Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2019

Netflix series on the Sinaloa drug cartels

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,drugs,Mexico,television — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm


Not only was Ernest Mandel the leading Marxist economist of his time, he was also a big fan of crime stories. In his 1984 Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story, he made an essential point about organized crime from a Marxist perspective as well as showing a remarkable grasp of popular culture:

Organized crime, rather than being peripheral to bourgeois society, springs increasingly from the same socio-economic motive forces that govern capital accumulation general: private property, competition and generalized commodity production (generalized money economy). The Swedish pop group Abba summed up the situation eloquently in their song: ‘Money, money, money — It’s a rich man’s world.’ (Their own fate is a vivid illustration of this law: with the huge income generated by their records they promptly created an investment trust and contributed on a large scale to the election funds of the bourgeois party coalition.) But a rich man’s world is also a rich gangster’s world particularly since the top gangsters have grown richer and richer in relative terms, and are certainly qualitatively richer than even richest police, or the overwhelming mass of politicians. (Nixon himself was conscious of the disparity.)

A couple of months ago my wife reminded me that season four of Narcos and season three of El Chapo were up and running on Netflix. Although I hadn’t written anything about the El Chapo series, it seemed like a good opportunity to cover both since they dealt with the drug cartels in Mexico that were very timely given El Chapo’s trial. In addition, they are about the best entertainment available on Netflix. The two series are closely related since they deal with the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo ruled over. In season four of Narcos, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is only a bit player. Primary attention is on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the founder of the cartel for which El Chapo served as a sicario (hitman). Another important character is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the DEA agent who was tortured and killed by Gallardo’s henchmen in 1985. His death became a cause célèbre that led to the first in a series of escalations of the drug war.

Continue reading

February 19, 2019

Los Caballeros Templarios

Filed under: crime,drugs,Mexico — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

I’m doing some research on Mexican drug cartels for a CounterPunch article on “Narcos” and “El Chapo”, two really great crime dramas on Netflix. I had written about an earlier “Narcos” season for CounterPunch when it was focused on Pablo Escobar. My interest in writing about mafia and mafia-like crime stories is to connect them to social and political contradictions as I have also done in a couple of articles about the Sicilian mafia for CounterPunch that I will be continuing before long. It turns out that the very best study of Mexican drug gangs was co-authored by Mike Wallace (the CUNY Marxist historian) and Carmen Boullosa, a Mexican poet and journalist. Wallace is the co-author of “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” and the newly published and acclaimed follow-up “Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919”. Every page of Wallace and Boullosa’s A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” is compelling but I could not resist scanning and posting this excerpt.

After the apparent death of its strategic and spiritual leader, La Familia retreated into its mountain fastness, where the leadership split in two, prompting triumphalist government assertions that Michoacan would soon be back under control. But while one of the factions began to fade away, the other mutated into an even more repellant descendant, Los Caballeros Templarios—”The Knights Templar”—named after the medieval Catholic crusaders. Claiming Moreno’s mantle, the Knights were led by two Moreno lieutenants, Servando “La Tuta” (“The Teacher”) Gómez Martinez, and Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte. [I have no idea whether this is the anti-Semitic slur or some bit of Mexican slang.] They donned white cloaks blazoned with red crosses, erected statues of the departed drug lord decked out in medieval armor, and, decorating them with gold and diamonds, venerated El Mas Loco as a saint. As had La Familia, the Knights Templar professed a devotion to social justice and even to revolutionary politics. They also affected respect for the Roman Catholic Church, and when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico, they hung banners on bridges in seven cities proclaiming: “The Knights Templar Cartel will not partake in any warlike acts, we are not killers, welcome Pope.” They too promised to protect Michoacan from outside evildoers. Soon after appearing on the scene they hung more than forty banners across the state proclaiming: “Our commitment is to safeguard order, avoid robberies, kidnapping, and extortion, and to shield the state from rival organizations.” By which they meant the Zetas, against whom they invited other cartels to join in a countrywide anti-Zeta alliance.

It took the Knights far less time to turn super-malevolent than it had La Familia.

In addition to dominating the drug trade, the Templarios began terrorizing the local populace, committing all the crimes they had promised to “avoid.” They extorted tribute from farmers by forcing growers of avocados and limes to pay a quota for every kilo, terrorized corn growers into selling their crops cheap, then resold them to tortilla makers at double the price. They raped women at will, kidnapped with abandon, and tortured and beheaded resisters in public. They also took control of much of Michoacan’s political order, installing local politicians in office, controlling municipal budgets, and employing local police as assistants.

The Knights menaced not only local campesinos, but also corporate and multinational enterprises. Starting in 2010, they boldly began robbing iron mining companies of their ore, or seizing the mines outright. Then they sold the product to processors, distributors, and Chinese industrial firms—voracious consumers of iron ore—having established all but total control of the port of Lazaro Cardenas, now the country’s second largest. In 2010 they moved over a million tons of illegally extracted ore, a blow to the country’s economy and international standing. The Templarios, now an eight-hundred-pound leech, had opened up a whole new field of endeavor for Mexico’s organized crime.


January 11, 2016

Cartel Land

Filed under: crime,drugs,Film,Mexico — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

Although I had plans to eventually write about the 2015 documentary “Cartel Land” at some point, I’ve decided to put it on the front burner now that the recapture of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán and Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with the drug baron has become the lead story in the NY Times.

“Cartel Land” is now the fourth documentary I have seen about the Mexican drug wars. The first was the 2013 “Narco Cultura”, a film that was focused on the Narcocorrido—the songs that blend the traditional Norteño style with lyrics that toast the drug lords after the fashion of American gansta rap. I found much of it compelling but regretted that there was “not much in the way of analysis.”

Only two months ago, I reviewed “Kingdom of Shadows”, a personality-driven documentary that profiled a Texas rancher who smuggled marijuana when he wasa young and a Mexican cop who was noteworthy for being an exception to the virtually universal rule of corruption. It too was far more interested in “story-telling” than analysis.

Sandwiched between the two films chronologically was the 2014 “Drug Lord: the Legend of Shorty” that described the futile search by a young and obscure director for an interview with the elusive drug lord (chapo means shorty). Apparently he lacked the clout of Sean Penn. Once again I found the film sorely lacking in analysis:

Although I can recommend “Drug Lord”, I am still looking for a documentary on the Mexican drug trade that focuses on the political and economic aspects (what else would you expect from me?) It would be important to hear what Mexican radicals, especially those trained in sociology and history, have to say about the viral growth of drug syndicates over the past couple of decades.

Following suit, “Cartel Land” once again could not be bothered with anything so dry and dusty as a sociologist explaining why Mexico’s major industry is now the production and sale of illegal drugs. Even more than the three films mentioned above, it is intent on drama and action after the fashion of narrative films such as “Traffic” or “Sicario”.

Its saving grace was having access to the autodefensas in Michoacán, the state on the west coast of Mexico that was as ravaged by drug gangs as Guzman’s Sinaloa. The autodefensas were anti-drug paramilitaries initiated in late 2013 by a physician named José Valverde who allowed the film crew to accompany him on raids against members of the Knights Templar cartel that dominated the region. Your initial impression is that the vigilantes were popular with the community and effective. When the Mexican military began to crack down on them, there were protests that successfully defended their right to bear arms and to use them against the gangs.

Like “Kingdom of Shadows”, “Cartel Land” includes a personality from Texas, this time a 56-year old man named Tim “Nailer” Foley who is obviously seen as a complement to Valverde since he too is the leader of a vigilante group known as the Arizona Border Recon whose members, including Foley, patrol the border with Mexico assault rifles in hand. They claim they are trying to prevent drugs from flowing into the USA but mostly they serve as an auxiliary to the border patrols that are trying to keep desperate jobseekers from crossing over. Indeed, you see Foley and his henchman training their guns on some hapless Mexicans whose only hope is to get a job in construction or gardening. The film makes no effort to interrogate the role of Foley’s goons given the obvious evidence that drug cartels use submarines, planes, trucks, and tunnels to get drugs into the USA, not in the backpacks of poor people swimming across the Rio Grande.

The final third or so of the film chronicles the downfall of the autodefensas as its raids begin to target the innocent just as many DEA raids in the USA have done over the years. There are also allegations that the Knights Templar have penetrated the autodefensas to turn them to their own advantage. Eventually Valverde is arrested and sentenced to a long prison sentence cheek by jowl with those who he was supposedly trying to eliminate.

The obvious lesson is that you should not take the law into your own hands although the American vigilantes have a much easier time of it as the armed occupation in Oregon might indicate.

Mostly the film exploits the visceral experience of being embedded with Mexican vigilantes who are taking the fight to the bad guys. We are treated to a front row seat of men firing assault rifles into Knights Templar hideouts as Valverde or his deputies cry out “Surrender, motherfuckers.”

Perhaps the intent of director Matthew Heineman can best be gleaned from the inclusion of Kathryn Bigelow as Executive Producer. Bigelow was the director of “Zero Dark Thirty”, the atrocious reenactment of the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s hideout that provided vicarious thrills to many film reviewers—except me. Shortly after Bigelow came on board, she told Entertainment Weekly that the film would be “potent, raw and visceral”, the same adjectives that could apply to “Sicario”, a narrative film I found cliché-ridden and obvious.

The appeal of the drug wars for people like Kathryn Bigelow should be obvious. They allow her and those attuned to her aesthetic like Matthew Heineman to make a lurid entertainment with social questions getting short shrift. After all it is not the job of a filmmaker to make judgments unless of course you are some obscure Marxist whose work will be screened at the Film Forum for a week or so and then disappear into oblivion.

This leads us to the Sean Penn/”Chapo” Guzman saga. You can read Penn’s article on the Rolling Stone website. Most of Penn’s article is about himself, written in the vein that this commercially “edgy” magazine has made famous. For example, after he gets off a plane flown by one of Chapo’s henchmen, he takes care of some personal business:

I throw my satchel into the open back of one of the SUVs, and lumber over to the tree line to take a piss. Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants.

Obviously we are in Hunter Thomson territory. Not that I mind gonzo journalism so much, but I keep looking for some discussion of why Sinaloa is so poor or some other matters that could help put the drug wars into perspective.

After thousands of words of prelude that has the aura of an Oliver Stone movie, Penn finally sits down to interview the world’s leading drug dealer. As might be expected, Guzman is given ample opportunity to express by what now seems self-evident, namely that as long as there is a demand for drugs, Mexico will supply them. He got involved in the drug business in Sinaloa when he was 15 years old because there were no other jobs available and hopes to continue for as long as he can in his chosen trade.

