The Legacy of Ricardo Flores Magon
"Brothel, fortress, hospital, miserable death: this is the gift that will be received by the family members of those heroes who die for the fatherland, while the rich and the politicians will binge away the gold that has been sweat by the people in the factory, the shop, and the mine."
-Ricardo Flores Magon on WWI (from Regeneracion, 9th October, 1915)
Ricardo Flores Magon is a well known figure in Mexican history. Although an anarchist until his death, the Mexican authorities were able to recuperate his martyrdom and integrate his image to the social order by baptizing him as one of the spiritual authors of the modern Mexican constitution. So, today in Mexico, a politically sanitized Flores Magon is recognized as one of the first vocal adversaries of Porfirio's Diaz dictatorship. However, communists and anarchists, and people well acquainted with the labor history of Mexico, are well aware of his anarchist-communist convictions, his roots in workers' organizations, and his numerous and failed attempts to spark a workers' revolution in Mexico.
He and the bulk of the leadership of his political organization, the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party), were for most of their political lifespan, situated in the United States. Most of the PLM's political activities in Mexico were coordinated in exile. However, little is ever mentioned about the PLM's relationship to the American workers' movement, or their belief that a workers' revolution in Mexico was important in so far that it is part of a worldwide struggle against international capital and in a sense, part of the international project to end the exploitation of man by man. In fact, if it wasn't for the continuous support of workers' organizations both in the U.S. and other countries, the PLM would not have been able to accomplish what it did politically (or pay prison bailout - Magon spent more than half of his exile years in prison). The PLM, with all their flaws, confusions, and quite honestly, some very big mistakes, were ultimately part of a workers' movement increasingly receptive to the idea of world communist revolution. There are lessons to be learned about their tribulations. Therefore this article will be about the PLM as part of not only the class struggle in Mexico, but in the United States and the rest of the world.
The story starts in October of 1903, when Ricardo Flores Magon was released from prison in Mexico City. Well aware that the Diaz regime was losing its patience with him - to the point that he might get killed if he continued with his political activities - Ricardo, his brother Enrique, and a group of his collaborators crossed the Mexican-American border. In the early years, Ricardo's group exposed through their paper Regeneracion (Regeneration) a brand of anti-Diaz liberalism. They illegally smuggled the liberal paper to Mexico and at one point it became the most popular newspaper in Mexico. However, increasingly but assuredly, the group's liberalism diminished as they got immersed in the American workers' scene. In St. Louis Missouri, the soon-to-be PLM militants studied Marxism and anarchism, and befriended all sorts of political exiles, from both anarchist and Marxist affiliation. Their class perspectives increasingly burgeoned in 1906 in the Cananea and Rio Blanco strikes in northern Mexico. In both strikes, PLM members participated. In the early 20th century, the class struggle in northern Mexico and the southwest of the United States was particularly intense due to the nature of the border. At that time - while in formal political terms there was a border - economically the border seemed tenuous at best. Workers from America and Mexico crossed the border all the time to participate in the area's mining and railway projects. So the region was particularly fertile for class struggle and the radicalization of the PLM. PLM militants participated in the 1906 strikes of Rio Grande and Cananea, both situated in Northern Mexico, strikes that eventually ended in bloodbaths.
The strike experiences would eventually lead the PLM to entertain the idea of armed insurrection. In July of 1906 the PLM officially solidified into a party by publishing their first manifesto. It called to use "whatever means possible" to overthrow Porfirio Diaz. By this time, the PLM leadership was anarchist, but due to a fear of repression and alienating their audiences, they pretended a liberal façade by speaking in terms of "political liberty", but identifying that such liberty cannot come without a solid economic base. The manifesto identified the PLM's cause with that of the "workers of the world" observing that the workers' cause has no frontiers. In their attempts to use "whatever means to overthrow Diaz", the PLM organized an insurrection by conducting raids into Mexico using El Paso Texas as a base. The insurrection got thwarted due to treason and bad logistics.
In the United States, the socialistic political tendencies of the PLM started to become evident. In 1907 Ricardo Flores Magon and some of his collaborators where imprisoned for violating neutrality laws. In the trial, all sorts of socialists and anarchists and trade-unionists publicly defended the militants of the PLM. The anarchist Emma Goldman published their manifesto in her journal Mother Nature. Eugene Debs argued that the imprisonment of the PLM militants was part of an international attack against working class militants. The Western Federation of Miners financed the PLM's defense. Mother Jones collected thousands of dollars to aid the PLM in the trials. The popular socialist journal The Appeal to Reason argued that the PLM's activities were part of a global struggle that could lead the United States to a workers' revolution. Finally, several PLM members were known to distribute IWW propaganda. In the eyes of the state, the issue quickly became more dangerous than mere violations of neutrality laws - the PLM was intimately tied with the American anarchist and socialist scene.
