New Publication in JLAS

“Hegemonic Nationalism, Subordinate Marxism: The Mexican Left, 1945– 7”

Abstract: The most significant weakness of the Marxist Left in early Cold War Mexico was that it subordinated itself to post-revolutionary nationalism. Both the Mexican Communist Party and followers of Vicente Lombardo Toledano supported the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), avoiding significant criticism before late 1947. Some dissident currents of Marxism did exist, but they were sparsely followed. Mexico provides an extreme case of Left subordination to popular-nationalist ideology, yet is indicative of trends visible elsewhere, e.g. among Marxist groups in post-war Cuba and the United States. Rather than promoting notions of communist political practice, the Mexican Marxist Left consistently advocated the elimination of class conflict and support for the ‘national bourgeoisie’. The Marxist Left held the Mexican government to different standards from those to which they held the governments of other countries. A near-consensus on the Mexican Left equated patriotism with progressive politics. The argument is illustrated with an important case study: the 1947 Marxist Round Table.


Spinning & Toiling

Some work news: from January I will be taking up a position as stipendiary lecturer in Modern History at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, through until summer 2018. I will also continue with my current role teaching the history of Latin America and the United States in the Department of International History at LSE until summer 2017.

Mexico Round-up

Some recent stories about/from Mexico:

The governor of Mexico’s central bank, Agustín Carstens, has announced he is quitting the role next year to take over at the Bank for International Settlements. He stresses it is not to do with the likely ‘Trump effect’ on Mexico’s economy, but many have expressed concern that he is leaving at this time. Trump has made it clear he will intervene personally – as with Carrier last week – to prevent US companies moving production sites to Mexico (and elsewhere). That said, the OECD aren’t too gloomy about Mexico’s short-term economic prospects. Over at La Jornada, Hernández looks forward to the restraining influence of James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Niall Ferguson is more sanguine.)

As anyone who has spent time in Mexico City knows, the city’s traffic and emissions management have been chronically ineffective for years. Now Mexico City is being heralded as one of four pioneering cities pledging to eliminate diesel vehicles from their streets by 2025. It would be great, in principle, to see this happen, but it is hard not to wonder whether the wealthy (and indeed others) of Mexico City will manage to get around this ban as they have so many other proscriptive initiatives.

Another chapter in the long-running battle between Mexico’s campesinos and multinational companies is covered by Hermann Bellinghausen, framed as the devouring of the land of Juan Rulfo. Meanwhile, as a missing dog went viral, David Agren asked: where is the concern for missing people?

Reactions to the death of Fidel Castro ran the full gamut in Mexico. López Obrador reportedly offered some rather fulsome praise, which Jorge Castañeda addressed here. In Proceso, Jorge Carrasco Araizaga casts a withering look at some of the tensions and contradictions in both Castro’s reputation in Mexico (not least the damaging support for Salinas) and in the wider Cuban-Mexican relationship.


Castro, Cuba, and Hypocrisy

A few words on Fidel Castro (1926-2016), a figure of world-historical importance (does his death mark the ‘end of communism’ for instance?) and without whom the teaching of courses on US-Latin American relations would be difficult to imagine.


I don’t want to say much here about the achievements of the Cuban revolution – in education, in health, in global anti-imperialism and anti-apartheid struggles, in disaster relief and medical solidarity, and very recently in helping to broker the probable peace between the FARC and the Colombian government. Others have covered these positives in great detail, along with Castro’s varying personal role. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the negatives, as a caution against what I see as a frequently hypocritical and in-bad-faith dismissal of Cuba tout court.


Some of Castro’s fiercest critics seem to be judging him by imagined contemporary standards rather than the standards of the Cold War (by which the Cuban regime emerges as unusually progressive). The period and region were characterised by violence, dictatorship, militarism and censorship and while Castro’s repressive government certainly demonstrated each of these traits, the Cuban regime’s crimes pale next to those of authoritarianisms almost everywhere else in the region. And perhaps Castro invited closer scrutiny by so publically judging the actions of other rulers and regimes, and acting upon those judgements with force of arms. But using overt or covert methods to export ideology to other parts of the world? That was Cold War 101 for all serious practitioners, whether US, USSR, China or lesser lights. It seems to me that a particular problem for the Cuban government was that it represented a small nation, was somewhat autonomous, and very vocal – a combination which greatly riled its enemies.


