The Mexican Revolution Was an Internationalist Revolution

The Mexican Revolution was a transnational explosion of resistance to grinding exploitation that kicked off a global epoch of anti-capitalist revolution.

Making sisal cordage by hand, Yokat Plantation, Yucatan, Mexico, 1909. (Keystone View Co. stereo card, via Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

For about six months in 1911, on that long finger of land pointing southward from Mexico’s Pacific Coast, an international band of fellow travelers attempted revolution.

The rebels seized Baja California border villages like Mexicali, Los Algodones, and Tijuana, conducting a number of their raids from the backs of hijacked trains. Over the roar of the rails, unfamiliar voices suddenly boomed across town plazas newly bedecked in red banners. Some of the revolutionists spoke in Welsh and Australian brogues, others in the rugged dialects of the US mountain states, others in the studious Spanish of urban Mexican literatis freshly returned from their American exiles. But more familiar accents rang out, too. Other insurrectionists, their voices somewhat muted in the historical record, spoke their minds in the local idioms of the borderlands, as well as in the maligned indigenous languages of Kiliwa, Cocopah, and Kumeyaay.

Within the insurrectionary army, firebrands from the lower tiers of Mexico’s frustrated elite mingled with English-speaking syndicalists from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and both groups rubbed shoulders with dispossessed indigenous farmers who had earlier allied with the liberal revolutionary program based on its promise to subvert the power of the landed hacendado class. A diverse bunch of radicals, reformers, and libertines, the Baja insurrectionists found fellowship in one another through the strikingly capacious ideology of revolutionary Mexican liberalism. “The only thing distinguishing them as an army,” writes the biographer of one international volunteer, was “the anarchist emblem, tiny red bows, pinned to their sleeves.” But there were also straightforward adventurists and opportunists in their midst, including some loudmouthed American chauvinists and at least one likely state informant.

Leading the Baja insurrection — or trying to — was the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), a formation that, from its exile in the United States, represented the leftmost pole in the wider Mexican liberal milieu. Despite the PLM’s radical democratic aspirations, however, at no point did the rebellion in Baja represent a mass movement. In fact, as the insurrectionists traveled by foot and rail across the sparsely populated peninsula, they often raised their red flags over nearly empty towns, the residents having vacated their homes upon hearing their approach. Meanwhile, within the revolutionists’ motley ranks, tensions quickly mounted between local insurgents and international volunteers, who were frequently elevated to leadership positions based on their (often fabricated) credentials as military adventurers.

This was surely disappointing to the insurrection’s intellectual architects — most notably Ricardo Flores Magón, the PLM’s most important tribune. For years, Flores Magón and his collaborators had lived in exile as political fugitives, hunted not only by agents of the Mexican dictator but also by the emergent US domestic-security apparatus. By the time of the Baja rebellion, their multinational newspaper, Regeneración, was already well established as the most radical voice in the liberal revolutionary movement. And their party, the PLM, seemed poised to be a leading force in the revolution many Mexicans felt was imminent.

Magonista rebels in Tijuana, Mexico, 1911. (San Diego Historical Society’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

But the political clarity expressed in Regeneración was not reflected in the Baja California campaign. As the anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz notes in his extraordinary, if underappreciated, 2014 book The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, “The ideological prominence of the Partido Liberal Mexicano was in inverse proportion to its military significance.” In the hard light of Baja, Lomnitz elaborates, “the edifice of their ideology appeared as a kind of holographic illusion: its elegant outlines, volumes, and perspectives had no hard substance.”

The insurrectionary experiment in Baja did not long endure. The rebellion’s final routing came in less than six months — not at the hands of President Porfirio Díaz, but from an adversary grown closer to home. More moderate elements of the national liberal coalition escorted the rebels across the US border, clearing space for the short-lived presidency of bourgeois revolutionary Francisco Madero. Lomnitz records that the Baja revolutionists “were given ten dollars each, fed at the Chinese restaurant in Calexico, boarded on a train to El Paso, and asked to disperse from that point.”

