Apologies for the sound quality, Mitchell was on wifi at a hostel in Cambodia for the conversation.
Chicano anarchist communist prisoner of war Xinacthli, held by the State of Texas on some BS charges, had a support rally in Austin, Texas, on
November 21st this year. There’s a link in these show notes to a recording someone passed us of him telling his story like a decade ago. You can learn more on his case at FreeAlvaro.Net.
We hope to bring you voices on labor disputes in the University systems and on the rails in the UK. If you’re subscribed to our patreon, you’ll get an early listen to Scott’s recent chat with Sophie Lewis on
. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation
. … . .. Featured Track:
Corrido a Flores Magón by Ignacio “Nacho” Cárdenas (
. … . .. Transcription
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with your name, preferred pronouns, and any other information about yourself that would give context to the listening audience for this conversation?
Mitchel: Sure. My name is Mitchel Cowen Verter. My pronouns are he/him. And for this conversation, I’m the author of Dreams of Freedo m : A Ricardo Flores Magón Reader, a book about Ricardo Flores Magón. I’ve also published some translations of his work independently of that.
TFSR: Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to write this book? Where were you at, what was going on in your life? What inspired that?
M: That came out of a weird period of my life. We were squatting in Boston, and our squat got closed down. So I ran off to Mexico. There, on the beach, I met two Chilango anarcho-punks, Luis Cardenas and Jorge. It was the año de Ricardo Flores Magón, and they were like, “Hey, you’re an anarchist. He’s an anarchist. We’re all anarchists. You should check him out. He’s a cool guy.” And I was like, “All right, yeah, totally.” These were great guys, I trusted and honored them. I came back up to the states and visited a Zapatista benefit and was like, “Oh, here’s a book by Ricardo Flores Magón, I should check him out.” And wow, I was really blown away by how beautiful and intense his writing is. It’s so over the top in so many ways, I really wanted to carry the message forward.
So, a couple of years later, I had some free time and I translated his first play. He wrote two plays, and self-published, I made bilingual translations in English and Spanish with grammar lessons between the two. The objective was to get a conversation between two languages, two cultures, hetero-didactic-teaching-each-other message. I scammed copies at Kinko’s, and put it out with the stapler. A couple of years later, AK Press approached me about writing a book about him. And at that time, I got on a tough job at Berkeley as a person who calls and asks terrible research questions. I got fired after a month because I wasn’t very good at it. But I was able to get a library card. And so with that library card, I was able to put this together.
I was really helped out a lot by Lillian Castillo-Speed at the Ethnic Studies Library. Also, Ward S. Albro wrote, in my view, a biography of Flores Magón,
Always A Rebel, it was very helpful and influential. He passed away this past year, and I grieved. A tremendous loss for the world of radicalism, of Flores Magón scholarship. He knew Nicholas Bernal, who was one of the Flores Magón’s comrades. Also, we lost another great scholar Sol Neely, who was my philosophical compatriot, we’re both as students of the work of Emmanuel Levinas. He’s the philosopher of the Other person. And he combined that thought of otherness with a focus on Lingít culture and did a lot of really amazing work in prison education, in Lingít culture, as well as French and German philosophy, which is how I know him.
TFSR: Thank you very much for that. Would you give a framework for people to understand Magón? Maybe talk about Ricardo’s life, a thumbnail sketch of where he came up and what happened.
M: That’s a pretty large question. So feel free to ask me any directed questions. But the history I lay out in the book is– There’s the colonization of Mexico by the Spanish in 1492, 15th century. And that brings the church, that brings the imperial power of Spain, and it brings the economic depredations of, I think, pre-capitalism. And that went on for a good 300 years. Then in 1810, Hidalgo, a parish priest lead the revolution against the Spanish, and Mexican Independence happens. Then in the 1860s, Benito Juárez, this indigenous guy from Oaxaca walks to Mexico City and becomes president. And he brings in all these liberal reforms, and here liberal means a bunch of different things. It means, on the one hand, eliminating or curving back the power of the church, but it also means a neo-liberalization of property. So along with the curving back of the power of the church comes the expropriation of not just church lands and church property, but also community property. So those start to get privatized under his presidency. Not really his fault, there was a group of Científicos, positivists who were influential intellectually during the time.
And so he rules for a while. And then there’s this ambitious general Porfirio Díaz, who was the lead general in the Cinco De Mayo, unseating the French. He executes a coup against Juárez and becomes the dictator, essentially, and brings back the power of the church. His governing principle was whatever is good for business is good for Mexico. So he really ramped up the exploitation, the resource extraction from Mexico, invites in the US capital, allows them free access to the mines in the Sonora and the north and tobacco and coffee in the south. And there’s literally slavery among the Yaqui in Sonora. I’m not actually sure what the tribes are in the south. Those people, natives, were conquered in the wars that he executed against them, and transferred to these slave conditions where they perish in a year. And then, there was a ton of harmful super-exploitation of the peasants throughout the Díaz regime (1880 to 1910).
