Daniela Spenser. American Communist History. Volume 6, Issue 2. December 2007.
When the Bolshevik revolution was making headlines, the decade-long Mexican revolution was winding out of its epic phase and was moving toward the institutionalization of a new regime. True, the government of the revolution assassinated the pre-eminent peasant leader Emiliano Zapata in 1919, and had no qualms in letting Ricardo Flores Magón, the anarchist precursor of the revolution, wallow in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Yet, despite the government’s contradictory record, the Bolshevik revolution was in no position to supersede the Mexican revolution. In fact, the two revolutions clashed when they tested their ideology and political practices on the reality of post-revolutionary Mexico, as both tried to win the hearts and minds of the population whose lot they claimed to improve.
The post-revolutionary state sought to build a political consensus by forging the myth and memory of the Mexican revolution and by gradually turning it into a civil religion. In doing so, the state put Zapata and Flores Magón on the same pedestal with their assassins and persecutors. Then, “Healing the wounds of memory was part of the state rebuilding process that in Mexico was called the institutionalization of the revolution.” In the process of inculcating beliefs, legitimizing institutions, and promoting social cohesion the state of the Mexican revolution reinforced the elite in power while seeking to establish national political unity and build foundations on which to unify all revolutionary factions. It is the thesis of this article that the active construction of the Mexican state and nation left little room for the influence of other revolutionary traditions.
What follows is an analytical narrative of one conjuncture, 1921, when the Communist International sent three emissaries to Mexico to conquer the labor movement for communism and to draw the workers’ allegiance away from an alliance with the state of the Mexican revolution. The duty of the Comintern envoys was first to create a communist party, before they could embark on organizing labor. However, this was to prove a more difficult task than anticipated in a country with no experience or tradition of party organizing, and where anarcho-syndicalism, on the one hand, and liberalism, understood as social democracy, on the other, were the two dominant strands of working class ideology.
True, in 1921 the Mexican revolution was still incomplete, but the government presented it as permanent and ongoing. The radical Constitution of 1917 was the culmination of the revolution, charting the road toward the future. Venustiano Carranza, the president who was to enforce it during his term in office between 1917 and 1920, failed to carry out its mission: he repressed workers who dared to go on strike, did not redistribute land to peasants as the constitution dictated, and even returned confiscated haciendas to their former owners. In the struggle for state power after he left office in 1920 Carranza was assassinated. The revolutionary faction, which probably masterminded the assassination, was to put the revolution on its original course, for only by striving for the fulfillment of its goals could the state legitimize the power which it claimed emanated from the upheaval of the previous decade. Moreover, loyalty to the revolution allowed yesterday’s enemies to be reconciled, and these compromises, although sealed in the present also applied to the past. What also kept the revolution alive was its enemies. The conservative reaction was largely defeated, but its remnants opposed the revolutionary principles and government. The new state had to fight these pernicious remnants, supposedly so that they would not spoil the fruits of the revolution.
Making the Decision
No analysis of the Mexican revolution existed in the headquarters of the world revolution when in 1919 Vladimir Ilich Lenin sent Mikhail Borodin to the New World. Borodin’s mission was to found communist parties and take care of diplomatic and commercial business in defense of the new Soviet state. Borodin’s credentials were impeccable: he participated in the revolution of 1905, had experience in the socialist movement of the USA while he lived in exile there until 1917, and had been at the founding congress of the Communist International in March 1919.
Borodin arrived in the USA during the last days of August 1919, when the political heat among American socialists was at its peak. The root of the dispute was the division between the moderate and radical socialists over their claim to be the legitimate representatives of the labor movement. The Bolshevik revolution divided the socialists between those who endorsed it and those who opposed it. Borodin could not have found the atmosphere in the USA alien, more so because one of his old friends was Adolph Germer, one of the most moderate of socialists and one who opposed the creation of a communist party. Borodin remained in the USA until the end of September, yet we know next to nothing about what he accomplished or whom he met. Upon his return to Europe later in the year Borodin reported to the Dutch communist Sebald Justinus Rutgers on the dispute between the two communist parties that sprang into existence during that fateful autumn. Borodin wrote:
This internal struggle among the Communists (and I can call it that) is suicidal. It plays into the hands of the reaction on the one hand, and on the other into [the hands] of the Old Guard of the Socialist Party. I believe that it is time that the Third Bureau intervenes and resolves the controversy.
