When the sun rises in the West. French Anarchists and the Mexican Revolution (1911-1913)

In 1911-1912, controversy raged within the French anarchist movement as to the real nature of the Mexican Revolution. Should they offer it their enthusiastic support, or remain more circumspect? This episode sheds light on the international information circuits of the time and its mediators.

 

In France, anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were the first to take up the cause of the Russian Revolution, as early as March 1917. Given that reliable information was scarce, they scanned the bourgeois press for hints liable to fuel their enthusiasm. This “desire to believe” has been the subject of various studies.[1] Rather less well known is the fact that this phenomenon had been foreshadowed six years earlier, with the Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican Revolution began in November 1910, as an armed confrontation between two factions of the bourgeoisie: on the Right were the supporters of the old general Porfirio Diaz, on the Left those of the democrat Francisco Madero. Only six months later did the French anarchists discover, dumbfounded, that there was a “third front” in this war — a class front, opened up by an organisation of libertarian tendencies curiously named the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). Co-founded by Ricardo Florès Magon, this PLM was directed by a “junta” in exile in Los Angeles, had a weekly entitled Regeneración, and had an army of volunteers which planted its red flag stamped with the slogan “Land and Freedom” in several Mexican towns… The result was astonishment, and feverish excitement..

This was the point the main French libertarian organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Federation (FRC), got stuck in: it published 2,000 large posters celebrating the “social revolution” in Mexico, described as “communist”, in violent tones. It circulated a subscription in favour of the PLM and tried to send militants across the Atlantic (though this proved impossible, for lack of money). Above all, its weekly Le Libertaire followed the events closely, trying to interpret them as best it could.

This support for the Mexican Revolution was not, however, unanimous in the libertarian movement. Jean Grave’s weekly, Les Temps nouveaux, was openly sceptical and deemed the PLM’s epic in Baja California an instance of what we would today call storytelling. This prompted a highly scandalised response from the FRC, which never ceased to combat it citing proof of the Mexican libertarians’ sincerity.[2]

The two titles drew on different anarchist sources. In Le Libertaire’s case, they were reading Mother Earth (an English-language, New York publication edited by Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre) L’Era nuova (an Italian-language publication published in New Jersey), and Cultura proletaria (Spanish-language, New York). Finally, from July 1911 onwards, the newspaper received direct reports from Regeneración, whose news it could comment on at three weeks’ delay. Les Temps nouveaux, for its part, relied on correspondents in the United States who sometimes relayed the badmouthing of the PLM in La Cronaca sovversiva (an Italian-language Vermont publication).

The dispute lasted for almost a year, until April 1912, when the great voice that was Kropotkin spoke out in favour of the PLM and Les Temps nouveaux conceded. Le Libertaire continued its almost weekly chronicle of events, then spaced it out during 1913, when the Mexican Revolution took on the aspect of a series of coups de main by rival military factions.[3]

Three things are worth taking from this episode: firstly, the effect of the time lag as information arrived; secondly, the importance of polyglot intellectuals in orienting the debate; thirdly, the singular enthusiasm of the FRC and Le Libertaire.

 

Time lags

Ironically, by the time the FRC took up the cause of the PLM’s Fuerzas Insurgentes in May 1911, these latter had already been virtually defeated, and with them the attempt to create a “red base” in Baja California.[4] The diagram below summarises this time lag.

 

 

 

The big dailies like Le Matin, connected by telegraphic wires to the world’s main capitals, relayed the Mexican news about forty-eight hours after the events had taken place. The circuits on which the militant press relied were much slower and more erratic. The FRC got its information by reading Mother Earth and, subsequently, directly from Regeneración. However, some crucial issues likely never made it to France. Hence, a text as fundamental as the Manifesto of 23 September 1911 — in which the PLM for the first time made public its anarchist-communist programme — was known in Paris and published by Le Libertaire only six months later, in March 1912. Even this only came after Les Temps nouveaux, being a good sport, had sent it a translation![5]

 

The importance of polyglot intellectuals

The anarchist movement before 1914 had several overlapping information circuits.

