Multiple Radical Possibilities
A Review of Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution
May 1, 2023
As a student of the Mexican Revolution, I had always struggled to situate that revolutionary process within an internationalist emancipatory tradition. Though I knew that the revolution had been one of the most radical and its constitution one of the most progressive of the time, it always failed to appear as prominently as the French or Bolshevik revolutions in my political circles. In the academy it did not fare much better; the subject had become the territory of specialized historians, ossified government narratives, or hagiographies of great men like Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
In many ways, my doctoral dissertation on the role of railroad workers in the Mexican Revolution tried to challenge the limited conclusions in the academic literature, which emphasized the role of peasant masses to minimize its Marxist relevance. I thought that by centering industrial workers, I would push against these constraining definitions without seeing that I was creating my own. Frustrated and dissatisfied, I abandoned my work on the subject believing that I would not write again about it. That is until now.
Arise! by Christina Heatherton is a book of sweeping scope, not only in its historical and geographical extent but most importantly in its political-theoretical perspectives. Arise! connects a buried history of internationalist struggles in the era of the Mexican Revolution and enables us to reinterpret this period in a new light. In the process, it summons the dreams and desires of revolutionaries from across the world to unleash multitudes and expands our understanding of the revolution to restore the enduring legacy of this emancipatory struggle.
The book and the intellectual project it pursues are a radical break from the historiography of the Mexican Revolution since it situates the organizers around it and their ideals within the longue durée of internationalist struggles ranging from the abolitionist movement of the 1840s to the antifascist movements of the twentieth century. This is an important intervention since most writing on the subject restricts the revolution to its national borders and in many cases projects onto it the eventual nationalist project it became without interrogating the multiple radical possibilities it contained.
As the governments that emerged from revolution relied on its legacy to erect their institutions and policies, the revolution became ossified within official accounts that oftentimes downplayed its most radical components. From the 1930s to the 1960s there emerged an official account which highlighted the role of bourgeois democrats, radical generals, and conservative men of state while underplaying—or deliberately erasing—the popular movements and their leaders.
After 1968, a new generation of historians sought to reclaim these popular struggles and books like Adolfo Gilly’s La revolución interrumpida (1971) inspired a new wave of writing from below as the state lost credibility and discursive control of the revolution. Other works like those of John Womack or Friedrich Katz focused on the most important popular figures like Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Morelos commune, or Francisco “Pancho” Villa, caudillo of the Northern Division. Nevertheless, these works for the most part still understood the revolution and its aims within its national borders.
A notable exception and contribution to an internationalist re-centering of the revolution is Claudio Lomnitz’s The Return of the Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (2014), which is an in-depth study of the origins, activity, and repression of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) known as the magonistas. This work highlights the transnational character of the Mexican Revolution with special emphasis on the solidarity and relationships between members of the magonistas, the Socialist Party of America, and the Wobblies, and can be read alongside Arise! for a fulsome understanding of the PLM’s politics and leading figures. Still, the vision and scope of Arise! Is much broader, and its lessons exhort us to act in the present.
The book’s chapters are organized around a theme—and the way different actors carry out that theme—which ultimately builds or undermines the construction of radical, abolitionist internationalism. With poignant histories of capitalist development and detailed portraits of leading figures in struggles of the period, the book weaves the emergence of communist and abolitionist movements of the nineteenth century led by Karl Marx and Frederick Douglass to contextualize the absorption of the Mexican territory into the capitalist global economy. Alongside these insights, Heatherton deploys W.E.B. Du Bois’s analysis of the color line understood as a “set of logics and spatial practices at work, an ascendant way of thinking that naturalized intensely destructive global processes of exploitation, expropriation and extermination.”11. Christina Heatherton, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution (Oakland, University of California Press, 2022), 8, 177.
By tracing the geography of global capital accumulation in tandem with the color line, the first chapter shows that a new internationalist consciousness was organized against the new imperialism during a period when the United States replaced the United Kingdom as a major exporter of capital, thanks in large part to the extraction of wealth from Mexico. In the process, we learn how racism is part of the history and development of the capitalist mode of production.
