Magonismo: An Overview

 

From The New Formulation: An Anti-authoritarian Review of Books (Volume Two, Number Two — Winter Spring 2004)

 

md9821756961El Magonismo: historia de una pasión libertaria, 1900-1922
(Magonism: History of a Libertarian
Passion, 1900-1922)
By Salvador Hernández Padilla
México, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1984

 

4fenomenoEl fenómeno magonista en México y en Estados Unidos 1905-1908
(The Magonist Phenomenon in Mexico and
the United States, 1905-1908)
By Ricardo Cuauhtémoc Esparza Valdivia
Zacatecas: Centro de Investigaciones Históricas,
Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, 2000

Review by Chuck Morse

Ricardo Flores Magón is one of the most important anarchists in the history of the Americas. The movement he led and inspired shook the Mexican state in the early 20th century and helped lay the foundations for the Mexican revolution of 1910. He was also a participant in radical movements in the United States and a security concern that reached the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The literature on Magón and the Magonists (as his comrades were known) has expanded considerably in recent decades and it is now possible to develop a fuller appreciation of the movement than at any previous time. One can explore the personal dilemmas of Magón and his co-conspirators through various scholarly biographies, read about the Magonists’ impact on specific regions of the United States and Mexico, or study Magonist contributions to Mexican radicalism generally.(1)

Anarchists should welcome this not only because our predecessors are finally receiving the historical recognition that they deserve but also because we now have the resources necessary to undertake a deep confrontation with the Magonist legacy. It is now possible to develop a very clear idea of how the Magonists tried to create an anarchist revolution, the consequences their activity yielded, as well as determine whether there are aspects of their activity that we should emulate today.

The books reviewed here are particularly useful. El magonismo: historia de una pasión libertaria, 1900-1922 (Magonism: History of a Libertarian Passion, 1900-1922) by Salvador Hernández Padilla studies the entire history of Magonism from its emergence at the turn of the century to its disappearance from the political scene in the 1920s. El fenómeno magonista en México y en Estados Unidos 1905-1908 (The Magonist Phenomenon in Mexico and the United Status, 1905-1908) by Ricardo Cuauhtémoc Esparza Valdivia examines Magonist activity in Mexico and the United States in the years indicated by the title. Continue reading

Review: The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City by Warren Magnusson

This review first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Stir Magazine

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Review of
The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City
By Warren Magnusson
Routledge: London and New York, 2011
190 Pages

Reviewer: Chuck Morse

“Under the pavement, the beach!”—when activists in the Situationist International popularized this slogan during the 1968 uprising in Paris, they articulated an ideal that has deep roots on the left: the notion that the city is a realm of freedom that will reward bold insurgents with unexpected delights. This conviction coursed through the same streets nearly a century earlier, during the Paris Commune of 1871, and quite recently in places such as Zuccotti Park and Tahir Square among others. Intuitively, at the very least, most radicals regard the city as a sphere of democratic immediacy and revolutionary possibility.

But theorizing this has been difficult for the Left. Marxists have directed our political attentions to the state, which they regard as the only institution capable of fully transforming society, and thus our grim but obligatory companion. Whereas anarchists, who object to the state on principle, have struggled to envision an alternative means of organizing political life, despite their many gestures in that direction. The state has always seemed to define the limits of our political horizon, our strong urbanist impulses notwithstanding.

Warren Magnusson argues that this is a big mistake in his new book, The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City. In his short but ambitious work, he urges us to expel the state from the center of our political imagination and to replace it with a political vocabulary derived from the city. In his words, we should stop “seeing like a state” and begin “seeing like a city.” Though limited in certain key respects, this text is a significant and innovative attempt to formulate a truly urban outlook. Continue reading

Book Review: The Housing Monster

(This review of The Housing Monster by Prole.info first appeared in Anarchist Studies, Vol. 22, No 1. January 2014)

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Anarchists have been wrestling with the politics of the built environment since the middle of the twentieth century, if not earlier. John F. C. Turner wrote influential books on architecture, Colin Ward put out worthy studies of housing and urbanism, and there is a small shelf of anarchist-inspired works on squats. These are the most conspicuous examples, but there are many others.

