Hidden history of the Mexican-American working class

Radicals in the Barrio:

Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas,
Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists
in the Mexican-American Working Class

Justin Akers Chacón’s Radicals in the Barrio reveals the rich and compelling history of the Mexican migrants who came to the United States before and after the 1910 Mexican Revolution and brought with them workplace militancy, radical ideology, organizational innovation, and class culture that made a profound impact on the labor movement of the day. This was particularly true in the barrios of the southwestern border states, where capitalist development and a fighting working-class left would simply have been impossible without the labor and militancy of Mexican and Chicano workers.

Painstakingly researched and adeptly written, Akers Chacón’s book focuses not on a group of people who were simply ground down, oppressed, or passive objects of exploitation, as many mainstream historical accounts depict immigrant communities. Rather, Radicals in the Barrio is a study of active makers of history with unbounded revolutionary agency, whose social struggles led to major victories in the face of oppression and brutal exploitation. These lessons can and should inform similar class battles today, as immigrants remain at the forefront of labor struggles and play an outsized role in the organized union movement.

Radicals in the Barrio covers a lot of ground, taking us through the history of US-Mexican relations and the impact of imperialism on Mexican political economy and class formation. The accompanying conditions of displacement, inequality, and class polarization greased the wheels of the Mexican Revolution and produced the first major waves of out-migration north, as labor was forced to follow capitalist development into the US for survival. Akers Chacón describes the Mexican Revolution as a popular upsurge that “toppled the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and a series of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary battles that raged for over a decade,” resulting in the “defeat of the landed oligarchy and the Catholic Church,” while “landing a blow against imperialism.”

Out of what was a broad bourgeois movement for democratization and social reform, rose an anticapitalist and anti-imperialist current under the ideological leadership of Ricardo Flores Magón and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party, or PLM). While the “magonistas” were unable to forge an independent path that could directly contest for power, the lived experience of the revolution left indelible effects on its working-class participants, including a heightened class consciousness and political adroitness that many brought with them over the border, where they faced racial segregation, hyperexploitative economic conditions, and nativist and white supremacist violence.

Yet far from subordinating themselves to an impregnable system of oppression, Mexican workers and radicals organized themselves into mutualistas (mutual aid societies), organized industrial labor unions, and armed self-defense units, and played an outsized role in building the organized left in the border states and beyond. They played leading roles in the Knights of Labor, the Socialist Party (SP), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and later the Communist Party (CP).

As Akers Chacón argues, this shaped the US labor movement and the organized left in important ways, particularly by catalyzing interracial and transnational solidarity, and providing an anti-imperialist consciousness and anticapitalist politics. Furthermore, Mexican radicals were at the forefront of the struggle against Jim Crow segregation and discrimination in the Southwest. Women leaders in the PLM also developed socialist feminist ideas that challenged patriarchy in both theory and practice. This history is especially useful now, when immigrants face blatant attacks by the reactionary Trump administration, and as the emerging US left grapples with an issue as old as US capitalism itself: how to build a mass socialist movement that foregrounds internationalism. In this sense, Radicals in the Barrio is something of a movement handbook. It is impossible to read it without thinking about current conditions and questions confronting contemporary activism.

Akers Chacón’s Marxist-informed analysis of immigration and its historical treatment is illuminating and often razor sharp. In a social system where capital moves unencumbered across borders, and where border fences, barbed wire, and armed immigration agents are reserved only for the world’s nonwhite, poor, and working class, it should be obvious that the right to free movement must be an ironclad principle within the labor movement and the radical left. But the pull of nationalism has always been a very real force. This is reflected in the atrocious positions the labor movement has taken in the past, notably the old American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL’s competitive and exclusivist logic fostered a protectionism and economic nationalism which invariably meant that the bureaucracy was taking its cues from the owners and managers of production rather than articulating an independent class position. Far from recognizing that unbroken solidarity was a precondition for building power, such perspectives inevitably descended into the worst sort of racism and xenophobia, cutting off the union movement’s nose to spite its face.

As Radicals in the Barrio shows, the working-class movement must counterpose its own internationalist and borderless ideology to the ideology of the capitalist class, which seeks to use the movement of people across borders for its own narrow purposes with the state intervening on its behalf. As Akers Chacón describes, this was made abundantly clear in the period following World War I:

The rapid consolidation of an industrial agricultural sector, geared toward national and international markets, changed the labor structure and composition during the 1920s. Mega-harvests necessitated large migratory bodies of workers, which were legislated into formation through the manipulation of immigration policy. The onset of existential capitalist crisis led to an unprecedented era of aggressive state intervention to preserve existing relations of production.

The “manipulation of immigration policy” meant that in a period when the state was undertaking a full-out assault on the labor movement following the workers’ upsurge after World War I and enacting “racially informed immigration quotas,” Mexican immigrants were exempted due to the exigencies of agricultural production. This was accompanied by the creation of the US Border Control in 1924 that put armed agents on the US-Mexico border, which “regulated the flow of migrant workers in the first efforts to synch economic patterns with an algorithm of enforcement.”

