U.S. Socialists and the Mexican Revolution

Against the Current, No. 149, November/December 2010

Dan La Botz

EUGENE VICTOR DEBS was America’s most impressive Socialist figure: founder of the American Railway Union and of the Industrial Workers of the World, a founder of the Socialist Party and its repeated candidate for president. He was jailed for his role in the Pullman strike in 1894 and for his opposition to World War I in 1918, and he strongly defended the Russian Soviet Revolution. If any person would stand for revolutionary socialism in the United States, surely it would be Debs.

Yet in his unofficial but all-important role as spokesperson of the Socialist Party on the Mexican Revolution, Debs played a conservative role which would have longterm consequences both for the Mexican revolutionary movement and for American working-class organizations. In 1911 Debs chose to reject the anarchist insurgents in Mexico, and support instead the democratic capitalist revolution of Francisco I. Madero. [For background on the forces in the Mexican Revolution and its outcome, see Dan La Botz’s two-part essay in our previous issues, ATC 147 and 148 (July-August and September-October 2010), marking the centenary of the 1910 revolution — ed.]

Debs rejected the anarchist call for the peasants to seize the land and workers to seize the factories, arguing that such demands were premature. His decision paralleled a similar one by American Federation of Labor (AFL) president Samuel Gompers. These decisions would have long-lasting implications for U.S.-Mexican labor solidarity. One could argue that they represented the first manifestations of a tendency by U.S. labor leftists to be drawn into relations with the state in Mexico, and with state-backed parties and labor unions.

That tendency would dominate U.S. and Mexican labor relations throughout the 20th century. One wonders: What made it so difficult for Debs and his Socialist Party comrades to understand the revolution in Mexico? For surely Debs had gotten it wrong: without the peasant movement to seize the land and the workers’ demands for power in the factories, the Revolution would never have been pushed to accomplish the reforms that it instituted.

Only the revolutionary movement made reform possible in Mexico, and Debs didn’t see it. Debs was the very best expression of his party, yet it was the party’s lack of an international perspective in North America that prevented both from understanding Mexico.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Socialist Party had become a small but very real force in U.S. politics. Scores of socialist newspapers in a variety of languages had helped to elect Socialist Party mayors in dozens of cities. The Socialist Party in 1912 had 100,000 members and its candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes in the national election. The party’s positions on the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and on the U.S. military interventions in Mexico in 1914 and 1917 therefore mattered.

Almost since its founding in 1900 the Socialist Party had discussed and debated foreign policy issues, above all militarism and imperialism. But the party’s record of support for workers in other countries had not always been consistent.

During the Spanish-American war of 1898, nearly all American socialists supported the Cuban and Filipino people’s right to self-determination, generally opposing the war and the acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The U.S. left rejected the idea that the search for resources and markets abroad justified the taking of a colonial empire. American socialists argued that the root cause of the war was capitalism and the workers’ lack of class consciousness.(1)

American socialists, however, were much less clear about the issue of U.S. intervention in the Caribbean between 1900 and 1911. Like their European comrades, they tended to believe in necessary and inevitable “stages of economic development.” Consequently “while socialists bitterly attacked U.S. intervention and investment in this region, their belief that national development would follow the European and North American pattern allowed them to endorse the ‘progressive’ aspects of American imperialism.”(2)

Throughout this period the party, through its magazines and newspapers, had little to say about U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean, putting its emphasis on domestic issues. The ambiguities of the Socialist Party’s positions on the Spanish American war and the Caribbean would also be expressed in its positions on Mexico.

The Socialist Party began to take an interest in Mexico in 1905, about the same time that it made contact with the anarchist Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). In 1905 a member of the Socialist Party of America moved to Mexico and wrote a couple of articles for the International Socialist Review (ISR). These were the first articles on Mexico since the party journal’s founding in 1900. The correspondent, apparently a rank-and-file member of the party, remained anonymous, no doubt to protect himself and those organizations with which he had come in contact.

“The government continues to dole out the national resources of the country to foreign money-bags while Mexican workers grovel in filth, disease and ignorance, for lack of access to these same resources,” wrote the nameless correspondent. “One thing is hopeful and that is, that however, ignorant the working classes are they do not harbor any illusions concerning the identity of their interest with those of their employers,” he continued.

The ISR correspondent described the low wages and miserable conditions of workers such as servant girls, tailors, shoemakers, and seamstresses, and mentioned the problem of working-class alcoholism. But he also noted the beginnings of labor organization. “In the city of Mexico the workers are beginning to organize mutual aid societies which in some ways resemble our trades unions,” he reported. “In Guadalajara an attempt was made to organize the workers….but was dispersed by the police.”