The Housing Monster is part of this tradition. Authored by someone (or some people) identified only as ‘prole.info’, this short, pamphlet-like work uses something that we typically take for granted—the house—as a springboard for a critical meditation on capitalist society as a whole. ‘A house is more than four walls and a roof ’, writes prole.info. ‘From its design and production to the way it is sold, used, resold and eventually demolished, it is crisscrossed by conflict. From the construction site to the neighbourhood, impersonal economic forces and very personal conflicts grow out of each other.’(p 4)

The goal of The Housing Monster is to unpack and clarify these conflicts and show how their resolution requires a revolutionary transformation of the social context that produces them. Modeled loosely on Marx’s analysis of the commodity in Capital, it begins with a discussion of the home as a physical fact, which leads to a discussion of the construction industry and construction work, which leads to a consideration of neighbourhoods and urban planning, which leads to an excursus on attempts at housing alternatives, which leads, finally, to a call to abandon reform and abolish capitalism as a whole. For prole.info, serious reflection on housing pushes us to think beyond the present society.

The Housing Monster operates at a high level of generality and abstraction. Filled with dramatic, black-and-white illustrations and cast in an intimate tone, it intends to explore the intersection of housing, capitalism, and the state as such, not these things in specific geographic or historical contexts. This is a weakness to the degree that prole.info has a tendency to skate over important particulars. Surely housing is different in Bombay and Montreal and New Haven and surely it was different in 1914 as compared to today. Some recognition of these differences would have improved the text.

But the book’s sweeping quality is also a strength. Indeed, what makes it unique is not so much its commentary on specific aspects of housing as its ability to portray it as a vast social process in which capital, labour, and politics interact at various registers and in various hues. It is a dialectical, highly relational work that gestures toward a conflicted, complicated totality of social relations and invites activists to place their work in that context. The implication is that doing so will enable them to ‘relate to each other in new ways … discover abilities we didn’t know we had, and … begin to feel our power’. (p 143)

Th is genre-bending book is probably too zine-like for housing scholars and too scholarly for casual readers. Nonetheless, it is inspired and compelling and carries on the tradition of anti-authoritarian interrogation of the built environment. It does so by reminding us of something that Turner, Ward and others have articulated in their own terms over the years: houses are much more than structures, they are also sites of social struggle and potentially arenas for the assertion of revolutionary aspirations.

~ Chuck Morse

Prole.info, The Housing Monster Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012, 1 47 pp; ISBN-13: 978-1-604865-30-1.

 

 

Book Review: Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden

This first appeared on the Civil Eats blog on November 2, 2011.

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The notion that politics only takes place in the voting booth or halls of state basically evaporated in the 1960s. We now know that political acts occur in a range of settings: in our neighborhoods, bedrooms, kitchens, and, yes, even in our gardens.

The use of gardens as a means of social engagement and a forum in which to articulate oppositional ideas is the subject of George McKay’s Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism, and Rebellion in the Garden. In the work, he chronicles the history of politicized gardens and documents some of the various ways that activists have utilized them to express their views. He hopes that his book will provide “a small corrective to the parochial or suburban or landed versions of garden understanding [by tracing] the strands of idealism, rebellion, political action and social criticism in the garden historically and presently.” His book leaves no doubt that radical gardens have, as he puts it, a “rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future.” Continue reading

The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

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1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

Continue reading

Progressive Urbanism and its Discontents in Oakland

This post first appeared on Project Oakland on September 5, 2012.

