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(en) US, The New Formulation* Vol.2, #2 - Magonismo: An Overview Review by Chuck Morse

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 16 Sep 2004 08:05:34 +0200 (CEST)

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Ricardo Flores Magón is one of the most important anarchists in the
history of the Americas. The movement he led and inspired shook the
Mexican state in the early 20th century and helped lay the
foundations for the Mexican revolution of 1910. He was also a
participant in radical movements in the United States and a security
concern that reached the highest levels of the U.S. government.
The literature on Magón and the Magonists (as his comrades were
known) has expanded considerably in recent decades and it is now
possible to develop a fuller appreciation of the movement than at any
previous time. One can explore the personal dilemmas of Magón
and his co-conspirators through various scholarly biographies, read
about the Magonists’ impact on specific regions of the United
States and Mexico, or study Magonist contributions to Mexican
radicalism generally.(1)

Anarchists should welcome this not only because our predecessors
are finally receiving the historical recognition that they deserve but
also because we now have the resources necessary to undertake a
deep confrontation with the Magonist legacy. It is now possible to
develop a very clear idea of how the Magonists tried to create an
anarchist revolution, the consequences their activity yielded, as well
as determine whether there are aspects of their activity that we should
emulate today.

The books reviewed here are particularly useful. El magonismo:
historia de una pasión libertaria, 1900-1922 (Magonism: History of a
Libertarian Passion, 1900-1922) by Salvador Hernández Padilla
studies the entire history of Magonism from its emergence at the turn
of the century to its disappearance from the political scene in the
1920s. El fenómeno magonista en México y en Estados Unidos
1905-1908 (The Magonist Phenomenon in Mexico and the United
Status, 1905-1908) by Ricardo Cuauhtémoc Esparza Valdivia
examines Magonist activity in Mexico and the United States in the
years indicated by the title.

Together these works offer a comprehensive picture of the Magonist
experience. They reveal a deeply radical social movement that nearly
toppled the regime of Porifirio Díaz, the dictator who governed
Mexico from 1884 until the 1910 Mexican Revolution. But they also
reveal a movement that was beset by intractable problems in both
conception and organization.

The Magonist Challenge
The Magonist revolutionary challenge can be divided into three
categories: the years prior to 1906 (when the movement was taking
shape), the uprisings of 1906 and 1908 (the movement’s
highpoint), and the period from 1911 to Magón’s death in 1922
(the years of decline).

In the years prior to 1906, which are treated by both Esparza Valdivia
and Hernández Padilla, the Magonists were little more than a minor
irritant for the Mexican government and did not yet possess a
coherent revolutionary strategy. However, three transformations
occurred that would later have great significance. First, Magón grew
from a reformist radical into a revolutionary, thanks to his exposure to
anarchist ideas (and the political persecution he suffered).(2) Second,
Magón left Mexico for the United States and established himself in
the country that would be the Magonist movement’s base and his
home for the remainder of his life. And, finally, the Magonists’
central organizational vehicle, the Partido Liberal de Mexico (Liberal
Party of Mexico, PLM) was founded in September 5th, 1905 in St.
Louis, Missouri.

1906 – 1908: Peak
It is from 1906 to 1908 that the Magonists acquired their fullest
expression as a revolutionary movement. The Magonists, who were
the most active opposition to the Díaz regime at the time,
participated in strikes, launched militant uprisings, and tirelessly
propagated their views. These years are the central concern of
Hernández Padilla’s Magonismo and essentially the sole focus
of Esparza Valdivia’s Fenómeno Magonista: the main difference
between the two being that Hernández Padilla’s broader
perspective allows him to place this period in the context of
Magonism’s development as a whole whereas Esparza Valdivia
compensates for his more limited purview with greater detail and
more nuanced political commentary.