Others seem happy to write Cuba off as a ‘prison state’ or as part of the extended ‘axis of evil’ without acknowledging extrajudicial arrest and imprisonment, clampdowns on dissent, electoral irregularities, and foreign policy adventurism in its supposedly more palatable neighbours – and even closer to home. As I said above, while Cuba’s revolutionary government was undoubtedly (though not consistently) repressive, and made some significant missteps in economic and foreign policy, I think history will, on balance, be kind to Castro – at least kinder than political scientists and journalists seem to be. The impact of the revolution in inspiring Latin Americans and others to assert political and economic independence was huge, while the role Cuba played in opposing and defeating white supremacist regimes in southern Africa is also important.


We should condemn aspects of Castro’s rule and legacy, no doubt: the jailing and even killing of one’s political enemies, censorship, the disdain for multi-party democracy, the enforced isolation of HIV-positive Cubans in the 1980s (and ongoing temporary ‘quarantining’), the wholesale backing of Ethiopia against Somalia in the late 1970s. But we cannot pretend these things (or equivalents) are unusual in regimes we would perhaps prefer to think of as liberal democracies (and certainly not in their less ‘liberal’ allies) the world over.


Take imprisonment, for instance. The US is a carceral state, with around one per cent of the population in jail – that’s well over two million people, of whom (as is well publicised), most are people of colour, a form of political jailing in and of itself. Cuba’s rate of incarceration is high, of course, but it is well below that of the US – in fact only around two thirds of it.


And during Castro’s period of rule there were political prisoners in British, US, French and German jails, even if we rarely think about it that way. Nearly two thousand people were interned, that is to say imprisoned without trial for political reasons, in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and many were tortured. The United States has a prison camp on the island of Cuba itself – Guantanamo Bay, probably the most notorious site of detention without trial in the contemporary world. It’s not only a reaction to 9/11, though – at least a hundred people were already being held for primarily political reasons as a result of the COINTELPRO programme set up by Hoover in 1956, the same year Castro’s expedition landed in Cuba.


Was Castro’s regime brutal? It was deadly of course, especially to begin with, when several thousand people were executed in the first ten or fifteen years of the revolution – mostly functionaries of the Batista dictatorship, though not all. Yet note that the death penalty was last exercised in Cuba in 2003 – and that wasn’t for anything explicitly political, it was for hijacking – since that time almost five hundred US prisoners have been executed. China, whose leaders successive British Prime Ministers have praised for being pragmatic modernisers, executes thousands of people each year. That doesn’t stop talk of a ‘golden era’.


As for elections, Cuba was and remains a one-party state. Castro didn’t exactly invent this state of affairs, nor did he show any inclination to remedy it. But ‘undemocracy’ creeps into even the most self-confident republic. Only three weeks ago the new US president was chosen in an election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and where it increasingly looks like voter suppression may have played a decisive role. We in the UK are allowed to vote, and that’s an important and valuable right, but we don’t have an elected head of state or even an elected prime minister right now. Was the EU referendum a ‘free and fair election’?


I am not suggesting equivalence here, just that ‘democracy’, ‘voting’ and ‘elections’ in and of themselves are rather unhelpful and elusive terms. Venezuela was nominally democratic throughout the Cold War, but with little evidence of meaningful popular sovereignty. Democratic Britain spent the 1950s conniving to overthrow governments from Iran to Guyana, imprisoning and torturing Cypriots, and massacring political opponents in Kenya. And where conservative critics of Cuba have cited undemocratic tyranny as an irredeemable fault of the regime, they often fall silent on Turkey, Saudi Arabia or other strategic allies. Furthermore, a democratic mandate did not save Arbenz from a US-supported coup and dictatorship, nor would it save Allende.*


We should also remember that Castro did not rule alone (though there were some signs of a crisis of succession seen in progressive movements under siege since the English Revolution), that while political culture was limited it was nevertheless effervescent, that the government maintained a significant degree of public support (talk of ‘totalitarianism’ seems particularly off, even if dictatorship is arguable), and was buoyed by a patriotic and anti-imperialist popular spirit which was only increased by US foreign policy. I don’t think it is possible to unpick restraints on domestic Cuban freedoms from the greater constraint imposed on the Cuban island, society and economy as a whole by the United States and its allies. President Obama came very close to acknowledging this when he began the current rapprochement, talking of ‘cutting loose the anchor of the failed policies of the past’.


Anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid, egalitarian – all to be applauded. But authoritarian, militaristic, censorious? Yes, it was those too. And the question that many – critics and supporters – have come back to, is ‘was it worth it?’ I wouldn’t ask anybody to hold back in their criticism of Castro, and I am not at all advocating ‘whataboutery’. But I would ask that the same standards are applied elsewhere – to the eleven presidents of the United States who have stood in opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary path, to our own past and contemporary liberal-democratic governments, to our allies doing our dirty work elsewhere – otherwise it just looks like good old-fashioned red-baiting.


*An aside: Ben Smith has shown, one-party states can be lively sites of contestation at the sub-national level.


Is Theresa May a Peronist?

A couple of weeks ago I was doing some reading on early Peronism for a class I was teaching on Latin American populists. Alongside Vargas in Brazil and Cárdenas in Mexico, we were looking at the transition from the military junta (1943-6) to the odd melange of ‘democratic-authoritarian populism’ (!) presided over by Perón in Argentina from 1946-55. The more I read on this period of Perón’s political career – and granted, there are many distinct Perón phases – the more one contemporary figure sprang to mind: Theresa May.*


Clearly the question posed here is a facetious one – I don’t think May has demonstrated particular interest in or knowledge of Latin America, though notably the current visit to the UK of President Santos of Colombia has provided the British government with an opportunity to announce some bilateral deals of the sort that may define the post-Brexit course. I certainly don’t suggest she is an actual admirer or follower of Perón (who for all his towering importance in Latin America is only moderately known and very poorly understood outside the region). However, there are a number of commonalities that I find rather striking.


An important reason why Theresa May came to mind was the difficulty political commentators have had in placing her accurately on a traditional left-right spectrum. I don’t think it’s hard at all, myself; I think it’s fairly clear that this is the most right-wing government Britain has had for generations, and possibly much longer. That said, the British commentariat tied itself in knots following May’s walkover to the Conservative leadership, declaring her to be “curious hybrid”; aiming to “command and hold the centre ground”; a “hard edged version of centrism”; “unideological”, “super pragmatic” and “Tony Blair… in kitten heels”. As the last comment suggests, May has to contend with an awful lot of sexism before her politics gets full attention.


However, at the heart of May’s so-called centrism are sentiments with deeply troubling historical antecedents. “The lesson of Britain,” she claims, “is that we are a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship”. Everyone likes family, community, and citizenship don’t they? Of course they do. But the shift from those fluffy abstractions into concretely defined realities is behind many of the twentieth century’s most heinous political movements. (An episode of Novara FM covered some of this in relation to political theory in a fascinating way recently).


Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974, president of Argentina 1946-55, and 1973-4) similarly frustrates many who attempt to place him on a one-dimensional left-right spectrum, though the significant overlap with fascism is to my mind a pretty big clue. In his book The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein (T:@FinchelsteinF) gives a superb account of the genealogy of Argentine political culture. In the chapter on links between fascism and Peronism, he writes (and forgive the lengthy quote, but it is important):


Fascism and Peronism came to power as a result of the failure of liberal-democratic regimes that were thought to be solid or well-established. Both regimes gave a totalitarian answer to the crisis that modernity had provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state. Both regimes were clearly anticommunist and antisocialist. Finally, both regimes mobilized the population “from the top,” through their propaganda and various actions, promoting mass politics and convincing majorities that the regime represented them and the nation as a whole. But while fascism mobilized the middle classes, Peronism rallied the working class.


