Claudio Lomnitz has chosen a fascinating subject: the network of liberals, socialists and anarchists centred around the renowned ideologue Ricardo Flores Magón (1874-1922) and the lives they led against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. It is not the biography that the title might suggest, although there is plenty of biographical coverage of Flores Magón and his collaborators. Nor is it focused on a “return”; in fact, Flores Magón remained in the US as the revolution played itself out in Mexico, in the belief that residence there provided him the best opportunity to guide, through the publication of his journal Regeneración, what he expected to be a protracted revolutionary process. The book is much more about exile – the impossibility of returning under the triumphant conditions that Flores Magón might have found acceptable.
Flores Magón earned his acclaim with an oppositional career that began with the student movement of 1892. In 1900, he and his brother Jesús launched Regeneración, and in the following year they took part in the inauguration of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). Increasingly outspoken against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, they and many associates found themselves behind bars. The oppression continued until, in 1904, the PLM’s junta fled to the US, but members of the group would face imprisonment there, too, on charges ranging from violating neutrality laws to sedition.
Lomnitz foregrounds the transnational facets of his tale, which was conditioned not only by exile but by broad flows of migration and capital, and which encompasses not merely Flores Magón and other PLM members such as Práxedis Guerrero and Antonio Villarreal, but also American sympathisers including John Kenneth and Ethel Duffy Turner, Elizabeth Trowbridge and the Wobblies (as the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary labour organisation, were known). The PLM and its supporters sought thrice to launch rebellions from US soil, but the revolution slipped through their fingers: their rebellions failed, and Francisco Madero’s broader-based movement for democratic change seized the initiative. The result was an increasing lack of relevance of both the PLM and Regeneración. The final indignity came with the return of Flores Magón’s body to Mexico after his death in a US prison. Despite his aversion to personalism and nationalism, he was inducted into the revolutionary pantheon as a long-lost “precursor” of a revolution of which he was actually a contemporary.
This is a big, rambling book, richly furnished with photographs, breaking at times into song, full of rewarding tangents. Lomnitz offers excellent insights into the way PLM members lived in the US – the ideal of mutual aid, communal living arrangements and even love. These details help to humanise them and serve to counter – albeit not entirely – the sense that their main problem was simply that they could not get along. Despite frequent psychologising, the author prefers strategic or ideological explanations for the constant subdivisions that plagued the group over explanations that rely on character. But Flores Magón’s martyr complex (“there are few men”, he wrote, “who have suffered as much as I”) and authoritarian tendencies (ironic, of course, for an anarchist) come through loud and clear, particularly in his criticism of former colleagues for their “betrayal” of his ideological purity. Lomnitz is also perhaps too kind to his subjects in passing over their anti-Chinese and anti-Indian attitudes. Combined with Flores Magón’s penchant for charging those he considered traitors with “degenerate” homosexuality, they might add up to something that cuts against the movement’s progressive image. Lomnitz’s book, in sum, is not the final word on the subject. Rather, it is the new starting point for anyone interested in understanding it.
The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón
By Claudio Lomnitz
Zone Books, 608pp, £24.95
Published 2 May 2014