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.


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.


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.


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.

June 3, 2013

Welcome to Mexico City

Filed under: Mexico,Travel — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Like most of my readers I imagine, the idea of taking a Club Med or Carnival Cruise vacation is the last thing that would occur to me. So when my wife proposed that we spend 5 days in Mexico City en route to her conference in Costa Rica, I said sure, why not.

But after buying a tour book for Mexico City, trepidations set in. It warned that you’d better not go out after dark and that if you needed a cab, you’d better have the hotel call one for you. It seems that from time to time some thug hijacks a cab and then picks up an unsuspecting fare that is driven to an ATM machine in some remote location and forced at gunpoint to withdraw oodles of cash. But even if you have the hotel call a cab for you, how are you supposed to get back? All in all, it sounded like that Denzil Washington movie “Man on Fire” that pitted our plucky hero against an army of narcotraficante kidnappers in Mexico City. Every street in that movie seemed to harbor a bunch of bad guys with hand grenades in each pocket and a willingness to use them against 3 year olds. Since Malcolm X’s grandson had been killed in Mexico City shortly after we booked our reservations, my anxiety deepened.

Of course anybody who has lived in New York City in the worst of times, as I did in the 60s and 70s, would realize how stupid my fears were. Not only was Mexico City much safer than Avenue C after dark; it was one of my most rewarding experiences as a traveler ever. Since my interest in touring is much more about picturesque architecture than scuba diving, this city was made to order. Unlike Istanbul, another mega-city that has grown like Topsy from the inpouring of impoverished rural folk, Mexico City is utterly dedicated to the preservation of the city’s indigenous and colonial past—even as they were mortal enemies. Spread throughout the city is 500-year-old churches and Aztec ruins that take your breath away. I suppose if the AKP were in charge of Mexico City, the Aztec ruins would be carted away to make room for a shopping mall.

Furthermore, you really don’t need a cab to get around. Mexico City has a subway system that is second to none (even if the cars are not air-conditioned.) It costs 3 pesos to get on a train. Since the exchange rate is just under 13 pesos per dollar, the fare amounts to 23 cents!

We ended up staying at the Sheraton Maria Isabela Hotel on Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s major thoroughfares and along a stretch of blocks that amounted to Embassy Row. This is basically a four-star hotel that cost us about $150 per night. The hotel was located near Zona Rosa, the city’s burgeoning gay and bohemian neighborhood. We were located a block from the famous “El Angel” monument and pleased to see male couples making out on its steps. As you may know, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009, something that befits the city’s progressive traditions.

For decades now, there has been a leftist Mayor in power. This gives the city a great vibe as you can see evidence of its effects everywhere, from free bikes (as opposed to Bloomberg’s that cost $95) to low-cost subways. The city also pays for yearly check-ups for its citizens.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere you look there are signs of the city’s radical and indigenous roots. Streets are named after Aztec rulers or objects, or after well-known figures of its own revolutionary past or that of Latin America as a whole. Even longer than Paseo de la Reforma is Avenida de las Insurgentes, the second longest street in Latin America (the first is in Buenos Aires.) The “Insurgentes” is a reference to the insurgent army that fought for Mexican independence from 1810 to 1821.

Besides the metro (cabs are also cheap), restaurants are bargains as well. On our first night an old friend from my Trotskyist youth accompanied us to a Uruguayan steakhouse that he heard good things about. I had a skirt steak for $10 that was far better than the $35 steak I ate at Ben and Jack’s a year or so ago. All in all, your money goes a long way in Mexico City.
If you are looking for an inexpensive but vastly rewarding place to take a vacation this year or next, I can’t recommend Mexico City highly enough.

I have a couple of more posts on my visit pending. The first will deal with the organized left in Mexico City and the country as a whole based on my discussions with my old friend and comrade Peter Gellert mentioned above. After that I will post about the Aztecs, getting into the thorny question of human sacrifice. And finally there will be a review of Adolfo Gilly’s history of the Mexican revolution. Gilly and Peter belonged to the PRT, the Mexican section of the Fourth International, which at its height had 3000 members, many of whom were peasants. If the USA had a group comparable in size, that would amount to 9000 members. Back in 1975 we in the SWP thought we were hot shit because we had 2000 member. What self-important idiots we were. I have to mention, however, that the PRT no longer exists so there’s something that needs to be taken into account about its particular problems as well. More anon.

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