Presuming that some American or European socialists must be living in Mexico, he asked them to contact the ISR.(3)

The same correspondent, nine months later, noted that, “A small paper began to be published, El Obrero Socialista, [The Socialist Worker] under the direction of Senor Roman Morales assisted by a small but resolute group of comrades. Later they organized [La] Liga Socialista de Guadalajara which holds regular weekly meetings.”

The anonymous correspondent described a special meeting held by La Liga Socialista to commemorate “Red Sunday” in Russia, the day on which the Czar’s troops had fired on Father Gapon and the workers, and concluded: “The Mexican proletariat is beginning to realize the sublime idea of international working class solidarity.”(4)

Socialists and the Mexican Liberal Party

The Socialist Party in southern California became involved early in international solidarity with the revolutionary anarchists of the PLM, which because of persecution in Mexico, had established its headquarters in Los Angeles.

The PLM leaders Ricardo Flores Magón, Librado Rivera, Antonio I. Villarreal, and Manuel Sarabia were arrested in Los Angeles in 1907, and later charged with violating U.S. neutrality laws. The government alleged they had planned an invasion of Mexico from St. Louis. The Socialist Party in Los Angeles immediately began a campaign for their release. Job Harriman, John Murray, John Kenneth Turner, his wife Ethel Duffy Turner, and Elizabeth Darling Trowbridge organized the Mexican Revolutionists Defense League, and each made a valuable contribution.(5)

Labor lawyer Job Harriman, vice-presidential running-mate of Eugene V. Debs in the presidential election campaign of 1900 and Socialist candidate for mayor of Los Angeles in 1911, represented PLM leaders in court. In May 1908 the Socialist Party of Los Angeles brought a resolution of support to the jailed revolutionaries to the Socialist Party national convention, which passed. The socialists brought the matter before the Los Angeles Labor Council, which also supported the PLM leaders on the grounds that they had been fighting for the working class.

John Kenneth and Ethel Duffy Turner were both Socialist Party activists and radical journalists who turned their skills to writing newspaper articles for the labor and socialist press about the Mexican prisoners. John Turner, born in 1879, was the descendent of pioneers, his Methodist minister grandfather having led a wagon train from Kentucky to Oregon in 1849. His father was a printer for the Portland Oregonian and John had followed his father into the news business. Young Turner became a socialist at 16, and a year later established his own muckraking newspaper, Stockton Saturday Night.

After working as a school teacher, in 1904 Turner entered the University of California at Berkeley where he met and married Ethel E. Duffy. Leaving San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, they eventually settled in Los Angeles, where the couple joined the Socialist Party and Turner got a job at the Los Angeles Express.

Turner, who did not then speak Spanish well, arranged to travel to Mexico with Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, one of the PLM’s principal leaders. An attorney from a wealthy and politically connected Mexico City family, de Lara worked for the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations, and later became a judge. While living in Mexico City he met Ricardo Flores Magón and joined the Mexican Liberal Party. During the PLM’s attempted insurrection of 1906, he was arrested in Sonora for speaking in support of the strikers at the Cananea copper mine. Eventually freed through the efforts of his family, de Lara fled to Los Angeles to join the PLM Junta and became the editor of the group’s newspaper Revolución.

In making the trip to Mexico, Turner posed as a wealthy American businessman who intended to invest in tobacco and henequen plantations in Mexico. De Lara acted as Turner’s friend, financial advisor and interpreter. Elizabeth Trowbridge put up the money for the trip and the two men left for Mexico in August 1908. Turner and de Lara eventually traveled not only to Mexico City and Mérida, but were also put up as guests on several haciendas, where they talked with the hacienda owners, managers, foremen and workers. The hacendados explained to Turner how the systems of debt peonage and contract labor functioned.

Returning home in January of 1909, Turner began to write a series of articles for American Magazine (circulation of approximately 300,000). The first, “Slaves of Yucatan,” appeared in the October 1909 issue, followed by installments in November and December. But in January the magazine dropped the series without explanation, and Turner then turned over the rest of the installments to the Socialist Party’s Appeal to Reason, which had an even larger circulation of 750,000, although less influence. Other chapters were published in the International Socialist Review and Pacific Monthly.

Turner’s magazine articles “created a sensation in Mexico, the United States, and England.” He became something of a celebrity,(6) and in June 1910 testified before a committee of the House of Representatives in Washington on the persecution of Mexican political refugees in the United States. In January 1911 Charles H. Kerr and Company of Chicago, the socialist publisher, brought out his book, Barbarous Mexico.