With the FBI on his heels, Borodin slipped into Mexico in early October 1919. We can only surmise what Borodin knew about the situation in Mexico, because US newspapers, both mainstream and radical, were full of reports of revolutionary developments. Voicing the concerns of the Department of State and the intelligence community, the newspapers portrayed Mexico in the throws of Bolshevism, because the Constitution of 1917 put the interests of the nation before the principle of the inalienable right to private property. Led by the senator from New Mexico, Albert Fall, American investors called on President Woodrow Wilson to intervene and annul the constitution. The left and liberals in the USA defended the right of Mexico to enact any law it deemed beneficial for the country. “Hands off Mexico” was their rallying call.
Once in the Mexican capital Borodin managed, with the aid of an interpreter, to make contact with a group of American draft dodgers and the Hindu nationalist Mananbendra Nath Roy. With bubbling enthusiasm the American dodgers and Roy became the conduit for Borodin who, together with a handful of Mexicans, created what they believed was a Mexican Communist Party and the Pan-American Bureau of the Communist International in November of 1919. However, the party and the bureau existed in name only, for they did not represent an organized entity. Despite such shaky foundations, Borodin selected Roy and his American wife Evelyn Trent to be the Mexican party’s delegates to the Second Congress of the Comintern. Borodin chose the American socialist (and slacker) Charles Phillips, in Mexico since 1918, to be his interpreter in Spain. They all left in December 1919, leaving a rump Mexican Communist Party under the control of the Mexican mechanic José Allen. Rivaling this party was the Communist Party of Mexico, founded by Linn Gale, another draft evader and editor of Gale‘s Magazine, in September 1919. A group of Mexican socialists and another group belonging to the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World sent separate letters to the Comintern denying the legitimacy of the delegates that Borodin had selected and claiming that they were the true representatives of the Mexican workers at the Comintern congress.
Borodin believed that Mexico was a opportune place to develop revolutionary mass action. At the conference of the Amsterdam Bureau of the Comintern that took place in February 1920 he suggested that the Communist Party of America take the lead in the Pan-American Bureau because it was closer geographically and better understood the situation in Mexico. Once in Moscow Borodin impressed Lenin with reports of revolutionary enthusiasm in Mexico, an impression that the “delegates” from Mexico reinforced. As is well known, Roy played a prominent role in the Second Congress of the Comintern, not as a delegate from Mexico but on behalf of India and in defense of Asian radicalism. Thus, Mexico did not have a delegate in the true sense, but rather advocates, in the persons of Borodin, Phillips, and, particularly prominently, Louis Fraina and, especially, John Reed. After all, Reed had unusual first hand experience of the Mexican revolution from below, as he had ridden into actual battles with Pancho Villa during his journalistic travels in 1913 and 1914.
At the Second Congress, which opened in July 1920, Mexico was discussed twice, each time during debates on colonial and semi-colonial countries. The American delegate Louis Fraina, without mentioning or alluding to the Mexican revolution, stated that “The whole of Latin America must be regarded as a colony of the United States” and that it was “absolutely necessary to fight against this imperialism by starting revolutionary movements in Latin America.” Reed spoke on behalf of Mexico at the Congress of the Peoples of the East, held in Baku in September 1920. Reed vindicated the Mexican revolutionaries struggle for sovereignty: “after many years of civil war, the people formed their own government, not a proletarian government but a democratic one, which wanted to keep the wealth of Mexico for the Mexicans and tax the foreign capitalists.”
At the end of the day, however, the Comintern classified Mexico together with Egypt, Turkey, and Argentina, nations in which an all-pervasive imperialism stymied the development of domestic capitalism. Imperial domination meant that an indigenous bourgeoisie did not exist or was accorded such a subordinate and dependent role that the struggle of nationalists (like Mexico’s revolutionaries) to reconstruct the state and economy on a different basis from the previous regime was undervalued. By including Mexico among semi-colonial countries, its specificity was minimized, because “during the period of capitalist imperialism they [semi-colonies] become a general system, they form part of the process of ‘dividing the world’; they become a link in the chain of operations of world finance capital.” Thus, with all the characteristics of a semi-colonial country it was inconceivable for the Comintern to admit that the Mexican state could manipulate imperialism to its own benefit (rather than to become its blind victim) in the struggle for economic independence.
However, the Comintern recognized that because imperialism had made inroads into the pre-capitalist economic structure, a small industrial working class existed in a predominantly peasant country. Moreover, if well-guided that working class might be made conscious of its duty to fight “the capitalistic imperialism of the United States.” Lenin and the Bolshevik party leaders drew on their conviction that the October Revolution had awakened the laboring people from an age-old sleep and enticed them into the fight against world imperialism, but only under the leadership of the proletariat in the advanced countries might the people of the East (and the Western hemisphere) win the final victory.