Showing that he has absorbed the best techniques of an Oprah Winfrey, Penn asks the gangster about his relationship to his mom. His reply: “My relationship? Perfect. Very well.”

The interview, which probably took all of 15 minutes, is noteworthy for its deference to its subject.

Years ago I tried to come to terms with the Colombian drug trade since there was a time when the public was fascinated with Pablo Escobar, another Robin Hood figure who rose from poverty. My research convinced me that rather than turning Colombia into a jungle, there was evidence that it was a stabilizing factor:

It is important to understand that the cocaine industry also has the effect of fueling the transformation of the peasantry into a proletariat and petty proprietors at the very same time it is displacing it from subsistence farming. In the early 1980s, according to Johns Hopkins Political Science professor Bruce Begley, over 500 thousand Colombians had jobs in the drug trade. In addition, Begley argues that the drugs have actually served to stabilize the Colombian political system and specifically compares their role in the economy to the introduction of the coffee industry in the mid-1800s:

Due to marijuana and cocaine a new nouveau riche has developed in Colombia much as in the late and early twentieth centuries a coffee oligarchy developed in the country. Parts of the civil wars which were fought in the latter part of the nineteenth century, particularly the War of 1000 Days in Colombia, had something to do with the introduction of coffee and the socioeconomic changes that followed. Today, fairly conservative, often right-wing individuals link themselves frequently with MAS, with the military and with other organizations moving to legitimize themselves within the Colombian system, moving to gain status within that society, buying political power, Into the system if you like, but not to disrupt that system in any fundamental way. Nonetheless, there is this sense that the old families in Colombia which have controlled the politics since the late nineteenth century introduction of coffee are now gradually incorporating and absorbing the nouveau riche, the Carlos Lehders that rise, not necessarily in the first generation but rather in the second and third generations. The children of the drug dealers now join the major social clubs and marry into some of the more prestigious families. Many of these old families are precisely those families who were declining economically, and hence politically. With the introduction of coffee in the nineteenth century the new coffee barons also gradually married into more traditional, land-owning families, joining money and commercial agricultural exports with status within the society.

If you look at American history, you will see the same tendencies. The Robber Barons used illegal means to create the vast wealth that is now enshrined in the names of universities like Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. Who knows? Maybe years from now there will be a Chapo University.

Even more to the point, just as the prohibition of cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana lead to huge but illicit profits in Mexico, alcohol played the same role in American society. And perhaps nobody had more of a meteoric rise to respectability based on racketeering than Joseph Kennedy, the father of the JFK. Some years back I wrote about our country’s Chapo—of course he was a lot taller than Guzman but by no means no more benign:

In keeping with Balzac’s epigraph to “Pere Goriot” that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.

In “The Outfit,” Gus Russo’s definitive study of the Chicago mob, we learn that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor, Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders $1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl $10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain’s owner, who then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.

With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:

Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of the booze business, everyone from Joe’s Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the bootleggers’ boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the illegal trade.

Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK’s 1960 Presidential bid. Murray “Curley” Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed “Moony” because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone’s death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy’s favor in the 1960 primaries race.

Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J. McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in Chicago in 1960. According to Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the mob’s help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According to Humphreys’ widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: “Murray was against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days–called him an untrustworthy ‘four flusher’ and a ‘potato eater.’ Something to do with a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano.”

August 20, 2013

Thinking about the Aztecs

Filed under: indigenous,Mexico — louisproyect @ 4:47 pm

Back in the late 90s, when I first began to research indigenous societies with an eye toward applying Mariategui’s writings to the contemporary world, I received stiff resistance from leftists—particularly on PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network mailing list. There were two talking points heard over and over again. The first is that there was no such thing as an ecological Indian, the proof being their role in fomenting bison stampedes that supposedly left hundreds of animals to the vultures (thus begging the question of the role of carrion in sustaining raptors and other predators, not to speak of the virtual inability of hunting-and-gathering societies to make a real dent in the animal population.)

The other point was directed more toward the class societies of Mexico and Peru, with the Aztecs taking the brunt of the attacks. This was typical, coming from Barkley Rosser, a post-Keynesian:


     Ah, but then we have the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs.  Next we shall hear about the “light rule” by the Germans at Auschwitz.

Barkley Rosser

With this in the back of my mind, I looked forward to my vacation in Mexico City last May since it would enable me to see the ruins left by this “savage” race with my own eyes. Upon my return, I read volume one of Alan Knight’s 3-part history of Mexico that ends with the arrival of the Conquistadores. I had major problems with Knight’s analysis but in retrospect found it useful as a source of basic information as well as an example of the difficulty of fully “understanding” what motivated the Aztecs, particularly the controversial practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

sun_pyramidThe Sun pyramid in Teotihuacan

sun_pyramid_halfwayHalfway up the Sun pyramid

Despite the impression that many tourists have that the great pyramids in Teotihuacan were built by Aztecs, they were actually built by Indians whose ethnicity remains indeterminate. At its peak, Teotihuacan had a population of 200,000 making it one of the largest cities in the world in the early 10th century. When you go to Teotihuacan, you can see the two great pyramids that will be there until the end of time, as well as small groups of buildings that illustrate how ordinary people lived and worked.

Just north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was in effect the capital of the valley that coincides with the modern state of Mexico, within the country of the same name, and that refers to an Aztec subgroup, the Mexicas.

Knight attributes Teotihuancan’s rapid growth to the advantage it enjoyed over control of obsidian that it traded near and far. Obsidian is glass formed by volcanic eruptions that can be transformed into a weapon, including the daggers that were used in sacrifices.

Knight sums up the Teotihuacan economy as follows, with an obvious bid to define it in terms of basic Marxist categories.

Mesoamerican exchange, being both ancient and extensive, embraced many forms. It involved both subsistence and ‘exotic’ goods; it was dictated by ecological endowment and local craft specialization; and it was governed by principles of both reciprocity-whereby groups exchanged mutually desired goods, sometimes along chains of actual or fictive kin – and redistribution, whereby chiefs and elites, enjoying privileged access to the supply of goods, were responsible for collecting and distributing them among their people. Such forms of exchange were not premised on considerations of profit-maximization or capital accumulation. ‘Use-values’ rather than ‘exchange-values’ predominated. [G.A. Cohen’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of History is referenced here.] There was no profit motive to serve as a spur to greater production. To the extent that (modest) accumulation occurred, it did so for reasons of insurance: agricultural surpluses could not be banked, but they could, to a limited extent, be converted into durable exchange goods which, when times were hard, could be traded for consumption goods. Pots or jade were the Mesoamerican equivalent of the French peasant’s cache of louis d’or hidden under the floor.

Inexplicably Knight, who is certainly erudite in the Marxist canon, does not refer to pre-Columbian societies as tributary, a term that encompasses European feudalism as well as far more primitive societies such as the kind that existed in Teotihuacan. John Haldon’s “The State and the Tributary Mode of Production” is key to this understanding but not referenced in Knight at all.

Haldon suggests that the most logical definition of this mode is one that centers on the extraction of surpluses from the direct producers either in the form of tax or rent through “extra-economic” means. In other words, the state itself is the appropriator. Haldon cites this passage from Vol. 3 of Capital in order to establish the Marxist credentials of such an approach:

It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer remains the ’possessor’ of the means of production and labor conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relationship of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor to a mere tributary relationship. [Haldon’s emphasis]

As our tour guide explained in our day trip to Teotihuacan, the Aztecs simply took over abandoned buildings almost like squatters in Detroit taking over luxury buildings abandoned early on in the financial crisis.

But the one site that we saw in Mexico City of Aztec origin is as impressive as Teotihuacan even if much smaller in size. I am speaking of Tlatelolco, today a working-class neighborhood in the west of the city that was the heart of their civilization.

tlatlelocoIn Tlatelolco

The Aztec empire was centered in today’s Mexico City that sat upon Lake Texcoco and which they called Tenochtitlan. After the Spanish conquest, the lake was drained in order to make way for capitalist development with dire environmental consequences. There was room now for textile mills and plantations at the expense of fresh water, a general consequence of the creation of many modern cities like Los Angeles.

Tlatelolco was the site of the Aztec’s last stand against the Spanish in 1519 as well as the site of the massacre against university students in 1968. If you visit the Plaza of the Three Cultures, you will see monuments to both massacres.

In April 1519 Hernán Cortés defeated the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma, taking advantage of resentment toward Aztec rule. Tribes paying tribute to the Aztecs in terms of crops, labor, and skulls were more than willing to ally with the Spaniards as would happen in Peru with the Incas. In both cases, the indigenous subjects of these native empires ended up far worse.

In Knight’s chapter on the Aztecs, there’s a lot more substance because the scholarship is grounded in first-hand accounts of Aztec society. This much is pretty well established. The people who eventually constituted Mexico’s most powerful empire started out in the north of the country as primitive warriors. As they moved south toward Tenochtitlan, they grew more powerful and more sophisticated economically and socially but always ruling through force more than consent. Their reign was relatively short-lived; for the two centuries prior to the arrival of the Spaniards they were the Romans of Mexico with subject peoples both benefiting and suffering under their domination.

Despite Knight’s tendency to create specious analogies between the Aztecs and European elites such as the Bourbons or the Prussian gentry, he does make some useful points. Since he is not a specialist in early Mexican history, his scholarship rests understandably on secondary sources.

According to Knight, the Spaniards were “horrified” to discover 100,000 skulls in Aztec temples. Although human sacrifice predated Aztec civilization, there is general agreement that the practice accelerated in the period of their ascendancy during the 14th and 15th centuries. Explaining such a bloodbath is a major challenge to archaeologists and anthropologists.

Knight raises the possibility that mass sacrifices were linked to cannibalism. Despite the religious role such institutions played in Aztec society, there was a more functional explanation for their growth and persistence, namely a need to get adequate amounts of food due to population pressures in the context of unfavorable ecological conditions. In other words, human flesh was devoured for the same reason the Mormons in the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism. Either consume human flesh or die. This theory was advanced by Marvin Harris in “Cannibals and Kings” but ultimately rejected by Knight.

