Prison Letters of Ricardo Flores Magon to Lilly Sarnoff [Review]

Prison Letters of Ricardo Flores Magon to Lilly Sarnoff, compiled and introduced by Paul Avrich, reprinted from the International Review of Social History, Vol. XXII (1977) Part 3 pp.379-422, no price given.

Although first written in English, this is the first time that any sizeable selection of Ricardo Flores Magon’s prison letters have appeared in their original language, apart from the publication of a few individual ones and a poorly reproduced facsimile edition to complement a Spanish translation by Tierra y Libertad of Mexico City; and all thanks must go to our comrade Rudolf de Jong of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, where the letters are now held, on whose initiative they were reproduced in the Institute’s Journal. Despite this though, a complete collection of Ricardo’s prison letters have appeared in several Spanish translations including Vol VIII of his selected works Vida y Obra 1925 under the title Epistolario Revolucionario e Intimo. This has recently been reprinted by Ediciones Antorcha of Mexico City. (This for some reason or another is not mentioned in the introduction to this edition though). The vast majority of the letters were translated from English, but unfortunately the originals are untraceable. Due though to the foresight of Lilly Sarnoff, now Lilly Raymond, Ricardo’s letters to her have been preserved, and these make up the present little collection.

Lilly Sarnoff herself, who today, with Nicolas T. Bernal is, as far as is known, the only person still alive who knew Ricardo Flores Magon, began to correspond with him while she was working on the defence committee for his release, under the pseudonym Ellen White, and their correspondence spans the years 1920-1922 when Ricardo was in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas serving a savage 20 year sentence for the alleged violation of the Espionage Laws introduced by the US on their entrance to the World War in 1916. 

These letters of Ricardo Flores Magon are of great interest and importance on several levels. First they give us a wonderful idea of Ricardo the man, his great warm heartedness and his never dying hope for the future that remained with him until the last, despite continual persecution, imprisonment, torture and eventual murder by the US authorities, and during his final years almost continual ill health and gradual blindness (of which he constantly refers in his letters), which was aggravated by lack of adequate medical attention. “…The human heart needs hope” he wrote, “and it is for this that as soon as one hope fails, up springs the next. I have had so many hopes… Many of them are now dead, and my heart is heavy with the weight of their corpses, but new ones always replace them, fair and rosy hopes are always fair, – hopes are always rosy – and I continue hoping, hoping, hoping”

And replying to Lilly Sarnoff’s impatience at the slowness of events: 

… For where is the dignity of which we boast so much? A man or a group of men can keep under his sway millions and millions of so-called human beings; he can subject them to all imaginable and unimaginable indignities; he can dictate to them what to do, and what not to do; he can intermeddle in the private and most intimate affairs of the individuals; he can even prescribe what to say and what to think… and everybody submits, everyone gladly surrenders his dignity, his honour, his pride, his freedom, if he only is allowed to get his allotted portion of crusts… is this not simply animal? But the tyrant must be careful so as not to cause the dwindling of the amount of crusts. Crusts and moving-picture shows keep nowadays the masses in submission, an effectively as bread and circus placated the sporadic furies of the Roman plebs. Thus we have to be patient dear Ellen, and wait for the scene to be changed. We have not to wait very long as the crusts are dwindling and dwindling and dwindling and in an inverse ratio the number of those afflicted with our thirst and tormented with our hunger and our yearnings, is growing, growing, and in the presence of this fact, from the depth of my being issues forth a sigh or relief: there is hope!…”

His attitude to his own imprisonment was somewhat stoic, but this did not hide a certain bitterness. “I do not see any reason why we class war prisoners should be kept in bondage further on. To keep us pent up, I believe, an unnecessary fruitless cruelty. We are kept apart from the rest of the mortals in the hope that our discontent should not infect others. But are we really a source of discontent? For my part I can say that I am not. I have not raised the price of bread; I have not deprived any child of its milk. I have not thrown any family out into the gutter for lack of payment of the rent, because I have not a dwelling place for myself; I have not deprived anyone of the right of thinking with his own head, and of acting accordingly; I have not compelled anybody to sweat and work even give his life for me; no one can point at me as the occasioner of his tatters, and his tears, and his despair. How then, might I cause discontent? And if I am not a source of discontent why is it that they do not unfetter my wings, and let me fly to that spot on earth where tender hearts pine away for my absence? 