Flores Magón was born in an indigenous village in Oaxaca, where people work together to support each other. His father passed away, and his mother moved them to Mexico City and wanted him to succeed in life. He went to legal school, which is an undergraduate degree, to be a lawyer. And there he started to write this newspaper called Regeneración, which outlines the injustices of the Díaz regime. And that, again, was the enslavement of indigenous people in the tobacco fields. The mines are different, that’s different labor exploitation.
TFSR: You’re paid in scrip, for instance, right?
M: There’s the debt peonage, where you’re always paid by the company, and you live in a company town. And so you’re always in debt to the company. So you’re effectively a slave of the company, and when you died, it is passed on to your children. That was the newspaper against the system, corruption of the judges, and the hacendados would rape of women. Multifaceted exploitation throughout Mexico.
TFSR: Can you say a word about the sexual assault being systematized through the political chiefs that Díaz ruled with?
M: I don’t know the details of it that well. It’s a pretty common practice. The dueño, the lord of the property pretty much had absolute control over the peoples who lived on the land. Díaz’s rule was an autocracy. Whatever the boss, the political boss, the governor, the judge said or did or wanted to do was– His word was law, and you couldn’t get around it.
TFSR: So maybe it wouldn’t have been dissimilar in some ways to the systematized use of sexual assault in slavery in the US against people of African descent?
M: I don’t know if it was systematized per se. In Mexico, they talked about a lot of impunity. You could do whatever the fuck you want if you have power. That’s still the case today. But it was more autocratic back then.
TFSR: Okay. Thank you.
M: So around the time that Magón issued that paper, Díaz made a statement to some newspaper saying, “Hey, I’m giving the church all this power again.” So that inspired some reformist people to organize against Díaz. And they started the Liberal Party. And here again, the idea of liberalism is to take back absolute power from the autocracy, and the church, but not necessarily an economic reform.
So first, they had to form the movement. At the first party conference, people were giving these pretty mild-mannered critiques of the Díaz regime. And, Flores Magón goes up on stage and gives an eloquent speech. He closed the statement by saying that Díaz’s regime is a den of thieves. And there’s a harsh silence. He repeats it. People timidly clap. And then the third time he says it again, and people storm with applause. At least that’s how the story goes. Magón was very daring and outspoken. And this landed him in a ton of trouble. He was put in jail numerous times in Mexico for being so outspoken, for publishing articles, once about a political boss in Oaxaca, I think. And finally, there was a ruling by the Díaz regime that if anybody in the country publishes an article by Ricardo or his brothers, the press will be dismantled and the publisher will be put in jail.
So, Flores Magón fled to the United States and kept on publishing from there, and not publishing, but also doing his best to organize the peasants and the workers – both the agrarian people and industrial people – into a revolutionary assemblage. How they coordinated, it’s pretty fucking incredible. It’s pre-Internet social media, I guess. They publish these newspaper Regeneración and deliver it to these small, agrarian villages and industrial towns. And a lot of these people were illiterate. The person who could read would read the articles aloud to them, and they learned the message, its revolutionary fervor, and what was going on around the country. There was also a solicitation: “If you had any ideas for reform or something you’d like changed, send them to us, here’s our address in St. Louis, Missouri.” And through that channel, they were able to collect all these recommendations for reform.
While that was going on, Flores Magón survived a couple of assassination attempts and was put in prison at least once. This is 1904-1906. An agent from Mexico broke into his offices and tried to kill him, but he jumped out of a window. So, they moved it to St. Louis, Missouri, and were getting solicitations from there. Agents were always pursuing him. At first, the Mexican government was sending agents, and then the US government was – the Pinkertons, Thomas Furlong, and private agents. So Flores Magón went from Texas to St. Louis to San Francisco to Montreal to Toronto to Los Angeles, all fleeing persecution, and landed in jail, at least four or five times in Mexico and the US for his political activities.
Anyways, that’s a big part of the story. He spent a third of his life in jail because he was so outspoken against the depredations of the state and capitalism. In 1906, PLM, the Partido Liberal Mexicano, published a program for reform. It was a huge list of recommendations for agrarian reform, land reform, for industrial reform, which really was unseen until then. And parts of it were so forward-looking that they became integrated into the actually quite progressive Mexican Constitution. Article 123 of the labor laws in Mexico is drawn from that initial visionary document. So that was one of the initial steps or achievements of Flores Magón, Partido Liberal Mexicano, and his cohorts.
TFSR: And then also the method that they used to draw that from their readership is pretty amazing for the time and with the resources that they had available.
M: It’s amazing for the time. There’s this whole network, special delegates, who are these people who run messages between various clubs throughout Mexico, throughout the southwestern United States, particularly along the borders of Arizona and Sonora. Those were really the hotbeds. And some of those states are really interesting. There’s this guy Palomares who is Mayo Indian, who also grew up in this utopian anarchist community. He was running stuff between the mines in Cananea and Sonora, and the Yaqui who were enslaved doing timber production. He attempted to assassinate the dictator, a really interesting character. Another is Praxedis Guerrero who ran between the mines. Lots of interesting characters were delivering messages to and from.
