Latin America Has Lost One of Its Last Great Revolutionaries

Adolfo Gilly witnessed some of the most dramatic events in Latin American history and wrote about them with unparalleled clarity. With his recent passing, the Latin American left lost one of its most compelling voices.

View of the presidential stand at a rally held by Fidel Castro, in Havana, Cuba, 1962. Adolfo Gilly visited Cuba and observed the new Communist government firsthand from 1962 to 1963. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

With the death of Adolfo Gilly on July 4, 2023, the Latin American left didn’t just lose one of its most lucid Marxist thinkers. It also lost a man who directly experienced many of the region’s key events of the past seventy years, from the Bolivian Revolution of the 1950s to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the guerrilla movements of the 1960s to the Zapatista rebellion of the 1990s. His trajectory embodied the kind of roving internationalism that was such a distinctive feature of the region’s radical movements in the twentieth century. After his death, Mexican journalist Luis Hernández Navarro called him “the last of the Mohicans,” and it is hard not to feel that, as well as an individual loss, Gilly’s passing represents the closing of a remarkable chapter in the life of the Latin American left.

Born in Argentina but based in Mexico since the mid-1970s, Gilly is perhaps best known as a historian of the Mexican Revolution, especially thanks to his groundbreaking 1971 book, La revolución interrumpida (The Interrupted Revolution; translated as The Mexican Revolution in 1983). But it was not only his stature as a scholar that made him a renowned public figure in Mexico: Gilly was an articulate and principled voice on the Left, defending popular struggles and criticizing those in power with a rare combination of clarity and moral consistency.

Gilly came of age in Buenos Aires in the mid-to-late 1940s, at a moment when the populist movement of Juan Domingo Perón loomed over Argentine politics. Drawn at first to the Socialist Party, Gilly was expelled for taking too radical a stance against US imperialism. At the end of the 1940s, he gravitated to the Argentine branch of the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), led at the time by the charismatic Homero Cristalli, better known under his pseudonym “J. Posadas.”

It was as a representative of the FI that Gilly traveled to Bolivia in 1956, where he spent four years working as a journalist and organizer with Bolivia’s Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party (Partido Obrero Revolucionario, POR). His time among the mineworkers of Oruro introduced Gilly to a peasant and indigenous world that was unlike anything he had seen — he later recalled his “outsider’s amazement” at encountering it for the first time. The experience profoundly marked his understanding of popular politics, in particular his awareness of the layering of class and racial oppressions and the coexistence of political affiliations and communal traditions.

Gilly left Bolivia in 1960, spending the next six years as an itinerant journalist and FI cadre. Writing for outlets including Monthly Review and the Uruguayan leftist magazine Marcha — coedited at the time by a young Eduardo Galeano — he spent time in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Gilly also attended the first meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade in 1961, where he represented the FI in talks with Lakhdar Brahimi of the Algerian National Liberation Front and interviewed Guinea-Bissau independence leader Amílcar Cabral for the Argentine newspaper El Mundo.

In 1962, Gilly went to Cuba, where he witnessed the profound social transformations unfolding on the island after the 1959 overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. He was present during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in reports published in Monthly Review, he memorably described the mood of popular defiance and the mass mobilizations in defense of the revolution. But while he was clearly energized by the revolution’s egalitarian dynamic, he was also concerned by the emergence of a new bureaucratic stratum in Cuba.

Within a few months, Gilly’s work with the island’s small Trotskyist movement brought conflict with the Cuban government, and in 1963 he was expelled. These tensions would only increase in the following years, especially after Gilly publicly described Che Guevara’s departure from Cuba in 1965 as a defeat for the left wing of the revolution and a victory for its conservative currents. In 1966, Fidel Castro even took the time to specifically criticize Gilly in a speech at the Tricontinental Conference (though he misidentified him as “Adolfo Guil.”)