From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive
Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011
by Robert Stanley Oden
Cognella Academic, June 2012, 352 pages

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Oakland’s recent history is rich in contradictions. When voters elected Lionel Wilson—the city’s first Black and Democratic mayor—in 1977, they took a decisive step in the ouster of the white, Republican, pro-business regime that had run Oakland as an exemplar of American municipal apartheid for decades. Wilson’s ascendency was part of a vast transformation in the composition of local political elites, who now largely reflect the political and racial background of the population that they govern. Indeed, since then, most of Oakland’s mayors have been “minorities,” all have been Democrats, and several have had roots in social movements. Similar claims can be made about those who have occupied the posts of City Manager, Chief of Police, Economic Development Director, and Port Director, to cite only the most significant positions. In many respects, there was a revolution in city affairs, one that we can analogize, with some justice, to the 1994 defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

And yet, despite these momentous changes, the city has been and remains a site of profound inequality, bitter racial hierarchies, state violence, and environmental breakdown. Although people of color and Democrats sit in every level of local government, Oakland is a profoundly brutal, unfair, unjust, and crisis-ridden place.

How is this possible? To answer this question, and work our way toward a more comprehensive emancipatory politics, we must explore how such apparently antithetical processes could unfold simultaneously in the course of the city’s history. And this is why the recent publication of Robert Oden’s Blacks to Brown and Beyond is an event to celebrate. Despite some weakness, it has much to offer this inquiry and will hopefully become a point of reference for Oakland activists. Continue reading

Review: Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin by Janet Biehl

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin
Janet Biehl
Oxford University Press, 2015

This book review first appeared in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory
on November 23, 2015

* * *

Murray Bookchin was a pivotal, polarizing figure in the post-WWII history of anarchism. He put ecology and democracy on the anarchist agenda in a way that was as novel as it is enduring. As a polemicist, he spent decades at the center of crucial debates about history, strategy, and foundational ideals. Even his critics must acknowledge that he made major contributions to the growth and clarification of the anarchist perspective.

Something shifted in the movement when he died in 2006. For the preceding fifty years, his writings had been a point of reference through which we could clarify our views, even when we disagreed with them, whereas now that he was gone we had to make sense of him. Who was he and how had he lived? These are compelling questions for those who had worked with him and for anyone who wants to understand contemporary anarchism.

Janet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford University Press, 2015) will help us here. The first (and probably last) biography of Bookchin, it is well-written, exhaustively documented, and invites readers to traverse the full arc of his life, from his earliest days in New York City to his last in Burlington, Vermont. But it is more than a biography. Biehl was Bookchin’s lover, collaborator, editor, researcher, advocate, and (finally) nurse for two decades and this text is also a memoir of their time together.

Ecology or Catastrophe tells a tragic story. Biehl portrays Bookchin as an irrepressible, profoundly creative and intelligent man who threw himself wholly into radical movements, set out to untangle some of history’s most challenging problems, but who ended his days feeling isolated, abandoned, and despairing.

Biehl narrates his life through his participation in the revolutionary Left—swinging back and forth from a depiction of the Left broadly to his response to it. His political history begins in New York City in 1930 when the precocious nine-year-old Bookchin joined a Communist Party youth group. The international communist movement was very much a mass, revolutionary movement at the time and his experience within it left a permanent imprint upon his political identity. It was emotionally important for him too. Biehl says that the Communists helped him compensate for his dysfunctional family (a physically absent father and emotionally absent mother). They “rescued Murray,” she says, “by becoming his surrogate parents. . . . They educated him . . . [and] provided him with stability and validation.”(7) Continue reading

Insurgent Mexico

(From The New Formulation, June, 2002)

Review by Chuck Morse

Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism By Ross Gandy and Donald Hodges London: Zed Books, 2002

Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico By Bill Weinberg New York: Verso, 2000

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Everyone knows that Mexico has a long and vibrant revolutionary tradition. This fact is easy to discover, whether you read Wall Street preoccupations about Chiapas or crack open any given left-wing magazine.

What is more challenging is to understand the inner logic of the tradition, both historically and in its contemporary manifestations. It is also essential: U.S. activists need to develop a substantive grasp of this tradition to build meaningful alliances with comrades south of the border as well as a movement in the United States that embodies the best aspects of the political traditions brought by the millions of Mexican immigrants.