Knight does give credence to the idea that sacrifice and cannibalism served “materialist” ends but finally subsumes it under the generalized needs of a warrior/priestly caste to maintain its hegemony:

Domestically, the latent function of sacrifice was to legitimize the role of the tlatoani and his immediate entourage (a role greatly enhanced with the revolution of the 1420s). Constant sacrifice attested to the political virility and social indispensability of the new ruling class. It linked rulers and ruled in a system of rewards and sanctions which underwrote the revamped, imperialist Aztec state. Warriors won promotion by hauling in prisoners of war for sacrifice (even though this might be militarily counterproductive in terms of battles won and territory subdued); merchants bought prestige by offering up slaves for the slab. In the massive redistribution of goods which the Aztec empire undertook (which, in a sense, was the Aztec imperial economy), sacrificial victims were a basic commodity. Rulers ruled by redistributing such commodities, and their (better-off) subordinates gained preferment and honour by playing their part in the great re-distributive system. This system was so pervasive and – in terms of certain economic principles – irrational, that the Aztec state has, with justice, been termed a gigantic ‘potlatch state’, a state predicated on the collection, redistribution and conspicuous consumption of a vast quantity of diverse goods. Sacrifice represented a hypertrophied form of potlatch, with humans playing the part elsewhere reserved for pigs.

Once the Spanish established their rule over the indigenous peoples, they abolished sacrifice and erected cathedrals over the demolished ruins of Aztec temples. As Christians with a firm grasp of scientific principles, the Spaniards adopted a missionary zeal in pursuit of civilizing the savages. The net result was an end to ritualized murder and its replacement by the normal attrition found through starvation wages in the silver mines of Mexico or through disease. When the Spaniards arrived in the beginning of the 16th century, there were 14 million inhabitants of the Aztec empire. By the end of the century there were 1 million. No Spaniard would have been “horrified” by this since it was simply the expected outcome of the natural world governed by the laws of property.

Although Knight’s scholarship is trustworthy for the most part, it is utterly bereft of any discussion of the benefits of Aztec rule. If the Romans were cruel, they at least were the source of Virgil’s poetry and temples galore.

Even Cortés was forced to admit how impressive Tenochtitlan was, starting with the palace of the ruler: “Motecuhzoma had a palace in the town of such a kind, and so marvellous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence. I will say no more than there is nothing like it in Spain.”

The Aztec capital city was literally a great work of art that people lived in. There were flower gardens everywhere, including those that hung from the roofs of government buildings. The Aztecs loved birds as much as they loved flowers and public aviaries dominated the center of the city. After the conquistadors overthrew the Aztec monarch, they torched the gardens and the aviaries.

That was the Tenochtitlan described by Jacques SoustellesS in “The Daily Life of the Aztecs”, a book published by Stanford University Press in 1961 that I recommend highly. Soustelle has no qualms about calling the Aztecs a “ruling class” and explains how their power rested on the sort of tributary extraction of surplus product from peasants that typified all such societies. Keep in mind that indigenous peoples in the New World were not exclusively communalist. If the North American Indians adhered to a strict egalitarian sharing of bison, seal, corn, etc., their Mayan, Incan and Aztec cousins to the South had already evolved toward a highly sophisticated class society with all the full-time specialized occupations: officials, tradesmen, warriors, artisans, peasants, etc.

What we learn from Soustelle is that even the lowliest peasant in the Aztec empire had a right to retain the land he lived on for his entire life, a right that modern-day Mexicans do not even enjoy. Furthermore, unlike tributary societies in Europe and Asia, an Aztec commoner could rise out of his class and become honored and wealthy, especially through accomplishments on the battlefield. Finally, he could vote in the election of local chiefs, a right that indigenous peoples lost as a consequence of colonialism.

Does European colonialism usher in a “higher stage” of social development? Before jumping to any such conclusions, one should examine Soustelle’s “Daily Life of the Aztecs”.

June 28, 2013

Alan Knight: Brennerite Subalternist

Filed under: Mexico,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Alan Knight

Although I picked up volume one (From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest) of Alan Knight’s 3-volume history of Mexico mainly to get some background information on the Aztec ruins I visited there last month, I was intrigued to discover that he—like Adolfo Gilly, another leftist authority on Mexican history—had no problem tipping his hat to subaltern studies, supposedly something shunts you off into the vaporous world of postcolonialism and all the other trendy nonsense at odds with the muscular analysis Marxists learn in the weight rooms of dialectical materialism. If you’ve been listening to Vivek Chibber, you’ll know that subaltern studies is an entry level drug that might lead to more heavy stuff.

From Knight’s introduction:

I have tried to give a good deal of attention to ‘subalterns’ even though I have not used the term, at least not systematically. So I think I write ‘subaltern history’ just as I write prose, but I do not make an issue of it. At any rate, there is a fair amount of ‘bottom-up’ (popular) history in these pages, not least because ‘top down’ (elite) history cannot be understood in isolation; the two are dialectically related. It is true, however, and quite deliberate, that my ‘subalterns’ are seen more at work than at play, more in acts of protest than in moments of recreation, more on the streets and in the fields than in their own homes.

But as I skimmed through Knight’s book, I discovered—believe it or not—that his embrace of subaltern studies does not prevent him from also embracing the rock-ribbed “Political Marxism” analysis of the social system that existed in colonial Mexico, namely that there was no capitalism in colonial Mexico—not even in an embryonic form:

Nevertheless, the key determinants of Mexican development were to be found within the colony itself, and the character of colonial society was formed, above all, by the economic structures which underpinned it, by the labour systems which it engendered and by the forms whereby surplus was extracted from producers, be they miners or artisans, peasants, peons or slaves. Structures, systems, forms were all varied and mutating. We will examine and categorize them in due course. But the initial point to make is this: if such varied forms are to be given a single, encompassing title, it would be wrong to term them ‘capitalist’. Conversely, the only justified umbrella term – to be found within the conventional repertoire – would have to be ‘feudal’. Returning to the initial division of scholarly opinion, therefore, we prefer to conceptualize colonial Mexico as a feudal creation of a feudal Spain.

I suppose that we should be thankful to Knight for coming out and using the term feudal that I find much more useful than the “precapitalism” favored by most of the people who swear by their Robert Brenner. 1789 France? Precapitalist, of course. The United States in 1776? Same thing, silly.

As an old-fashioned kind of Marxist, I tend to go by what the classics stated, namely that feudalism rested on the production of use-values rather than commodities. Marx is fairly clear about this in the very first chapter of volume one of Capital:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.)

Putting it in more succinct terms, the feudal estate involved peasants turning over a portion of their product to the lord. If they grew crops, the knights would eat them, etc. Right? I guess others can use the term feudal as they like. It is a free country after all.

The other thing worth mentioning is that feudalism was a fetter on production. I always refer back to Michael Perelman’s description of peasant life before there was capitalism, from his “Invention of Capitalism”:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Any resemblance between this state of affairs and colonial Mexico is purely coincidental. I tend to agree with John Cockcroft’s take in chapter one of “Mexico”, a world in which I doubt that Indians enjoyed a “great deal of free time”:

Merchant capital in New Spain, as in Europe, was a key agent in the development of capitalist institutions: if mining was the economic motor, merchant capital was the grease. By 1604 it had helped establish some 25 textile mills (obrajes) in Mexico City alone, plus many others in Cuernavaca, Puebla, Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Queretero. One of the largest employed 120 workers, while others employed from 50 to 100—sizable figures for any manufacturing enterprise at the time. Producing mainly cotton and wool textiles (silk manufacture prospered for a century but gave way to competition from the Orient), the obrajes concentrated laborers in sweat-shop conditions. Some obrajes used the “putting out” system, permitting nearby Indian villagers to do the initial spinning. Trapiches (one or two loom producers) were common and, though partly competitive with obrajes, were generally subordinated to them in the network of marketing, credits, and supplies. Some weavers and spinners were able to continue to work at home, but the tendency in most places was toward the concentration of production under one roof (manufacture) and toward centralized control by obraje owners or the merchant bourgeoisie, often one and the same.

Odd to see that there were sweatshops in Mexico City in 1604. Not much has changed.

Of course, Political Marxists deny that Merchant Capital has anything to do with capitalism. For them, it is a “precapitalist” social formation that amounts to buying cheap and selling dear, like the Indians selling Manhattan for some beads.

Long before I read Cockcroft, I had come around to the same analysis. Referring to Perelman’s description of feudal life, I wrote:

Did any such wasteful practices exist in the New World? Were Spanish lords this lenient with their indigenous subjects? Complicating these sorts of questions is the fact that the Spanish used a feudal lexicon, referring to the ‘encomienda’ or ‘repartamiento’ (kinds of vassalage or fiefdom respectively) in the same manner as in earlier periods.

However, the underlying class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World feudalism as described by Perelman. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the ‘mita,’ a corvee-like form of labor servitude that replaced the ‘encomienda.’ The ‘mita’ was based on the Incan ‘m’ita,’ a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, itself a legitimately feudal system with its own characteristics. In “Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640,” Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to prevent confusion. He writes, “Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m’ita, or turn, out of the community’s total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community’s kindreds.”3

The Spanish ‘mita’ had virtually nothing in common with this. When a Spanish lord dragooned an Indian into the mine or ‘obraje’ (early sweatshop, particularly for textile manufacturing), he set production quotas at a level beyond what a ‘mitayo’ worker could produce through his own labor. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or ‘obraje’ to work, just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In extreme cases, the working conditions in New Spain (Mexico), Peru and Bolivia anticipated Nazi slave labor camps of the twentieth century. Operating ostensibly on the basis of feudal social institutions, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonies were actually in the process of removing all of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Marx had an entirely different take on Merchant Capital, one that is much closer to my own reading and that of Cockcroft’s. This is from chapter twenty of volume three of Capital, “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

Maybe the Political Marxists need to write a book on how Marx was so badly mistaken to believe that merchant capital contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. I am sure that it would go over big at some academic conference, even if it is totally bogus.

June 16, 2013

M.N. Roy in Mexico City

Filed under: india,Mexico,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

M.N. Roy

This is an excerpt from V. 1 of “In Freedom’s Quest: a Study of the Life and Works of M.N. Roy (1887-1954)” by Sibnarayan Ray. It is a mind-boggling account of how Roy became the founder of the Communist Party of Mexico, starting with his ties to an expatriate American community that included Carleton Beals and Mike Gold, the famous creator of “proletarian novels”. Later on, Roy would found the Communist Party of India and then become the architect of the Comintern’s policy on national liberation movements. There’s fascinating material on Roy’s contacts with Michael Borodin, the Bolshevik leader whose original name was Mikhail Markovich Gruzenberg, born into a Jewish rabbinical family in Yanovichi near Vitebsk in Byelorussia in 1884, and who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. I am making sure to inform my friend Bedo Pain about this story in the hope that the director of “Chittagong” might be persuaded to make a biopic about M.N. Roy, arguably one of the more compelling figures on the left in the entire 20th century.

