Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

11 Comments »

  1. Great stuff, Louis. Sen Katayama, the Japanese Communist who was heavily involved with the founding of the CPUSA, spent some time in Mexico. Likewise there are the important contributions of the Mexican Magon brothers to the IWW. (They launched a revolutionary invasion of Mexico from California). And, of course, Mexico was the last land of refuge for Victor Serge.

    Any American visiting Mexico ought to be astonished by the autonomy of its culture from that of the US, except in the most debased border areas.

    Comment by RED DAVE — June 7, 2013 @ 10:03 pm

  2. One of the classiest nightclubs I’ve seen and it’s in Mexico. Trying to find the vodka in the photo. Highly interesting post.

    Comment by Doug Smiley — June 7, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

  3. Just as an editorial comment, you should insert last names more frequently. The shifting between Peter Gellert, Peter Camejo, and just plain “Peter” is a bit confusing.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — June 7, 2013 @ 11:38 pm

  4. Another informative, interesting post, Louis. As you continue to research Mexico, you might want to take a look at the work by the historian John Mason Hart. His titles indicate his scholarly and political interests: Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931 (1978), Revolutionary Mexico: the Coming & Process of the Mexican Revolution (1987), Border Crossings: Mexican & Mexican-American Workers (1998), Empire & Revolution: the Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (2002); The Silver of the Sierra Madre: John Robinson, Boss Shepherd, & the People of the Canyon (2008).

    Comment by gulf mann — June 8, 2013 @ 2:07 am

  5. These are the kind of demands needed to wage a serious class struggle at Ford Cuautitlán, for example, where union dissidents have been repeatedly beaten bloody and even murdered, or in the numerous strikes by the dissident teachers union tendency, CNTE, or against the government’s union-busting assault on the SUTAUR-100 workers. To implement this perspective, it is necessary above all to build a revolutionary workers party.

    Comment by Cassandra Atkinson — June 8, 2013 @ 6:33 am

  6. A view of the Mexican (or Italian) Communist Party wouldn’t be complete without a reference to Tina Modotti (1896-1942) . She joined in Mexico in 1927 and became a lifelong activist while continuing her work as a photographer. She began as an associate of Edward Weston and was close to the painter Diego Rivera. There’s a review of a 2003 biography by A. Letizia at http://www.swans.com/library/art12/pbyrne11.html.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — June 8, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  7. It’s not like the leftists who supported Cardenas are rolling in clover these days.

    Comment by David Altman — June 8, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

  8. I recommend ‘El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City’ (2009) by the recently deceased John Ross:

    “John Ross has been living in the old colonial quarter of Mexico City for the last three decades, a rebel journalist covering Mexico and the region from the bottom up. He is filled with a gnawing sense that his beloved Mexico City’s days as the most gargantuan, chaotic, crime-ridden, toxically contaminated urban stain in the western world are doomed, and the monster he has grown to know and love through a quarter century of reporting on its foibles and tragedies and blight will be globalized into one more McCity.

    El Monstruo is a defense of place and the history of that place. No one has told the gritty, vibrant histories of this city of 23 million faceless souls from the ground up, listened to the stories of those who have not been crushed, deconstructed the Monstruo’s very monstrousness, and lived to tell its secrets. In El Monstruo, Ross now does.” (Perseus Publishing via NYPL)

    Comment by Seekonk — June 13, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  9. Under successive PRI presidents who followed Cárdenas, the regime turned sharply to the right; nevertheless, at the height of the 1970s, a repressive anti-working-class government like that of Luis Echeverría was capable of nationalizing industries and dishing out crumbs to certain of its unconditional union bureaucratic supporters. However, as a result of the banking crisis and the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House in the ’80s, the PRI governments of Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo began dismantling their own system, following the guidelines of “neo-liberalism.” They privatized almost all the state-owned industries and eliminated a whole series of social gains and concessions to workers. They looted pension funds of the Mexican Institute of Social Security in order to create the “Afores,” individual retirement accounts (similar to IRAs in the United States) which were then deposited in the recently privatized banks, enabling them to stave off bankruptcy. However, there remained the rest of the social security system, free public education, the state oil monopoly PEMEX, the state-owned electricity companies and a series of union benefits. Fox’s PAN government promised to give the PRI regime the coup de grace. However, he was only able to do so half-way, leading to considerable discontent in business circles. Calderón was put in charge of finishing the job.

    Comment by Leo Perry — June 14, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

  10. Under successive PRI presidents who followed Cárdenas, the regime turned sharply to the right; nevertheless, at the height of the 1970s, a repressive anti-working-class government like that of Luis Echeverría was capable of nationalizing industries and dishing out crumbs to certain of its unconditional union bureaucratic supporters. However, as a result of the banking crisis and the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House in the ’80s, the PRI governments of Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo began dismantling their own system, following the guidelines of “neo-liberalism.” They privatized almost all the state-owned industries and eliminated a whole series of social gains and concessions to workers. They looted pension funds of the Mexican Institute of Social Security in order to create the “Afores,” individual retirement accounts (similar to IRAs in the United States) which were then deposited in the recently privatized banks, enabling them to stave off bankruptcy. However, there remained the rest of the social security system, free public education, the state oil monopoly PEMEX, the state-owned electricity companies and a series of union benefits. Fox’s PAN government promised to give the PRI regime the coup de grace. However, he was only able to do so half-way, leading to considerable discontent in business circles. Calderón was put in charge of finishing the job.

    Comment by Douglas Lewis — June 18, 2013 @ 8:07 am

  11. […] If I was much younger and more of a professional filmmaker than an amateur critic and videographer, I’d do something that explored Mexico’s radical traditions. This article on Mexico on the left would be a good place to start for someone with those kinds of qualifications: https://louisproyect.org/2013/06/07/mexico-and-the-left/. […]

    Pingback by Purgatorio; Algorithms | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 5, 2014 @ 6:31 pm


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