And then, people were somehow transmitting messages to the center in St. Louis, Missouri, and oftentimes Flores Magón was not even there because he had to flee for his safety. Oftentimes, it’s only Librado Rivera, another member of the Junta, who was taking care of the manual compilation of all this stuff. This was also their downfall in certain ways. Because, as everyone knows, OpSec is pretty hard and that distributed information gathering leaves open the possibility for a lot of infiltration on the spine.
TFSR: Even when you’re encrypting, like they were.
M: Yeah. And twice he was thrown into jail for violation of the “postal code”, which was probably sending revolutionary messages by post or perhaps interfering with another nation’s politics from the United States by post. They were reading his mail and threw him into jail twice for that.
That takes us to 1906. There were a few ambitious but failed attempts at revolution throughout these small towns in Mexico. Flores Magón goes to jail again in 1907 and then in 1908, even from prison, the Partido Liberal Mexicano was able to spur another set of revolutionary attempts, but those also were too scattered to really be successful. The 1908 arrests brought him into the focus of US socialists and communists and anarchists. People in the US started to speak out about the way that Flores Magón was treated, and then John Kenneth Turner went down to the Yucatan and Oaxaca, a few different places in Mexico, and wrote this incredible book
Barbarous Mexico, which described in very unsparing detail the horrible conditions that these people in the mines and haciendas, the tobacco firms were put under. This whole thing about Díaz, the dictator who would go to war against these Indian tribes to seize their lands and if they fought back, not only was the land expropriated from them but the people will be sent to these slave camps, basically, and would be worked to death. Literally, they would die within a year because they worked unsparingly.
So, John Kenneth Turner became involved, and a couple of other prominent socialists became involved, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became involved in their movement. But Flores Magón was put to jail even more. And then in 1910, he gets out of jail with a huge uproar, a huge celebration. Emma Goldman was instrumental in raising the funds to help him get out, at least once. This is on the eve of the Mexican Revolution and Flores Magón knew that it is going to break, he wrote a bunch of gorgeous pieces about how not only do we have to struggle for political reform, we have to expropriate the land and industries from the capitalists exploiting, the working class, and the peasants… farmers…
M: The campesinos, thank you.
Díaz was polishing the stuff, but the Mexican revolution breaks out anyways under this guy Madeira, who’s an upper-crust rich family liberal and only wants political reforms for Mexico, curving back the autocracy under Díaz, curving back in the church’s power, but still leaving in place the economic exploitation. And Flores Magón was like, “No, don’t follow him.” But unfortunately, at that time, because Flores Magón had been in jail for so long, he wasn’t really able to muster the military forces, to spread the political message, to have the tools at his disposal. So much of the organization, not Flores Magón, but also the organization in large had been infiltrated, different centers had been attacked and undermined. So they didn’t have the wherewithal. When the revolution actually broke out, and they weren’t able to mount a resistance unit to their own.
There was an attempt to take over Tijuana. IWW came out in droves to support that effort to take over Tijuana, to set up a base for the anarchist revolution. That eventually was beaten back by Madero, the Liberals who’d fought off the dictator. So from then on, the Mexican Revolution trudges on without Flores Magón, they lack his influence. With the military defeat at Tijuana, Flores Magón doesn’t really have a fighting chance. He’s putting out articles all the time: “Don’t follow Madero, don’t follow a leader, don’t put your faith in a person, don’t put your faith in an individual, this
personalismo. It’s not only about political justice, but also about economic one, the land is for all, Tierra and Libertad, land and liberty. The land belongs to the people who work it, private property is the President’s expropriation and violence by the rich and privileged. That [abolishing] that should really be our goal, not putting our faith in leaders.” I can’t even remember all of the clowns who take power one after another. Madero falls, then Carranza, and then Obregón, and there are a couple of other guys in there too. But each one of them comes to power and it is like, “I’m the figurehead of the revolution.” Flores Magón repeats again and again: “Don’t put your feet in the sky. He’s tossing a game, but he’s gonna fuck you over in the end.” And that happens over and over again.
There’s actually a really horrible story about Carranza. Carranza cut a deal with the anarcho-syndicalist labor union Casa del Obrero Mundial in 1916. He said, “if you pledge your loyalty to me, I will give you union bargaining rights” or something like that. And then he sends them out, these so-called Red Battalions saying, “Oh, there are these reactionaries in the villages being controlled by this terrorist Emiliano Zapata.” And so the anarcho-syndicalist affiliated workers went to Morelos and destroyed the Zapatista movement, a really horrible story. That’s under President Carranza. And then immediately after Carranza does that, he publishes this law saying that anybody who organizes a strike will be put to death. Immediately, he breaks his promise.
TFSR: It seems in that instance Carranza was really playing off of the anti-indigenism view that the people in the countryside are backward, the fact that they were carrying religious signage and talking about God and stuff, there was a split between the materialism of the Industrial Age versus the backward age that the church ruled, and all these other dynamics. It’s a really sad story.