The Magonists were unambiguously revolutionary during these
years, although the nature of their revolution was unclear and shaped
by deeply contradictory aspirations. On the one hand, their goals were
defined in the PLM’s famous 1906 Program, which was
essentially a social democratic document. The Program, which is
reprinted in Hernández’s Magonismo, called for constitutional
reforms, such as the reduction of the president’s term to four
years and the elimination of military tribunals during peace time, and
made various demands relating to the relationship between capital
and labor, such as the eight hour day and the minimum wage, etc.
This was certainly not an anarchist program. As Esparza Valdivia
states, “one of the most important aspects of this program lay in
the creation of a state with a social consciousness, that would
intervene to improve the conditions of the worker…so that workers
and peasants can enjoy their constitutional rights.”(3)

The Magonist movement’s social democratic aims were further
articulated in a letter sent to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt by
Magón and his comrade Antonio Villarreal. “At the triumph of
the revolution,” they wrote, “the Junta [of the Liberal Party]
will provisionally take over the government, and call the people to
elections. The people will elect new leaders, and the citizens favored
by the public vote will of course take possession of their charges,
while the Junta will dissolve itself. The new government will have the
obligation to carry out the program of the Liberal Party, which is
precisely the object of the revolution.”(4)

On the other hand, Magón’s anarchism was maturing during
this period and became an increasingly significant influence on PLM
activity (although he did not publicly state his anarchist convictions
until years later).(8) He explained the rationale behind such
concealment in a 1908 letter to his brother Enrique and Práxedis
Guerrero (both of whom were active Magonists). He wrote:

“In order to obtain great benefits for the people, effective
benefits, to work as anarchists would easily crush us...all is reduced to
a conception of mere tactics. If from the first we had called ourselves
anarchists no one, or not but a few, would have listened to us.
Without calling ourselves anarchists we have gone on planting in
mind ideas of hatred against the possessing class and against the
governmental caste…this has been achieved without saying that we
are anarchists…all, then, is a question of tactics.

We must give land to the people in the course of the revolution; so
that the poor will not be deceived…in order not to turn the entire
nation against us, we must follow the same tactics that we have
practiced with such success: we will continue calling ourselves
liberals in the course of the revolution but in reality we will be
propagating anarchy and executing anarchistic acts.

Only the anarchists will know that we are anarchists. And we will
advise them not to call us anarchists in order not to scare such
imbeciles that in the depths of their consciousness harbor ideas like
ours, but without knowing that they are anarchist ideals, therefore
they are accustomed to hear talk about the anarchists in unfavorable

Esparza Valdivia explains this contradictory approach by stating
simply that “the Magonists took their public discourse from
liberalism and their strategy from anarchism.”(6)

In practice, the PLM tried to link itself to the incipient industrial
workers’ movement by radicalizing and supporting the
miners’ strike in Canenea and also the workers’ rebellion
among textile workers in Rio Blanco (at the beginning and end of
1906, respectively). PLM participation in both events lacked strongly
articulated objectives and served primarily to make the Mexican
government aware that they intended to become a genuine threat.
This was the extent of Magonist engagement in the labor movement.

It was through the PLM’s military activity that the organization
mounted the most serious challenge and achieved its greatest
notoriety. The Magonists initiated uprising after uprising in a (vain)
attempt to spark a generalized insurgency against the Díaz regime.

The flurry of uprisings began in the later months of 1906, shortly after
the release of the PLM’s Program. The PLM had divided the
Republic into five zones and structured its army hierarchically around
the Junta of the PLM: in each zone a trusted Magonist served as a
delegate to the Junta, which communicated orders through him to
the leaders of regional guerilla groups who, in turn, commanded
various sub leaders. As is typical of such cellular structures, only
Magón and other members of the Junta knew the names of all
combatants and the full scope of the organization’s activities.

Poor planning, inadequate communication, and the combined efforts
of Mexican and American security forces doomed many of these
uprisings to failure. For example, on September 6th a rebellion was
thwarted in Douglas, Arizona when the Magonists were arrested by
the police in the United States. Another attempted uprising in
Cananea was foiled on September 15th as well as one planned in San
Luis Potosí. An attempt to take the city of Juárez on October 21st
was also destroyed by arrests as was another potential uprising in La
Perla de la Laguna.