Ross Gandy and Donald Hodges’s Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism and Bill Weinberg’s Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico provide excellent points of entry into this topic. Both books offer a comprehensive introduction to the Mexican revolutionary tradition and thus should be read by all U.S. activists seeking to develop a more international perspective. Their problems are also helpful because they indicate some of the difficulties we will face while envisioning a revolutionary movement in the Americas. These books should be especially attractive to anarchists given that the authors all share a genuine connection to the anarchist tradition. Weinberg is a longtime participant in New York’s anti-authoritarian milieu, and Gandy and Hodges have their own links to the movement; for example, Hodges is the author of Mexican Anarchism after the Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), and Gandy describes himself as a participant in anarchist collectives (among other things) in the “About the Authors” section of Mexico under Siege.

Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism

Mexico under Siege chronicles the popular opposition to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that governed Mexico through a web of violence, corruption, and deceit for seventy years under the pretense of democracy. (This mix of authoritarianism and democratic fiction led Mario Vargas Llosa to label the PRI’s Mexico as the “perfect dictatorship.”(1)) Mexico under Siege can be read profitably as a companion to Gandy and Hodges’s Mexico, the End of the Revolution (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002), which analyzes the course of the Mexican Revolution from its beginning in 1910 to its disappearance from the political scene as marked by Vicente Fox’s election in 2000. Continue reading

The Dutch Provos: Burlesque Neo-Liberals or Anarchist Utopians?

[Published on December 14, 2007]

In the mid-1960s, a loose band of artists, hippies, and anarchists burst onto the political stage in the Netherlands. Known as the Provos (as in to provoke), they led a mini-rebellion against the established order that rattled elites and left behind an inspired legacy of anti-authoritarian activism.

Richard Kempton documents this legacy in his recently released, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, the first book-length history of the group in English. He traces the emergence, highpoints, and decline of the Provos, in addition to providing tangential but interesting appendices on topics such as the relationship between the Provos and the Situationists, the history of anarchism in Amsterdam, and others. He does a good job at placing the group in the context of the radical currents from which it emerged and at relating the Provos’ trajectory to some of the political peculiarities of the Netherlands. While a deeper examination of the group’s ideas and internal organization would have enriched the book, I found it to be thoughtful, informative, and fun to read. (For a quick introduction to the Provos, you may wish to check out this article as well as this one.)

Kempton illustrates the Provos’ extraordinary ability to expose the contradictions of the liberal democratic society in which they lived while making authorities look absurd in the process. Of their many feats that he records, their “White Bicycle Plan” is surely the most famous. It began as a response to the traffic jams and air pollution plaguing Amsterdam: instead of passively accepting the automobile’s toxic domination of urban life, the Provos pressed the municipal government to give out vast numbers of unlockable, white bikes throughout the city. These cycles–easily identifiable due to their color–would be available to any passerby who felt like riding one. He or she could take it to his or her destination but, once there, would be obliged to leave it for other citizens. This ingenious plan was clearly a sensible, low-cost, and environmentally friendly way to meet at least some of Amsterdam’s transportation needs.

The Provos distributed fifty bikes at their own expense to jump start the program but immediately ran into problems with the police, who objected to their attempt to socialize the means of transportation. In fact, the cops impounded the bikes furnished by the Provos on the pretext that doling out unlocked bicycles “encouraged theft.” In other words, they took bicycles to prevent them from being taken!

The Provos were naturally delighted to find the police offering Amsterdamers such a concrete lesson in the bankruptcy of the criminal justice system: thanks to their unintentional complicity in the Provos’ scheme, the city became a classroom in which attentive residents could learn a lesson normally buried in obscure anarchist pamphlets and disquisitions: the cops’ primary objective is not to serve the people but rather to protect the status quo, no matter how noxious and irrational it might be.