M: It’s a horrible story. So Flores Magón is publishing that stuff during the Mexican Revolution. But at this point, what’s really getting him into trouble is not the Mexican government. They have forgotten about him, and they’ve cut off their attempts to assassinate him, to put them in jail, to coerce the US government to put him in jail. Actually, that’s not entirely true, but what starts to get him into trouble is the US government. And they become more and more aware that he is publishing this radical anarchist propaganda. And during this period he becomes more and more pronounced as an anarchist, and this British anarchist William Owen takes over the English language part of the paper. Voltairine de Cleyre started writing articles for Regeneración, and Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became more and more involved in supporting them. Kropotkin also comes out and supports them in their movement.
He was jailed at least 5-6 times, he spent a third of his life in prison. What finally gets him into jail the last time is when World War I breaks out and Flores Magón writes this article saying, “Hey, don’t go to war. The only reason that you’re going to war is to protect the property of the rich. There’s no ‘your country versus my country’ that nationalist fervor is an illusion. And it’s the plotting together of the state and capital. And basically, you’re fighting for your own exploitation.” That happened at a really bad time. So that’s 1917. President Wilson published these anti-anarchist laws and anti-sedition laws. And then on top of that, there is explicitly anything that is given any talk or any propaganda promulgated, which is against the war effort, that will harm the war effort is punishable by imprisonment and whatever else. So, RFM was so outspoken against the war, against capital, against the state is finally what makes him land in jail for an absurdly long term. At this point, he had been imprisoned-
TFSR: It was a twenty one-year term, I think.
M: Oh, twenty-year sentence. He’s been in prison so many times, and then lived such a rough life that his health was pretty gone, he would not survive it. And so he eventually died and Leavenworth in 1922, in prison for his agitation.
TFSR: Announced November 21. So we’re about to hit the 100th anniversary.
TFSR: Thank you for that exhaustive account.
As you said, it’s such a long and storied life that that person lived. And like you said, with the position that he was in with his health by the end of his life, there were times when he and the others were living on the run from 1904, or whatever, in Mexico. And then in 1905, they maybe had a couple of years before they started getting really chased down and then they were jumping up to Canada, and across the United States and all over, not being able to carry jobs because they were in hiding from Furlong or the Pinkertons, or the US government, or from the Arizona or Texas Rangers. So, eating very little, sleeping very little, in prison. He got sick when he first got incarcerated in Belem Prison in Mexico City for his early activism against the Díaz regime.
One thing that strikes me from reading through the biography that you published at the beginning of
Dreams of Freedom, and also I read Bad Mexicans by Lytle Hernández recently, but there are all these critiques of other revolutionary leaders from Mexico or from abroad, like the New Times from France or whoever, saying like, “why don’t you go down there and do the fighting?” And none of them seem to understand the fact that his body, his eyesight is going, he walks with a limp, and his lungs are super weak. All of these bits of incarceration in the US, whether it be in Washington state or Arizona, or whatever, there’s always this fear on behalf of his loved ones or supporters and expectation or hope by the authorities that he will die in incarceration. Thank you for telling your story.
M: It’s insane. He has a prison in Mexico again and again and again and then goes to Texas. I don’t know how long he was in Texas, when Díaz sent an agent to assassinate him, one year after he fled Mexico.
TFSR: I’ve got a couple of questions pointing back to some of what you’ve talked about or some of the points that you made in other articles that you’ve written.
So, to go back to the PLM, the Partido Liberal Mexicano. A lot of the Benito Juárez era was under the banner of this liberalism, and over the decades, they had the struggle with the conservatives, who were closer to monarchists, or were into the church having much more control. They were definitely reactionaries that didn’t believe in any degree of even representational popular control. And so they had struggles around a series of laws like La Reforma. And this is where things like slavery were abolished officially, which is why there were so many struggles in Texas with Sam Houston and his bunch because all these Americans were coming down and trying to take space where they could bring their Southern-held slaves down to these territories. And there had been slavery in the missionary system, too, under the Spanish in early Mexico. So, these are super important reforms to push.
But so the PLM was developing as a movement as primitive accumulation into the hands of Anglo magnates, and Mexican aristocracy under the Porfiriato, as they call it, the Díaz regime’s time cemented, and seeing the displacement, enslavement, and murder of indigenous communities around Mexico, notably, as you mentioned, the Yaqui who were moved for forced labor to Oaxaca to work in plantations, and also were moved around. But though the PLM itself started off fighting for enforcement of those reforms from the Reforma era, which were won by liberals to defend two-degree indigenous land titles and an end to slavery. Can you talk a little bit about how the PLM engaged with indigenous autonomy developing during this time? They were actively engaging, trying to get Yaqui and Mayo and other indigenous communities to join the focus of the PLM and foment revolution with them, right?