Other PLM campaigns were more successful. For example, on
September 26th a group of guerillas successfully seized Jiménez,
Coahuila, although they were scattered quickly due to a surprise
attack by 80 Mexican soldiers. Numerous Magonists died in the
conflict and others fled to the U.S. border, where they were
apprehended by police from the United States. On September 30th
three hundred Magonists attacked the town of Acayucan in the
southern state of Veracruz. The group’s leader, Hilario Salas,
was injured and his forces dispersed. Two days later the Magonists
repeated the attack and were dispersed once again. On October 4th,
in the mountain range of Soteapan, approximately 350 largely
indigenous Magonists from the region waged a fierce battle against
federal troops, upon whom they inflicted great losses. They fled into
the forest after the attack and were pursued by troops under the direct
orders of Porfirio Díaz.

Thus, writes Esparza Valdivia, ended the “first wave of Magonist
attempts to build an insurrection in the country,” which unfolded
“while the Mexican and American government acted more and
more jointly to extinguish a conflict that involved both countries in its
connections and consequences.”(7)

In 1908, after a short period of reflection and reorganization, the
Magonists launched a new insurrectionary wave from the cities of
Los Angeles, El Paso, and Austin.

Although an attack planned for June 23rd in the city of Juárez was
foiled by arrests and three more were thwarted in the state of Sonora,
others were more successful. On June 24th an uprising occurred in
Viesca, Coahuila. Twenty rebels killed the police commander and
three of his staff, attacked the house of the municipal president, took
money found in public offices as well as arms and other items from
stores. After a battle, the guerrillas cut the telegraph line and tore up
railroad tracks while fleeing and, two days later, killed a member of an
advance team sent to search for them. The rebels were defeated only
when confronted by a force of approximately 500 men. Four days
later, on June 28th, fifty Magonists attacked the town of Las Vacas
and a customs building on the border of Texas and Mexico. The
offices of the Mexican officials and a troop barracks were both set on
fire. The Magonists suffered losses during the ensuing battle. On
June 30th Magonists threw two bombs at an empty customs office in
Palomas and, before fleeing, lost one comrade in the ensuing

Decline: 1911-1922
In 1911 the Magonists entered a decline that would continue until the
movement was fully extinguished with Magón’s death in 1922.
Although this was a period of eclipse, the Magonists did carry out
some important interventions in the final months of 1910 and the
beginning of 1911.

At the end of 1910 a group of Magonists rebelled with Francisco
Madero’s forces, while remaining organizationally separate, in
Bachiniva, Chihuahua. Madero, who assumed the Mexican
presidency after the collapse of the Díaz regime, was the leader of
the moderate, overtly reformist tendency within the Mexican
revolutionary movement. This collaboration with Madero was soon
followed by the crippling defection of numerous Magonists to
Madero’s camp.

However, “in the months of December 1910 and January of 1911,
small nuclei of Magonists continued fighting in an independent
form,” notes Hernández Padilla.”(9) For example,
Práxedis Guerrero, one of the most active and talented Magonists,
led an attack upon and captured the town of Janos, Chihuahua on
December 30th. He died in this assault (at the age of 28) and became
one of the movement’s martyrs.

The Magonists biggest military campaign unfolded in the first half of
1911. On January 29th a handful of Magonists seized Mexicali in the
state of Baja, California and on May 8th and 9th seized Tijuana.
Magonist forces also occupied San Quintín, Santo Tomás, San
Elmo and Santa Catarina in the eastern part of the peninsula. The
occupation of Baja, California descended into a comedy of errors and,
in mid June, the Magonists were defeated by Mexican government
troops (now under Madero’s control). Numerous Magonist
soldiers were apprehended and savagely executed at a “rate of six
per day.”(10)

In 1911 the PLM also released its Manifesto, which contained an
explicitly anarchist content and superseded the reformist 1906
Program as the organization’s main statement of principal.
Although this ended the ideological ambiguity that had haunted the
movement for years, its release coincided with the decline of the
Magonist presence in national affairs and thus produced no great
effect. Indeed, while Magón “continued telling of the existence
of groups of PLM guerillas that were acting in some regions of
northern Mexico, concretely in the Sierra de Burro…. everything
seems to indicate…that the guerilla groups had no real

Ricardo Flores Magón died in Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1922, at
the age of forty nine, while serving a twenty year sentence for
violating the Espionage Act and various postal regulations. Although
some claim that he was assassinated, evidence seems to suggest that
prison authorities murdered him indirectly by denying him needed
medical care for his diabetes.