The most episodic was the international congresses: Paris 1889, Zurich 1893, London 1896, Paris 1900, and Amsterdam 1907. The international anarchist congress in London, in August 1914, was supposed to discuss the Mexican Revolution, but the war prevented it from being held.

Another circuit was that of migrant workers and political exiles, in contact with their countries of origin by means of written correspondence. From this point of view, large cosmopolitan cities such as Paris, London and New York were nodes in anarchism’s networks. Between 1909 and 1911 alone, the Paris anarchist movement was able to count one German group, one Italian group, seven Russian groups, and doubtless also some Spaniards.[6] Les Temps nouveaux had a not inconsiderable network of French correspondents living as émigrés abroad.

Lastly, a third circuit was made up of polyglot intellectuals, real look-outs for what was happening in the most distant lands, from Japan to China and Latin America. Figures like the Cuban Tarrida del Marmol, the Russian Alex Shapiro or the Frenchman Aristide Pratelle best represented this type of intellectual. To their names we can add a celebrity like Charles Malato. He initiated the French Free Cuba Committee in 1896 and had connections in Italy, Spain and Great Britain. In 1908 the PLM appointed him to represent it in Europe.

It was Aristide Pratelle who first mentioned the existence of the PLM in March 1911, citing Ricardo Florès Magón.[7] As for Tarrida del Marmol, he published a balanced analysis of the “socialist, expropriating, clearly libertarian movement, of which General Emiliano Zapata is the arm … and of which the anarchist agitator Ricardo Flores Magón was the inspiration and remains the brain“.[8]

 

The FRC and Le Libertaire’s “desire to believe”

As in the case of Russia in 1917, the enthusiasm for the Mexico of 1911 provides an indication of the revolutionary sincerity and determination of the different tendencies of the French workers’ movement.  But in this respect, the FRC and Le Libertaire clearly stood out.

The Mexican Revolution hardly encountered any response among the French Socialists. L‘Humanité published a few articles by the Spaniard Fabra Ribas, aligned with the reading of the US social-democrats who stuck by support for the democrat Madero. Further to the Left, we might have expected that La Guerre sociale — the influential weekly edited by Gustave Hervé, enfant terrible of the Socialist Party leadership — would have relayed news from the Mexican Revolution, just as it had chronicled the Portuguese Revolution of 1910. But La Guerre sociale kept its silence. This lack of interest was noticed by its rivals in the FRC, and can probably be explained by Hervé’s political shift, during his own conversion to parliamentarism.

As for the trade unions, the reformists took absolutely no interest in Mexico. However, La Bataille syndicaliste, unofficial daily of the revolutionary syndicalist majority of the CGT, did take up this subject. It called for funds to be sent to the PLM, whose forces it greatly overestimated,[9] and also hailed the “communist revolution” that was underway.[10] This is, however, unsurprising if we know that Malato officiated at La Bataille syndicaliste and that this daily sometimes served as a bridge between the confederal CGT leadership and the FRC. Conversely, Pierre Monatte’s union monthly La Vie ouvrière remained silent.

Lastly, we get to the anarchists. Given Les Temps nouveaux’s circumspect approach and the silence of the individualist weekly L’Anarchie, only the FRC and Le Libertaire passionately committed themselves. For the FRC, which considered that, “since the communalist [sic] movement of 1871, the most important movement for the working class …is indeed the Mexican proletarian insurrection”,[11] the blindness of the left and far-left press spoke to a reprehensible lack of coherence. What was the point of all the anti-capitalist proclamations if, at the precise moment when a social revolution broke out abroad, everyone looked away and changed the subject?

This passion, this desire to believe, would be found again in 1917, when the anarchist-communist movement was among the first to welcome the Russian Revolution.