Meanwhile the Meican Revolution broke out. Turner’s article, “The American Partners of Díaz,” published by the ISR in December, 1910 began, “The United States is a partner in the slavery of Mexico.” He went on to make the point that the American people were not president Porfirio Díaz’s partners, but that the U.S. government and U.S. corporations such as the Morgan-Guggenheim copper merger, the Standard Oil Company, the American Sugar Trust, the Continental Rubber Company, Well-Fargo Express company, E.N. Brown of the National Railways of Mexico, Harriman and the Southern Pacific Railroad were Díaz’s partners in slavery. He expressed his support for Mexican revolutionaries and opposed the role of the U.S. government in stationing troops on the Mexican border to protect American interests in Mexico.(7)

Turner placed the struggle against the Díaz dictatorship in Mexico within the tradition of American abolitionism, which only 45 years after the Civil War still resonated in many sectors of U.S. society. He condemned the Mexican government and U.S. corporations for their role in chattel slavery. His articles and book, read by hundreds of thousands, turned many Americans against the Díaz regime and won supporters for the revolutionary cause.

But in making this appeal to the American people on the issue of slavery in Mexico, where the enslaved were predominantly indigenous, Turner recognized that he would have a problem because of racist attitudes. Many Americans tended to look upon Indians in the United States as savages who had never settled down or learned to work, and consequently had never created settled civilizations. He wrote:

“The Mayas are Indians — and yet they are not Indians. They are not like the Indians of the United States, and they are called Indians only because their homes were in the western hemisphere when the Europeans came. The Mayas had a civilization of their own when the Europeans “discovered” them, and it was a civilization admittedly as high as that of the most advanced Aztecs or the Incas of Peru.”(8)

Wanting his readers to see the Mayas physically as different than the American notion of an Indian, Turner goes on to describe them in terms that might have recalled youths and maidens on a Greek vase or in a British neo-classical painting: “not large in stature, but their features are remarkably finely chiselled and their bodies give a strong impression of elegance and grace.”(9) He presented his readers with an idealized and classicized vision of the Mayas.

He did the same when he described the Yaqui Indians of Sonora in Northern Mexico. Having sanitized the Mexican Indians, he could then launch his attack on slavery. He began with the henequen haciendas of the Yucatan. “The masters of Yucatan do not call their system slavery;” wrote Turner, “they call it enforced service for debt.”

But the fact that it is not service for debt is proven by the habit of transferring the slaves from one master to another, not on any basis of debt, but on the basis of the market price of a man.(10)

Yucatan hacienda owners bought and sold their slaves for about 400 pesos apiece. Similarly on the tobacco plantations in the Valle Nacional of Oaxaca, Turner found slavery called by another name. “Just as in Yucatan, the slavery of Valle Nacional is merely peonage, or labor for debt, carried to the extreme, although outwardly it takes a slightly different form — that of contract labor.”

Turner’s indictment must have reminded his readers of those made in the 19th century against the slavery Americans had once known from Virginia to Texas:

The slaves of the Yucatan get no money. They are half starved. They are worked almost to death. They are beaten. A large percentage of them are locked up every night in a house resembling a jail. If they are sick they must still work, and if they are so sick that it is impossible for them to work, they are seldom permitted the services of a physician. The women are compelled to marry, compelled to marry men of their plantation only, and sometimes are compelled to marry certain men not of their choice. There are no schools for the children. Indeed, the entire lives of these people are ordered at the whim of a master, and if the master wishes to kill them, he may do so with impunity. I heard numerous stories of slaves being beaten to death, but I never heard of an instance in which the murderer was punished or even arrested.(11)

The “slaveholders club” had 250 members, dominated by the “50 henequen kings,” some of whom owned plantations of tens or even hundreds of thousands of acres (thousands of square miles). They owned 8,000 Yaqui Indians from Sonora, between 100,000 and 125,000 native Mayas, and about 3,000 Chinese or Koreans.

Though he writes with compassion about the Yaqui and Maya slaves, Turner does not portray the Chinese slaves sympathetically. Describing the deportation of the Yaqui Indians from Sonora for sale into slavery in the Yucatan, he plays on the racial aspect: “(O)ne of the first barbarities the henequen planter imposes upon the Yaqui slave woman, freshly robbed of the lawful husband of her bosom, is to compel her to marry a Chinaman and live with him!” Turner’s racist attitudes toward the Chinese were tragically common among labor unionists and Socialists especially in California, and shared by some of his friends in the Mexican Liberal Party.(12)

John Murray, writing for The Call of New York and the ISR, also produced dozens of articles that would inform and educate the Socialist Party and its periphery. Like John Kenneth Turner, Murray emphasized the existence of quasi-slavery and debt peonage. He met secretly with a revolutionary who told him, “We still have slaves in Mexico. Over half the population, eight million souls, sweat under this system of peonage.”(13) In other articles Murray described the repression under the Díaz regime with articles on prison and political prisoners.(14)

