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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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!
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. 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. 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“.
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, and also hailed the “communist revolution” that was underway. 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”, 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.
 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.
 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.
 “La Révolution mexicaine”, Le Libertaire, 26 April 1913.
 On this revolutionary initiative see “Les anarchistes dans la Révolution mexicaine”, special dossier, Alternative libertaire, December 2010.
 “La Révolution mexicaine : Manifeste de la junta du Partido Liberal mexicain”, Le Libertaire, 30 March 1912.
 Guillaume Davranche, Trop jeunes pour mourir. Ouvriers et révolutionnaires face à la guerre (1909-1914), L’Insomniaque/Libertalia, 2014.
 “L’Intervention”, Les Hommes du jour, 1 April 1911.
 Tarrida del Marmol, “La Révolution mexicaine “, Les Temps nouveaux, 2 February 1912.
 “Une révolution sociale va commencer au Mexique”, La Bataille syndicaliste, 10 May 1911.
 “Le caractère communiste de la Révolution mexicaine s’accentue”, La Bataille syndicaliste, 14 May 1911.
 “Au Mexique : Le communisme ou la mort !”, Le Libertaire, 2 September 1911.