 

Guillaume Davranche

 


[1] Jean Maitron, Histoire du mouvement anarchiste en France, tome II, Gallimard, 1992 ; David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917 to 1945, AK Press, 2009.

[2] For an account of these exchanges, see “Controverse : la Révolution mexicaine est-elle communiste ?” in le Alternative libertaire’s special dossier on the Mexican revolution, December 2010.

[3] “La Révolution mexicaine”, Le Libertaire, 26 April 1913.

[4] On this revolutionary initiative see “Les anarchistes dans la Révolution mexicaine”, special dossier, Alternative libertaire, December 2010.

[5] “La Révolution mexicaine : Manifeste de la junta du Partido Liberal mexicain”, Le Libertaire, 30 March 1912.

[6] Guillaume Davranche, Trop jeunes pour mourir. Ouvriers et révolutionnaires face à la guerre (1909-1914), L’Insomniaque/Libertalia, 2014.

[7] “L’Intervention”, Les Hommes du jour, 1 April 1911.

[8] Tarrida del Marmol, “La Révolution mexicaine “, Les Temps nouveaux, 2 February 1912.

[9] “Une révolution sociale va commencer au Mexique”, La Bataille syndicaliste, 10 May 1911.

[10] “Le caractère communiste de la Révolution mexicaine s’accentue”, La Bataille syndicaliste, 14 May 1911.

[11] “Au Mexique : Le communisme ou la mort !”, Le Libertaire, 2 September 1911.

The impact of Ireland’s relations with the United States and Britain on the emergence and development of Irish revolutionary unionism, 1907-1914.

Revolutionary unionism, also known as industrial unionism, gradually emerged in Ireland between 1907 and 1910, reaching its peak during the Lockout of 1913 — a key moment in Irish labour history, sometimes considered its high watermark. Its rise was characterised by the emergence of important movement leaders, but also by the consequences of the migratory movements that characterised the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in Ireland. In this piece, we will ask how the emergence of industrial unionism in Ireland fed into an international dynamic of communication between the different parts of the English-speaking industrialised (or industrialising) world and how the particularity of the Irish situation influenced the movement’s appearance in that country.

         In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ireland experienced massive emigration, and saw a large part of its population move to the United States, Canada and Great Britain. In America, the Irish made up a large part of the unskilled labour force. They participated in miners’ strikes as part of the Molly Maguires, an 1870s secret organisation of Irish origins, or in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary union founded in 1905.[1] Moreover, this Irish community in the United States maintained strong roots on Irish territory, through transatlantic organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Fenian Brotherhood. It was therefore only natural that the Irish and US trade-unionist populations interacted extensively, through the press, correspondence and migration.

         If Ireland has a special relationship with the United States because of its diaspora, its unique status as both a colony and constituent part of the United Kingdom was also important to the emergence of revolutionary unionism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no Irish trade union, but rather Irish branches of British unions. Trade union leaders were thus regularly sent from Britain to Ireland in order organise the working masses.[2] It was in this context that Jim Larkin arrived in Belfast in 1907. Larkin was an organiser for the National Dock Labourers’ Union, a union aligned to the current of “new unionism” in Britain, with its characteristic orientation towards unskilled workers and its greater reliance on political action than on negotiation. During his time in Ireland, Larkin gradually turned to more radical methods of struggle, earning his expulsion from the National Dock Labourers’ Union. He founded a new union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which reflected the principles of industrial unionism.[3]

         In addition, James Connolly, a Scot born to Irish immigrant parents who had been leader of the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Dublin from 1896, headed to the United States in 1903, where he met with Daniel De Leon, with whom he had been in contact for several years. During his stay in the United States, Connolly turned to industrial unionism, becoming involved in the IWW right from its creation.[4] He theorised his conception of revolutionary unionism in the US and Irish contexts in a pamphlet he wrote in the United States in 1909, entitled Socialism Made Easy. This pamphlet was destined to travel around the world and was sold by the thousands of copies in Canada, Ireland, Great Britain and even Australia.[5] The exchanges that took place between Ireland and the United States over the distribution of this pamphlet can be observed through the correspondence between two men, namely Connolly and William O’Brien. We learn that Connolly gave two hundred copies to the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) for distribution to socialists and workers in Ireland.[6]