By that time Gilly was on a new mission. After leaving Cuba, he had a spell in Europe and then passed through Chile and Colombia in 1964, accompanying Salvador Allende on the campaign trail and meeting Camilo Torres Restrepo, the Colombian guerrilla priest who was a leading member of the National Liberation Army (ELN). From 1964 to 1966, Gilly shuttled between Mexico and Guatemala, liaising between the Posadists’ Latin American Bureau — they had split from the Fourth International in 1962 — and the Guatemalan guerrillas of the Revolutionary November 13 Movement (MR-13). This was the Trotskyist movement’s closest engagement with armed struggle, at the peak of the vogue for guerrilla warfare. It ended in disaster in 1966 when the Guatemalan army launched a vicious counteroffensive that swept away most of Gilly’s comrades. Gilly himself fled to Mexico, where he was arrested in April 1966.

He spent the next six years in Mexico City’s Lecumberri prison, known as the “Black Palace” (and today the country’s national archive). He was jailed alongside other “politicals,” whose numbers surged after the government crackdown on the Left in 1968. Though conditions were bleak — the Mexican Marxist writer José Revueltas, locked up in another wing of the same jail in 1969, memorably described them in his novella The Hole — prison did provide Gilly with time to read, think, and write. As well as working through the entire Marx-Engels correspondence, among many other readings he returned to the French Surrealist poetry of André Breton that had influenced him in his youth. But the project that consumed the greater part of his energies was his celebrated history of the Mexican Revolution.

La revolución interrumpida appeared in 1971, while Gilly was still in jail — the manuscript had been smuggled out a few pages at a time by his lawyer. It was an instant sensation, becoming required reading for an entire generation. Today, it remains the best single-volume social history of a crucial period in Mexican history, offering a brilliantly clear analytical path through a turbulent and complex decade (in 2010 he recalled modeling the architecture of the book on Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.) At the time, the book overturned existing histories of what had become the founding myth of the one-party system set in place by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Rather than a blur of personalities and battles that ended in the drafting of a new constitution in 1917 and the restoration of order after 1920, in Gilly’s account, the revolution appeared as a dynamic series of social struggles that was cut short — interrupted, as the title had it — by the emergence of a new political dispensation that sought to contain and neutralize popular mobilizations.

Leading Mexican poet Octavio Paz, not known for his radical sympathies, paid fulsome tribute to the book at the time, while elderly comrades of Emiliano Zapata were astonished by how accurately Gilly captured the story of their movement. As well as clarifying Mexico’s past, La revolución interrumpida shed light on its present. If Mexican governments still felt obliged to pay lip service to the revolution’s promises while betraying them in practice, it was because its radically redistributive vision had not been entirely extinguished. Gilly’s work recuperated the original social impulses behind the revolution while taking a critical distance from the government that had so ruthlessly instrumentalized them.

At his appeal hearing in 1969, Gilly made an impassioned “political defense” that assailed the Mexican government’s repressive record. A year after the armed forces massacred scores of protestors in Tlatelolco, he noted the authorities’ failure to combat the poverty and hunger afflicting so many in Mexico — “a daily Tlatelolco, a massacre the capitalist system carries out day after day.” Gilly also made a spirited defense of working-class internationalism, citing the examples of Argentines who fought for Mexican independence, Italians who forged early workers’ organizations in Argentina, and his Mexican comrades who had been killed by the Guatemalan armed forces. This was an apt set of comparisons to his own trajectory so far, but in this same speech, Gilly also prophesied what lay in store for him. “We have the joy, pride, and satisfaction of living and struggling in Mexico,” he said of himself and his comrades, adding: “In that sense, we are completely Mexican. We are part of Mexico and its history.” Exonerated and freed in 1972, Gilly went to Europe for a few years but returned to Mexico in 1976 and would reside there for the rest of his life.