All this makes me suspect that they do not keep me in captivity because I am a source of discontent, but because I want to suppress it, I strive to extirpate from our earth all the sorrow, and degradation and misery which springs forth from every situation wherein there is one who commands and another who obeys. This is my fault I think, this is my crime, and if it is so, I bless it, and cherish it and I am ready to commit it again with my whole heart, with my whole brain, with my whole body…” 

and again: 

…Thus for ferocity’s sake I must remain a prisoner. I do not complain – it is only natural for the hyena to believe it is his privilege to feast on decaying flesh; those who strive at being wolves have a right to, but for decency’s sake, do not cover such appalling regression of barbarism – if we have ever emerged from it – which I very much doubt – with the cloak of Justice…” 

The second level on which those letters are important is Ricardo Flores Magon’s contribution to anarchist attitudes towards the Russian Revolution, Marxism and Syndicalism. From the beginning of the Russian Revolution which Ricardo had greeted with great enthusiasm, until 1921 he saw it degenerate from a true social revolution to a mere political revolution, following the same path as the Mexican revolution followed 11 years before; “…a dictatorship is tyranny and cannot lead but to tyranny, and I am against tyranny whether exercised by the workers or the bourgeoisie. This Russian question preoccupies me much, I am afraid that the Russian masses, after waiting in vain for the freedom and well being which has been promised them by the dictatorship of Lenin and Trotsky should revert to capitalism again. The actual starvation of the Russian masses after two years of management of the industry by the state, may drive these masses to the conclusion that the old system of production is good, and so, instead of putting the industries under the direct management of the workers they may hand them back to the private owners.” 

…Those who could not believe our assertion now think how it is that tyranny cannot evolve itself into Freedom… tyranny breeds tyranny. The socalled necessary transition between tyranny and Freedom has really proven to be a transition between a revolutionary abortion and normalcy that is czarism, though with a new garment to satisfy the shallowness of the masses…” 

His attitude towards Marxism, although hostile, never went to the extent of declaring war on them, and for this reason he criticised a pamphlet written by Marcus Graham, “Anarchism and the World Revolution.” 

… but I do not agree in declaring war against the Marxists that in all countries are endeavouring to overthrow capitalism. This would be to ensure a victory to the common enemy. I am for presenting a solid front against it, and then, when the monster is dead, to fight against any imposition the Marxists would pretend to carry on…” 

This attitude was adopted by many Russian workers and anarchists as Voline notes, with disastrous results. As the Marxists presence in the Mexican Revolution was non-existent Ricardo never saw their handywork at first hand. Yet for anarchists now, in the light of events in Spain and Cuba, there can be no collaboration with the Marxists. 

As for syndicalism his attitude varied little from Malatesta’s: 

… You want my opinion as to what attitude we libertarians should adopt before the syndicalist movement. One thing I firmly believe we must not do – to be against it. Of all forms of labour organisation, syndicalism stands on the most advanced ground, and it is our duty to help it, and if we cannot bring the movement as a whole to the high plain of our aspirations and ideas, we at least must endeavour to prevent its receding to more conservative aims and tactics. I do not believe, however, that syndicalism will ever succeed in breaking up the chains of the capitalist system by itself; that will be the work of a chaotic conglomeration of tendencies: that will be the blind work of the masses moved to action by despair and suffering, but then syndicalism can be the nucleus of the new system of production and distribution, and in this role it will be of great importance, for its action will not only prevent the prolongation of chaotic conditions favourable to the environment of a new despotism, but will keep the masses from want and privation, rendering this difficult, if not impossible, their reversing to the dead state of things…” 

This incidentally refutes the idea held by many including some anarchists, who have claimed that Ricardo was an anarcho-syndicalist. 

Ricardo Flores Magon’s prison letters are excellently introduced by Paul Avrich who has also provided some interesting footnotes on the personalities and events mentioned in the letters. 

The appearance of this little book could not have come at a more opportune time, now that interest in Ricardo Flores Magon, the indomitable fighter for Land and Liberty, and without doubt the most important Mexican anarchist of our century, is growing. Unfortunately though, in its present form at least, it will not reach the people it should. Let us hope that in the not too distant future a complete English edition of his prison letters will be available. 


From: Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review #4 (1978) p.164-165

[NB see for the letters being discussed here. KSL]