The “White Bicycle Plan” was one among multiple Provo “plans,” all designed to push people toward cooperative, ecological solutions while undermining the legitimacy of the established order. They outlined many of these in a brochure entitled What the Provos Want , which they released in 1966, shortly before successfully competing for a seat on Amsterdam’s City Council (“Vote Provo for a Laugh!” was one of their campaign slogans). Kempton summarizes key points:

* The White Bicycle Plan: In an effort to address traffic congestion in the center of the city, white bicycles would become the common property of all the people of Amsterdam. Automobiles would be excluded from the center of the city.

* The White Chimney Plan: A mandate that chimneys have special built-in incinerators to combat air pollution; with fines for infractions.

* The White Chicken Plan: Amsterdam’s police force should be recast as unarmed friendly social workers with candy and band-aids in their pockets.

* The White Dwelling Plan: In an effort to ease the city’s housing shortage the city government would publish a weekly list of empty buildings so people without homes could squat them.

* The White Wives Plan: Developed by Irene Donner-Van der Wetering, this plan called for sex education for young people. Among other things it mandated information on contraception, medical clinics for young girls, and teaching family planning.

* The White Schools Plan: Students would have a say in expanding opportunities for democratically organized study and discussion.

* The White City Plan: Amsterdam would become the first urban area committed to implementing Constant Nieuwenhuis’s New Babylon.(1)

After reading these “plans,” I found myself surprised to realize that today, approximately forty years later, many of their demands (“plans”) have become non-controversial elements of mainstream social policy. For example, numerous cities have experimented with free bicycle programs (such as Portland, Madison, and Barcelona), and bike paths and restrictions on vehicular traffic are common in American cities. Likewise, controls on air pollution are pervasive; young people often receive some degree of sex education; and students frequently play a role in setting academic policy at the college and sometimes high school level. Obviously, aspects of their program remain unrealized–I know of no city that publishes lists of squatable buildings, for instance–but, nonetheless, much of the Provo platform has lost its controversial, provocative quality.

This raises a difficult question about the meaning of the Provos’ legacy. What if the Provos (and corresponding groups like the Yippies in the United States) ultimately need to be understood less as anarchist instigators than as the avant-garde of a more lenient, culturally flexible, and ecologically friendly capitalism? While it’s true that they set stodgy authorities into a frenzy four decades ago, it may be that those authorities were simply anachronistic obstacles and that the Provos actually helped modernize capitalism by undermining their legitimacy.

Issues such as these are beyond the scope of Kempton’s book and, for that matter, most works on the history of anarchism. However, I believe that they are worth pursuing and I hope that the publication of this long overdue book on the Provos indicates that a more serious, complicated engagement with our past is on the horizon.

1. Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2007), 81.

New Release: Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires 1890–1910

By Juan Suriano
Translated by Chuck Morse

paradoxesofutopiaWhen the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, many were surprised by the factory takeovers and neighborhood assemblies that resulted. But workers’ control and direct democracy have long histories in Argentina, where from the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, anarchism was the main revolutionary ideology of the labor movement and other social struggles.

Most histories of anarchism in Argentina tend toward dry analyses of labor politics, lists of union acronyms, and the like. For Juan Suriano, that’s just one part of the story. Paradoxes of Utopia gives us an engaging look at fin de siècle Buenos Aires that brings to life the vibrant culture behind one of the world’s largest anarchist movements: the radical schools, newspapers, theaters, and social clubs that made revolution a way of life. Cultural history in the best sense, Paradoxes of Utopia explores how a revolutionary ideology was woven into the ordinary lives of tens of thousands of people, creating a complex tapestry of symbols, rituals, and daily practices that supported-and indeed created the possibility of-the Argentine labor movement.

Without partisanship or didacticism, Suriano creates an innovative panorama that gives equal weigh to the strengths and weakness of anarchism in Argentina, effective strategies and grave mistakes, internal debates and state repression, all contextualized within the country’s broader political, economic, and cultural history.