Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magon Reader [Review]

AK Press have to be congratulated on bringing to a wider public the writings of Ricardo Flores Magon in this well-produced volume. Chaz Bufe and Mitchell Cowen Vertell’s translations bring to life the rage at the heart of Magon, the anger at capitalism, the state and organised religion.

After some interesting preambles by way of an introduction and acknowledgements, the book proper open with Mitchell Vertell’s impressive biographical sketch, which provides the essential information regarding the historical background to Magon’s writings. This is a substantial piece of work in its own right, some 80 pages, with relevant notes and maps. For anyone not familiar with the history of Mexico in the nineteenth and early twentieth century this is vital reading if you’re to understand what Magon writes. Mexico had “won” its independence from Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, and thereafter had been governed by military dictatorships with more liberal democratic interludes. Every change in government had occurred with much bloodshed, nearly all of it by the working classes, who, unsurprisingly, had rarely seen any direct benefit. Such political reforms that had eventually been implemented had mainly benefited the educated middle and upper classes, and done little or nothing to address the poverty and misery of the lives of the lower classes.

The Magon brothers, had originally been partisans of a more reformist program but their experiences had led them to the understanding that only a thoroughgoing revolution, in which the working classes expropriated the owning classes, taking direct control of the means of production and distribution, could satisfy the basic means of Mexicans for food, liberty, peace and land. Their initial vehicle for this assault on the ruling classes was the PLM (Partido Liberal Mexicano), which was instituted to co-ordinate their activities. The 1906 Program and Manifesto proved very influential in the ensuing Mexican Revolution, parts even being eventually borrowed from by the framers of present-day Mexican constitution

Although the Magons are known as anarchist activists it’s not certain when they first arrived at this position, some people suggesting a date as early as 1905, although a date of 1908 is also suggested, and for several years they operated as “liberals” as they felt that the open espousal of the “anarchist” label might put off potential supporters. A tactic that seems to have backfired later when many of those expected to have supported them, during Madero’s 1911 campaign, for example, went over to the reformist camp, thinking there was common ground between the revolutionary PLM and the reformists. This co-option of the revolutionaries by reformists for the latter’s benefit doubtless played a considerable part in the further radicalisation of Magon, who could clearly see that any temporising with the forces of reform would be fatal (literally in some cases) to the revolutionaries.

This resulted in the issuing of the PM’s 1911 manifesto, which had a far more radical critique of the existing society and a more anarchist communist program for the future society. According to the historical background much of this program was taken from Kropotkin’s “Fields, Factories and Workshops”. Sadly by the time the PLM had issued this Manifesto they had been defeated militarily by the forces of Madero, but the cause was taken up by the Zapatistas, though by 1912 the PLM leadership were unable to join forces with Zapata as they were under legal threat in the USA, where they had been based. Well aware of the dangers that the PLM posed not just to US capitalists’ interests in Mexico but as an example in the USA as well, the US state organised a series of trials to shut down the Magonist publication “Regeneracion”, which resulted in the editors, including Ricardo Flores Magon , being jailed until 1914 – although the paper itself continued publication.

Over the border, in Mexico, Madero had been deposed and replaced by another leader, Carranza, another reformist leader, who made radical sounding noises for a while (even letting the anarcho-syndicalists organise the urban Mexican working class – a favour which the anarcho-syndicalists duly returning by organising “Red Battalions” to fight for Carranza against Zapata’s peasant insurgency. The honeymoon period did not last long and in 1916 he signed a law threatening striking workers with the death penalty. Needless to say Magon had already warned of the inevitable result of doing the reformist’s dirty work for them and denounced the Carranza regime and those who collaborated with it. Carranza in turn demanded the US government that the PLM were causing problems along the border and that he had been defamed by the writers in “Regeneracion”. A trial duly took place and Enrique, Ricardo’s brother, was sent down for three years. Ricardo’s health was so poor that he got let let out on bail, thanks to a fund-raising effort by Emma Goldman.

Not that Ricardo escaped the clutches of the US state for long. In 1917 the USA joined the war against the “Central Powers”. As a staunch internationalist Magon denounced the war and all preparation for it, and in 1918 issued his final Manifesto, this time addressed to the Anarchists of the World and Workingmen in General”. This announced that bourgeois society was in its death-throws, that the war signalled the demise of existing society, and that working people everywhere should rise up, end the war and overthrow their own governments and take possession of the means of production and run things for themselves. This proved too much for the US state and after a perfunctory trial Ricardo and his co-defendant Librardo Rivera were sent down for the last time.