         James Connolly’s literary output in the United States also included the newspaper The Harp, which he published on behalf of the Irish Socialist Federation in the United States starting from early 1908. In its early days, few copies of the paper reached Ireland itself, but it was well-appreciated when it did make it across the Atlantic. In July 1909, Helena Moloney — later one of the leading female figures in Irish industrial unionism — sent a letter to The Harp’s editor regretting that she could not lay her hands on all of its issues.[7] In early 1910, publication was transferred to Dublin, under the editorship of Larkin. The aim, here, was reach a bigger Irish audience in Ireland itself, but also in the United States, for the paper gained in authenticity by being published in the old country. The Harp retained its 800 Irish-American subscribers,[8] but it soon had to cease publication due to libel cases and mismanagement. What we can, nonetheless, see is the general determination of the Irish, both in Ireland and the US, to share ideas through literature.

         This exchange of literature was possible thanks to the correspondence between James Connolly and William O’Brien, an important figure in the SPI and the ITGWU. Here we see two friends and former comrades exchanging letters on mostly political matters. Connolly regularly gave O’Brien advice on the handling of party and union affairs, and here, too, we see the principles of industrial unionism reflected. During this correspondence, O’Brien tried to convince Connolly to move back to Dublin. He succeeded: in 1910 Connolly arrived to carry out a tour of public meetings both on the island and in Britain, before then deciding to stay in Ireland. He became one of the most influential figures in the ITGWU and its leading thinker. It was starting with Connolly’s arrival in Ireland that the ITGWU mounted a turn towards true industrial unionism.

         Although industrial unionism remained in the minority in the Britain of the time, Irish unionists did have some influence on their neighbours. While Larkin was imprisoned in 1910, several support committees were formed in Great Britain. The one in Liverpool — Larkin’s home city — explained that it saw the ITGWU as a forerunner showing the way for the British unions.[9] At the same time, Tom Mann returned from Australia, bringing with him the revolutionary unionist ideas he had encountered in the Australian IWW. During his tour Connolly presented the same ideas he had encountered in the United States. We can thus see a back and forth between the different regions of the industrialised and industrialising English-speaking world. These interactions exerted political influences that took form in the development of a common language and — despite certain ideological differences — common political conceptions.

         We can thus note a great political proximity between these different spaces. Indeed, in the writings of Debs and De Leon (in the USA), Mann (in England), and Larkin and Connolly (in Ireland) we find each of them attributing a central role to industrial organisation in the advent of socialism, along with the idea that the political organisation of the workers must follow from their organisation in the factories. However, if it is often said that revolutionary unionism rejected political parties, the concrete experiences of its actors demand that some nuance be added to such a claim. In all these cases, we can see that the party was not rejected as such, and that the industrial unionists were often also members of socialist parties. Rather, the party was simply no longer central to the road to socialism, instead becoming the means by which the class unity experienced in the factories would be expressed on the political terrain. The party must not be disembodied, but serve as the political expression of industrially organised workers.[10] In fact, even before the appearance of revolutionary unionism this conception could be found in various forms among the different unions and political parties, adapting themselves to this new conception of achieving power.[11]

         Such political affinities were also expressed through the advent of a common language and common practices. Here, we see repeated instances of the One Big Union, the idea of international socialist cooperatives (or a “commonwealth”), the practice of solidarity strikes, and direct action borrowed from continental European unionists. Another common practice was workers’ self-defence against the police and strike-breakers; initially linked to the IWW, we again find this in Ireland during the 1913 Lockout, with the creation of the Irish Citizen Army.