Against War With Mexico

The Socialist Party not only propagandized against U.S. intervention in its magazines, it also took the fight to the U.S. Congress. In 1910 simultaneously with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, Victor Berger, the leader of the Socialist Party in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had been elected to Congress. On April 5, 1911 freshman Congressman Berger introduced in the House of Representatives a “Joint Resolution Relative to the Mexican situation,” supporting “the poor and oppressed of that country” and opposing the threat of U.S. military intervention.(15)

Although the sole Socialist Congressman’s resolution must have been primarily propagandistic, it nonetheless represents a high point in international labor solidarity. Berger also presented a petition of some 90,000 signatures opposing the U.S. military mobilization, while the Socialist Party discouraged military enlistment. Taken altogether, this was a model anti-imperialist campaign — though Berger would later reverse his position.

Probably at the urging of the Los Angeles Socialists, Eugene V. Debs corresponded with Ricardo Flores Magón and lobbied Senator Robert M. La Follette on behalf of the imprisoned PLM leaders.(16) Debs wrote to Senator Robert M. La Follette:

“There are fourteen million peon slaves in Mexico, and there is a billion of American capital invested in that country. The average wage is 37-1/2 cents a day in Mexican money. The railroads, mines, smelters, cotton industries, etc. are mainly owned by American capitalists. They are having their industries developed and operated on the basis of peon labor. That is one of the reasons why there are over two millions of idle workingmen in the United States, and why millions of others are getting such miserable wages.”(17)

Debs suggests that La Follette should take an interest in this cause not only for humanitarian reasons, but also because Mexican workers’ low wages attracted American industry to Mexico, causing unemployment in the United States. The Appeal to Reason asked its readers in 1909, even before the Revolution had begun:

“Will we help our Mexican comrades rise or will we allow them to go down and pull us down to their level?…There is no question of altruism or benevolence involved. We are not asking help for the Mexican refugees out of charity, but from an enlightened sense of self-interest.”(18)

In another article the Appeal made the same point even more forcefully: “The fourteen million half-naked, degenerate wretches employed at two-bits a day are employed in competition with American workers and this accounts in large part for the stagnation of industry and the great army of unemployed in the United States.”(19) For their part, Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican anarchists made virtually the same argument for U.S. workers’ support for the Mexican revolution:

“If the Economic Revolution is crushed, the American workingmen will suffer the consequences, for an immigration of Mexican workingmen still greater than the one that has been taking place during the last ten or fifteen years, will take place, and the salaries in this country will be lower still. But that is not all; the crushed Revolution means a victorious Capitalism. The wealth of the magnates of American industry will flow into Mexico, to, then, a field for all the adventurers and all the exploiters; the manufacturers of the United States would be transplanted to Mexico, that would become an ideal land for business because of the cheapness of salaries, and the American working men will find their factories and firms in this country closed down because it will be more profitable to their bosses to open their business where they will pay twenty-five to fifty cents a day for the same kind of work for which they would have to pay two or three dollars a day” [in the U.S.].(20)

Socialist Dilemma: Magón or Madero?

In January 1911 Turner published “The Revolution in Mexico” in the ISR, defending the Revolution and opposing U.S. intervention. “Why is there a revolution in Mexico?” Turner asked, answering that Mexicans “have manhood in their blood, because they are unwilling to be slaves, because they are ruled by a despot and they want democracy, because there is no way to progress under a despotism except through revolution.”

Turner believed that U.S. troops would probably be sent to Mexico “ostensibly to protect American lives and property, but actually to hold Díaz, the Mexican partner of Wall Street, chief slave-driver of ‘Barbarous Mexico’ on his throne.” He concluded, “If, under such circumstances the American people are quiescent, I shall be ashamed that I am an American.”

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Turner’s article was that it began to signal a change in the attitude of American socialists toward the Mexican revolutionaries. While indicating that he might prefer the Magonistas who would “go further” in making fundamental economic changes, Turner made it clear that he could live with the bourgeois figure Francisco Madero:

“If Madero wins, his party will undoubtedly free the slaves, ameliorate the conditions of the peons, pass a few labor laws, and establish free speech, free press and actual elections. As these things would constitute a tremendous step forward, I, personally, wish the revolution every success, whether in the end it is dominated by the Liberal party [i.e., the Magonistas], or, as now, by the Anti-Reelectionists“ [i.e., the Maderistas].(21)

Only a few months later in May 1911, the ISR published the demands of the PLM: “As a means of obtaining economic liberty, the Liberal Party proposes to rise up in arms against the political and capitalistic tyranny which is oppressing and degrading the Mexican people: to wrest from the power of the capitalists the land which has been appropriated by them, in order to deliver it, regardless of sex, to millions of human beings who compose the Mexican nation…”