“The selective and targeted enforcement of immigration exclusion” on behalf of growers “to shield Mexican workers gave way to a full-scale removal with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.” As production plummeted, “politicians and bureaucrats across the country braced for the destabilizing social effects and swung quickly behind the idea of targeting immigrants as a prelude to a likely upsurge in riots and rebellions.” Between 1929 and 1939 an estimated one million Mexican nationals were driven from the country in a massive state-coordinated project of arrest and deportation. Despite assurances from state officials that these removals would open up significant employment opportunities for “native workers,” areas of industry deemed essential were shielded from the expulsions.

In other words, bourgeois immigration policy rested on a multi-sided and fluctuating mechanism of labor control. Industry relied on the state apparatus to procure labor through immigration when needed, and to discipline or temper labor through deportation, or the threat of it, when considered superfluous. The historical narrative makes clear that we should not look at immigration solely through an economic lens. Racism, sexism, transphobia, and violence are among the tools of labor discipline that aid in its reproduction. Workplace discrimination on racialized grounds, in particular, compounded this disciplinary mechanism while also serving to segment and stratify the workforce with the aim of keeping it pliable.

By the time the United States began emerging as an imperial power around the turn of the twentieth century, the AFL had shed most of its earlier socialist pretenses and morphed into a mostly white formation of skilled, conservative craft unionists intent on protecting their own sectional bailiwicks. Keen on protecting their narrow craft-union fiefdoms, Samuel Gompers and his AFL bureaucracy aligned itself with the imperialist camp in a debate then raging with those who advocated a position of old-style colonialism. In many ways, the AFL perspective Akers Chacón relates sounds somewhat familiar to those sympathetic to strands of economic nationalism now:

The craft unions of the AFL denounced “old-style colonialism” because it opened up the possibility for capitalists to export capital and production to captive labor at the expense of craft workers. They also opposed annexation as it would create a pathway to citizenship—and thus the right to migrate—for colonized people. This, they believed, enabled capitalists to encourage an influx of foreign workers into US labor markets to weaken union leverage.

As a result of this position, AFL bureaucrats were pulled toward imperialism, and support for the non-territorial expansion “of US capitalism through the creation of free markets,” which led to the opening up of new territories for manufactured goods, ostensibly aiding employment in US industry. These protectionist and economic nationalist positions led the AFL into a political alignment with the Democratic Party, while its imperialist orientation led to an enthusiastic embrace of war and white-supremacist doctrine.

But did these positions actually strengthen organized labor? The balance sheet Akers Chacón presents is decidedly negative. While he concludes protectionism may have benefited craft labor in the short term, it was inevitably weakened “as the workforce expanded and differentiated, and as imperial relations led to the deindustrialization and destabilization of foreign economies that fueled out-migration from places like Mexico and the Philippines.” Akers Chacón continues:

For its part, capital came to rely increasingly on importing immigrant labor to expand the non-union workforce, but simultaneously decried excessive immigration as a means to align with AFL calls for immigration restrictions. The immigration policies that emerged further aligned the AFL and capital as they tended not to block entrance, but to restrict mobility and citizenship for various groups once inside the country. While employers benefitted from unorganized and segregated labor filing into the industries, the AFL crafts were content with the discriminatory outcomes that limited direct competition from these “unskilled” workers and fortified the stratification of the working classes.

This meant, in effect, that the AFL’s exclusionary policies were directly aiding the aims of the capitalist class and harming the majority of the US workforce.

In recent years, the AFL-CIO has taken a much better position. This undoubtedly has to do with demographic shifts over the last few decades and the electoral calculus of the Democratic Party—but the driving force of the change has been the self-organization of immigrants over the last several years, and the prominent role they play in the labor movement.

Radicals in the Barrio is necessary reading as we live through a prolonged migrant and refugee crisis driven by capitalism, spawning wars, ecological devastation, grinding poverty, displacement, crime, and state violence. All of the antisocial manifestations of modern society can be traced to the profit motive, and the nationplays a major role in its reproduction. Nationalism, the ideology that buttresses the state, is both producer and product of the rejection of open borders.

Not only do we on the left have an ethical commitment to a world with open borders that respects the right to free movement for all of the oppressed, but in a strategic sense, the working class cannot build power unless it champions transnational solidarity and common action across national boundaries. Our starting point should be standing in solidarity with those moving around the world, whether in search of something better or simply for survival. As the founding convention of the First International proclaimed, “The emancipation of labor is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists.”

Workers, Akers Chacón argues, “share a similar international character” that necessitates “their unity across national, racial, and cultural boundaries.” Similarly, racism cannot be adequately challenged if working-class practice is not thoroughly internationalist in scope. It will be as necessary as ever in the coming period to understand both the critical role immigrants have played in galvanizing the workers’ movement, and the necessity of international solidarity in the fight for socialism and human liberation. For those reasons, Radicals in the Barrio is vital reading.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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