         We can observe that the common thread running through these different categories of interaction was the displacement of populations, which in turn led to the displacement of literature and ideas. Here, we can see a connection between the English-speaking world — which was mostly white, industrialised or in the process of industrialisation — and the emergence and development of revolutionary unionism. Ireland was fully part of these international interactions, as a land actively involved in the emergence of the movement in the United States, and one itself influenced by a foreign-imported industrial unionism. Irish labour was thus part of this international back-and-forth. What made it so particular was that it was perhaps the only part of the Anglophone world where revolutionary unionism was in the majority, possibly because labour activists had a means of rallying people other than workers’ issues — namely the national question, a major political concern in Ireland since the 1840s. The ITGWU set this as a founding principle of its organisation, indeed one evoked in the preamble to its first rule book: “Are we going to continue the policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trades Union movement, losing our own identity as a nation in the great world of organised labour? We say emphatically, no!”

 

Lise Augot


 

[1] Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, New York, Harper, 2017.

[2] Coquelin, Olivier, L’Irlande en révolutions. Entre nationalismes et conservatismes : une histoire politique et sociale (18e-20e siècles), Paris, Syllepse Editions, 2018, p. 398

[3] Ibid., p. 400-401.

[4] Collins, Lorcan, James Connolly, Dublin, O’Brien Press Ltd, 2012, p. 143.

[5] Ibid., p. 164.

[6] MS 13,908/1/16, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien, National Library of Ireland, 1909; MS 13,908/1/21, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien, National Library of Ireland, 1910

[7] MS 13,908/1/10, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien and others, National Library of Ireland, 1909

[8] MS 13,908/1/17, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien and others, National Library of Ireland, 1909.

[9] MS 15,679/22/3, James Larkin: A Labour Leader and an Honest Man, Liverpool: Northern Publishing Co., National Library of Ireland, 1910.

[10]   Connolly, James, Socialism Made Easy , Workers’ Web ASCII Pamphlet project, 1997, p. 20.

[11] Collins, Lorcan, op. cit., p178.

Un étrange anniversaire : les cinquante ans de la mort de Marx

Retronews publie un billet sur les cinquante ans de la mort de Karl Marx. L’occasion de (re)décrouvrir la manière dont les socialistes et communistes ont rendu hommage au penseur des gauches.

 

Penseur connu de quelques initiés à sa mort en 1883, Karl Marx est devenu un demi-siècle plus tard la boussole des mouvements socialistes et communistes. Tandis que le nazisme s’empare de l’Allemagne, les gauches européennes le fêtent en grande pompe.

 

Cinq parties sont proposées : les hommages du PCF, Marx et les socialistes, Une commémoration nationale, La Tragédie allemande, Des commémorations à contre-temps.

 


 

« Un spectre hante l’Europe, le spectre du marxisme. 

De la multitude innombrable des philistins s’élève une rumeur confuse où l’on ne retient clairement que le nom de Karl Marx, un mélange indistinct d’outrages qui sont autant d’hommages et d’hommages qui sont autant d’outrages. 

Après la conspiration du silence dont parle l’auteur du Capital dans sa deuxième préface, la machination du tumulte. »

Ainsi s’exprime Boris Souvarine en avril 1933, ancien dirigeant de l’Internationale communiste et de sa section française, devenu farouchement antisoviétique depuis son exclusion du Parti communiste français en 1924. Son agacement à l’égard de la commémoration de la mort de Karl Marx – mort cinquante plus tôt – se comprend notamment à la lumière de l’évolution de l’URSS stalinienne – qu’il exècre – se réclamant alors avec fracas de Marx. 

Mais ces phrases témoignent aussi plus globalement de l’importance de l’événement. Alors que, à sa mort en 1883, Marx était relativement peu connu, l’auteur du Manifeste du parti communiste est désormais le porte-étendard de nombreux partis politiques. À commencer par les partis communistes fondés dans le sillage de la Révolution russe de 1917, pour qui le marxisme sert de boussole indépassable. 

 

Pour découvrir le reste du billet : cliquez ici

European Socialism | Socialisme européen

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