This manifesto, with its emphasis on the social-revolutionary seizure and redistribution of land, ran counter to Madero’s emphasis on political reform. Where did the Socialists in the United States stand? With Magón or Madero, with the anarcho-communists or the bourgeois liberals? The answer to the question came from the most prominent and important leaders of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs.(22)

In his article, “The Crisis In Mexico,” Debs firmly rejected the position of the Magonistas and the Mexican Liberal Party. The anarchist program (which the PLM had by then adopted but still attempted to obscure), Debs argued, rather than furthering the revolution “would put off the revolutionary end they have in view.” Debs rejected the idea that the Mexican people should seize the land, mills, factories, mines, railroads and other machinery of production. Debs asked “…what would the masses in their present ignorant and unorganized state do with them after having obtained them? It would simply add calamity to their calamities, granting that this impossible feat were capable of achievement.”(23)

Second, Debs argued that the PLM underestimated the power of the capitalist class worldwide, and overestimated the possible benefits of international solidarity. Debs reminded them that “…the rich control all the armies and navies of the world.” In the event of an anarchist revolution in Mexico, the revolutionaries would face not only the Mexican capitalist class, but also the United States and its military. International solidarity, while important in principle, could offer little at this stage of development of the radical forces.

“Let not the Mexican revolutionists depend too much on the ‘International Committee of the Mexican Liberal party Junta’ which they propose organizing ‘in all the principal cities of the United States and Europe.’ That some effective co-operation may thus be secured is entirely probable, but our Mexican comrades who saw their own leaders thrown into American prisons with scarcely a protest except among the Socialists are apt to be disappointed if they rely to any great extent upon the enslaved working classes of other countries whose energies are all absorbed in their own struggle for existence.” (Ibid)

Rather than calling upon the workers to take over the land and the factories, “The right course for the Mexican revolutionists to pursue in this crisis, in my opinion, is to lay the foundation for economic and political organization of the dispossessed and enslaved masses, throughout the Republic.” (Ibid) Without explicitly stating support for Madero, Debs believed that his victory meant the creation of a bourgeois democracy which would make possible the organization of workers in labor unions and a socialist party, and that — not anarchist-led social revolution — was the task of the day.

Debs’ article represented a turning point in the relations between the Socialist Party (and other American left and labor organizations) and the Mexican Liberal Party. For the first time Debs labeled the PLM an anarchist group and explicitly rejected their program.

An editorial in the same ISR issue endorsed Debs’ view and went somewhat further. If the anarchists continued to call for a social revolution “…they will also give the ruling classes just the excuse they want to set up a military despotism as relentless as that of Diaz and ten times as strong. Have patience, comrades!” Under Madero’s democratic revolution capitalists and socialists had a division of labor in Mexico:

“The capitalists have their necessary work to do in developing the natural resources of Mexico and organizing its industry along modern lines. We have our work to do meanwhile in developing a revolutionary proletariat out of the children of the peons.”(24)

Debs’ break with Magón and the PLM came at the same time as that of American Federation of Labor. Whatever their faults, however, the Magonistas were the one genuinely independent labor political current. Thereafter the U.S socialist and labor movements found that they had to work through the state-supported union movements, such as the House of the World Worker (COM) and later the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM). The Socialists had turned their backs on Mexico’s revolutionaries and embraced its reformists.

The positions taken both by Gompers and the AFL, and by Debs and the Socialists, also helped to deepen and solidify the division within the Mexican Liberal Party between its anarchist and socialist wings. The PLM’s anarchist leaders — Ricardo Flores Magón, his brother Enrique, and Librado Rivera — broke with the socialists, led by Juan Sarabia, Antonia I. Villareal and Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara. The PLM socialists moved to support the liberal Madero and later other more politically moderate factions.

Of course the Socialist Party was no monolith, and the ISR continued to publish articles from opposing points of view. William C. Owen, the English anarchist and editor of the English language section of the PLM’s newspaper Regeneración, wrote an article in May 1912 arguing that “…the economic problem remains unsolved and it is evident that Madero has neither the wish nor the capacity to solve it.”

Owen argued that the Mexican peasants knew better than Madero. “The peasant’s answer is burn the public records, seize the lands and fight.” The peasant, wrote Owen, “has magnificent traditions which embody the great principles of mutual aid and the labor solidarity, and these have become instinctive with him owing to his communal past.”(25)

At the same time, the ISR published articles by conservative Socialists who saw no possibility to stop U.S. intervention, and in fact looked forward to the progressive work which would be done by American capitalists once they took power. Herbert Sturges wrote an article in which he foresaw that U.S. capitalists would force the U.S. government to intervene in Mexico and eventually absorb the entire country.(26) Sturges’ article not only defended capitalists in general, but justified the role of U.S. capitalism in Mexico.

