Anarchism's greatest hits No 6

Ricardo Magon


INSIDE MODERN MEXICO the name of Ricardo Flores Magon is well known, and is regarded in a somewhat similar way to that of James Connolly in Ireland. But outside Mexico few have heard of him. Born to a poor family in 1873, he became a journalist on the opposition paper 'El Demócrata' after finishing school. In 1900, along with his brother Jesús, he founded "Regeneración', a radical paper opposed to the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

After release from a second prison sentence arising from his campaigning journalism, he moved across the border to the USA. Despite continual persecution and imprisonment by the U.S. authorities, at the instigation of the Mexican dictatorship - who had put a price of $20,000 on his head after he wouldn't be bought off with the offer of a place in the government - he would not be silenced.

Ricardo Flores MagonIn 1905 Magon founded the Mexican Liberal Party, a reformist organisation opposed to the excesses of the regime, which organised two unsuccessful uprisings against Diaz in 1906 and 1908. During his early years of exile he became acquainted with the legendary anarchist Emma Goldman, and it was partly through her that he moved from reformism to become an anarchist.

With the outbreak of the revolution of 1910, the revolution that he and the PLM more than any other group or person, had paved the way for, Magon devoted the rest of his life to the anarchist cause. Through the influence of his ideas large areas of land were expropriated by the peasants and worked in common by them under the banner of 'Land and Liberty', the motto of the PLM. This motto was later adopted by Emiliano Zapata, whose legacy inspires the EZLN rebels of Southern Mexico today.

As the revolution began on November 20th 1910, Magon summed up the aims of PLM "The Liberal Party works for the welfare of the poor classes of the Mexican people. It does not impose a candidate (in the presidential election), because it will be up to the will of the people to settle the question. Does the people want a master? Well let them elect one. All the Liberal Party desires is to effect a change in the mind of the toiling people so that every man and woman should know that no one has the right to exploit anybody."

A fortnight later he explained the difference between the PLM and other opposition movements: "Governments have to protect the right of property above all other rights. Do not expect then, that Madero will attack the right of property in favour of the working class. Open your eyes. Remember a phrase, simple and true and as truth indestructible, the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves".

By January PLM forces were fighting in six of Mexico's states. Major towns, as well as rural areas, were liberated by the anarchists. In March a peasant army led by Zapata, and influenced by the Magonistas of the PLM, rose up in Morelos. By now the nationalist opposition of Madero had turned some of its guns away from the troops of Diaz and begun to attack the anarchists of the PLM.

In April the PLM issued a manifesto to "the members of the party, to the anarchists of the world and the workers in general". Vast quantities were produced in Spanish and English to explain their attitude to the revolution. "The Mexican Liberal Party is not fighting to destroy the dictator Porfirio Diaz in order to put in his place a new tyrant. The PLM is taking part in the actual insurrection with the deliberate and firm purpose of expropriating the land and the means of production and handing them over to the people, that is, each and every one of the inhabitants of Mexico without distinction of sex. This act we consider essential to open the gates for the effective emancipation of the Mexican people."

In massively illiterate Mexico, where many villages had only a handful of people able to read, the circulation of "Regeneración" had reached 27,000 a week. When Tijuana was liberated in May, most of Baja California came under PLM influence. They issued a manifesto "Take possession of the land...make a free and happy life without masters or tyrants".

That month saw Madero sign a peace treaty with Diaz and take over as President of Mexico. Military attacks on the PLM increased, and towns were retaken by government troops. Prisoners were murdered by the new regime, sometimes after being made to dig their own graves. At a meeting in Los Angeles, Magon was asked to accept the treaty but replied "...until the land was distributed to the peasants and the instruments of production were in the hands of the workers, the liberals would never lay down their arms".

Along with many leading PLM organisers, Magon was arrested (again) by the US authorities. The rebels were slandered as "bandits" and repression in both Mexico and the US reached new heights. Despite the setbacks caused by their relatively small size in a gigantic country, the attacks they suffered from the armies of two countries, and the terrible revenge exacted by the rich and their agents... new uprisings broke out in Senora, Durango and Coahuila.

Such was the support for their ideas, that even the conservative British TUC felt obliged to invite Honore Jaxon, Treasurer and European representative of the PLM, to address their 1911 conference. One solidarity action especially worth mentioning was the 24 hour strike by two army units in Portugal protesting against the arrest of PLM militants by the US government.

A new manifesto, emphasising their anarchism, was issued in September: "The same effort and the same sacrifices that are required to raise to power a governor - that is to say a tyrant - will achieve the expropriation of the fortunes the rich keep from you. It is for you, then, to choose. Either a new governor - that is to say a new yoke - or life redeeming expropriation and the abolition of all imposition, religious, political or any other kind".

PLM and Zapatista rebellions continued until 1919, but their numbers and inadequate arms were not sufficient to defeat the state forces. However all was not in vain. In 1922 the anarchist CGT trade union was founded in Mexico city, and today the rebellion in the state of Chiapas can be seen as, partly at least, a continuation of Magon's struggle.

During the years of struggle Magon opposed and fought successive so-called "revolutionary regimes," resisting both the old and new dictatorships with equal vigour. Imprisoned by the U.S. authorities in 1905, 1907, and 1912 he was finally sentenced to 20 years under the espionage laws in 1918. He died, apparently after suffering beatings, in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, on November 22, 1922.

When his body was brought back across the border, every town where the cortege stopped was decked out in the red and black flags of anarchism. In Mexico city 10,000 working people escorted his body to Panteon Frances where it is buried. A flame had been lit that will not burn out until liberty becomes a living reality.

Alan MacSimóin


Some of Magon's writings

Zapatista mural of Magon

Ricardo Flore Magon 'sowing the seeds of tomorrow' - a detail from the Taniperlas mural which was destroyed by the Mexican army in 1997. Taniperlas is the location of the Zapatista council for the autonomus municipility named after Magon.


This article is from Workers Solidarity No 53 published in January 1998