M: That is true. I don’t know the ins and outs of how that all worked. There’s a really distributed movement throughout Mexico and the United States. There were powerful or important liberal clubs, and PLM clubs in the mining towns and indigenous villages. I think Veracruz, I’m not entirely sure who was with the Yaqui per se. I know this guy Palomarez was an important agent who came from this indigenous Mayan background, and the Maya are adjacent to the Yaqui in Sonora. So there was a lot of communication between them. I know that Tarahumara and the Cocopah, I may have that name wrong, in Baja California, were very involved in the struggles in Tijuana, in the north of the country. In Veracruz, there were a lot of indigenous clubs as well. I don’t know the mechanics though, per se, and how that worked. Other than that, copies of the manifesto and the newspaper were sent to the villages into the mining centers, read to the people so they can learn about these ideas or learn about this program, work towards it, and they are constantly being solicited for their ideas and opinions. There are always news stories being published about their despoliation and degradation and exploitation. There were various agents and writers throughout all of these locales writing about and agitating for liberation.
TFSR: It’s funny to talk about the liberal movement and or the Liberal Party when talking about Ricardo Flores Magón, but no person is one set of ideas throughout their life. People develop, they grow, and they change for the better or the worse. But so RFM and his siblings and other comrades came up with this liberal framework – identifying the rights of the individual, the rights to have a say in governance, the right to a private holding of property as a defense against dictators or what have you. And his ideas – and those of everyone with him – developed over a long time. But they continued calling themselves liberal. You point out in private letters that Ricardo sent to his brother Enrique disclosing his anarchist ideas, but wanting them to keep them under wraps in Regeneracion and in the work of the junta of the PLM (the organizing committee of the Partido Liberal Mexicano) so as not to alienate the other junta members and the wider PLN membership. And this seems a double bind. It’s been pointed to by you, by other authors, and by people later on in his life. This also helped to keep RFM and the other junta members safer from prosecution under proto-“Red Scare” laws in the US, such as the 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act, aka the Immigration Act of 1903. But if there’s this presumption that it’s going to alienate the members of the wider group, but if he wants to participate in this liberatory movement that he believes should be participated in by each individual in their communities as liberated individuals, it’s this difficult position.
How do we not alienate the existing people that have these ideas? And how do we also not put ourselves into undue pains of losing solidarity from a socialist left or getting imprisoned by the country we’re trying to agitate from. But simultaneously, they’re not actively by name planting these ideas in the Mexican consciousness… And yet there was an anarchist influence in the Mexican Revolution, whether it be the anarchistic ideas that Zapata and company promoted or tragically, their enemies in the Casa del Obrero Mundial and their syndicalism. A lot of these people had read Regeneración or its related papers for a long time. And this helped to plant the seeds of what would later become the Mexican Revolution. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your views of where you think he was coming from. And what, in your understanding, the impact of that was?
M: It’s a complicated question. The liberal movement in Mexico – I’m not an expert in it – but it’s variegated. And a really important thing is, there was this guy, Benito Juárez, who was an indigenous, dark-skinned guy, who walked from Oaxaca to Mexico, became the president, and made popular education a right for all people, who really did struggle for the rights of the people. At the same time, though, the liberal movement came with other aspects. As well as, fending off authoritarianism and also promoted the acquisition of private property. So, it’s a complicated movement.
Identifying yourself with the liberalism of Juárez, the great indigenous president of Mexico, who really fought for the people, is a good thing. And you seem to be very aware of all the great things that the liberal movement and La Reforma did for the people of Mexico. So I don’t want to downplay that. Anyways, why did Flores Magón identify as a liberal and when did he? That is a good question. In 1901, the liberal movement per se restarted. It was the 1860s under Juárez, and then there was this dictator, the conservative Díaz Porfiriato. In 1901, there’s this coalition of wealthy liberals and more radicals, like Flores Magón. It’s a pretty broad-based movement, politically at least, and they were all dedicated to the singular goal which was getting rid of the dictator who was bringing this unimaginable suffering and degradation to the people of Mexico, expropriating the land, enslaving the people, etc, etc. So, I think that coalition was politically important for the immediate aim of getting rid of the dictator.
By at least 1902, Flores Magón was publishing the
Conquest of Bread in translation, or he commissioned a paper to do so. By 1901, not Flores Magón but other so-called liberals had read and were aware of anarchists thinking from Proudhon and Kropotkin and others. By 1906, Flores Magón published a manifesto of the Partido Liberal Mexicano, compiled all this stuff from all these campesinos and industrial workers, these broad-based and not only reformist but also nationalist plan – credible, progressive things and details that really would have benefited in a very dramatic way the rights of the people, the labor rights, land rights, etc. It wasn’t an anarchist document at that point. It was focused on reforms and making concrete changes in people’s lives that would have really benefited their material condition. That’s decent. I have no problem with that.
At the same time, though, Flores Magón was becoming more and more anarchist or maybe always was anarchist. But he wasn’t open about it. In 1908, we have proof of this. He writes this letter to his brother and to Praxedis Guerrero saying, “We have to keep on with a revolutionary agitation and everything we do has to be anarchist. We have to be always promoting the expropriation of property, the destruction of the state, and the destruction of the church, but we have to go under the guise of liberalism. Because if we are too open about our anarchism, we are going to frame off our supporters who think of anarchism as violence and destruction.” Maybe today, anarchism has a better reputation than has had for a long time but anarchism is commonly associated with mindless destruction.