The Magonists mounted a formidable challenge to the Mexican state
and it is hard not to be impressed by the quantity and geographic
spread of the uprisings that they launched, the material damage they
inflicted upon the Mexican state, and the sheer numbers of people
that they mobilized. This is especially remarkable when one considers
that most of this unfolded over the course of five short years and was
organized from various cities in the United States. However, Magón
clearly failed to reach his genuine objective (social revolution), his
stated objective (seizure of state power by the Liberal Party), or to
build a radical movement that could survive beyond his death.

Why? In El fenómeno magonista Esparza Valdivia argues the
Magonists were doomed by their inability to appeal to the truly
disenfranchised classes. He notes that while the Magonists tried to
agitate and lead the workers in the principal industries, Magonism
only resonated with the middle classes who were, he asserts, “the
principle support of the Magonist ideal.”(12) Hernández Padilla
makes a more specific claim in Magonismo. He points out that the
Liberal Party’s social base was “comprised of small groups of
workers, sectors of the urban middle class, and some
landowners—principally from the northern states—[who were]
discontented with the central government.”(13) And, while the
“program of the Liberal Party included the defense of peasant
interests among its principal demands, in practice the Junta gave
priority to the task of linking itself to, influencing, and organizing the
industrial proletariat” and thus did not make significant gains
among peasants (among whom the Zapatistas, for example, had great
support).(14) He claims that the failure to make the peasantry an
organizational focus became “one of the principle weaknesses of
the PLM as an oppositional organization of the Left…. Without this
support, it was less than impossible to successfully carry out a social
revolution in Mexico.”(15) Both authors also assert that the PLM
was debilitated by unresolved ideological contradictions between the
party’s more moderate, reformist wing and the anarchist wing led
by Magón.

Esparza Valdivia and Hernández Padilla’s comments help
explain why the Magonists did not build a more broad-based
revolutionary movement. However, neither author asks what would
have happened had the Magonists actually ignited the generalized
uprising that they hoped to set off. Would they have seized power and
called elections, as demanded by their Program, or would they have
abolished the state as demanded by Magón’s anarchist
convictions? The failure to entertain this question suggests that the
authors do not take the PLM’s most ambitious objectives very
seriously. And perhaps rightly so: everything seems to indicate that
the PLM would have been immobilized by the irreconcilable
contradictions in its aims had it genuinely confronted the question of

Despite the movement’s failure to reach its most far reaching
goals, it did produce several important secondary consequences. In El
fenómeno magonista, Esparza Valdivia argues that the Magonists
bear significant responsibility for prompting Porfirio Díaz to give an
interview that is widely seen as a key factor in the eruption of the
Mexican revolution. In this interview, which he conducted with
American journalist James Creelman, Díaz stated that he supported
the emergence of opposition parties and would not seek reelection.
This encouraged the development of opposition forces that, in the
end, he could not contain. Esparza Valdivia asserts that Díaz made
these statements in an effort to assure American readers of his
democratic credentials and needed to do so because his repressive
campaigns against the Magonists had severely compromised his
image in the United States. If this were the case, one could justly
claim that the Magonists were responsible for the final collapse of the
Díaz regime, but the argument is not compelling because it
depends upon an assertion about Díaz’s motives, which are
impossible to ascertain.