 * * * *

For while they had been working on their plan with the Germans, the Roys had made many friends in Mexico. These included not only members of the German diplomatic colony and Mexican government officials, but also a number of Mexican intellectuals and leftwing political leaders, and a group of American radicals who had taken refuge in Mexico to avoid the draft in their own country. Almost from the time of his arrival Roy had been captivated by the warmth and friendliness of the Mexicans (qualities which I found unchanged when I visited there more than fifty years later in search of material for this book). In refreshing contrast to the United States, Mexico was almost completely free from racial prejudice. Among his early Mexican friends and acquaintances were the editor of the local daily, El Pueblo (The People), who had invited him to write articles on India for his paper; the emancipated woman editor of La Mujer Moderna (The Modern Woman) who had been private secretary of Carranza before he became the President of the Republic; Don Manuel. Speaker of the Camera de los Deputados (Chamber of Deputies); Ignazio Santibanez, – leader of the local Socialist Party; Maestro Casas, the Rector of the University and an admirer of Kant, Voltaire and the French Enlightenment, at whose request he later gave five lectures at the University; Enrique Guardiola, a teacher of Spanish from whom he learnt the language well enough not only to write but also to speak it fluently; and Jose Alleny Villa Garcia, son of an eccentric Englishman and an aristocratic Mexican lady with strong radical leanings. His German friends included an old philologist, Dr. Gramatsky and his wife, who at his invitation came to live with the Roys at their house in CoIonia Roma till the middle of 1919 and who taught them French and German; von Schoen, the Counsellor to the German Ambassador, and his American wife whose salon was a meeting place of the local intellectuals; and a young woman painter who not only did a portrait of Roy but taught him to appreciate art and develop a taste for classical European music.

The American radicals were a somewhat different breed. Temperamentally anti-establishment they included pacifists, “wobblies” and anarcho-syndicalists, socialists of all shades, “slackers”, bohemians and adventurers. Roy had already had his first glimpses of American radicalism at Stanford and New York; now after America’s entry into the war, Mexico had become a great gathering place of the draft-dodging refugees. Among the friends he made here were Maurice Becker, poet and cartoonist; Irwin Granich, novelist; Henry Glintenkamp, painter and cartoonist; and Carleton Beals, footloose journalist — who had all been regular contributors to The Masses, edited by Max Eastman. With Granich (more well known as Michael Gold) his friendship became quite close and lasted a long time. Beals wrote about Roy years later in his book Glass Houses (1938) in which he curiously misnamed him as Rabindranath Roy.” Another intimate friend who later attended the Second World Congress of the Communist International under the alias Frank Seaman but came to be more widely known by his other alias, Manuel Gomez, was Charles Francis Phillips. He and his wife Elinore had escaped to Mexico after evading arrest for organizing pacifist demonstrations on the campus of the Columbia University. In 1964 Phillips under the name of Gomez published a detailed interview in Survey in which he, among other matters, gave his recollections of Roy and Borodin in Mexico. It contained a few lapses and inaccuracies, but is a useful source of information.

At the Roy’s house in CoIonia Roma these friends would meet frequently where they were provided with excellent Mexican dishes by Maria, “a healthy and handsome pure-blooded Mexican woman”, who looked after the household. Roy had also acquired “a splendid brown Alsatian … who slept on the floor by my bed just across the open door.” From the balcony of their house they could see in the distance the twin volcanic peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtacchihuatl – the latter looking like a sleeping woman lying on her back. The view fascinated Roy, and years later, as he wrote movingly in his Memoirs, the memory of the “Sleeping Woman” haunted him.”

To this home then the Roys returned after having decided to give up the hopeless quest for Chinese arms. But although Roy’s own notion of a revolutionary struggle was already beginning to undergo significant changes, and although he would soon plunge into the vortex of Mexico’s turbulent politics, deep in his heart he was still primarily preoccupied with India’s independence. But before he could find an alternative approach and method, he felt that he had to formulate the Indian case more clearly both to himself and to Evelyn and their friends. He had already tried his hand at writing in New York, and as his first exercise in Spanish he had translated the “Open Letter to Wilson” under his Mexican teacher’s supervision. He now returned to the task of developing and articulating his arguments (the invitations from El Pueblo, and from Maestro Casas provided the opportunity), and during 1918 he published several books, pamphlets and articles. One of these was La Voz de la India, which besides the translation of the “Open Letter” also included two other pieces — a detailed critique of a book El Despertar de la India (The Awakening of India) by an anonymous author who had sought in it to justify the British rule in India; and a shorter essay to answer the question “Why do the Indian soldiers fight for England?” (Por que los soldados indios luchan por Inglaterra?) In the first piece he again stressed the disastrous material consequences of the British exploitation of India — the growing frequency of famines; the reduction of India into a supplier of raw materials to Britain and a purchaser of finished British products; the rise in the average cost of living; the economic drain caused by “Home charges”; the restrictions on indigenous manufactures and the monopolies and protections enjoyed by the British; and the heavy burden imposed additionally to meet the cost of the war. It also argued that the railways in India were intended to defend the British empire and to serve British interests; that while during the Hindu–Buddhist and the Muslim periods education in India was widespread and of a higher order, under British rule less than 2 percent of the population received primary schooling and scarcely 0.003 percent went to any university; and that Indians had no effective voice or representation in the administration of their country.” The second piece pointed out that because of the almost universal poverty in India caused by British rule, many Indians were forced to join the British army for a living; that “all the positions of responsibility and true command are held by the British”; that Indian soldiers were sent abroad under false pretences to be used as cannon fodder in various battle fronts; and that whenever they tried to rebel, they were ruthlessly penalized by the British. It also indicated that a good part of the Indian army was provided by the Princes of the native states who were totally dependent on the British even when they were ignominously treated by their protectors.’ India was thus a great prison full of slaves (una gran prision Ilena de esclavos), and “the situation will remain the same until the heroic endeavours of her sons are crowned with success — the revolution, helped by the support and sympathy of the other nations who sincerely love freedom.”

Roy’s next work published from Mexico in 1918 which I have been able to find is La India su pasado, su presente y su porvenir (India her Past Present and Future). In its flyleaf it mentions three earlier publications “by the same author”: La Voz de la India (already discussed); Carta Abierta al President Wilson (the “Open Letter” which was presumably first published as a separate pamphlet and then included in La Voz); and El Camino para la paz, duradera del Mundo (The Road to Durable World Peace). I have not been able to trace so far a copy of the third of these publications, but from the account given in Roy’s Memoirs it consisted of the “Open Letter” and a “longish chapter on the origin of the Monroe Doctrine and its development in practice during nearly a hundred years”.” According to the summary provided in the Memoirs, the new chapter offered a historical interpretation of the financial penetration and domination of the countries of South and Central America by the U.S., and made a plea to the former to regain their independence by putting an end to the U.S. dominance. It thus marked the beginning of Roy’s commitment to a revolution which went beyond the confines of the specifically Indian context.

La India was a more ambitious work than La Voz; it ran to 198+v pages and consisted of a preface, an introduction, nine chapters and five appendices (the latter devoted to sets of statistical figures showing the non-representative nature of the British government in India, India’s low per capita income compared to other nations, its staggering death-rate, the extremely low public expenditure on primary education, and the high incidence of famines in India under British rule).” In the preface Roy acknowledged the valuable help which he had received in the preparation of the book from his “illustrados amigos“, Senor don Jose G. Montes de Oca and Senor don Enrique Guardiola. The introductory chapter stressed India’s unity in diversity and briefly explained how from a fusion of Dravidian and Aryan cultures India developed a tradition which was tolerant and non-aggressive, which respected differences while believing in the unity of the universe, which offered alternative ways of realizing within individual consciousness the ultimate identity of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and which dealt with repeated invasions and conquests by gradually integrating the invaders and conquerors.” After this the first chapter gave a brief resume of Indian history from the earliest times to the pre-British period in which, among other matters, special emphasis was put on the material progress and prosperity of India under both Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim rule, the provisions made in traditional Hindu social theory on the duties and obligations of the king, the economic and political cooperation between the Hindus and the Muslims which existed before “Aurangzeb’s religious fanaticism and despotism” began to provoke widespread rebellion, the barbarous state of Europe compared to India during the middle ages, and the cunning and unscrupulous methods used by the British to establish their dominance at the time of the disintegration of the Mughal empire.” Chapters two to seven gave a systematic critique of British rule, elaborating all the arguments already briefly made in La Voz, but with greater precision and much more factual documentation. Britain’s Indian administration was shown to be unrepresentative, despotic, monopolistic, and based on the practice of racial discrimination (Chapter 2), but again the main stress was on Britain’s systematic and ruthless destruction of India’s economy and exploitation of India’s resources for Britain’s material benefit (chapters three, four and five). The hollowness of the British claim to have provided India with modern education was exposed in chapter six, while chapter seven dealt with the treatment of Indian labourers in South Africa, and the preposterousness of describing the British empire as “a federation of free peoples.” ” In chapter eight Roy gave a brief account of the Indian nationalist movement indicating why the hope of the Moderates to achieve India’s freedom through piecemeal reforms with the consent of India’s alien rulers was altogether unrealistic, and why radical nationalists like himself believed that “the only way out was a bloody revolution even though it appears almost hopeless in the present circumstances”.” The ninth and concluding chapter showed how the British had been trying to defeat the nationalist movement by playing the Muslims against the Hindus and how neither the earlier Morley-Mint° reforms nor the recently published Montagu-Chelmsford Report offered anything of substance to the Indians; and it reaffirmed the conviction that “India will be free, whether the English liked it or not”. India’s freedom would “assure true liberty to the whole world, putting an end to the attitude of superiority assumed by Europe”.