Now, why did Flores Magón do this? Was it a bad call or not? At this point, Flores Magón had already alienated the rich liberals. Camilo Arriaga, who is this rich landowner, and Francisco Madero, who was also a rich landowner. They were already like, “This guy is radical wacko.” So, why did he hold it back from the workers? Why did he hold it back from the campesinos? Was it a good call or not? A lot of people have said, “No, actually, the people were ready for more radical messages. People had suffered the depredations of capitalism, of the state, of the church. There was literally enslavement, there was dead slavery, slavery in the company stores, and slavery on the plantations. People were perhaps already ready for these messages.” But not all the people, and there’s such a goddam broad scope of membership distributed across two countries that not only am I sure that it would have alienated people, but it did alienate people. When he came out as an anarchist or at least became more forward in his anarchist ideas, he lost a considerable amount of support from the US socialist left. Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers backed off from him. And then in Mexico, too, there were some key figures, Juan Sarabia, Teresa Lara (I think, but I might be wrong about that )backed off of him and said, “No, you’re a little bit too radical.”
So, in the end, I would hope to believe that he should have been more forward, and more open about his actual political aspirations, and people would have responded to them. And, as you bring up yourself, the Zapatista movement did pick up on it. There were channels of communication between the Magónista movement and the Zapatista movement. They had read his literature, they were using his language. Other people throughout Mexico had read Regeneración and were ready for it. And when the Mexican Revolution did break out under Madero, there was a significant amount of confusion about Madero’s relationship with Flores Magón. Madero actually put out this myth that it’s the same movement that worked for the same aims. “Flores Magón is going to be my vice president.” So there were actually anarchists fighting for Madero, because they believed so strongly in Flores Magón, fighting for liberal reforms on behalf of
personalismo. That’s why all these articles about personalismo – don’t follow a leader, become important – it was a little bit too late to make that distinction once the Revolution had broken out. He did it even before. Think about “Don’t put your faith in politicians.” But, at that point, I hink he hobbled himself in his own possibilities for his own anarchist vision of the Mexican Revolution by not sufficiently propagating his message beforehand.
TFSR: Yeah. I guess I can only speculate so much. But as a media producer, myself, I can see this idea of “Well, I gotta curate the message so that I don’t push too many people away, don’t blow their minds too much. But, you’d wean them on this,” which is patronizing.
I wonder if you could talk about the
personalismo, it’s a patronage idea. It seems to carry a lot of elements of religiosity to it. And the term “Magónism” is used by historians all the time when talking about him and was used by contemporaries to talk about adherence to or affiliates of the PLM, or to the anarchist movement. In the version of the essay “Persons die, but noble ideas are eternal” that appeared uncensored on the Anarchists Library, you make the point that this is what competitors of the PLM did during the life of RFM. Madero was saying, “We’re gonna announce that Ricardo Flores Magón is going to be the vice president, and we are Liberals, you’re already a part of our army.” And then also what his co-opters did – in the Mexican state, and historians have done frequently – but co-opters since his death attempting to bring him into the fold of the history of revolutionary Mexico that they claim the mantle of and that they present that they are in the long line of– Does that make sense?
M: Yeah, a lot of stuff to say. So, in his second play, there’s a character in the play. And he makes the declaration about how the people should be freed from capitalist enslavement, what have you. And the villain is like, “Are you a Magónista?” And the character says, “No, I don’t follow anybody. I believe in human liberty. I believe that people should be free. But I’m not a follower. I read Regeneración. It’s a great newspaper. But I don’t idolize this man, these are great ideas.” Flores Magón really had to make this point again, and again, especially during the Mexican Revolution, there’s figure after figure – first Madero, Carranza, then Obregón, Huerta, and a couple of others. And everyone was like, “Hey, I’m the leader of the movement. Trust me and I will put into place all these reforms that will liberate the people. Again and again, he said, “Don’t trust individuals, that’s like putting your faith in the state, in the church, in representationism. Don’t trust someone to represent yourself. Fight for the liberation of the people, fight for the reform of the land, fight for the justice of labor, fight for the right of people to live an equitable, happy, decent life.”
And a great example of this is the Zapatista movement. Marcos was the figurehead of the Zapatistas for many years, and people viewed him as the leader of the movement. And he had done a pretty excellent job of trying to fade himself out and be like, “No, it’s really not about me, I like to write these wacky essays. The movement is the people making their own lives, making their own autonomy, it’s not about individualism. We are not about the individual.” I think it’s very easy for us to fall into this habit of representing movements as being around a single person. But it’s an authoritarian habit of thought to always rely on representation, or to think that we can represent a popular movement by a single person. That’s a dangerous shorthand. It’s pretty widespread. You could also make the argument that certain aspects of identity, the idea of identity itself, as encompassing the complexity of popular movements, popular desires, the variegated forces at play. That’s also a dangerous habit to fall into. So, the idea of personalities, is actually a pretty broad concept, not only in politics, but more generally, in how we think about ourselves, about the world, about identity, and so forth. At least politically, it’s important: don’t follow leaders, fight for the people, fight for freedom, fight for dignity.