Chapter Two explores the social, economic, and political upheavals brought about by the rapid capitalist development at the beginning of the twentieth century. It shows how the explosion of the Mexican Revolution attracted figures like the American jo1urnalist John Reed and the Indian nationalist M.N. Roy. In this period, people and ideas circulated between the Mexican and the Russian Revolutions of 1917. For M.N. Roy, his experiences in Mexico reinforced the notion that anticolonial struggles like those in India and Mexico were essential for global revolution. In the process, Roy converted from nationalism to communism, intervened in debates in the Communist International, and helped found the Communist Party of Mexico.
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in the US is the convergence space of Chapter Four, where we see how the antiwar and labor movements were repressed by laws such as the 1917 Selective Service Act which mandated conscription, and the Espionage Act which criminalized dissent. Mexican members of the magonistas, were incarcerated here, among them Ricardo and Jesús Flores Magón and their comrade Librado Rivera. The chapter chronicles how many political prisoners from anarchist, communist, socialist, and labor movements gave rise to a “university of radicalism” where the inmates discussed and debated politics in the prison newspaper, the Leavenworth New Era.
This was one of my favorite chapters, where I learned how the inmates organized a night school which included classes in automobile mechanics, biology, Russian and French languages, Marxist economics, typewriting, along with three classes in Spanish. One of the most memorable sections of the book is the account of when prisoners organized a celebration for International Workers Day in 1919 that included a program featuring radical speeches, a quotes contest between Wobblies and Socialists, discussions of revolutionary methods, and singing of the Marseillaise and the Internationale. Despite the small comforts negotiated by inmates, we see how the brutality and neglect of prison life destroyed the lives of men at Leavenworth and lead to the death of the PLM leader Ricardo Flores Magón under suspicious circumstances.
While many pioneers of internationalism were incarcerated and died for the cause of the revolution, others were able to find refuge and inspiration in postrevolutionary Mexico. The second half of the book focuses on the experiences of three women who extended these struggles in new directions. Chapter Four recounts the experience of Alexandra Kollontai as Soviet ambassador to Mexico from 1916 to 1927 in a period when the USSR had become bureaucratized, and the Mexican Revolution was becoming “institutionalized.” These developments combined with the strained relations between the United States and Mexico undermined Kollontai’s role as the first Soviet ambassador in the Western hemisphere. Unfortunately, this chapter seemed underdeveloped compared to the others, and the conflicts faced by Kollontai are not entirely revealed.
Chapter Five recounts the activities of Dorothy Healey, a Communist Party member in Los Angeles who organized with agricultural Mexican workers during the Depression. It shows how the struggle for aid and relief allowed workers to feed their families and support their organizations during long strikes. Here we learn how the LAPD and the California Legislature conspired with agribusiness to undermine labor organizing by restricting aid to persons who had lived in California for years, while purposefully deporting and laying off seasonal workers. The chapter shows how migrant workers and labor activists, based on their experience and lessons from the Mexican revolution, collaborated across the color line to build solidarity and challenge the capitalist class of Southern California.
The last chapter is an in-depth exploration of the political history of the African American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett. Through her journey as an educator from the University of Iowa to New Orleans and Texas, we learn how Catlett became radicalized by the struggles against segregation and poverty during the Great Depression. In the process, Catlett became a “fellow traveler” and an integral part of the artistic communities that gave rise to the Chicago and Harlem renaissance. This chapter is the most erudite one in the book as it weaves together a personal, political, and artistic journey with the social movements of the period.
Importantly, the chapter also shows that Mexico had become a refuge, inspiration, and node of internationalist activity for African Americans at a time when lynching and fascism were on the rise in the United States. Through her personal and political connections, Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946 to work with artists at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the People’s Print Workshop) and developed a series of linocuts depicting the lives of Black working class women. Through her political and artistic work, Catlett’s experience demonstrates the broad reach of internationalist politics across the color line.
Arise! by Christina Heatherton is the book I wish existed when I embarked on my research on the Mexican Revolution. Its insights have allowed me to see the multiple radical possibilities present in the Revolution and to think more creatively about what might have been as I return to my work. The book demonstrates that adverse conditions alone don’t give rise to an internationalist consciousness but that it must be organized collectively through our struggles as workers, artists, writers, educators, renters, mothers, and organizers. When we work collectively, we see that the color line is not an ontological condition but a political project that must be challenged. It follows, as Heatherton argues, “the study of internationalism is always a reckoning with an unbidden inheritance. This reckoning, to paraphrase Fanon, is the responsibility of each generation to fulfill or to betray.”