Strands That Bind
The Mexican Revolution and Working Class Internationalism: An Interview with Christina Heatherton
November 15, 2023
We at Spectre consider your book Arise!: Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution to be a crucially important rethinking of working class internationalism, and the first of its kind in many decades. You trace the movement of a “common wind,” to borrow an image from the late Julius Scott, that swept radicals together under the impact of revolutionary Mexico. The result, you suggest, was a series of unique “convergence spaces of strikes, prisons, embassies, and art collectives.” Could you elaborate what you mean by “convergence spaces?”
First off, thank you for that enormous compliment. I am deeply appreciative of Spectre’s engagement with the work. I want to make sure to say something about Julius Scott, but first let me talk about convergence spaces.
If capital is value in motion, I think the history of anticapitalist struggle has to have a corresponding animation. The concept of “convergence space” is my attempt to still some of that motion (of people, capital, commodities, ideas, and so on) and make it comprehensible. Convergence space names sites where various radical traditions have been compressed in space and where people within them have produced new syntheses of struggle.
In Arise! I look back to the turn of the twentieth century. I observe how global radicals were thrown together in unplanned assemblages and were forced to make sense of their situations with the tools available to them. People came together, as they still do, with different experiences, histories, and radical lineages.
By talking about convergences, these untidy assemblages that happen in different spaces, I’m trying to show how political theorization happens in much more uneven, creative, and expansive ways than we’re often able to conceptualize. What does it mean, for example, that Okinawan peasants were involved in labor struggles among Mexican farm workers in Southern California in the early twentieth century? What experiences did they bring? How do we make sense of the Bulgarian Communists and anticolonial Indian Ghadarites who were learning and fighting alongside Mexican revolutionaries and Irish radicals and pacifists in places like Kansas’s Leavenworth Penitentiary?
I argue there’s a much more capacious vision of internationalism than our histories may allow. Sometimes the very way we classify social movements can pose limits to our understanding of them. The categories we use can lend themselves to clear exposition, but often at the cost of comprehending how the class struggle has been understood and fought out over time.
When we think about social movements as always becoming the thing they ultimately became, our imaginations can get trapped in anachronism; we can assign coherence and forward motion to movements that they may not have actually possessed at the time. I wanted to be able to describe political traditions as evolving and intersecting, how the chaos of the global capitalist system produced unanticipated alliances and new theorizations.
I chose different spaces from my research where I thought this was most apparent: prisons, art collectives, farmworker strikes. Convergence spaces became a concept for comprehending radicalism as an intersection of different traditions. I think it has value for understanding how people come to political movements; how they both transform and are transformed by it.
I’m flattered to have Arise! described with reference to Julius Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. Scott’s crucial text reveals how abolitionist currents developed globally while defying slavery’s surveillance networks. Like C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, the book is also a powerful indictment of historians and their particular blindness to Black history. James said, “they wrote so well because they saw so little.”
Scott’s unpublished dissertation was recommended to me just as it was to generations of graduate students as a model of history from below. Ben Mabie should be credited for bringing it to publication with the support of Marcus Rediker, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Peter Linebaugh, among others. Arise! is heavily influenced by Scott and by the tradition of global abolitionist history from below. For my study, I wanted to think about this tradition in the era of the Mexican Revolution.
Can you explain what you mean by the “era of the Mexican Revolution?”
The book is situated in the era of the Mexican Revolution. I mean this somewhat expansively—I’m not just thinking about the revolution itself, but about how the histories of US hegemony, global capital, and internationalism look anew when Mexico is placed at the center of those transformations.
The Mexican Revolution is often understood as a contained nationalist event that broke out in 1910. Broadly speaking, it is seen as a domestic response to the dictatorial regime of President Porfirio Díaz who ruled Mexico for more than thirty years, a period called the Porfiriato. Across the country, groups as disparate as Indigenous peasants, industrial workers, progressive reformers, aspiring members of the middle class, fractions of the elite and military, as well as foreign investors, all began to turn against him.
Diaz’s modernization meant the mass dispossession of the Indigenous peasantry and the heightened exploitation of the proletariat. Middle class and elite fractions found their options for investment and political representation frustrated. Major Mexican landowners and industrialists along with foreign investors developed their own frustrations. Revolts broke out regionally and unevenly across the country.
Of course, the conditions that led to revolution were not unique to Mexico. Many countries, particularly throughout the Americas, were pulled into a similar frenzy in the late nineteenth century. Mexico was not unique in political fractions and social ruptures, but it uniquely exploded into revolution, arguably the first major social conflagration of the twentieth century.
