The Globalization of the Revolutionary Will

Christina Heatherton opens her book Arise!: Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution with a discussion of rope. She begins her tale with a description from an Upson-Walton company booklet describing what constitutes a perfect rope. From there she weaves a tale of lynchings of Black men in the United States and the ultimate use of manila fiber for most of the rope used by US companies. The domination of the rope market by Manila was directly related to the US invasion and occupation of the Philippines during and after the 1898 Spanish-American War; a war that replaced the Spanish colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines with that of Washington’s.

With that opening, Heatherton begins a provocative discussion of the importance of revolutionary Mexico in the left radical and revolutionary movements of the early twentieth century. In the course of doing so, the author challenges not only contemporary understandings of the meanings of the Mexican revolution but also the shortcomings of what is often a Eurocentric history; a history that by focusing on the revolutionary movements of Europe and Russia ignores the fundamental role of the rest of the world. In other words, Heatherton challenges a Left history that ignores the colonies and the essential role the colonized played in the opposition to the colonial rulers of the global north.

Drawing from WEB DuBois, Ricardo Magnon, MN Roy and other revolutionaries of non-European descent, Heatherton takes DuBois’ “color line” and extends the associated statement ““The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” across the globe. Moving beyond Marx’s Eurocentric focus while simultaneously applying his economic and philosophical analysis, she presents an argument perhaps described most succinctly by Indian communist MN Roy, who not only argued that the colonies possessed their own working and peasant classes, but that it was only through their victories in the anti-colonial struggle that true national liberation in the colonies could be achieved. Roy argued that merely supporting bourgeois struggles for national liberation in the colonies would only replace a colonial administration with a native one that continued the colonial oppression. This proposition was rejected by most European and US communists. Their understanding of the so-called national question was based on their experiences and not those of Marxists in lands colonized by Europe, Russia and the United States.

If one includes the introduction and conclusion, Arise! is arranged into eight sections The title of each section begins with the words :”How to Make….” as if the text was a how-to manual. For example, the introduction is titled “How to Make a Rope,” the chapter on Dorothy Healey and communist organizing among migrant workers in California is titled “How to Make a LIving.” A chapter on women’s struggles and the Soviet ambassadorship to Mexico of Alexandra Kollontai is called “How to Make Love.” Each chapter focuses on the work of various individuals and groups in the international left and anarchist movements, their relation to, and the influence of the Mexican revolution on that work. Furthermore, Heatherton’s text highlights the non-sectarian elements of the revolutionary movement at the time and the expansion of theory and solidarity that resulted from the intersection of those elements.

More than a history of political actions and actors, Heatherton explores the role of radicals in the arts and music and the influence of their work. One fascinating chapter titled “How to Make a Dress” focuses on the work of Elizabeth Catlett and African-American community arts. At the same time, the reader learns about an effort to provide popular education to Black Americans; an effort that was part of the Communist party’s adult education programs. Not only was this program perhaps the largest system of adult education in America during its existence according to writer Marvin Gettleman (quoted on page 161), it utilized a radical pedagogical approach and provided an alternative to mainstream education at a time educators were being blacklisted in the public systems. The breadth and popularity of these and other programs organized and run by the Party and other leftist organizations reminds the reader of the possibilities that exist for organizing. Possibilities that await the energy and tenacity today’s left organizations and organizers often seem to lack.

With good reason, one of Heatherton’s inspirations for this text is the song “The Internationale.” This hymn to the revolutionary aspirations of the workers, peasants and marginalized of the world is the essence of this book. By centering the revolutionary and radical movements of the first part of the twentieth century in the Mexican revolution instead of the October revolution in Russia, the author has expanded the meaning and impact of both manifestations of the human desire for social justice and revolutionary freedoms. Simultaneously, she reminds the reader that the internationalism of the period was a result of the globalization of capitalism and a reaction to the globalization of the exploitation, war and repression that accompanied it.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.