at one time urged.

In his book “The Real Mexico,” Mr. Hamilton Fyfe, now editor of the Daily Herald but then a travelling correspondent of considerable note, treats of the unexpected fall of Porfirio Diaz, recognised by the United States as a Power of the first rank, with a large army at his back. Mr. Fyfe remarks that Diaz forgot one important factor, viz., a certain gentleman named Ricardo Flores Magon. I have always regarded that remark as accurate, and have looked on the Magons as the men who really set in motion the forces that ultimately drove Diaz into exile. I considered it a great accomplishment and a real epoch-making event. Diaz was the man who, as William Archer said, has sold his country for a mere song, and with the carelessness of a child blowing bubbles. His dethronement was the first check Northern Plutocracy had met in its triumphant Southern march.

When Madero succeeded Diaz as President he made the Magon’s brother, Jesus, then a prominent lawyer, Secretary of State. It is within my knowledge that Jesus made repeated efforts to induce both Ricardo and Enrique to return to Mexico, assuring them perfect safety and quick preferment. These men were very poor. They had been subjected to repeated prosecution and imprisonment as inconvenient disturbers of the plutocratic peace. Yet they refused their brother’s offer, persistently. That always seemed to me decisive. It may be difficult, and perhaps impossible, for us to understand the workings of Mexican thought and the ways of men who have in them so much of the old Indian blood. But that, at bottom, these men – Ricardo and Enrique Magon, and Librado Rivera, who is still in Leavenworth Prison – were fanatically loyal to their Anarchist convictions I cannot doubt.

Well, Ricardo Flores Magon is dead, and surely “after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.” Neither praise nor blame can affect him now. He died in Leavenworth Penitentiary, U.S.A., when he had completed five years of the ferocious twenty-one years sentence imposed on him for having written articles prejudicial to recruiting. He had been suffering for years from diabetes, and latterly he was threatened with total loss of eyesight. He could have purchased release by confessing repentance – a confession impossible to a nature such as his.

For months past organised Labour in Mexico had been agitating for Ricardo’s release, and on hearing of his death the Parliament in Mexico City ordered its tribunal draped in black. The Government asked for the return of his body, that they might give it the burial suitable to one whose life was one incessant struggle in the cause of the emancipation which the masses in Mexico, in common with the masses throughout the world, have still to win. But his comrades have respected his principles and declined a Government funeral, and he will be buried at Los Angeles, California.

We hope that, inspired by the example of this indomitable battler, the people of the United States may rouse themselves to demand the release of the many political prisoners, martyrs to conscience, now rotting in that country’s jails. Such an achievement would be the most appropriate of monuments to the life and memory of Ricardo Flores Magon.

Wm. C. Owen.

The San Luis Potosi convention was in 1901.
In 1918 Ricardo Flores Magón was given a twenty-year sentence for violating the anti-radical Espionage act.

From: Freedom, December 1922, Reprinted in Land and Liberty: anarchist influences in the Mexican Revolution by Ricardo Flores Magón, edited by David Poole [1977].