These transformations had important relationships to global capital. By the outbreak of the revolution, over a quarter of all US investment lay in Mexico. US financiers owned over 80 percent of all Mexican mineral rights and more of Mexico’s surface than Mexican entities. Importantly, the first time the US became a creditor nation was in Mexico.
In Mexico, the US state developed new forms of indirect rule, a new modality of imperialism, not simply of direct territorial seizure or governance but an indirect rule through mechanisms like finance, control of banks, judges, legislatures, networks of local control, all under the threat of military intervention. I argue that US investment in Mexico prefigured the kind of debt regimes and forms of rule by which the US would come to superintend the global capitalist economy in the twentieth century.
Your book emphasizes the growing linkages between abolitionism, labor, radicalism, feminism and anti-imperialism at this time. You see these as elements in the making of a new internationalism. Could you discuss the dynamics of internationalist convergences in this era, and the unique inflections these gave to global radicalism in the early twentieth century?
In left history, 1848 is the banner year for internationalism. Proletarian revolutions swept Western Europe. The Communist Manifesto was published. But 1848 was also the year of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the US–Mexico war. Mexico lost close to half of its territory, including California, where I grew up, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona.
Alongside scholars like Gilbert Gonzalez, I argue that Mexico was annexed twice over: first, territorially, and second, geopolitically. After territorial seizure in 1848, Mexico became a prime site for new capitalist investment. US investors became some of the world’s richest men from Mexican land, government bonds, and industry. Charles Stillman made millions illegally selling Confederate cotton through a Mexican trading partner; he later invested that fortune into today’s Citibank.
Thinking about 1848 via Mexico allows us to understand a geographic pivot in the global production of capitalist space and the emergence of a new modality of imperialism coming into being. Expanding the geographic focus of 1848 also enables us to think more expansively about resistance to capitalism. In addition to the realm of capitalist production and exploitation, we can simultaneously consider extraction, transportation, debt regimes, militarism, and destruction—processes that enable industrial production.
In other words, we can think about how capitalist space came into being. This expanded frame forces us to confront legacies of colonialism. It forces us to confront the reshaping of imperialism, as people like Frederick Douglass and, later, W.E.B. Du Bois and Ricardo Flores Magón would theorize it. It forces us to think about how new definitions of internationalism were being produced.
This is a long argument in the book, so I’ll just offer a few snapshots by way of explanation. Frederick Douglass had agitated ferociously against slavery across the Atlantic in what Manisha Sinha describes as an abolitionist international. Douglass demanded that radicals throughout Western Europe understand how their fates were dramatically tied to those of enslaved people.
In the book I talk about the San Patricio battalion, in which Irish immigrants alongside German immigrants who were conscripted to fight for the United States in the US–Mexico War, defected to the Mexican side. Some had plausibly heard Douglass link struggles against capitalism to struggles against imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. Or, in the process of fighting they came to find that these struggles converge.
Many German émigrés at the time were called ’48ers, socialists who were exiled following the defeat of the 1848 revolution there. A number came to the United States, including Joseph Weydemeyer. There were deep ties between German socialists and abolitionists, as Angela Zimmerman’s research has shown.
She notes, for example, that Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte wasn’t first published in London, where Marx was living, in France where his study was located, or in Germany where Marx was from and to whose struggles he remained connected. It was first published in New York by Weydemeyer. He, like many ’48ers, transposed their struggle against German tyranny to a struggle against slavery during the US Civil War. They used the text, a follow-up to the Manifesto, to articulate these struggles.
In the lead-up to the creation of the First International, British trade unions were actively debating questions of abolition. Though British workers were acutely suffering from a dearth of cotton, they grappled with questions of solidarity in relation to slavery. Many sought to stop the British government from intervening on the side of the cotton-producing Confederacy, even though it was against their immediate material interests. Marx was present at these debates. He, like many, was moved by the solidarity with abolition at the founding of the First International.
I situate myself in the tradition of history from below, within a specifically abolitionist trajectory. The long struggle towards the abolition of slavery not only helps us re-theorize power, but it also helps us understand the kind of conversations happening on the ground when internationalism was first articulated. So, rather than imagining a proletarian internationalism as distinct from an abolitionist internationalism, I think they are more productively imagined together. This is what an alternative history of 1848 enables us to do.
You’ve reminded me of when you talk about Marx going to a meeting in London about supporting the struggle for abolition in the US, and how they were politicizing workers to do that. It seemed so dynamic, and the fact that it was workers engaging in essentially political strikes in solidarity with abolition is something hard to imagine now.