In writing La India Roy again showed hardly any influence of Marx. There was no concession here to Marx’s thesis regarding the “Asiatic mode of production” nor to his view of British imperialism as being “the unconscious tool of history” in bringing about a fundamental revolution in India.” Nor was there any clear perception of conflict of class interests within Indian society. Roy who had been since 1907 a revolutionary activist par excellence proved himself in this book to be a no less consummate ideologue of radical nationalism. However, his stress on the economic aspects of colonial rule was significant as were his preoccupation with the problem of poverty and his freedom from the common Hindu prejudice against the Muslims. Besides, Marx’s Europe-oriented approach to the non-western world would always remain a problem even with convinced Marxists in later decades. La India was published in December 1918; by then Roy was already occupied with his second plan and actively involved in Mexican politics. Mexico had achieved independence in 1821 after nearly three hundred years of Spanish Colonial rule, hut the problems bequeathed by the Spaniards had continued to plague the country. The most serious of these problems were the enormous powers and privileges, both material and spiritual, enjoyed by the Catholic church; the system of hacienda or landlordism of a semi feudal type which gave no rights or protection to the cultivators and blocked all possibilities of agricultural development; and the institution of military overlords who fought among themselves to impose personal dictatorship. Two of the leaders of the war of Mexican independence, Hidalgo and Morelos, had struggled unsuccessfully against the church and the hacendados. Immediately after independence, a new and even more formidable problem had been introduced by the interventionist policy of the United States which wanted to bring Latin America under its hegemony. In 1845 Mexico had been forced to cede its province of Texas to the United States; the war which followed was disastrous at the end of which the U.S. also annexed California and the vast territory between it and Texas by imposing on Mexico the humiliating Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. In the 1860’s the country found an inspiring leader in Benito Juarez but the French intervened and imposed its nominee, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian was eventually overthrown and killed, and from 1867-1872 Juarez as President of the “restored republic- tried hard to modernize and democratize the country’s polity and economy. But Juarez’s death in 1872 marked the end of these efforts; and four years later Mexico fell under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz which lasted until 1911. During the period of the porfiriato or Diaz dictatorship, not only did the church and the hacendados reestablish their power and privileges, but large concessions were made to the United States as regards investments in railways, mines, plantations and industries.”

Diaz was overthrown by Francisco Madero in 1911, but before the latter could take Mexico back to the path of Juarez he was overtaken by Coup d’etat and assassinated by General Victorian° Huerta in February 1913, with the connivance of the U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson.” Then began a struggle for power which saw the emergence of Venustiano Carranza, who had been a supporter of Madero, and who now tried to provide Mexico with a stable constitutional government. In 1915, Carranza’s government was recognized by the United States, but when Carranza declared his opposition to the U.S. concessions in Mexico he immediately incurred American hostility. Carranza sought to create a broad base of support for his government, and in December 1916 called a constitutional convention at Queretaro. The Constitution of 1917 which confirmed Carranza as the President of the Republic had several radical features (which it owed largely to Francisco Mujica, elected chairnian of the Committee on the Constitution). The most important among them were Articles 3, 31 and 130 which committed the state to a secular system of education, and abolished all privileges and special powers of the church; Article 27 (the lengthiest in the Constitution) which prohibited church ownership of real estate except for strictly religious purposes, voided all previously granted concessions to foreign governments and investors for the exploitation of Mexico’s natural resources, established state control over water and underground wealth, and provided for the liquidation of the latifundia and redistribution of land among the actual cultivators; and Article 123 which gave protection to wage-earners and declared the principle of minimum wages.”

The Constitution was, of course, more a declaration of basic principles than anything else, since its enforcement required a strong and committed government which Carranza did not possess. Carranza had inherited enormously complex problems; although an ardent nationalist, by inclination he was no radical; he had few friends but many enemies. Among his opponents were Pancho Villa, the bandit chief, who in spite of repeated defeats was still quite active in the northern state of Chihuahua (he was murdered in the summer of 1923); Emiliano Zapata, the legendary leader of a peasant rebellion, who until his assassination by a treacherous ally in 1919, would be a threat to the stability of the government; the organized church which had the backing of the Catholic establishment in the U.S.; the powerful British-American oil interests which sought to subvert the Article 27 of the Queretaro constitution; and finally General Alvaro Obregon who had the support of the U.S. government as he was prepared to restore the concessions which had been made under the Diaz dictatorship.” Moreover, by mid 1918 the war had begun definitely to turn against the Germans in Europe leaving the U.S. free to resume its interventionist policy in Latin America.

Roy’s initial motivation in getting involved in Mexican politics was to promote anti-Americanism so that this would divert the resources of the U.S. from the allied battlefronts in Europe. He soon found that the anarcho-syndicalists were not very interested in supporting Mexican nationalism against the U.S. He now turned to the socialists and other radicals to organize a broad-based movement which would oppose the U.S. and support the Carranza government on the understanding that the latter would try to make effective the radical principles of the Queretaro constitution. Ignazio Santibanez had already introduced him to the executive of his small Socialist party; he now proposed to it the holding of a socialist conference in Mexico. With what was left over from the funds provided by the Germans shortly after his arrival in Mexico he not only offered to bear the entire costs of the conference but also bought the Socialist party a printing press so that its organ, Lucha de los clases, could be converted into a regular weekly of eight pages.

Through Don Manuel, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Roy then met again Carranza, and persuaded him to support his efforts and to agree to “a programme of legislation for the protection of labour, particularly against exploitation by foreign imperialist capital”76 He also won over Plutarco Elias Calles, a popular socialist leader in Sonora, who later in 1924 would himself be elected President of the Republic:17 Meantime he had met General Alvarado to whom he had an introduction from Dr. Jordan of Stanford. Alvarado was planning to bring out a daily, El Herald° de Mexico, which would have an English section with Roy’s friend Charlie Phillips as editor of this section. Roy planned with Phillips to use this section for the expression of socialist views, and his articles on American imperialism in Latin America were first serialised here before they were brought out in the form of a book under the title El Camino.

Roy now drafted a manifesto for the projected socialist conference to which delegates were invited from the different States of the Republic, and from a number of Latin American countries. The conference met in Mexico city from August 25 to September 4, 1919, and adopted a constitution according to which the reorganized party was to be called El Partido Socialista Regional Mexican°. Besides Roy and Evelyn the leading figures of the conference were Santibanez, Don Manuel, Francisco Cervantes Lopez, Plutarco Calles, Juan Baptista Flores, Jose Garcia and his brother Roberto, and two American radicals, Charles Phillips and Irwin Granich. The last two organized a demonstration of local industrial workers in support of the reconstituted Socialist party, and managed with the assistance of their friend, John Reed, who had returned to New York after six months in the Soviet Union, to get a message to the conference purportedly sent by the newly founded Third International but actually composed by Reed in New York.” The conference elected an organizing committee with Roy, al companero Indio (the Indian comrade), as General Secretary and Jose Garcia as his assistant. The committee was charged with the re-organization of the Mexican Socialist party, and with making preparations for a Regional Socialist International for Latin America.

The proceedings of the conference, however, did not altogether go without opposition. Roy wanted the re-constituted party to he broad-based; he and his Mexican colleagues were particularly keen to draw into it Luis Morones, who had already founded in 1918 the Confederation Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM), a federation of labour unions. Morones at this stage was known to be backing General Obregon against Carranza.” Roy’s plan was to draw him away from Obregon and his supporters in the U.S. and to secure his collaboration in the proposed anti-American front This was, however, strongly opposed by Lynn Gale, an American radical, who had escaped from New York to Mexico in 1918, and who ran a journal called Gale’s Magazine.’ For various reasons Roy and Gale had taken a strong dislike to each other — according to Roy, Gale was a neophyte to Indian spiritualism and theosophy who had pressed on him to secure a subsidy from the Mexican government for his (Gale’s) pacifist propaganda, a demand which Roy had flatly refused; while according to Gale, Roy was an Indian nationalist whose conversion to socialism was altogether superficial” — and the conference helped to bring this into the open. Roy had the support of the majority in the conference, and since Gale persisted in his opposition he was expelled from the reconstituted party. Later Gale started a Communist party of his own, founded a periodical El Comunista, and even tried to send an emissary, Keikichi Ishimoto, to the Congress of the Communist International, but his efforts met with no success.” His group was not recognized by the Comintern.

After the conference Roy’s first task was to organize branches of the Socialist party in the various states of the republic. In this he was assisted by Calles with whom he travelled north to Sonora (which was the home base of both CaIles and Obregon), stopping on the way in the silver mining states of Aguascalientes and Durango. The trip, however, proved to be short, as Calles became Minister of Labour in the Carranza government, and Roy returned to the capital city where he soon thereafter met Michael Borodin, one of the top Bolsheviks from the Soviet Union, who had recently arrived in Mexico under the assumed name of Brantwein.”

Borodin (whose original name was Mikhail Markovich Gruzenberg) was Roy’s senior in age only by a few years. He was born into a Jewish rabbinical family in Yanovichi near Vitebsk in Byelorussia in 1884, and had joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. To avoid arrest he had escaped to the United States where before the Russian revolution he had been running with his wife a progressive preparatory school in Chicago. After the revolution he was entrusted by Lenin to organize communist activities in the U.S. and Latin America. In 1919 he was sent to the U.S. with Tsarist Crown jewels worth about a million rubbles to provide with part of its sale proceeds financial support to the Soviet Trade Delegation in Washington, and with the balance to underwrite revolutionary work in the new world. On the way, however, he was forced by circumstances to leave the jewels with an Austrian migrant in Haiti, and after eluding the American police who were hot on his heels he eventually managed to reach Mexico in September without any money or any local contacts.”

Once there Borodin soon found out about the newly reconstructed Socialist party from the English section of El Heraldo, contacted its editor Charles Phillips, and through him got in touch with the new General Secretary of the party. Roy took a strong liking to Borodin — besides being a revolutionary of exceptional intellectual sophistication and wide experience Borodin also possessed a striking physical appearance (he was, according to one description, “a man with shaggy black hair brushed back from his forehead, a Napoleonic beard, deep-set eyes, and a face like a mask”)” — and they soon became very close friends. Borodin stayed with the Roys at their house in CoIonia Roma and was introduced by them to Carranza. During the next two months while the Roys provided Borodin with hospitality and with funds to help out his stranded wife in Chicago and the Soviet Trade Delegation in Washington. Borodin explained to the Roys the intricacies of Marxism and succeeded in converting them fully to the communist faith.” He broke down Roy’s resistance to the philosophy of materialism, introduced him to the dialectics of class struggle, made him realise that political freedom had little significance without the content of economic liberation and social justice, and strengthened his newly developing conviction that the struggle for freedom to he successful had to be international and not confined within national or geographical boundaries.