Let us call the incipient variant of right-nationalism that May and her cabinet represent Mayism. Admittedly this sets aside important ideological differences within the cabinet on matters of trade (though free traders are being allowed enough rope to hang themselves, it seems to me) and civil liberties (again, though, David Davis has changed his mind spectacularly on free speech post-referendum for instance), but there is enough of an emergent dynamic for this to be worth thinking about. To substitute into Finchelstein’s schema:


  • Mayism came to power as a result of the failure of a liberal-democratic regime that was thought to be solid or well-established.
  • Mayism seems to be seeking authoritarian** answers to the crisis that modernity has provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state (see, especially, the rather terrifying “we will never again… let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave”)
  • Mayism is clearly antisocialist.
  • Mayism is attempting to moblize the population “from the top,” through its propaganda and various actions, convincing majorities that the regime represents them and the nation as a whole.


In addition, there are some echoes of Peronism where:


  • Mayism promotes an openly racist immigration policy (though so have many successive governments in Britain).
  • Mayism implicitly promotes a Christian public morality (though two caveats here: first, as far as I know it is yet to become explicitDavid Cameron tried this, and was heavily rebuked; and second, a Catholic political morality as in Argentina may have significant differences to an Anglican political morality in Britain, though I suspect these differences would be overstated, and in any case there are some welcoming May’s apparent Anglo-Catholicism).
  • Mayism has a contingent relationship with democracy, using popular sovereignty to disregard representative institutions where it supports May’s broad project , and vice versa where it does not.


Finchelstein notes that Perón turned from fascism’s middle-class constituency to the Argentine working class. Theresa May’s conference speech (from which the bulk of quotes here are taken verbatim) suggested she wishes to move from the liberal-ish broadly middle-class constituency which backed both Blair and Cameron to some kind of frightened and ‘left behind’ working class, which may or may not exist in that form (it’s certainly not a consistent picture with coherent political expression as James Meek has amply demonstrated in recent years, for example here). To wit:


Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. Because it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families.


That’s some epic outsider-populism right there, from someone who has been right at the heart of government for the last six years – a reason to be very sceptical that this cross-class appeal is anything more than a clear demarcation from May’s predecessor, the unrepentantly toffish Cameron. This nod to the less well-off continues, with vague pronouncements on wealth disparity (societal and regional), tax avoidance and (perhaps most interestingly) generational inequality. But the fix suggested is not structural reform of class inequality, it is an exclusionary localism.


Militarism and anti-cosmopolitan sentiment also bubble at the surface. May foregrounded “the servicemen and women I met last week who wear their uniform proudly at home and serve our nation with honour abroad”; she also, chillingly, declared “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Build that wall!


When I note the floundering of the commentariat in the face of political rhetoric which borrows from left (a bit) and extreme right (rather a lot), it is most pertinent in the idea that Theresa May and her government ‘represent the nation as a whole’. Political journalists now – for a number of reasons, I suspect far more than in the past – report on language much more than actions. Curtain-raisers, teasers, speeches, leaks etc are the channel of distribution for political ‘news’, rather than longitudinal policy analysis. Hence, when May said:


I want to explain what a country that works for everyone means. I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics… built on the values of fairness and opportunity… where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person – regardless of their background, or that of their parents – is given the chance to be all they want to be


this was generally reported to be her political philosophy, and to be the basis for forthcoming policies.


To be clear, I am not suggesting that the situation in Britain in 2016 is like that of Argentina in 1946, but there are limited echoes – a volk-ish nostalgia for a fake kitschy past greatness crying out to be restored is definitely in the air, as it is explicitly for Trump of course.


Peronism went on to underpin Argentina populist political culture, which consisted of (Finchelstein again) “the marriage of social reform, state interventionism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism with the logic of single-party rule, social polarization, clientelism, censorship of the press, ostracism, and the persecution of opponents up to, in some cases, prison and torture”. These things are not on the cards, certainly not in that combination, in contemporary Britain.


