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105th Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution

Today marks the 105th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. In celebration, we revisit Claudio Lomnitz's The Return Of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, which was recently awarded the 2015 Latin American Studies Association Mexico Humanities Book Award. In this book, Claudio Lomnitz tells a groundbreaking story about the experiences and ideology of American and Mexican revolutionary collaborators of the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. It is a tale, never before told, of anarchy, cooperation, and betrayal at the margins of the Mexican Revolution. The following passage illustrates the country's political climate on the eve of revolution:

The Mexican situation was radically different when the junta leaders were imprisoned, in August 1907, than when they were released, early in August of 1910. What had changed?

First off, the revolutionary situation itself. In the view of the junta, there were two main causes for failure in 1906: betrayal of privileged information and lack of a sufficiently generalized groundswell of simultaneous, coordinated revolt. In part, these two causes were connected: espionage and the persecution of propagandists in the United States and in Mexico kept the revolutionary message from spreading properly. Spies intercepted information, and the government anticipated Liberal actions, allowing the Díaz government to repress them effectively, even before the start of the revolt.

Behind the junta’s understanding of the causes of its failure there was a vision: Mexicans all over the country were thought to be fed up with the dictatorship and ready to rebel. This conviction was built out of the everyday practice of editing Regeneración, which from its inception in 1900 was one of the very few venues to which people across Mexico could write to complain about legal trespasses and injustice. Precisely because the dictatorship did not provide sufficient venues, Regeneración was flooded with correspondence from the start.

The letters to the editor that the journal received from all over the country built in its editors and readers an image: Mexico was a seething cauldron. Each town was ready to boil over into revolution, and the only thing that was needed to effect this revolt was coordination, communication, and intellectual leadership. This was, however, a distorted picture.

There was at least one major flaw in the Liberals’ diagnosis of the viability of revolution, and this was their refusal to grant any importance of Mexico’s electoral calendar as a factor. Indeed, the pressures that the junta faced in exile seem to have led the leadership to forget or to ignore the organization’s own past. The key figures of the junta had been initiated to Mexican politics in 1892, an election year. Regeneración and the Gran Congreso Liberal had deliberately been launched immediately after what they expected would be Díaz’s final election, in 1900. The group’s imprisonment in 1903 occurred, again, in the frame of electoral politics, and there was a reason why Díaz came down harder on the opposition on or near election years. Elections were moments when widely diffuse discontent could conceivably come together and gel into an organized oppositional force.

One often ignored detail when considering the Liberals’ failed strategy in 1906 and 1908 is that when the core of the group committed to revolution, in Texas in 1904, Díaz had just been reelected, this time to a six-year term (after a change in the constitution), and with a vice president who was equally unsavory to the Liberals. But waiting six years to initiate revolutionary activities was impossible from an existential point of view—lingering that long in Texas or Missouri without a clear propaganda objective meant being condemned to dispersal as a group. Abandoning the electoral calendar in their plans for revolution was not so much a consequence of cold political analysis as an existential imperative. Waiting six years in the United States with no real activity was political death.

However, abandoning the electoral calendar also meant adopting a voluntaristic attitude toward the revolutionary process. That position was founded on an image of collective emancipation: throwing off shackles. Mexico was a country of slaves. Given the opportunity and a fighting chance, the slaves would rise against their masters and be free, independently of bourgeois conceits such as elections.

This vision contrasted with local political dynamics in Mexico. In each municipality, district, and state, there were political groups that had been marginalized by the prolonged stability of the Díaz dictatorship. These alternative groups did not necessarily believe that the revolutionary program of “Land and Freedom” was attainable or even necessarily desirable, but they did want a change of regime and at least some reform. The Liberals had grown progressively more radical, so they emphasized economic oppression as the key motivational factor for revolt. Gaining control of local, state, and federal governments was not for them a goal in itself. In this, they made a big mistake.

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