By the time he settled in Mexico, Gilly had parted ways with the Posadists, finding their methods too conspiratorial. “I had felt much freer in prison,” he told me when I interviewed him for the New Left Review. From the late 1970s to the 2010s, he taught at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), training many cohorts of historians while continuing to produce a remarkable range of writing. He also became a prominent public figure in Mexico and in the 1980s was closely involved in the broad movement contesting the rigged results of the 1988 election that brought Carlos Salinas to power. The defeated candidate was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of 1930s president Lázaro Cárdenas, whom Gilly described in his 1994 book, Una utopía Mexicana (A Mexican Utopia), as the last glimmer of the Mexican Revolution’s radical impulses. When Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas won the governorship of Mexico City a few years later, Gilly worked as one of his advisors.

In 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) burst onto the scene, launching a rebellion in Chiapas that transformed Mexican politics. Gilly was one of the movement’s early supporters, traveling often to Chiapas to attend EZLN gatherings. In 1995, he published a lengthy exchange between himself and Subcomandante Marcos on the subject of history, prompted by Carlo Ginzburg’s essay “Clues: Roots of a Scientific Paradigm.” Gilly also wrote extensively about the Chiapas revolt, connecting the deep historical roots of indigenous oppression to the contemporary depredations of neoliberalism.

He brought the same combination of historical depth and perceptive analysis of the present to his writings on the indigenous upsurge in early 2000s Bolivia, which deposed one president in 2003 and swept another to power in 2005. For Gilly, these mobilizations drew on long traditions of indigenous struggle, going back to the Túpac Katari revolt in the late eighteenth century; but they were at the same time new, shaped by contemporary social pressures. He had no hesitation in calling the events in Bolivia “A Twenty-First Century Revolution.” In an eponymous essay written in 2004, he gave a definition of revolution that testifies to his lifelong emphasis on popular struggles:

A revolution is not something that happens within the state, inside its institutions and among its politicians. It comes from underneath and from outside. It happens when those who are, precisely, always underneath and outside burst onto center stage, with the violence of their bodies and the fury of their souls. . . .

Gilly’s writings display a phenomenal breadth: he produced everything from political reportage to archivally based histories, and from theoretical analyses to essays on art and literature. His last book, Estrella y espiral (Star and Spiral), which appeared in March 2023, addresses topics ranging from the poetry of Breton to indigenous revolts in 1820s Guatemala. The book before that, Felipe Ángeles, el estratega (2019) was a magisterial portrait of a Mexican revolutionary general, at once intimate and epic in scale.

The sheer range of Gilly’s work testifies to his versatility and his insistent curiosity. But across these genres and decades, there was a coherence and consistency to his ideas. He was always focused on what motivated ordinary people and on their resistance to different forms of domination, from Spanish colonial times to the neoliberal era. As Gilly once put it, the key questions revolved not around events and personalities, but around “what the hell all these people wanted.”

I had the great privilege of interviewing Gilly at length in 2010, and then working closely with him for several years on an English-language selection of his essays for Verso. Throughout our conversations, he was a tremendously warm and engaging presence, always sharing sharp insights as well as mischievous asides. At times, Gilly’s personal modesty made it hard to extract biographical details for the interview — he was so much more interested in other people than himself, so keen to turn the conversation to the wider world. He also had a real gift for expressing complex ideas in very simple terms, and I often find myself returning to scattered phrases of his. For instance, I remember him saying that one of the basic differences between the Left and the Right is that “the Right cannot be corrupted by torture;” meaning, as I took it, that the Right’s vision of the world was consistent with the infliction of violence in pursuit of their goals, while such actions betrayed the core of the Left’s human values.

The flood of tributes appearing in Mexico after Gilly’s death make clear the respect in which he was held (although, knowing Adolfo, he would have come up with a sly remark about the Mexican congress holding a minute’s silence for him). In his column for Reforma, Mexican writer Juan Villoro nicely described Gilly as “full-time heterodox,” pointing out that he had “exercised intellectual freedom in Lecumberri [prison] and chose to belong to the country that had jailed him.” Gilly wore such contradictions lightly, able to combine political commitment with critical honesty, serious scholarship with self-deprecating irony and contagious laughter. As well as his thoughtfulness and elegance as a writer, Gilly’s openness, compassion, and decency as a person were part of what made him such a compelling voice on the Left. He will be sorely missed.