The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz [Book review]

The Flores Magón brothers (Jesús, Ricardo and Enrique) began their career of rebellion in student protests against the re-election of Mexico’s dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1892. In 1900 Jesús and Ricardo began publishing their journal Regeneración. By the end of the year it had moved from seeking to play ‘a kind of ombudsman role into a journal militantly committed to political change.’ [85] This led to the creation of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party) though ‘the Partido Liberal Mexicano was in fact more of a movement than a party and more an ethos than a movement.’ [xxv] The PLM kept the name of Liberal long after Ricardo and Enrique had embraced anarchism. Lomnitz shows the evolving complexity of the Liberal movement, with its liberal, anarchist and socialist strands. One great strength, in fact a prime focus of the book, is showing the connection between Mexican Liberals and American socialists, and the effects it had:

‘Mexico became the biggest source of migrant labor for the United States only after it had become the single largest destination of American capital. As a result Mexico’s politicized migrants – starting with its exiles – had much to learn from American politics, since American interests were part and parcel of Mexican affairs. Meanwhile, the Americans who became part of the Mexican circuit of expats, too, came to understand the underbelly of their own government and corporations by seeing how they operated in Mexico.’ [xxxvii]

Lomnitz has spent years mapping this network: ‘For several years, I have lived with the letters and writings left by the women and men of this major/minor transnational revolutionary network. That cohabitation with their traces has itself been a lesson in the nature of writing in the major/minor network, for we find intimate love letters from the Los Angeles County Jail in the archives of Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, picture postcards made for American tourists turned into incriminating evidence in the pages of Socialist muckraking magazines…’ [xl]

Sometimes we see right down to the grass roots (if not beyond, to the daily life of migrant workers). Blas Lara in his memoir talks about the small-c communism of ‘to each according to their needs’: ‘Ignacio García of Aguascalientes was a communist without knowing it. One day, his cousin Jesús said to him: “Hey Nacho, on my next payday, I’ll return the money that you loaned me the other day.” To which García replied “What money did I loan that you feel you owe me? If it’s the cash I gave you when you got here all fucked up [fregado] from Mexico so that you could eat and buy clothes, then you owe me nothing.”’ [221]

Having been a bohemian law student, Ricardo became a militant intellectual, fully committed to revolt to provoke social change. You could describe this (in a metaphor of the time, though not one Ricardo used) as ‘poking the social volcano’: it’s ready to go off, neither education nor compromises are necessary. But Ricardo’s only weapon was his pen. His letter to Antonio Villarreal (who had saved him from being killed in an ambush in 1906) indicates why: ‘I don’t see well – you know that my eyes are no good at all. I walk slowly, and I’m very trusting.’ [262] Thus Regeneración was always central to his life and strategy. ‘Ricardo constantly reminded his readers that they were fighting for an economic revolution and that this implied a protracted struggle. […] “the journal must stay alive so that the beautiful revolutionary movement of Mexico does not degenerate into a mere political movement, which would set proletarian emancipation back many years.”’ [397] The decision, or necessity, to agitate from exile left Ricardo and his comrades vulnerable to further repression. If you read the book you’ll see that to be a radical editor at this time was not to take a position of safety!

When the revolution did break out, Madero (who we could call a liberal Liberal) sidelined the radicals of the Partido Liberal Mexicano. Madero had advantages: ‘by 1910 Francisco Madero was better known and fresher in the minds of the people than Ricardo, who, though a moral leader, was not even a presidential candidate. And he had been in jail during a critical time. [… Madero’s] willingness to take risks and make real personal sacrifices became public and catapulted his fame across the nation.’ [235]

Lomnitz describes the Baja California revolt, where the physical absence of the PLM leadership only compounded the problems of ‘soldiers of fortune’ fighting alongside wobblies (IWW members): ‘Ricardo would have had to move his entire outfit from Los Angeles, a communications center, to the backwater that was Baja California to have a real chance of cobbling together a coherent movement there. […] For better or worse Ricardo decided not to limit his scope of action in that way.’ [342] Lomnitz also suggests that the PLM overestimated the power of the dictator. ‘Not a leaf in Mexico’s political forest shook with Díaz’s approval, or so they claimed. The Liberals imagined that Díaz held a lid on a system of repression that extended down to every village and hacienda, every mine and urban neighborhood. Given a chance, each of those populations would rebel […] and ignite a massive collective transformation. […] Had the Mexican state been strong, Porfirio Díaz would not have been in a position to get himself re-elected for thirty years.’

John Kenneth Turner, an American socialist who is one of the key figures in the book felt that after Díaz was deposed, Madero should be given a chance. I suspect this may be Lomnitz’s opinion too. His description of Madero’s orders to shoot looters and not (captured opposing) generals as ‘reigning in violence’ [255] struck me as strange. Is that a call for less violence, or reigning in one sort, and spurring on another? If the divide between anarchists and socialists had negative consequences, how might it not have happened? And what did the grassroots members of the PLM inside Mexico make of it? (That’s another book, and probably an even more heroic job of historical recovery).

The fall of the dictator did not end the PLM’s call for ‘Land and Liberty’ and the legal persecutions continued. This led ultimately to Ricardo’s twenty-year sentence in 1918 and his death (from medical neglect) in Leavenworth in 1922. The ‘return’ of the title refers to the return of his body to Mexico, where the eventually he and his brothers were converted into anti-Díaz ‘precursors’ of the revolution. But it also refers to Lomnitz’s own project of looking at these rebel lives as they unfolded, and not as safe, static icons.

This is a big book and very readable. You can pick it up without knowing much Mexican history to begin with. There is speculation, for example, about the split in later years between Ricardo and Enrique. But it is always admitted and always thoughtful. The strength of this book, and why I wanted to review it, is that it’s written without condescension. Lomnitz is not uncritical. But he never berates Ricardo – or any other member of the network – ‘If you’re so clever, why don’t you think like me?’ You can read The return of comrade Ricardo Flores Magón as multi-biography, as history, as human tragedy. Make sure you do read it – you may want to read it twice.

Any good book leads you on to other readings. Here are some hints (including some online treats, knowing you may not get out to the bookshops straight away).

There is an online archive of the writings of Ricardo Flores Magón (including Regeneración, with its English section) at

Dreams of Freedom : A Ricardo Flores Magon Reader ISBN 9781904859246 was published by AK Press in 2005 They have also brought out I Am Action by Praxedis G. Guerrero (both hardcopy and ebook available)

The Black Rose Historical Society have made a map of anarchist landmarks of Los Angeles. It includes the offices of Regeneración and the ‘Magonista Colony’ (of Edendale). Search ‘PLM’ for more.

Land and liberty : anarchist influences in the Mexican revolution (a compilation by David Poole of writings by Ricardo Flores Magón and William C. Owen, 1977) is out of print. It’s especially useful for Owen’s writings (another ex-law student!). Owen’s tribute to Ricardo, taken from the book, is available here:

Lomnitz prints a handbill with a photo of William C. Owen [344] claiming it’s ‘the only known image’ of him. There are two other photographs and a painting in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. A lino- or woodcut based on one of those photos appeared in Man! and is reprinted in Land and liberty : anarchist influences in the Mexican revolution. See it here

Lomnitz suggests that ‘There is a novel waiting to be written about Ellen White.’ [482] You can read the Prison Letters of Ricardo Flores Magon to Lilly Sarnoff (her real name) at

The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz. Zone books, 2014 9781935408437 $35/£27.