While the Socialist Party as a whole remained a consistent opponent of U.S. intervention in Mexico, its views on the future for Mexico were, at best, quite contradictory. The publication of articles by Turner, Debs, Owen and Sturges showed the party’s political confusion.

The Socialist Party vigorously opposed and vehemently condemned Woodrow Wilson’s invasion of Veracruz. Mary E. Marcy, in an article titled “Whose War Is This?” published in June 1915, immediately after the invasion, argued that neither the Mexicans nor the Americans had anything to gain from a U.S. war. In the tradition of international socialism she argued that “If we are working men or working women, we HAVE NO COUNTRY….The working men and women of ALL countries are OUR countrymen.”

Moreover, wrote Marcy, “American working men have no quarrel with Mexican working men. Their interests are our interests….The only war in which we should engage is the working class war, which will abolish Poverty from the face of the earth!”(27)

Marcy’s article was accompanied by an article by Manuel Sarabia in which, after giving a long historic background of the Revolution, he argued that “The Mexicans must be left alone to work out their own salvation.”(28)

In addition to those two articles, there was a letter from “I.D.,” a “U.S. Marine,” written to his sister, presumably a member of the Socialist Party who had passed it on to the ISR. The Marine described how the invaders had killed 300 Mexicans and how one naval bombardment had hit a school and killed 100 children. “Everywhere you look you would see a dead Spick, and the street all over blood,” wrote the Marine. “Sad sight to look upon.”(29) It has a familiar ring even today.

Which Faction to Support?

The Socialist Party became increasingly unsure of its position on the factions in Mexico, especially after the outbreak of civil war in Mexico in 1915 between the Conventionists of Villa and Zapata and the Constitutionalists of Carranza. David Bruce expressed the Socialists’ confusion in his article “Bleeding Mexico” in April of 1916.

“Madero’s rising,” wrote Bruce, “was in no sense a rising of the people.” Madero was assassinated, and then, said Bruce, “came other leaders — Huerta, Gutierrez, Carranza, Villa, Zapata. None of these are leaders of the people.” Equating the leaders of revolution and counterrevolution, Bruce argued that “…a people must free itself.”(30) Thus Bruce fell into complete idealism, for the freeing of the people in the abstract could never be done by any of the people in the concrete. Bruce expressed the Socialist Party’s confusion in the face of Mexican factionalism.

Socialists could be found who favored almost any one of the leading figures. American socialists frequently judged Mexican revolutionaries in terms of their support for organized labor. Some, for example, supported Francisco “Pancho” Villa because they believed that he was sympathetic to the union movement. The Appeal to Reason printed in bold face on its front page a letter from Pancho Villa to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in which the Mexican revolutionary demanded the release of Mother Jones from a Colorado jail, before Villa would discuss releasing his Mexican landowner Luis Terrazas.

In fact, though many of Villa’s troops were miners or railroad workers, Villa had little relations to unions as such, and had no worked out labor program. But such gestures as Villa’s letter won him the support of Socialists and labor unionists.

John Kenneth Turner also passed through a brief period of support for Zapata. He explained in a 1914 editorial for a Marxist magazine that he was “not for Zapata personally” but, because the land question was the overriding issue, “for the things and the people that Zapata stands for.”(31)

But Turner soon went over to Carranza because of the Constitutionalist’s alliance with the House of the World Worker. “The organized wage-workers are for Carranza to a man. Carranza has assisted the workers to organize and has helped them win their strike. One year ago, May 1, Carranza presided over an International Labor Day celebration of working men in the Mexican capital; he is probably the first head of any government ever to have done so radical a thing.”(32)

By 1916 many Socialist and AFL leaders looked toward Carranza as the best hope of the Mexican Revolution. The ISR reflected this slide toward Carranza by running articles in late 1916 and early 1917 by Carranza’s publicist Modesto C. Rolland.(33)

Not only was the Socialist Party bewildered about who it supported in Mexico, but it had also grown confused about its opposition to military intervention. Turner condemned the 1916 invasion in no uncertain terms. “WILSON IS THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF THE ARMY AND NAVY OF THE UNITED STATES AND THE ARMY IS MASSACRING MEXICANS ON MEXICAN SOIL.”(34) Yet the International Socialist Review editors praised the Democratic Party president for keeping the peace — seeing the punitive expedition as the alternative to war! “To howl suspicions of militarism against a president who had kept the working class of America out of war during a hair-trigger period is a species of treachery to the working class that does no good.”(35) Though Wilson had ordered an invasion of Mexico by General Black Jack Pershing and an army of 10,000 men, the ISR’s editorialist praised Wilson as a peacemaker.