After a great deal of discussion it was decided that they should try to form a Communist party out of the reconstituted Socialist party of Mexico. Roy then called an extraordinary conference of the Socialist party to which he submitted for approval the Manifesto of the Fint World Congress of the Communist International. With support from Don Manuel he succeeded in winning majority agreement, and the Socialist party renamed itself as El Partido Comunista de Mexico. The plan was that the party would subsequently sponsor the Latin American Bureau of the Comintern whose main immediate task would be to organize resistance to American imperialism.” Borodin who, in the meantime, had been provided with facilities by Carranza to contact the West-European Bureau of the Comintern through the Mexican legation in Holland, immediately sent Lenin his report of the conference.. He was instructed to bring Roy with him as a delegate to the next world congress of the Comintern which was scheduled for July 1920.

It was not altogether easy for Roy to decide to leave Mexico to which he had developed a strong attachment, but Borodin persuaded him to accept Lenin’s invitation with the argument that revolutionary movements, whether in Mexico or in India, were parts of a global struggle which constituted the programme of the Communist International. Besides, with the Comintern backing his efforts he would be able to work more effectively for a revolution in India. Jose Allen now took over as General Secretary of the new Communist Party. Borodin was the first to leave for Europe with Charles Phillips accompanying him; the Roys were to follow shortly afterwards: they were to meet in Berlin before going to Moscow. In November 1919, after two and a half years in what he later called “the land of my rebirth”, Roy left with Evelyn from the port of Veracruz on board the Spanish transatlantic liner, Alfonzo XIII, carrying with them Mexican diplomatic passports provided by the President, in which their names were given as Senor and Senora Roberto Alleny Villa Garcia. Roy’s new alias was borrowed from the name of Jose Allen’s brother, and the Roys would continue to use this passport in Europe till their break-up in 1925. Their departure from the house in CoIonia Roma was kept secret for a while by getting Carleton Beals to come and live there during the months of November and December. The precaution was necessary to escape the attention of the British Secret Service.

The years in Mexico wrought in Roy several significant changes and developments. Ever since the Chingripota political robbery at the age of twenty he had been on the run, frequently changing his hiding places while working as an underground revolutionary, later crossing thousands of miles by land and sea under different aliases in South-East and East Asia and the United States, sustained by a single passion and his extraordinary daring, intelligence and integrity. In Mexico for the first time he had a home of his own where a woman who adored him and shared his ideals brought him new insights and experience of happiness. Although even in Mexico the British and the American intelligence were still after him and there was no dearth of hazards in the country’s turbulent politics, he had here the support and friendship of not a few men and women in high places including the President of the Republic and the Rector of the University. (Carranza would be overthrown and treacherously murdered while trying to escape, a few months after the Roys’ departure from Mexico.) He was in a new milieu where radicalism did not exclude enjoyment of life’s gifts and many refinements. When he had left India he was a political ascetic with strong puritanical taboos and an intense distrust of western civilization. During his early months in Mexico his local friends used to call him “the melancholy philosopher from India” who was impervious even to the charm and festive atmosphere of las Chinampas or “floating gardens” on Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco. But gradually in Mexico he “learnt to appreciate the good things in life”, not only good food and wine, but also music, the fine arts and literature, the beauty of the landscape and the delights of refined recreational activities, stimulating conversations and intellectual pursuits. He acquired new languages, Spanish, German and French; was taken by his friends to listen to Pablo Casal’s music and the majestic voice of Caruso and introduced to the subtleties of the game of chess; and discovered the rich intellectual and literary heritage of modern Europe represented by the works of men like Cervantes, Kant and Voltaire. That the newly developing epicureanism did not make him mentally or physically corpulent is borne out as much by the impressive record of his activities as by the recollections of his associates. To Carleton Beals, he was a person of “boundless energy”, while Charles Phillips remembered Roy during his Mexican years as “tall, slim, elegant and sombre, deadly serious…, very brilliant, a fascinating personality”. Even the Director of Criminal Intelligence, Government of India, had to report that “M.N. Roy won a considerable reputation for himself … by his Communism in Mexico.”

Although India was and would always remain his main concern, Mexico made him into a cosmopolitan in his outlook and sympathies. If he was disillusioned with the Indian revolutionaries abroad, the loss was more than compensated by the friendships he formed in Mexico with local socialists and intellectuals, the German men and women of culture, and American radicals and Bohemians. Evelyn, Casas and Borodin opened to him the intellectual achievements of European civilization, and the Biblioteca Nacional was’ a great source of self-education. Borodin, in particular, helped him to outgrow his cultural parochialism. Not only did his “lingering faith in the special genius of India” begin to fade during his last months in Mexico; he also began to grasp the universalist implications of class struggle and of the dialectical processes of history. He “still believed in the necessity of armed insurrection”, but he “had also learned to attach greater importance to an intelligent understanding of the idea of revolution. The propagation of the idea was more important than arms.” To this propagation he would now increasingly turn his energies having at last discovered in Mexico his literary-intellectual talents in addition to his earlier talent in organizing underground revolutionary activities.”

June 7, 2013

Mexico and the left

Filed under: Mexico,Travel — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

Whenever my wife and I (is it permissible to speak of her that way?) take a vacation, we like to bring back the typical souvenirs: baseball caps, T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and the like. In addition, I always put together my own souvenir, a kind of Marxist analysis of the spot we have just visited. I had no idea that a visit to Mexico City would yield such a rich vein.

My eyes were opened primarily through long conversations with Peter Gellert, who now goes as Pedro and who has lived in Mexico City since 1976. I had a brief conversation with Peter about 3 years ago when he was in NY for a visit but this time we had plenty of time to talk about our ill-spent Trotskyist youth and what we have done with our lives since departing from the church. Peter’s political life seems to have taken off once he left the Houston branch in 1976 and “transferred” to the Mexican section of the Fourth International, the Workers Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores).

I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia (I assume that it is based on facts) that the PRT was formed as a merger of two tendencies, the Mandelistas and Morenoites. It was around this time (my memory is a bit fuzzy) that the SWP of the USA had formed a bloc with Nahuel Moreno of Argentina against Ernest Mandel and his followers. We called ourselves the Leninist-Trotskyist Faction, defending “orthodoxy” against guerrilla warfare tendencies running amok in the Mandelista groups, particularly in Argentina where the Combatiente group was hijacking meat trucks and dispensing the goods to poor people or kidnapping American businessmen. Of course, within a few years after a bloc was formed with Moreno, there was a split with him who despite being opposed to urban guerrilla warfare was not pliant enough for the SWP leadership.

In 1973, I had transferred to the Houston branch to lead a faction fight against the Mandelistas in the branch who were led by John Barzman, the son of blacklisted screenwriters. Since Peter was a member of their grouping, I never had much to say to him. Life in the SWP involved a lot of “shunning”. If you made the mistake of opposing the “geniuses” in our national office, you’d become an “unperson” as far as the majority was concerned.

Years later Camejo told me a funny story about the fallout of this faction fight in Nicaragua where he was assigned by the SWP to organize the party’s work on behalf of the Sandinistas. He was at some very high-level function where he was introduced to one of the FSLN leaders as a “Trotskyist”. The guy gave him a hearty embrace and told him how much our “support” had meant to them. It turns out he was not referring to our stupid sectarian articles about how the FSLN was going to sell out the revolution but the money and arms that the Mandelista youth had funneled to the FSLN when it was up in the mountains. Just goes to show you…

Compared to the PRT, the SWP was small potatoes even though we thought we were the god’s gift to the working class. At its height, the PRT had 3000 members, the equivalent of which would amount to 9000 in the USA. Not only were they a lot bigger than us, they had a substantial base in the peasantry. Peter told me that they broke with SWP-type sectarianism almost at the outset, particularly the ritualized taking of positions on international questions that had so often led to splits in our movement. He said that it would have been idiotic to make a big deal out of what the “correct” line was for Solidarity in Poland when a branch primarily made up of peasants was totally preoccupied with how to prevent death squads from driving them off their land.

Despite its obvious ability to root itself in the mass movement and take advantage of openings in the class struggle, the PRT eventually imploded. According to Peter, a number of problems led to its collapse. Among them was their refusal to back the presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1988 that was widely backed by the Mexican left. Cárdenas, the son of the Mexican president who gave asylum to Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, was not without his flaws but one gathers that his candidacy provided an opening for the far left in the way that SYRIZA does today in Greece. When such opportunities are presented, it is imperative to jump on them.

As is with the case with the American SWP that also imploded but for a different set of reasons, the former members of the PRT remain very involved with the mass movement in Mexico including Peter who lives in a state-subsidized housing project in Tlatelolco that has been a base of support for the left for many years.

One afternoon Peter accompanied my wife and I to the Zócalo, the huge plaza facing the main government buildings, where the teachers union was camped out in tents protesting the crackdown on their union, justified mainly as an attack on the corrupt leader. Like the Kennedy administration’s attack on Jimmy Hoffa, there was obviously as much of an interest in weakening the union.


Here’s Peter and I standing in front of the teachers’ tents. In a moment or two we ran into the president of the electrical workers union, who was about Peter’s age and a former member of the PRT. As I said, the ex-PRT is probably the largest group on the left in Mexico. His union was part of a combined effort to put the neoliberal bastards running the government on the defensive. The electrical workers were facing attacks on their pensions, just as you would expect from a president who as governor presided over a brutal attack on poor peasants protesting against their imminent eviction to make room for an airport expansion. The leader of the nonviolent movement was sentenced to a 150 year prison term and many of the 200 arrested peasants were tortured.

As some of you may know, Elba Gordillo, the head of the teachers union was pretty awful. The NY Times reported on February 26th:

In the current case, the prosecutor, Jesús Murillo Karam, said in a televised statement that the arrest had stemmed from the suspicious transfer of $200 million from the National Union of Education Workers, which has 1.5 million members, into the private accounts of three individuals. He said Ms. Gordillo had then used the accounts, in American and Swiss banks, to pay for credit cards; two houses in Coronado, Calif., near San Diego; unspecified art; plastic surgery; and other personal expenses.

He said that the transactions occurred between 2008 and 2012, including the transfer of about $2.1 million to an account at a Neiman Marcus department store in San Diego between March 2009 and January 2012, and that as many as 80 union accounts were being examined for irregularities.

