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Fred Halstead

Revolution in Lower California

(Fall 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, pp.126-127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Desert Revolution
By Lowell L. Blaisdell
University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wis. 1962. 268 pp. $6.00.

This is the first readily available piece of research in the English language on that part of the Mexican Revolution which most directly involved the US radical movement, the guerilla warfare in Baja California in 1911 under the leadership of the Liberal Party headed by the anarchist Ricardo Florez Magon. Magon is well known in Mexico as the Great Precursor of the Mexican Revolution but almost unknown today in the United States where as a revolutionary exile he did much of his life’s work and in one of whose federal prisons he died.

Several years before the events in Baja California which are the central subject of this book, Magon published the most influential pre-revolution newspapers – printed in the US and distributed underground in Mexico – and organized the first political guerilla warfare against the tyranny of Porfiro Diaz. For this, Magon was jailed in the US. When he got out in 1910 he set up a headquarters in Los Angeles, began publishing his newspaper and got support from the large Southern California Mexican population as well as from US radicals of European as well as Mexican ancestry.

In January of 1911, the Magonistas began the Baja California campaign by capturing the border town of Mexicali and raising the red flag inscribed with the words “Land and Liberty,” a slogan later made famous in the southern part of mainland Mexico by Emiliano Zapata. They began recruiting an army composed of four types: Magonista Mexicans; US members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the revolutionary union active at that time among migratory workers in California; Cocopah Indians who were indigenous to the area and brutally treated by Diaz officials; and military adventurers who drifted in for the excitement.

Magon’s plan was to secure a base in Baja California, move into mainland Mexico linking up with his small groups there, and develop a force determined to carry through a full scale social revolution rather than the mere political reforms being advocated by Francisco Madero who had become the rallying center for the revolutionary forces in mainland Mexico.

In spite of initial military successes, Magon’s forces failed to break out of the isolated “wild west” peninsula of Baja California, and after about three months were defeated by the combined efforts of the remnants of the Diaz regime – which the Maderistas had meantime defeated on the mainland – Madero’s Federal forces, and the US army which sealed off the border to the Magonistas but not to the Federals.

Blaisdell is probably correct in pointing to Magon’s shortcomings as a man of action as a big contributing factor to the collapse of his military campaign. Magon spent the whole campaign in literary and organizing work in Los Angeles, leaving crucial military-political decisions to be made at the scene by leaders elected in the field on the basis of their military ability alone.

The book contains a detailed treatment of the legend – spread by the Diaz regime, by Maderistas fearful of Magon’s anarchist social revolutionary theories, and by a devilishly effective Hollywood press agent – that the Magonistas were engaged in a “filibuster” to separate Baja California from Mexico and annex it to the US. Credence was lent to this manufactured myth by the irresponsible actions and statements of some of the military adventurers in the Magonista forces – before the Mexicans and IWWs threw them out – as well as by a number of other tragi-comic events. One of these was the mental collapse of the only US State Department official in the area – the consul at Ensenada – who started believing the press agent stories and embellishing them on his own in a series of wild dispatches to Washington.

After the collapse of his military forces, Magon was convicted of violation of the US neutrality laws and imprisoned. Released in 1914 he resumed his revolutionary writings, but was shortly imprisoned again for attacking the Garranza regime which the US had decided to recognize. Released on appeal, he was again imprisoned in 1918 as part of the violent witch hunt against radicals which accompanied World War I.

He died in November, 1922 in the US federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, still maintaining that

“Mexico’s revolutionary spark is the beginning of the purifying fire that from one moment to another will envelope every country in the world.”

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