TFSR: This is a point that you’ve written about, too: in the 1906 Platform of the Liberal Party junta, there was a clear nationalistic tone against the holding of lands by foreign investors. But it also included a call to deport Chinese laborers for “undermining the wages of Mexican citizens,” mirroring anti-Chinese populism wielded in the USA. This runs very counter to the PLM’s later allies, like the IWW and WFM (the Western Federation of Miners), which helped to found the IWW. And as your pointed out in the bio at the start of Dreams of Freedom, the penning of this became a point of regret for Magón later in his life. Maybe you didn’t put it that way. But it seems to run counter to the perspective that he expressed in his internationalism later on.
Can you talk about shifts from nationalism to internationalism in RFM’s views and the ideas carried by the papers that he worked on? What impact do you think it had on the Mexican revolutionary movement?
M: That 1906 document, it’s the potential perils of anti-colonialism in general. The American industry was expropriating land, and labor throughout Mexico. The Díaz dictatorship actively encouraged American industries to come and expropriate land from the people, expropriate resources, and labor. So an absolutely good point. However, there was this nationalist tone, which carried over to the anti-Chinese sentiment, and there’s this language throughout the text like “la Patria”. La Patria is the country, but it’s also the fatherland. It’s very much the language throughout the document. It’s like foreign capitals kicking us down, we’re a bunch of woosies, and we get to stand up for our manhood and push back the foreigners. That was a thing.
Also, his brother Jesus married a woman named Clara Hong, I don’t know if that one was Chinese. I don’t know if Hong is a common Mexican name. So there might be something else there, too. Not personal but something weird about the anti-Chinese part. And that anti-Chinese provision may have not emerged from the mind of Flores Magón himself. It probably was solicited from the readership. And it is true, we all know that surplus population leads to lowering your wages and that importing people who work for less is hard on the economic welfare of [segments of] the working class. But the answer to that is not to insist on their exclusion, but rather to fight for the internationalization of labor rights.
Later in his life, as Flores Magón moves from Mexico to the United States and becomes involved with the US left, the US socialists are helping him out, the IWW is very involved in organizing the mines in Cananea, in Sonora and Arizona, which is exactly the same places where the Flores Magón party is. So, those two movements flow together in a lot of interesting ways. A lot of the people who were special delegates for the Magónista movement were also members of the Western Federation of Miners which was the early version of the IWW. So there’s that aspect of internationalism.
As time goes on, he becomes more and more cognizant or pronounced about realizing that the scope of the struggle is not this national elimination of the church, state, and capital, but an international struggle. That really comes ahead during World War I. “Why are you going to war against people from another country? They’re not your enemies, the enemy is international capital, the state system. All men are brothers, all people are exploited. And we all have to fight together to liberate humanity as a whole.” That’s an important trajectory, the movement from his early– I don’t know if it’s his early or if it’s the party’s early – nationalistic tenor to his internationalist statements.
TFSR: So I guess I had one other question. And that would be about Ricardo’s legacy. I became aware of Ricardo Flores Magón when AK published this book, and simultaneously was learning about the Magónista groups – there I am using that term!
M: It’s hard not to.
TFSR: So they were involved in the 2006 uprisings in Ricardo’s home state of Oaxaca, particularly the one that ringed out to me was CIPO-RFM, but they were APPO affiliated groups organizing in Northern California among people in solidarity, but there’s a lot of Oaxaqueños or various nations living in that area. There was a group called CAMPO (Centro de Apoyo para el Movimiento Popular de Oaxaca). So the timing of the publication seemed pretty perfect. And it is cool that you were able to reference that right now there are these struggles against Ulises Ruiz [Ortiz]. During the teacher strikes in those periods that were brutally repressed, but also seemed they created an opportunity for the amazing flourishing of organizing and people creating alternatives to the existing world around them. And obviously, a lot of people were pulling from this really strong revolutionary legacy of– You mentioned that Juárez was from there, RFM was from there. Could you talk about RFM’s legacy to your understanding? Where have you seen ripples from that?
M: About the CIPO and all that in Oaxaca 2006… Unfortunately, I was not down there. I was there in 2005 and missed everything in 2006, but I did some activism with them. I got busted by the government for doing that. I wound up doing journalism about it instead. And dude, it’s the same shit. It’s the same fucking shit. 100 years after Flores Magón. It’s the same stuff as always. Capitalism and the state is down there creating misery in manifold ways, enslaving people at tobacco firms again. I think that has moved on to the narco-terrorists, and drug manufacturing as well. There’s impunity [ impunidad] by the government. There are miscarriages of justice, there’s the murder of activists, and all kinds of crazy shit happening all the fucking time down there. That is really the normal state of affairs, I think maybe throughout the world. This ongoing horror, resource extraction, and human degradation is constant. I was amazed to see the same shit that Flores Magón was writing about 100 years ago still goes on all the fucking time in Mexico.