Well, an organizer once complemented Arise! by saying he thought it was principally non-sectarian. I appreciated that. I think it accurately represents the politics that I’m trying to represent. In the early twentieth century, politics were fluid in ways that are hard to capture in the present.
For example, the relationship between the anarcho-syndicalist politics of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party or the class war anarchism of the period are not easily translated into today’s categories. People struggled through the concrete situations in which they found themselves with the people that they happened to be among through the categories available to them. We can learn from their dynamism.
Now, politics can seem like something people feel they pledge allegiance to rather than something they work through and transform. It can be hard and a little dogmatic. It may be a natural reflex in chaotic times to lean on hardened formulations in a way that can feel powerful—that can make us feel powerful. But it’s actually the opposite.
Especially since a lot of those lines were drawn based on defeat. An older historiography of the Left essentially drew a continuous line from the international politics of the European revolutions in 1848 to the Russian Revolution of 1917. How does the trajectory of global radicalism that you trace in the era of the Mexican Revolution both complicate and enrich our histories of working class internationalism?
One of the people I worked with was Robin D.G. Kelley, who described the significance of what he called “other streams of internationalism,” antiracist, anticolonial, anti-imperialist, and feminist trajectories. I think sometimes we get trapped by friends and foes alike who pretend there is a rigid and singular left history that has never been revised.
Kelley asks us to open up to quite longstanding traditions that enrich our conception of internationalism. These other streams of internationalism can help us reimagine the movement of capital. Thinking about struggles, for example, among French industrial workers in the nineteenth century, one cannot overlook the wealth built from France’s holdings in the Caribbean, South Asia, Africa, or its other colonies.
Struggles of British textile workers, as we discussed earlier, are inseparable from the slave and colonial regimes that produced the cotton for the textile industries. The violent extraction of raw material, the maintenance of colonial labor forces, the racial regimes securing them, none of this can be separated from struggles of the industrial proletariat.
It reminds me of your discussion of ropes and the literal inter-twining of imperialism and racist oppression at the beginning of the book.
Right. I open the book describing the making of the turn-of-the-century lynch rope. The composite fibers can be traced globally—manila from US imperial regimes in the Philippines, cotton produced through Jim Crow sharecropping regimes, and so on. In the early twentieth century, sisal and henequen fibers came from southern Mexico, brutally harvested by dispossessed Indigenous people, prisoners, and indebted immigrants.
I describe the twining together of these different strands in the making of an instrument of racist torture and terror. These strands tied together the imperial world, the colonial world, and the racist regimes within the US. At the same time, I argue that by unbraiding the strands of accumulation—by pulling apart those different fibers—you can also understand how people were thrown together and connected their experiences from different regimes of accumulation across capitalist space. In the lead-up to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, I argue that these strands help us trace an alternate version of internationalism.
There is a centrality of revolutionary art in your account of these convergence spaces, including with art collectives. Could you discuss the critical place of art and cultural practice in the global radicalism of that moment, and how it relates to today?
There is no revolution without art. Think about Fanon’s reflections on culture. Things prefigured in art are often collectively felt but not yet politically realizable at present. Revolutionary art can be a container of future possibilities. It was very important to me to have Elizabeth Catlett’s 1947 print “I Have Given the World My Songs” on the book’s cover. How I came to this image was related to how I came to the book itself.
I had been interested in an internationalist art collective called the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), based in Mexico City, particularly a series of prints that they published in 1947 which told the history of the Mexican Revolution. I was intrigued by how they visually narrated this major historical event to people with varying levels of literacy. I was also curious about how they depicted the legacy of the revolution as a long struggle against fascism.
I went to the Stanford archives to look at the TGP prints. In the same box, there was another series called The Black Woman by Elizabeth Catlett. At first, I thought maybe they were in the wrong place. Where the TGP featured Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, Catlett’s series featured Harriet Tubman and Phyllis Wheatley. I couldn’t make sense of why they were in the same place. But the more I looked, the more I recognized stylistic and political resonance.
Some TGP prints depicted the repression of Indigenous people in Mexico. Catlett’s series has a print depicting the lynching of Black people in the United States. Putting the images together, small details, like the angle of a wrist or the placement of a common object seemed intentionally similar. I subsequently read people like Melanie Herzog and Rebecca Schreiber who thought about the tension between these two series. I asked myself why Catlett might align Black feminist struggles with the history of the Mexican Revolution and a long struggle against fascism.