Yet it is not difficult to imagine, for example, an attempt to de-secularise political culture (some of her cheerleaders are actively encouraging such a path, but this could only be done in a confrontational manner – the ‘family’-centred politics can be a code here, but so could a future elision of the difference between ‘Christian’ and ‘white’); targeted state economic intervention in politically important constituencies (“strategic value” industries, which May denies constitutes “picking winners”); the steady consolidation of a concrete and enduring Conservative parliamentary majority (and thus one-party rule for the foreseeable future in England at least); an unapologetic revanchist and chauvinist nationalism (we have that already in bucketloads, really); and most troublingly, an expansion of May’s clear authoritarian tendencies at the Home Office (which did involve appalling violence against – in particular – detained migrants, but also a broader disgust aimed at human rights as a concept) into government at large. All the more baffling, then, when a self-declared leftist like Giles Fraser celebrates May for ditching neoliberalism in favour of something else which by his own admission is vague and merely rhetorical, a conservatism “so much better for the poor than slick liberals”. Again, the religious angle is noted: “for the vicar’s daughter, the community comes first”. I’m sure many will think of Evita here, but I’m not sure that’s a very fruitful line of enquiry.


It’s early days for May and her nascent -ism. It does not pay to make political predictions in the current conjuncture, in Britain, in Argentina, in the United States, in Colombia. We might not see any of these past echoes grow beyond their current unsettling volume, a distant marching beat. But borrowing bits of far right and left-nationalist rhetoric, fooling commentators into declarations of ‘centrism’ or ‘the politics of unity’, pursuing economic independence and ethnically-exclusive communitarianism as a route out of political and economic crisis – these are all things we can draw upon for comparison’s sake in postwar Argentina.


To conclude, a snippet which I think could have come from either the current British PM or from Juan Domingo himself:


They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.


There it is: machista nationalism, dog-whistle communitarianism, and social authoritarianism, with a nod at the end to old labour. Or possibly Old Labour. We shall see.


*N.B. Peronism now means something very different from Peronism then.

**I shy away from the word totalitarian here, which is clearly not applicable.

A few words on José Fernández

A great deal has been written about José Fernández, the Miami Marlins star pitcher who died in a boat accident this morning. It’s awful for anyone to die at such a young age – he was just twenty-four years old – and that will be amplified for many by his prominence as a Marlin (a franchise which has had rough treatment from its ownership over the years and often not much to cheer about) and a Cuban in Miami.

One image which struck me was that of fellow Cuban defector (and hitting superstar for the New York Mets) Yoenis Céspedes, taping a Fernández jersey to the Mets dugout wall during the victory over the Phillies today.


The two had things in common – both were stars on teams down on their luck, both Cuban defectors – but their trajectories were very different. Céspedes is thirty, and arrived in the major leagues in 2012 already a star in Cuba. He had established himself at the local and international level and defected to the Dominican Republic in 2011 before signing a $36m/4yr deal with the A’s in 2012. (Interestingly, he may have been close to signing with the Marlins too).

Fernández had a much tougher, more contingent and more circuitous route to the United States and the big leagues. Several attempts to flee Cuba preceded a successful – though apparently highly traumatic – voyage to Mexico in 2008, during which the teenage Fernández reportedly saved his mother from drowning. While as an established player Céspedes (like Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman) could sign a free agent contract for really big money, Fernández went into the draft like every other budding young player, being selected in the first round by the Miami Marlins (albeit pocketing a cool $2m in the process). His precocious talents didn’t linger long in the minor leagues, and after just a year he was up in the bigs, an All-Star and then Rookie of the Year. Like Céspedes and Chapman he quickly became known for his explosive talent, but his raw skills were probably more impressive and he could well have gone on to be an all-time great pitcher. He also charmed many – and yes, as a Met fan who cannot stand the Marlins in the ordinary course of things, I include myself – with his evident delight in playing the game.


The individual cases of the players I’ve mentioned may, in time, have a good deal to say about the specificity of the Cuban-United States relationship, its antagonisms, its contradictions and co-dependencies. There has already been much ink spilled making crassly triumphalist political points. But further thoughts on these stories – and those of Puig, or Chapman, or the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have gone to the States to pursue lives much more ordinary than those of All-Star baseball professionals – should probably wait. For now, we should maybe just dwell on the dazzling talent and unbridled enthusiasm of a young man who has died much too soon, and think of those close to him.