Victor Berger, the leader of the Milwaukee Socialists who as Congressman had introduced the important anti-war resolution, went even further, endorsing the Wilson’s invasion explicitly through his newspaper The Milwaukee Leader, the first time since 1898 that virtually any socialist publication had endorsed U.S. military action against a foreign power: “The invasion of the United States by Mexican bandits…left no alternative to the government at Washington excepting to use military force…to pursue the murderers….President Wilson…could not have avoided a punitive expedition.”(36)

The position of Berger and the ISR editorialist supporting Wilson’s invasion of Mexico was not the official position of the Socialist Party. The Socialist’s National Executive Committee charged Wilson with capitulating to capitalist interests and condemned the invasion.(37) Nevertheless, the previous unanimity of the Socialist Party on opposition to war with Mexico had broken down.


Generally speaking, the Socialist Party of America supported the Mexican Revolution and opposed U.S. military intervention. But the party leadership believed that Mexico would have to pass through a stage of capitalist development before a socialist revolution came on the agenda.

Debs tacitly endorsed Madero’s government as the best hope for Mexican labor union and socialist organization:the revolution was over, and Mexican radicals should now settle down to the long and patient task of education and organization. Coming at the same time as the AFL’s break with the PLM, Debs’ statement left the PLM with no allies but those in the anarchist movement of Emma Goldman.

But Madero’s government could not and would not resolve the question of the peasants’ demand for the land — the central issue of the Revolution. Only continued armed and revolutionary struggle was likely to push the landlords and a new government to distribute the land. Moreover, by breaking with the Magonistas, Debs left the Socialist Party of America without an interlocutor in Mexico, except for the new bourgeois government and its state-sponsored labor federations.

At the same time, Debs and the AFL by deserting Magón and the PLM exposed them to repression by the U.S. government, although Debs did later call upon Socialists to defend the civil rights of the Magonistas, even if differing with their economic and political program.

Perhaps most important, the position taken by Debs and the Socialist Party, which paralleled that of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, meant that from that all approaches by U.S. labor organizations to the Mexican labor movement would henceforth be through the Mexican state. In fact presidents Obregón and Calles invited Gompers to Mexico City to oversee the AFL’s relations to the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers.

After Madero’s overthrow in 1913, the Socialist Party became ever more confused about developments in Mexico. Without connections to some real organization or movement in Mexico, the Socialists, both nationally and on the local level, veered wildly between Pancho Villa and Zapata one day and Carranza the next. They had no clear idea of what they wanted to see happen in Mexico, though they tended to endorse bourgeois democracy over more radical developments (as with Debs’ endorsement of Madero over Magón, and Turner’s settling for Carranza over Zapata).

Because their party had no clear direction, the Socialists tended to become AFL agents. Gompers, unlike the Socialists, knew exactly what he wanted in Mexico: a stable capitalist democracy and a labor organization modeled on the AFL, and he recruited Socialists to work for him. Similarly Emma Goldman, William C. Owens, Voltairine de Clyre and the anarchists knew what they wanted: peasant seizure of the land, worker seizure of the factories, and the organization of anarcho-communism.

Gompers found his ally in Mexico in the government and the government-supported Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) led by Morones. Goldman and the anarchists found their allies in Ricardo Flores Magón and Emiliano Zapata. Only the Socialist Party had neither a program nor a party in Mexico and gravity carried them into the bourgeois camp.

There already existed within the SP at the time of the Mexican Revolution a group evolving toward support for the U.S. government’s and the U.S. corporations’ imperial interests. Victor Berger and the Milwaukee Leader’s support for Wilson’s invasion of Mexico represented the first step toward support for U.S. imperialism in Mexico and Latin America. By 1916 the Socialist Party had also broken from an earlier position of criticism of the Border Patrol and U.S. Army mobilizations, and had endorsed national self-defense on the U.S.-Mexican border.(38) The change in Socialist policy on Mexico anticipated the movement of the SP intellectuals’ stratum into the Woodrow Wilson war camp in 1917.

In the end, tragically, the Socialist Party, the largest and most important group on the American left from 1900 to 1920, proved incapable of building enduring international labor solidarity during the period of the Mexican Revolution and the First World War.