Catlett was part of a milieu of radical Black feminist organizers in the 1930s and ’40s who centered the struggles of Black women, particularly Black domestic workers. People like Esther Cooper Jackson wrote a famous MA thesis on the topic. Marvell Cook covered their organizing efforts in her journalism. Claudia Jones, most famously, asked how the theorization of capital changed when Black domestic workers are placed at the center.
This is, of course, an internationalist struggle. Catlett, through her art, situates questions about Black feminism and Black domestic workers in relation to Mexican politics and US imperialism. I had this image up on my wall for years. I thought, if I can try to explain this picture, I might have a book.
Your emphasis on the making of radical internationalism reminds us that projects of transforming the world remain open-ended. Their unfinished character means that we can draw upon these experiences today. How do you hope your book might fuel the revolutionary imagination we need today? How do you see it connecting to the revolutionary activity that has emerged, I’m thinking of the uprisings in 2019 in Chile, Sudan, Hong Kong, and beyond, the Black Lives Matter 2020 uprising, and more?
I love that we have ten minutes left and now you ask me to address every contemporary global struggle. But that’s the right question. I’ll say this. The book is self-consciously called Arise! because it takes the first word of the Internationale: “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation. Arise, ye wretched of the earth…”
Yes, you mention in the book the Lawrence textile strike and the Internationale being translated into many languages during the struggle.
Yeah! I’m fascinated by the song and its history. I love episodes like the 1912 Lawrence strike where immigrant workers from all over the world sang it in their own languages all together. There’s a dissonance and resonance that is really beautiful. There have been a number of studies that take different lyrics of the song as book titles. Each of these studies thinks about the struggle for internationalism in the authors’ own times. Most famous is Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.
In the book’s conclusion, I talk about a few others. Dorothy Healey was a Communist organizer in California for a very long time. Shortly after she left the Communist Party, she did an oral history with Maurice Isserman. There, she said that if she ever wrote a memoir, she wanted it to be called Traditions Chains Have Bound Us. This would be a slight adaptation of the lyrics, “no more traditions chains shall bind us.”
She is trying to reckon with her moment and the way the radical traditions that she was a part of had become fetters. She says something like, if we’re unable to continually enliven struggles with a renewed consciousness of the world before us, they cease to become radical, they become something else, shadows of what they once were.
To riff on Fanon, it’s the responsibility of every generation to confront the world before them, to discover their revolutionary mission and fulfill or betray it. We can’t simply import the understandings of another period, or just elevate the thinkers of a different moment into our own and presume that they have all the answers for today. I think this is a really defensive way of approaching radical history.
One of the places where Gramsci discusses the “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” he also talks about the power of “daydreams and fantasies.” He describes the seduction of things that offer certainty that one might not have at a given moment. If we can simply imagine conquering something, it can scratch the itch of actually fighting it. But this is a cautionary tale. Gramsci emphasizes the pessimism of the intellect as a warning: you have to be able to avoid the things that simply make you feel powerful. Instead, you have to build power.
This moment is replete with people feeling scared and retreating into formulations akin to Gramsci’s description of daydreams. We see many masculinist fantasies in which people imagine themselves as heroes in retrograde ways, in ways denied to them in this life. It leads to incredible explosions of violence and misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and suicide.
But on the Left there is a similar type of fantasizing. There is a leaning on older formulations. They can make us feel powerful while actually preventing us from confronting the contradictions of our moment. Some of that involves extolling political traditions as if they were always righteous, or conscripting diverse political figures as if they were always in agreement with each other.
But what is the history of the Left in the twentieth century? It’s a lot of fights, debates, and splits. Yet it is also a history of people who had the courage to face what was complicated about their moment and risked being wrong. Marxism, as Stuart Hall said, without guarantees.
How do we understand the struggle for internationalism in our moment? What are the things that tie us together? The process is not as simple as just waiting for the workers of the world to unite. There’s much that prevents us from even understanding ourselves as part of the same struggle.
But in our moment of climate chaos, of proto-fascism and sometimes overt fascism, in a moment of total existential crisis for the world, we have to imagine a form of internationalism today. We simply will not survive if we don’t.
The book is a call more than an answer. It proposes some ground-clearing. It is about understanding the political traditions that we draw upon anew and imagine ourselves within them. We cannot just extoll heroes from the past and say they had all the answers. We must have the courage to face our chaotic moment together, without guarantees.
Christina Heatherton is the Elting Associate Professor of American Studies and Human Rights at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. She is the author of Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution. With Jordan T. Camp she has edited Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. She is cohost of the podcast/web series Conjuncture, and currently codirects the Trinity Social Justice Institute.