During the next 4 years Ricardo Flores Magon kept up the struggle from his prison cell, engaging in a wide correspondence with comrades around the world. Supporters in Mexico showed their solidarity with actions to get him released, but to no avail and he passed away in his prison cell in Leavenworth prison in November 1922.

The writings of Magon in this volume are arranged thematically and cover topics such as “The Revolution”, “Expropriation”, “Class War”, “Racism”, “Anarchism and Politics”, “War” and so forth and there’s a also a selection of stories.

The translations appear to be very good, (I have no knowledge of Spanish or access to the originals), so all I can say is that they read very well and convey the flavour of Magon’s writing. It should be emphasised that Magon was not writing for an 21st century educated English speaking audience, the texts were aimed squarely at the working people of Mexico (and Mexicans in the USA), and so the style can be a bit off-putting at times. Given the violent times Magon was writing in it is not surprising that death and violence feature very heavily in the texts, the PLM was fighting, quite literally at times, a military as well as political war, but there is also an aspect of Mexican culture which is also centred around death, and that also plays a part in the way the texts are written.

Equally he can be very hard-hearted at times, one of the pieces on the First world war saying that the proletariat should not weep over the death of so many proletarians in the war, as it removes from the working class those who are willing to fight for their bosses. One also wonders quite how the working people of Mexico felt at being constantly described as sheep and cattle, he uses the image of the herd and the flock many times, and there’s no doubt that Magon was familiar with the work of Nietzsche and Stirner, but on the other hand, the PLM’s program is class based, advocating that the peasants (peons) take over the land and that other workers should take over their places of work, and the products of their labour should be distributed on the basis of need.

One of the lacunae in the selections is the apparent invisibility of Emiliano Zapata. We know that Zapata supported the basic program of the PLM, yet Zapata is not mentioned once in all of Magon’s writings selected for this volume, according to the index (the index entry is only to a vague reference to the zapatistas) – although Zapata does feature in the historical background and the chronology.

What does shine through in Magon’s writing is his implacable opposition to reformism of any stripe. As far as Magon was concerned (and events largely proved him correct) any compromise or deal with the reformists inevitably ended with the working classes losing out, for the simple reason that the reformists made promises to get power, once they and the power they used it to reinforce the position of the ruling class. No government would ever give the land to the peasants or the mines and factories to the workers, these would of necessity have to be wrested from the existing owners, by force of arms. The ruling class employed force to maintain the position and the property – only force could make them relinquish it. At best reformists would grant political reforms that could be taken away again whenever it suited the boss class.

Alongside the capital and the state Magon was an implacable opponent of the clergy. Although it is true that by the mid-nineteenth century, some of the power of the catholic Church had been taken away from it, the Christian emphasis (when it suited the powers-that-be) on humility and turning the other cheek was held in utter contempt by Magon, who (perhaps influenced by Nietzsche?) saw it as only suitable for slaves, and that if the working classes were ever to rise up they had to cast aside such attitudes.

En passant, the book will remind readers of episodes of USA/Mexican history that aren’t remembered very often these days. Not least the War of 1846-7, when the United States invaded what was Mexican territory which resulted in the loss of California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. (Something you might like to recall the next time US conservatives are complaining about the Hispanicisation of the USA.) And then there’s appalling episodes in Texas in 1915, when the Texas Rangers engaged on an undeclared war on Mexicans in the State against anarchist and other Mexicans. Not to mention other incursions into Mexico and interference on behalf of US capitalists’ interests.

The book is completed by a comprehensive chronology and a detailed bibliography of sources in both English and Spanish. The bibliography not only covers items by and about Ricardo Flores Magon, but also Enrique Flores Magon, Praxedis Guerrero, other members of the PLM, Emiliano Zapata (which omits Peter E. Newell’s “Zapata of Mexico” published by Cienfuegos Press in 1979 (and more latterly republished by Freedom Press) together with the historical background both to the Mexican Revolution and US-Mexican “relations”.)

All in all there’s just about everything you’ll need to know about Ricardo Flores Magon in this book. It’s a sturdy and well-produced paperback, reasonably priced and a necessary read for anyone interested in the Mexican Revolution.

8/10

Magon, Ricardo Flores “Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magon Reader”. (edited by Chaz Bufe and Mitchell Cowen Verter). AK Press, Edinburgh, Scotland and Oakland, CA. 2006. Pbk. 420Pp, illus, chronology, bibliography, index. ISBN 1-904859-24-0 £12.00 / $19.95 (US)