  1. Diana K. Christopulos, “American Radicals and the Mexican Revolution: 1900-1925,” (Ph.D. Diss. State University of New York at Binghamton, 1980) 46-64. Christopulos’s dissertation is the most complete discussion of Socialist Party attitudes toward the Mexican Revolution, and an important contribution to the history of the Socialist Party of America. I have consulted it frequently and refer to it throughout.
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  2. Christopulos, op. cit., 67.
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  3. “Conditions in Mexico,” International Socialist Review (May 1905) Vol. V, No. 11, 675-677.
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  4. 4. “Mexico,” International Socialist Review, (February 1906) Vol. VI, No. 8,

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  6. Other members of the Defense League included James S. Roche, P.D. Noel and Francis Noel. Diccionario Historico y Biografico de la Revolucion Mexicana, Tomo VIII, “John Kenneth Turner.”
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  7. Snow’s Introduction to: John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico, xvi.
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  8. John Kenneth Turner, “The American Partners of Diaz,” International Socialist Review (December 1910), Vol. XI, No. 6, 321-28.
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  9. Ibid, 8.
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  10. Ibid, 9.
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  11. Ibid, 9.
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  12. Ibid, 15.
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  13. The Mexican Liberal Party, for example, opposed Chinese immigration to Mexico, as the AFL did to the United States. Fernando Zertuche Munoz, Ricardo Flores Magon. El Sueno Alternativo (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1995), 85.
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  14. John Murray, “Mexico’s Peon-Slaves Preparing for Revolution,” International Socialist Review (March 1909) Vol. IX, No. 9, 641-59.
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  15. John Murray, “The Private Prison of Diaz,” International Socialist Review (April, 1909) Vol. IX, No. 10, 737-52; John Murray, “The Mexican Political Prisoners,” (May, 1909) Vol. IX, No. 11, 863-65.
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  16. “62 Congress, 1st Session. J.J. Res. 29. Joint Resolution Relative to the Mexican Situation,” introduced in the House of Representative April 5, 1911. A copy of the resolution can be found in the Socialist Collection in the Tamiment Library, New York University Collections, Collection IX.
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  17. Eugene V. Debs, Letters of Eugene V. Debs (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), I, 299 “EVD to Robert M. La Follette,” and 327, “Ricardo Flores Magon to EVD.”
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  18. Eugene V. Debs, Letters of Eugene V. Debs, I, 299 “EVD to Robert M. La Follette.”
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  19. Christopulos, citing Appeal to Reason, February 20, 1909.
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  20. Christopulos, citing Appeal to Reason, March 27, 1909.
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  21. Ricardo Flores Magon et al, “The Organizing Junta of the Mexican Liberal Party, To the Workers of the United States,” Mother Earth (Vol. X, No. 2) April, 1915, 85-88.
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  22. John Kenneth Turner, “The Revolution in Mexico,” International Socialist Review (January 1911) Vol XI, No. 7, 421.
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  23. The two principal biographers of Debs hardly discuss his role in U.S.-Mexican labor solidarity. See: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982) and Ray Ginger, Eugene V. Debs: The Making of an American Radical (New York: Collier Books, 1970), note that Ginger’s biography was originally published as The Bending Cross, A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs in 1949. The best discussion can be found in: Diana K. Christopulos, “American Radicals and the Mexican Revolution: 1900-1925,” (Ph.D. Diss. State University of New York at Binghamton, 1980).
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  24. Eugene V. Debs, “The Crisis in Mexico,” International Socialist Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, 23.
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  25. “Editorial, International Socialist Review (July 1911) Vol. XII, No. 1, 47.
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  26. William C. Owen, “What Mexico’s Struggle Means,” International Socialist Review (May 1912) Vol. XII, No. 11, 741 and 742.
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  27. Herbert Surges, “History, Mexico, and American Capitalism,” International Socialist Review (Oct. 1913) Vol XIII, No. 4.
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  28. Mary E. Marcy, “Whose War Is This?” International Socialist Review (June 1914) Vol. XIV, No. 12, 729-31.
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  29. Manuel Sarabia, “The Situation in Mexico,” International Socialist Review (June 1914) Vol. XIV, No. 12,735.
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  30. I.D., “More Murdered Children!” International Socialist Review (June 1914) Vol. XIV, No. 12, 731.
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  31. David Bruce, “Bleeding Mexico,” International Socialist Review (April 1916), Vol. XVI, No. 10, 584.
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  32. John Kenneth Turner, “Why I am for Zapata,” New Review (June 1914), 325.
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  33. John Kenneth Turner, “Marching Through Mexico,” International Socialist Review (May 1916) Vol. XVI, No. 11, 655.
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  34. Modesto C. Rolland, “Petroleum in Mexico,” International Socialist Review (September 1916) Vol. XVII, No. 3; and M.C. Rolland, “Why is a Government Needed in Mexico,” International Socialist Review (July 191) Vol. XVIII, No. 1.
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  35. John Kenneth Turner, “Marching Through Mexico,” 655.
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  36. “Doings of the Month,” International Socialist Review (August 1916) Vol. XVII, No. 2, 71.
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  37. Cited in Diana K. Christopulos, 246-47.
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  38. Diana K. Christopulos, 248.
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  39. Ibid, 315.
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ATC 149, November-December 2010