The Mexican Revolution was just beginning, but the PLM would never recover from this marginalization. For Flores Magón and his cohorts, Madero’s suppression of the Baja rebellion constituted the first great betrayal of the Mexican revolutionary era.

Blood and Fiber

The carnivalesque insurrection the PLM orchestrated in Baja tends to be remembered nowadays as a cautionary tale, a warning to voluntarists and idealists. Staged at the cusp of the storied Mexican Revolution, but not exactly of that revolution (at least in memory), the Baja rebellion has gone down in history as a kind of doomed utopian rehearsal, a well-intentioned experiment that unfortunately turned freakish under the glare of the unblinking California sun. Tellingly, Flores Magón is celebrated in Mexico today not as a participant in the country’s revolution, but as a “precursor” to it — a strange fate to befall a man who in fact lived through the upheavals his ideas are now thought to have prefigured.

Two recent books bring a refreshingly global historical perspective to the most radical currents in the Mexican Revolution, most notably the one personified by Flores Magón. Neither attempts to rehabilitate the contradictory Baja experiment, but each, in its own way, returns the PLM and its radicalism to the core of the Mexican revolutionary process — not to mention the global epoch of anti-capitalist revolution that followed on its heels.

Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands by Kelly Lytle Hernández and Arise!: Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution by Christina Heatherton each begin in the United States, not in Mexico — and they each begin with lynchings.

Bad Mexicans (W. W. Norton & Co, 2022) and Arise! (University of California Press, 2022)

Hernández, a historian at UCLA, opens Bad Mexicans with a chilling description of the public murder of twenty-year-old Mexican ranch hand Antonio Rodríguez in 1910. Some four hundred Anglo-American residents of Rocksprings, Texas assembled to participate in Rodríguez’s murder, helping to gather kindling and later to bind the abducted man to a mesquite tree and set it ablaze. The object of the Texas town’s genocidal fury had not been randomly selected. “He was a ‘revolutionist,’ whispered the residents of Rocksprings after they lynched him,” Hernández writes. The mob had chosen to execute someone “suspected of being one of the many magonistas known to be in the border region.”

Occurring just over the border on the American side, the lynching of Antonio Rodríguez inspired a wave of militant protests throughout Mexico. The demonstrators directed their fury at the US enterprises operating in the country, as well as at President Díaz, the dictator who had earlier opened the country to voracious US investment. Mexican outrage over the incident was so profound that even five years later, after Díaz’s departure and the beginning of a whole new period in the revolutionary conflict, Flores Magón would evoke the murder’s memory: “The blood of Antonio Rodríguez has not yet dried in Rock Springs,” he wrote in one fiery communiqué. In Hernández’s telling, this atrocity was the spark that ignited the decades-long Mexican Revolution.

Heatherton, a professor of American studies at Trinity College, also launches her book with a scene of racist terror in the United States. In 1871, a band of hooded Klansmen abducted three black men — “Squire Taylor, forty-five, George Johnson, thirty-nine, and Charles Davis, sixty-eight” — from a jail in Charlestown, Indiana. Their attack was observed by a local reporter, whose account of the atrocity appeared under the headline “Masks and Manilla,” a reference to the imported fiber then used to manufacture ropes. And although it took place hundreds of miles away from the border, this lynching in Indiana, like the lynching of Antonio Rodríguez in Texas, was connected by circumstance to the efflorescence of revolutionary politics in Mexico.

Manilla fiber had entered the international commodity market courtesy of US imperial adventures in the Philippines, but by the turn of the twentieth century it had been replaced by a resource cultivated closer to home. Beginning in the 1870s, foreign investments in Mexico were protected by Díaz; land consolidation was a dream shared by domestic and foreign investors alike, and Díaz was the political avatar of the increasingly well-networked Mexican hacendado class. By 1900, around a quarter of all arable Mexican land was in the hands of US proprietors, and thousands of Mexican workers labored in the mines and plantations of US interests, often living in company towns.