Ironically, the corruption of the Mexican unions is inextricably linked up with unsolved problems of the nation’s revolution of 1910, which I first learned about from Casey Butcher who provided an overview at the Brecht Forum on Monday night. It seems that Obregon, an elite figure in the leadership of the revolution, pulled together a powerful army largely made up of urban workers, many of who were quite radical. In exchange for subduing the peasant militias of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, their rights to form a union would be guaranteed. It was a pact with the devil as James Cockcroft points out in a brief (120 pages) but indispensable MR book titled “Mexico’s Revolution Then and Now”:

As many historians have noted, an incipient unity between left-wing urban workers and the rural proletariat collapsed in 1915 when future President Alvaro Obregón signed a pact with Mexico City’s Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker) and its 50,000 members, who were suffering food shortages at the time. The pact created “red battalions” of militant workers to fight and help defeat Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s northern army of workers, small landholders, and jornaleros (day laborers) and weaken Emiliano Zapata’s southern peasant army. It tied the organized labor movement to the emergent “constitutionalist” state led by Venustiano Carranza and Obregon. And it generated a corrupt labor bureaucracy that usually sided with capitalist bosses and only occasionally benefitted the workers. The end result would be a poorly paid labor force dependent on an authoritarian and increasingly technocratic corporatist state. Three years after the signing of the pact, the Confederacion Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM), a predecessor of today’s “official” state-recognized unions, was founded. Its 90,000 members were led by Luis Morones, famous for his ostentatious displays of wealth. Thus started the tradition of charrismo—corrupt trade union bossism that uses violence to guarantee “labor peace” and converts labor bureaucrats into capitalists. Today, 90 percent of union contracts are “protection contracts” that union members have often not even seen, arranged between the charros and the employers.

I must also mention Casey was joined by Christina Heatherton who spoke on the connections between the Mexican revolution and the emerging communist movement of the early 20th century, something I knew little about. I was astounded to discover that M.N. Roy, the founder of the Indian Communist Party, was also a founder of the Mexican Communist Party! And even more importantly, the experience he derived in studying the class struggle in Mexico was instrumental in helping him to formulate an approach to national liberation struggles that was adopted by the early Comintern. Wikipedia reports:

During his stay in Palo Alto, a period of about two months, Roy met his future wife, a young Stanford University graduate named Evelyn Trent. The pair fell in love and journeyed together across the country to New York City.

It was in the New York City public library that Roy began to develop his interest in Marxism. His socialist transition under Lala owed much to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s essays on communism and Vivekananda’s message of serving the proletariat. Bothered by British spies, Roy fled to Mexico in July 1917 with Evelyn. German military authorities, on the spot, gave him large amounts of money.

The Mexican president Venustiano Carranza and other liberal thinkers appreciated Roy’s writings for El Pueblo. The Socialist Party he founded (December 1917), was converted into the Communist Party of Mexico, the first Communist Party outside Russia.

Given Mexico City’s deep respect for its past (as opposed to the brazen philistines running Istanbul), it is of some interest that M.N. Roy’s house in Mexico has been preserved, albeit in the form of a nightclub!

The outside of the house is left completely unaltered, concealing the nightclub where a textured timber pyramid envelops a double-height dance floor and DJ booth.

Inside the M.N. Roy nightclub

Speaking of revolutionary household preservation, a trip to Trotsky’s home in Coyoacán was at the top of my agenda. Although I have spoken derisively about the tendencies of Trotskyist sectarians to issue proclamations as if “from Coyoacán”, it is another thing entirely to visit this shrine to one of the 20th century’s great revolutionaries.

There were a couple of photos there that really captured my imagination. One was Leon Trotsky dressed to the nines, in knickers no less. I remember reading Deutscher’s biography in 1968 or so and getting a big kick out of his description of Trotsky as a “dandy”. Since so much of the Marxist movement, and Trotskyism in particular, is tied to a hair shirt sensibility, I always found it gratifying to see a snazzy Leon Trotsky.


Then there’s this photo of the Trotsky’s and Farrell Dobbs and his wife Marvel Scholl, who were in their early 60s when I joined the movement. After taking over the SWP leadership from James P. Cannon, Dobbs steered it toward its greatest successes in the 1960s. As fate would have it, he also sealed its doom by anointing Jack Barnes to replace him. Unlike Dobbs, who had helped to build the Teamsters union into a militant powerhouse in the late 30s, Barnes had only a very modest record in the mass movement. Despite this, he now puts himself on the same level as Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin—and Napoleon Bonaparte for all I know. And like most people who walk around with such delusions of grandeur, medication and rest are what’s prescribed.


I came out of this trip to Mexico with a determination to find out much more about the country. My plans are to read James Cockcroft’s “Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, and the State”—perfect beach reading—and Adolfo Gilly’s “The Mexican Revolution”. Gilly was a leading theoretician of the PRT and remains one of Mexico’s most respected Marxist thinkers. Unlike Vivek Chibber, who warns that Subaltern Studies is leading the youth astray, Gilly counts Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee, two of the tendency’s leading lights, as major influences. So much for their disorienting effects…

In addition to getting up to speed on theoretical matters, I plan to pay close attention to the movement being built by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had the 2006 election stolen away by PRI candidate Felipe Calderón. López Obrador has launched something called the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) that Peter is involved with, as I would imagine that other Marxists are as well. While I can understand why the American left’s attention is riveted on SYRIZA, I would urge it to begin paying much more attention to MORENA and other developments on the Mexican left. Here’s James Cockcroft on the implications of López Obrador’s breach to the left (my strong advice is to bookmark his website http://www.jamescockcroft.com):

Available evidence suggests that López Obrador received from half a million to two million more votes than Calderón, the “official” winner by a bare margin of 0.58 percent, and that the Mexican bourgeoisie and US imperialism will continue to try to prevent a Mexico governed by López Obrador or those who think like him. There are now plans to burn all the ballots, as was done in 1988, instead of recount them!

Consequently, incipient forms of “dual power” have emerged. A peaceful and disciplined civic resistance movement has sought to avoid a repeat of the notorious 1988 stolen presidential election by defending the legitimate new presidency of López Obrador, whom the movement plans to inaugurate on the “Day of the Revolution,” November 20, the historic starting date for the 1910 Mexican Revolution. This new movement, smeared or ignored by the deceitful mass media, also vows to protest and block the “official” presidential inauguration of Calderón on December 1 and other public appearances of the illegitimate “president” of Mexico. Just as in the 1910 Mexican Revolution when Francisco I. Madero’s slogan was “Effective Suffrage, No Re-election,” so this movement’s slogan is “Effective Suffrage, No Imposition.” Citing Article 39 of the 1917 Constitution that assigns to the people the nation’s sovereignty and the inalienable right to change the form of government, it calls for the founding of a new republic and full national sovereignty.

Mexico’s movement for a new republic is a product of more than two decades of social protests against neoliberalism and the delivery of much of the nation’s economy to foreign banking and corporate interests, especially after the implementation of NAFTA (TLC) and the Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994. Since July 2, 2006, there have occurred three mega-marches, the last of which on July 30 drew at least 2.5 million, or 1 out of every 40 Mexicans. There also has taken place a seven-week-long, around-the-clock “popular assembly and vigil” of 47 encampments in 7 miles of downtown streets of the world’s largest metropolis, Mexico City, joined by López Obrador himself, whose political party PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) governs the city. Countless other peaceful encampments and protests have occurred nationwide, including the “conservative” North where the PRD increased its percentage of the vote while predictably losing to the PAN. The protestors’ main demand of a recount of all the ballots was refused by the corrupted national Electoral Court (Tribunal Electoral) and Supreme Court.

June 3, 2013

Welcome to Mexico City

Filed under: Mexico,Travel — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Like most of my readers I imagine, the idea of taking a Club Med or Carnival Cruise vacation is the last thing that would occur to me. So when my wife proposed that we spend 5 days in Mexico City en route to her conference in Costa Rica, I said sure, why not.

But after buying a tour book for Mexico City, trepidations set in. It warned that you’d better not go out after dark and that if you needed a cab, you’d better have the hotel call one for you. It seems that from time to time some thug hijacks a cab and then picks up an unsuspecting fare that is driven to an ATM machine in some remote location and forced at gunpoint to withdraw oodles of cash. But even if you have the hotel call a cab for you, how are you supposed to get back? All in all, it sounded like that Denzil Washington movie “Man on Fire” that pitted our plucky hero against an army of narcotraficante kidnappers in Mexico City. Every street in that movie seemed to harbor a bunch of bad guys with hand grenades in each pocket and a willingness to use them against 3 year olds. Since Malcolm X’s grandson had been killed in Mexico City shortly after we booked our reservations, my anxiety deepened.

Of course anybody who has lived in New York City in the worst of times, as I did in the 60s and 70s, would realize how stupid my fears were. Not only was Mexico City much safer than Avenue C after dark; it was one of my most rewarding experiences as a traveler ever. Since my interest in touring is much more about picturesque architecture than scuba diving, this city was made to order. Unlike Istanbul, another mega-city that has grown like Topsy from the inpouring of impoverished rural folk, Mexico City is utterly dedicated to the preservation of the city’s indigenous and colonial past—even as they were mortal enemies. Spread throughout the city is 500-year-old churches and Aztec ruins that take your breath away. I suppose if the AKP were in charge of Mexico City, the Aztec ruins would be carted away to make room for a shopping mall.

Furthermore, you really don’t need a cab to get around. Mexico City has a subway system that is second to none (even if the cars are not air-conditioned.) It costs 3 pesos to get on a train. Since the exchange rate is just under 13 pesos per dollar, the fare amounts to 23 cents!

We ended up staying at the Sheraton Maria Isabela Hotel on Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s major thoroughfares and along a stretch of blocks that amounted to Embassy Row. This is basically a four-star hotel that cost us about $150 per night. The hotel was located near Zona Rosa, the city’s burgeoning gay and bohemian neighborhood. We were located a block from the famous “El Angel” monument and pleased to see male couples making out on its steps. As you may know, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009, something that befits the city’s progressive traditions.

For decades now, there has been a leftist Mayor in power. This gives the city a great vibe as you can see evidence of its effects everywhere, from free bikes (as opposed to Bloomberg’s that cost $95) to low-cost subways. The city also pays for yearly check-ups for its citizens.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere you look there are signs of the city’s radical and indigenous roots. Streets are named after Aztec rulers or objects, or after well-known figures of its own revolutionary past or that of Latin America as a whole. Even longer than Paseo de la Reforma is Avenida de las Insurgentes, the second longest street in Latin America (the first is in Buenos Aires.) The “Insurgentes” is a reference to the insurgent army that fought for Mexican independence from 1810 to 1821.