After Ricardo stepped out of jail in 1910, he became increasingly disillusioned with the mainstream American left. He called many socialists cowards and he ridiculed the AFL. Furthermore there was a recurring racist attitude about them. American leftists sometimes stereotyped the Mexican worker as a dumb, illiterate peasant. Most of the members of the PLM were workers, including Ricardo Flores Magon, who was very poor for most of his life, thus he naturally resented the stereotype. He found anarchist support more acceptable: Emma Goldman routinely spoke about Mexican affairs in Mother Nature and concluded that Mexico was an important region for the hypothesized world revolution. Nevertheless, Flores Magon thought that the PLM should solidify relations with various international workers' groups, in order to spark a broader workers' movement in the American southwest and the Mexican north.
In September 1911, the PLM released another manifesto. At this time, Mexico was burning with the so called "revolution", so the PLM leadership felt that it was necessary to make explicit their revolutionary goals. The new manifesto transcended the liberalism of the first one, arguing to transcend the so called "1857 Constitution" which was liberal in - the latter which the PLM initially professed to defend from Diaz' authoritarianism. In the new manifesto, Ricardo wrote:
"Against Capital, Authority and the Church the Mexican Liberal Party has hoisted the Red Flag on Mexico's fields of action, where our brothers are battling like lions, disputing victory with the hosts of bourgeoisdom, be those Maderists, Reyists, Vazquists, Cientificos or what not, since all such propose merely to put in office someone as first magistrate of the nation, in order that under his shelter they may do business without any consideration for the mass of Mexico's population, inasmuch as, one and all, they recognize [sic] as sacred the right of individual property."
The PLM leadership, well aware that different factions of the boss class were trying to dominate the anti-Porfirio sentiment, formulated a plan for action. The PLM leadership, still based in the United States, thought that in order to engage effectively in a military campaign, it would be easiest to start by a takeover Baja California, a thinly populated border state in Mexico. By January 29th of 1911, the PLM, with the help of numerous American militants, took Mexicali, the capital of Baja California. The success was followed by other takeovers of northern Mexican towns by PLM insurrectos, including Tijuana.
The PLM's military campaign was truly an international phenomenon. The PLM had some grounding in the American workers' scene at that time, and several of its fighters where "Anglos". From this international perspective, the takeover of Tijuana was the most interesting - the American town of San Diego, which was an IWW stronghold, was situated north of Tijuana. Wobblies filled the PLM's insurrecto army to the extent that Americans became the majority of "liberal" fighters in Tijuana. Unfortunately, the fact that there was a large American presence in the insurrectos' ranks was used by the PLM's political enemies to discredit them. The main myth that came out from these propaganda attacks was that the PLM was engaging in filibustering - a myth that still lingers today.
The PLM's strategy proved ineffective in the end. The "revolutionary" soldiers under the control of the reformist and liberal Madero eventually crushed the PLM insurrectos. The PLM never recovered politically from this. It was a victim of its confusions and political weaknesses: in particular its conspiratorial vision of a worker's revolution, despite the break the PLM had made with liberal bourgeois politics. That this break with liberalism was influenced by anarchist ideology did not help either, but this is a secondary question here.
After 1911 the PLM entered a downward spiral of political dissolution and irrelevance. Its political mistakes and the military defeat of the Baja "adventure" have already been referred to. But also, historically, there is also this fact: the working class in Mexico had failed to build a class movement independent from the warring bourgeois factions and was ideologically or militarily engaged with one or the other ‘revolutionary' armies. To weather this period would have required a lot more organizational strength and political clarity than the PLM already had.
After the PLM lost its influence in Mexico, two more historic events in the period proved his class allegiance: the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In March 1918, Ricardo wrote for the last issue of Regeneracion an internationalist manifesto calling for the workers of the world to oppose WW1 and to overthrow their bosses. Ricardo and his brother Enrique Flores Magon were thrown into an American jail for opposing the war effort, where Ricardo died in 1922. He was an unmistakable supporter of the Russian Revolution, despite his criticisms of it. These two positions by themselves prove his loyalty to the principles of the proletariat, and we can say without a doubt that despite his political weaknesses he died as a true militant of the world working class. And that we honor.