One of the defining features of Díaz’s corporatism was a forced labor system that conscripted indigenous (especially Yaqui) people, as well as dispossessed peasants, in the borderlands, then forcibly relocated them to work on consolidated landholdings in southern Mexico. These flows of forced labor enriched US and Mexican investors who established plantations in southern states like Oaxaca and Yucatán, many of which cultivated henequen, a rope-making fiber derived from agave plants. By the turn of the twentieth century, henequen had supplanted Filipino manilla as the key component of American ropes.

Porfirio Díaz, 1910. (Aurelio Escobar Castellanos / Wikimedia Commons)

The raw material of white supremacist terror in the United States — the actual matter from which so many hundreds of nooses were fashioned — was derived from a labor regime Flores Magón and his allies condemned as analogous to American chattel slavery. And while Heatherton doesn’t make the point exactly, other historians have suggested that it was this similarity, more than anything else, that fueled the formation of an ideological current in the United States that condemned Díaz and advocated material support for the revolutionary cause.

As Lomnitz puts it, “Mexico’s heart of darkness — its slavery, its extermination of Yaqui and Maya Indians — was disturbingly familiar” to people in the United States, “for in it, the sins of America were revived and made current in an alien form that was easy to condemn.” The eclectic group of American supporters that coalesced around the PLM in exile included figures like writer Jack London and the Socialist Party’s Eugene Debs and Job Harriman.

The Cops and the Color Line

For the most part, Bad Mexicans and Arise! cover different historical ground. Still, they each manage to narrate not only the rise of revolutionary activity in Mexico, but also the fitful emergence of what Heatherton calls, following W. E. B Du Bois, the “New Imperialism” — a world order based not only on the white-hot mobility of US capital, but also on the color line, an imaginary yet durable institution that conscripted ordinary white Americans as the shock troops of an exclusive propertied ideal that most of them would never attain.

Given this framing, it is fitting that Hernández and Heatherton are perhaps best known as scholars of policing. (Hernández’s previous books are Migra!, a groundbreaking history of the US border patrol, and the award-winning City of Inmates, about the Los Angeles municipal jail system. Heatherton is the coeditor of the essay collection Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, among other volumes.) Both authors’ accounts of the Mexican Revolution are highly attuned to the destructive powers of the US state’s repressive apparatus, whose avatars at the time included such fearsome characters as the paramilitary Texas Rangers and the mercenary detectives of the Furlong Secret Service Company.

Ricardo Flores Magón (left) and Enrique Flores Magón (right) in the Los Angeles County jail, 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bad Mexicans draws on the voluminous records left by US and Mexican espionage agencies to narrate the long journey of Flores Magón, his brothers Jesús and Enrique, and the scores of other radicals in their orbit, from muckraking opposition journalists in Mexico City to international revolutionaries. At the center of Hernández’s meticulous and exhilarating history is the author’s recognition that the PLM’s activities were, at every point, profoundly shaped by repression on both sides of the border — and especially at the hands of spies retained by the newfangled forces of US domestic intelligence.

As Hernández points out, the FBI was founded, at least in part, to suppress the radical momentum of Mexican revolutionaries in the borderlands. The practices through which that brutish agency would come to disrupt liberationist movements during the twentieth century were first innovated to muzzle Flores Magón, Regeneración, and the PLM.

The most exhilarating passages of Bad Mexicans describe the campaign waged by the Furlong Secret Service Agency to surveil and capture PLM members in the United States. In this effort, the mercenary detective firm collaborated with law enforcement agencies to manipulate the US Postal Service, making letters exchanged between Flores Magón and many other radicals available for their covert inspection.

This in turn led the militants to establish elaborate systems of letter handoffs to shield senders and recipients and to devise an ingenious set of ciphers for encoding their letters, examples of which are reproduced in Hernández’s book. In a tragic irony common in the study of revolution, the history Hernández narrates with such verve and detail is accessible to us today only because these ephemeral communications were preserved and archived by the very state security agencies that sought to annihilate their authors.