The Magonists also constructed a radical legacy that has not only
enriched anarchism but also Mexican national consciousness.
Esparza Valdivia points out that the Magonists radicalized the
discourse of the Mexican Revolution by showing “that it was not
enough to conserve the Constitution of 1857 and the ideas of the
Reform, [but] that it was necessary to take up the social
question…This demand, the points that they stressed to resolve
[this question] and the actions that they carried out in accordance
with the anarchist project to make it a reality, were [their] most
important contribution to national history.”(16) This legacy,
Esparza Valdivia continues, was embodied in the Mexican
Constitution of 1917, which was considered the full realization of the
aims of the Mexican Revolution and which took its most original
features and orientation toward the social from the Program of the
Mexican Liberal Party.(17)

Magonismo Today?
I think it is easy to see why the Magonist movement would be
attractive to historians, but what aspects of their activity would
contemporary anarchists want to emulate?

Clearly the movement’s courage, militancy, and insistence upon
raising “the social question” are commendable and should be
taken to heart by activists today. Although such an observation may
seem platitudinal, the importance of such qualities for dissidents
cannot be overstated.

However, beyond that, I think there is little in Magon’s politics
that one would want to replicate today. Magón’s ideological
duplicity—the fact that he concealed his anarchism beneath the
Liberal banner—was a form of realpolitik that must be held in
contempt by anyone who values the frank discussion of ideals and
convictions. Likewise, the organizational structure of the Liberal
Party was hierarchical and did not permit internal democracy. Indeed,
organizationally, the PLM has more in common with a
Marxist-Leninist vanguard party than the decentralized forms
commonly associated with anarchism. Finally, the Magonists, like so
many anarchists, held the naïve belief that social discontent merely
needed to be sparked in order to erupt into a revolutionary explosion,
and this short-cut to the creation of a genuinely informed and
empowered revolutionary movement is deeply untenable. Social
change is far more complex than that and such a perspective accords
far too much importance to the acts of small groups and individuals.

Although anarchists should welcome the growing literature on
Magonism and avail ourselves of the opportunity to study the
movement deeply, no towering heroes emerge from the legacy that
the Magonists have bequeathed to us. It is imperative that we explore
the contributions of our predecessors and also imperative that we
remember that the foundations of a truly revolutionary politics for the
Americas have yet to be fashioned.

1. For example, see Ward S. Albro, To Die on Your Feet: The Life,
Times, and Writings of Praxedis G. Guerrero (Fort Worth, TX:
Texas Christian University Press, 1996), Ward S. Albro, Always a
Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magon and the Mexican Revolution (Fort
Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1992), and James A.
Sandos, Rebellion in the Borderlands: Anarchism and the Plan of San
Diego, 1904-1923 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press,

2. Esparza Valdivia asserts that Magón became an anarchist due
to encounters with anarchists in St. Louis, although he does not
substantiate this claim and it is not supported by other authors. It
appears that Magón’s anarchism developed from his exposure
to anarchist literature that was circulating at the time. Ricardo
Cuauhtémoc Esparza Valdivia, El fenómeno magonista en
México y en Estados Unidos 1905-1908 (Zacatecas: Universidad
Autónoma de Zacatecas, 2000), 44.

3. Ibid., 65.

4. Cited in Salvador Hernández Padilla, El Magonismo: historia
de una pasión libertaria, 1900-1922 (México, DF: Ediciones Era,
1984), 89.

5. The first two paragraphs are from Ward S. Albro, Always a
Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution (Fort
Worth, Texas: Christian University Press, 1992). The final paragraph
is from Jacinto Barrera Basols, Correspondencia 2: 1919-1922
(México, DF: Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2000), 468.

6. Esparza Valdivia, El fenómeno magonista en México y en
Estados Unidos 1905-1908, 182.

7. Ibid., 75.

8. Ibid., 158.

9. Hernández Padilla, El magonismo: historia de una pasión
libertaria, 1900-1922, 137.

10. Ibid., 163.

11. Ibid., 195.

12. Esparza Valdivia, El fenómeno magonista en México y en
Estados Unidos 1905-1908, 180.

13. Hernández Padilla, El magonismo: historia de una pasión
libertaria, 1900-1922, 167.

14. Ibid., 167.

15. Ibid., 168.

16. Esparza Valdivia, El fenómeno magonista en México y en
Estados Unidos 1905-1908, 184-185.

17. Op cit.

From: The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of
Books - Volume Two, Number Two --- Winter Spring 2004.

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