Besides the metro (cabs are also cheap), restaurants are bargains as well. On our first night an old friend from my Trotskyist youth accompanied us to a Uruguayan steakhouse that he heard good things about. I had a skirt steak for $10 that was far better than the $35 steak I ate at Ben and Jack’s a year or so ago. All in all, your money goes a long way in Mexico City.
If you are looking for an inexpensive but vastly rewarding place to take a vacation this year or next, I can’t recommend Mexico City highly enough.

I have a couple of more posts on my visit pending. The first will deal with the organized left in Mexico City and the country as a whole based on my discussions with my old friend and comrade Peter Gellert mentioned above. After that I will post about the Aztecs, getting into the thorny question of human sacrifice. And finally there will be a review of Adolfo Gilly’s history of the Mexican revolution. Gilly and Peter belonged to the PRT, the Mexican section of the Fourth International, which at its height had 3000 members, many of whom were peasants. If the USA had a group comparable in size, that would amount to 9000 members. Back in 1975 we in the SWP thought we were hot shit because we had 2000 member. What self-important idiots we were. I have to mention, however, that the PRT no longer exists so there’s something that needs to be taken into account about its particular problems as well. More anon.

November 9, 2012

Aqui y Alla; The Return of Lencho

Filed under: Film,Guatemala,Mexico — louisproyect @ 9:56 pm

Two recent films share the theme of Latino men returning to their native countries and all the dislocation this entails. The first is “Aquí y Allá” (Here and There), a film that has been making the film festival rounds this year, including a screening at the NY Film Festival at Lincoln Center last month. The other is “The Return of Lencho” that opens today at the Quad Cinema. Both are modest efforts financially and not without the flaws often found in first-time feature films. But they more than make up for that in dealing with issues of some urgency, namely the continuing failure of Mexico and Guatemala to provide a social and economic framework for full human development.

“Aquí y Allá” tells the story of Pedro, a thirtyish man who has just returned to his small mountain village in Guerrero after working in the U.S., presumably as an “illegal”. He has hopes of making it as a musician, pouring much of his hard earned money into an electric keyboard and other equipment. His group is “Copa Kings”, named after his village. They play the cumbia, a Colombian style that has made its way into Mexico. He starts out trying to assemble a band and lining up bookings but runs into obstacles of one sort or another. The men he tries to recruit are reluctant to take a chance on such a venture and the pay per performance is barely enough to pay for the basics of living.

After years of living in the U.S., his teenaged daughters have trouble bonding with him even though he tries hard to win them over. When he plays the guitar and sings for them, they giggle uncontrollably. It is not so much the laughter of a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert but the nervousness that comes from a barely-suppressed fear that their father is wasting his time and money.

After Pedro’s wife becomes pregnant, she develops complications that threaten her life and that of her embryo. She checks into a hospital that Pedro visits every chance he gets. When the doctor tells him that a certain medication is necessary, the only option is for him to go to local pharmacies to see if they have it and pay for it out of his own rapidly declining funds. It is about as stunning an indictment of the Mexican health care system as you are likely to see anywhere.

Despite this ostensibly melodramatic part of the narrative, “Aquí y Allá” is understated, almost to the point of minimalism. Much time is spent listening to people making small talk or working in the nearby cornfields, as dry and as unpromising as the lives they face.

If and when “Aquí y Allá” comes to your local theater, I suggest putting it down on your calendar. Whenever I see a Mexican in my neighborhoods slaving away as dishwashers, take-out food deliverers, or non-union construction workers, I often wonder what kind of life they led at home and why they would take a chance at being arrested as an “illegal” and to work in such brutal and underpaid conditions. This film allows you to understand their conditions better than any newspaper article.

As a side-note, I was fascinated to see that the production company is led by an Israeli émigré who used to work in the Fixed Income Electronic Trading group at the now defunct Lehman Brothers. I dare say that this evolution would form the basis of a screenplay in and of itself.

“The Return of Lencho” refers to Lencho Aguilar’s return to Guatemala City after spending some years in the U.S. developing his career as an artist. He is the son of a journalist who was murdered by the army during the “dirty war” against the leftist guerrillas in the 1980s. Lencho’s time is divided between art projects in Guatemala City and researching his father’s death in the newly released archives of the dictatorship.

Despite the end of the dictatorship, Guatemala is still a dangerous place for leftists. Not long after he returns home, the cops begin plotting to kill the young artist who they assume will be taking the side of Indians just like his father.

Unlike the 1980s, there is no mass movement for artists to hook up with. When Lencho and a friend spot a small demonstration against a Canadian mining company, they take heart despite its smallness. But most of his rebelliousness is tied up with street graffiti of the sort that became popular in places like New York and San Francisco in the 1990s. Lencho feels it gives him “street cred” even though his girlfriend worries about the dangers involved and the hit-or-miss messaging of most graffiti artists. She urges him to stick with murals since they generate income and don’t risk arrest or beatings, something he suffers almost the first time out with a spray-paint can. The cops have obviously been tailing him.

Director Mario Morales, a Guatemalan who went to CUNY, originally intended to make a film more about graffiti than politics but decided to combine the two after an incident traumatized him:

El Regreso de Lencho was born out of anger. After six months of research for the film about the violent situation in Guatemala, my younger brother and a friend were kept captive by the police in Antigua, Guatemala for no reason, besides of course, being young and having tattoos.

A police patrol car randomly started shooting at them; my Brother’s friend, the driver, crashed and they both got out of the vehicle with their hands in the air, clearly communicating that they had no weapons or drugs on them. Four police officers bearing AK-47 and AR-15 weapons approached them and started beating them with out any provocation. They hit them on the chest with back of their rifles and then kicked them. As soon as one of them realized that my brother had a tattoo on his calf, he was shot in his lower hip and the bullet exited below the knee.

They were taken to the police station without being offered any medical attention. My brother was handcuffed to a window bar and was left in a standing position all night.

The police department did not answer any questions regarding the case until the next morning, when our Mother went to the station with a lawyer. My Brother was being charged with illegal gun and drug possession; those charges were dropped the moment the lawyer stepped in the station. Days after my family took steps to take the case to court, we started receiving calls from friends in the Government advising them to stop the process, and that my brother needed to leave the country.

This is the case for many young Guatemalans, but very few can afford a lawyer. Young Guatemalans are killed daily by the PNC (Guatemala’s national police department), in connections with alleged gang membership. The PNC has become a military police force. The use of heavy caliber weapons and military style operations aimed at suppressing any kind of youth movement has defined them as a force against intellectual and artistic expression.

Clear proof of the Government’s plan to destroy any youth movement is the case of a young member of our cast, Carlos Chacón, who belonged to a hip hop collective. Two years after finishing the shoot for my film he was killed by the PNC in his neighborhood public school were he was teaching break-dancing to 11 year-old children. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Although I tend to mute my criticisms of earnest and socially aware films such as these, the flaw contained in both is so similar that I will mention them now in the hope that the directors might take them into account in their next film. Although I found both films compelling and just the sort that my regular readers will seek out, they both neglected to consider the key element that makes the best films work—namely a conflict between principal characters. This could have been between Pedro and his daughters in “Aquí y Allá” or Lencho and the cops in “The Return of Lencho”. In the first film, the feelings of alienation remain underdeveloped and the cops in the second function more as a deus ex machina at the end. But to repeat, both of these films are important works that should be sought out given the growing ties—both negative and positive—between the imperialist colossus of the north and our compañeros to the south. The negative, of course, is based on economic exploitation and the positive on the growing political collaboration that will be necessary to take imperialism down.

July 14, 2010


Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous,Mexico — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, Alamar, a documentary directed by Pedro González-Rubio, deals with some of the most basic relationships in existence–between father and son, and between human beings and nature. It is also an implicit call for preserving the stunningly beautiful region of Banco Chinchorro, an Eden-like home near Belize to thousands of different species and the largest coral reef in Mexico, now threatened by tourism and urbanization according to the press notes. Since much of the film’s action takes place in the waters off the east coast of Mexico, one viewing it cannot help but be reminded of the impact that the BP oil spill is having on another natural wonder to the north.

The film begins with a brief introduction to a foundering marriage between Jorge Machado, a Mexican fisherman, and Roberta Palombini, an Italian with a preference for urban life as she openly admits. Just before she returns to Rome with their five year old son Natan, she agrees to let Natan join his father on a trip to Banco Chinchorro where he will see how his father makes his living alongside an older man named Néstor Marín, nicknamed Matraca (rattle).

Jorge and Matraca introduce Natan to life on the waters, starting with the shanty-like dwelling on stilts that they share on an inlet. They own few possessions except for a motor boat, fishing tackle, some hammocks, a few other pieces of furniture, and some pots and pans. Without a single word of commentary, the movie makes a powerful point about our kinship with nature. The movie had a particular resonance for me since the only time I was ever to bond with my own father was when we were fishing in the lakes and ponds of Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains. The loss of marine life due to unregulated commercial development in this area saddened me not just for what it meant for nature, but also for the loss of the one connection I had to my father.

Oddly enough, the movie reminded me very much of Arctic Son, another movie about the clash between nature and “civilization” focused on a father and son relationship now available from Netflix, in that case a Gwinchin Indian from northern Canada and his son who lived with his mother in Seattle, where he was losing track of his native heritage and abusing drugs and alcohol. He goes to live with his father who teaches him how to hunt and fish and see nature from a native’s perspective.

While this film would be compelling on visual terms alone, as we see the three main characters at work in the crystalline-blue waters, it is much more about unalienated human relationships. Indeed, it is difficult to refer to their activities as work since millions of people pay a small fortune each year to go spear-fishing in the same waters. You obviously begin to think about the nature of work from watching the film and wonder how much mankind has gained from “evolving beyond” the village-based economies of the pre-Conquest era.

Director González-Rubio was fortunate to happen on the three males who are just perfect on camera. Jorge Machado is a striking presence with shoulder-length hair and a feline grace, bearing a striking resemblance to the late Bob Marley. Matraca is a grizzled, gray-haired man with a sweet smile and a lively sense of humor. Natan completes the group, about the most relaxed and amiable five year old I have ever seen on or off camera.

This is an exceptional movie that will linger in your memory for a long time after you see it. Highly recommended.

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