Anyways, to the point of Flores Magón’s influence, he was a brilliant writer. He’s so ardent in his belief. His body might have been worn away from imprisonment, from running around all the time, but his belief is so beautiful, so strong, so pure, and his language is magnificent. It’s over the top, at least for our whitebread ears. It’s gorgeous language. It’s gorgeous thinking. And people have read it, and they love it. It’s a powerful message. It’s wildly influential. Sandino in Nicaragua started off reading a lot of this stuff. The constitution of Mexico and the labor reforms came from the Magónista movement. In 1968, there were student uprisings in Mexico City. They quoted “Was Flores Magón a sell-out? No, he fought for human dignity.”
The anarchist scene in Mexico helped me learn about it. I was hanging out on the beach in Mexico. And these Mexican anarcho-punks told me. It’s a great scene there, there’s a lot of very interesting and powerful anarchist energy. And it’s outright, it’s in the open, it’s not awkward and self-questioning as it is in the United States. And a lot of that comes from the strength of the tradition, which comes from the writings of Flores Magón and other members of the PLM. As far as the Oaxaca, CIPO, and CODEP, it’s important for people to be able to draw on that writing, to draw on those ideas, that tradition of thinking, and to point back to it and be able to reference it to be able to quote it.
But, honestly, at the same time… Flores Magón came from a small village in Oaxaca, Eloxochitlán. And so the story goes, his father, who was probably indigenous, but I don’t know 100%, made the point that people help each other out, they support each other. And I visited Eloxochitlán in 2005. And they were doing
Tequio, which is community labor, and people all get together when a road needs to be built. They get together as a town and they all do communal labor together. They don’t delegate it to the government. People are organizing, but it’s not an elected government that orders people do things there. [Something like] tequio’s a common indigenous practice throughout Mexico. And Flores Magón writes about this in one of my favorite essays: T he Mexican P eople A re R eady F or C ommunism. And he makes this point that for hundreds of years, people in Mexico got along. When Pedro’s house needed to be built, everybody in the town would get together and build Pedro’s house.
I’m now in Cambodia. And a guide made the same point: there are all these rice fields, it belongs to the community, and people go out and harvest rice. It’s out there and people take it, nobody owns it. It’s everybody’s, anybody’s, and nobody’s. That’s the normal state of things. That is how people live together. That’s how it is in indigenous communities and a lot of the world. I don’t want to mystify this idea of indigenous, it’s how people get along. And Flores Magón makes a point in his essay that people only were aware of the government, when the taxes were levied, or when Díaz would come by looking for soldiers for the army. But for most of their life, they were sustaining themselves, their family, and the community, they’re being supported by their community as well. That’s the normal state of affairs. So that’s a way of saying that, yes, Flores Magón has significantly influenced indigenous movements.
But also, the roots of his anarchist thinking are already indigenous, at least in Flores Magón. It’s not a complicated idea. Anarchism isn’t a complicated idea, just help each other out, don’t be greedy, and don’t be a jerk. The declaration that this is mine, this is not yours is a weird move to make. It’s an imposition of force by the State, by the Capital, by the Church. And most of humanity doesn’t actually think and doesn’t actually act that way. It’s a weird imposition of power, and we need to get away from that. And for most of human history, people have lived that. And those are indigenous communities, but there’s nothing magical about indigeneity. That’s the way people are, they work together.
TFSR: Thank you for that. That makes a lot of sense. I like the way that you ended that with simplicity. Mitchell, are you working on any other projects now? Or is there a place listeners can find more of your writings that you’d suggest?
M: I have a bunch of stuff on the Anarchist Library. My actual project is called “The Anarchism of the Other Person.” It’s the idea that our liberation, our being, and our existence are actually constituted in and through other people. Even the idea of the ego, I myself, I am for myself, this Stirnerite line is weird and authoritarian It’s autarchy, it’s self-rule. It’s not anarchy. Anarchy is the destruction, even of egoism and individualism. Our existence is materially and genetically produced from and through other people. Kropotkin makes this point a hundred times that we’re born into this world made by other people. So how could we even begin to think “this is my thing”? I’ve been working on that project for a super long time, and I published things about it.
About 10 years ago, I started to combine that line of thinking with feminist writings, particularly around care ethics, mothering ethics, and nurturing ethics. I wrote some work on anarchism as a practice of care. I wrote it a while ago and then my colleague, friend, and teacher, Chiara Bottici who published his book on anarchafeminism, wrote me a couple of years ago saying, “Oh, Mitchel, that work that you were doing about anarchism and care is really important, especially now there is COVID. You have to get back to work on that.” So I have been working on that. I’ve written a couple of essays and a couple of talks on anarchism care ethics, mothering, nurturing, and still working on it in the background of a lot of other stuff going on in my life, but I hope to someday print something wonderful. There are a couple of essays in the Anarchists Library, there are a couple of videos on YouTube. You can google my name, you’ll find that stuff.
TFSR: I’ll put some links in the show notes for sure. That’ll make it easier for folks. Thank you so much for being, as you mentioned, that you’re in Cambodia. Thanks for being willing to make this work. This is awesome.
M: Yeah, definitely.
TFSR: Keep in touch. Take care, Mitchell.
M: Take care.