As well as being a feat of archival storytelling, Bad Mexicans is also a story of the Mexican Revolution as viewed from the borderlands — a zone of peril and possibility that, in Hernández’s account, comes to include not just the physical terrain of the US-Mexico boundary but also many other places where the exigencies of class struggle could not be contained by lines on a map. Hernández’s story winds through safe houses in Los Angeles and St Louis, railway yards populated by bohemian train-hoppers, picket lines encircling US-owned mines, and many other such renegade locales.

Radical Faith

The Baja insurrection comes near the end of Hernández’s book, a kind of coda to the much longer history of courageous and patient organizing that preceded it. But the PLM experience, before and including Baja, is in many ways just the starting point of Heatherton’s Arise!. Taking its title from the opening syllables of “The International,” Heatherton’s book presents a globally panoramic view of Mexican radicalism that lasts decades beyond the close of Hernández’s book with Flores Magón’s death in 1922. In doing so, Arise! shows that it was in Mexico, even more than in Russia, that the forces of international capitalist development, not to mention an emergent New Imperialism shot through with white supremacy, faced their inaugural confrontation with the forces of transnational working-class resistance.

Heatherton’s kaleidoscopic history begins in the henequen plantations and port cities of late-nineteenth-century Mexico, hotbeds not only of capitalist agglomeration but also of budding revolutionary consciousness. But Heatherton’s account extends far beyond these places, coming to include the ideological war that raged within Mexico’s Soviet embassy during the ambassadorial tenure of Alexandra Kollontai; the epochal struggle of Mexican migrant laborers for welfare relief during the Great Depression; and the border-defying artistic practice of Elizabeth Catlett and her Communist collaborators, among other episodes.

To my mind, the most memorable of Heatherton’s stories is her account of the “university of radicalism” that emerged in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary during World War I, where Flores Magón was incarcerated under the Espionage Act alongside IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood and countless anonymous revolutionaries. Flores Magón died in that prison, a victim of medical neglect and coarse living conditions. And while the tale of his death has been told before — in fact, it has achieved a kind of legendary status among internationalists — Heatherton brings an entirely new dimension to this history. She recovers the forgotten story of the assassinated José Martínez, a Leavenworth prisoner dismissed by history as an apolitical “pelado,” but whose final assault on prison guards, Heatherton shows, may have been motivated by their cruel treatment of an ailing Flores Magón.

Heatherton’s narrative consistently returns to places where the churning of capitalist development throws together diverse groups of displaced and marginalized people, who together come to understand themselves as political antagonists to an emergent world system based on acute exploitation. For Heatherton, the Mexican Revolution’s great significance is that it exploded from these “convergence spaces,” as she calls them. In so doing, it helped to generate an international repertoire of revolutionary social action through which heterogeneous groups of global rebels could identify capitalism and the color line as their common enemies.

Bad Mexicans and Arise! are each tremendous accomplishments of historical sensitivity and radical imagination. Taken together, and especially in combination with Lomnitz’s slightly older book, they present a fundamentally new story of the Mexican Revolution, one that diverges in important respects not only from the staid nationalist-republican history of Octavio Paz, but also from the history of locally oriented (and ultimately doomed) peasant rebellions provided by Marxist revisionists like Adolfo Gilly or Roger Bartra.

It is not only their insistently transnational orientation that sets Hernández’s and Heatherton’s books apart. Nor is it even their unapologetic enthusiasm for the radical current embodied by the oft-misunderstood Flores Magón. It is also their hopefulness, their radical faith in the undying capacity of human beings to come together to defy the color line and overturn relations of exploitation and abuse — even, and especially, in the most disorienting of historical conditions.

More interested in recovering radical potentials than in decrying failures, Bad Mexicans and Arise! exemplify a new kind of revolutionary history, suited to a new era of struggle in the US-Mexico borderlands and beyond.