Thus the Comintern, that is Lenin, Zinoviev, and Borodin, made the decision to create the American Agency following the congress in September 1920. The Agency’s antecedent was the Pan-American Bureau that Borodin had provisionally set up in Mexico on his brief sojourn in the fall of 1919, the need for which he reaffirmed at the Amsterdam conference in February 1920. This time the Agency was supplied with operating finance and given concrete tasks. Its mandate was to organize communist parties from Canada to Argentina, but the Comintern entrusted the Agency, under the name of the Pan-American Bureau of the Profintern, with the additional task of affiliating labor unions to the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU, or Profintern). At the time the RILU existed only provisionally until its founding congress in the summer of 1921. Hence, the American Agency was to organize communist parties while the Pan-American Bureau of the Profintern was to oversee union organization. Since the Comintern did not recognize labor unions that were independent of communist parties the two activities and agencies were intimately intertwined. In most countries of the hemisphere communist parties did not exist, while labor unions were active. The task before the American Agency was to create communist parties, and where there were two of them, as in the USA and in Mexico, where two were reported to exist, the American Agency had to correct the anomaly by “amalgamating” them into one.
The Encounter with Mexico
The major flaw in the Comintern’s analysis of Mexico in 1920 was the way it underestimated the structural shake-up generated by the Mexican revolution, particularly the restructuring of the relationship between the state and society. As Soviet leaders evaluated Mexico through their global teleological perspective of socio-political stages they minimized the active role of the state in that process, while for reasons of propaganda they exaggerated the revolutionary potential of the working classes. Consequently, when the Comintern group arrived in Mexico it had the incredible illusion that Mexico’s politically weak generals and leaders could be easily swayed to join the communist ranks. Instead, the Comintern would be rendered ineffective by President Alvaro Obregón’s skillful, often draconian, policies of co-option and repression of any opposition to his regime. Moreover, the “revolutionary” proletariat would prove to be much less revolutionary than the Comintern had anticipated.
The Comintern named Louis Fraina, Sen Katayama, and Karl Jansen to head the American Agency in Mexico, the USAs and Canada. Sen Katayama, with years of experience of labor organization in Japan and political work in the USA, took up his post in Mexico at the end of March 1921. Fraina, an American of Italian origin, seasoned in reading socialist theory and a recent convert to communism, joined him at the beginning of July, while Jansen remained in North America, sojourning in Canada. Charles Phillips, who was to be Katayama’s right-hand man, preceded them all. Of the three, he was the only one who spoke Spanish or had experience of life in Mexico from his draft-dodging years.
Phillips, with his Russian wife Natasha, reached Mexico in January 1921. He felt at home in Mexico and knew whom to contact. Phillips got in touch with the anarchists, who dominated some of the labor unions, and with José Allen, whom he had last seen when the Communist Party of Mexico was formed under Borodin’s auspices. Since then Allen remained its sole active member, so much so that to all intents and purposes the party had disappeared.
Allen, a worker, had probably been short of money when he entered the service of the Military Intelligence Division at the US Embassy in Mexico City. The date on which he started informing on Mexican radical and labor activities, and soon on the American Agency, is not clear, although his detailed reports during the first part of 1921 show that it probably began prior to 1921. The importance of the reports lies in the fact that they may have contributed to the Mexican government’s decision to deport many of the foreign radicals who were associated with the Agency, including, by mistake, Allen, himself. They also reinforced the aggressive stance of the USA to the Mexican government’s imputed “bolshevism.”
Allen met Phillips on his arrival and sent the following report to Military Intelligence at the US Embassy:
Frank Seaman, alias Phillips, has recently returned to Mexico. Yesterday the writer had a long conversation with him and learned the following: Seaman represents the “Red Union” in Mexico and expects to represent Mexico in the international of all “Red Unions,” which is expected to be held in Europe sometime in March; probably in Moscow …. Fraina is expected to be one of the radicals that will come later—his job will be to establish secret communication with North American radicals.
Phillips reached Mexico just in time to survey, and bust if possible, the Pan-American Federation of Labor Conference. Organized by the AFL with sponsorship by the Mexican government and the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM), its aim was to engage in labor diplomacy between Mexico and the USA to complement, and if possible improve, the difficult state-to-state relations. The Pan-American Conference opened on January 10. Allen wrote an account of the congress and reported that anarchists and communists were admitted to the conference hall. Indeed, Phillips was let into the meeting room, and left a description of what happened there. Samuel Gompers of the AFL, Dan Tobin of the Teamsters, Matthew Woll of the Photo-engravers, and Mary Harris Jones met with the CROM leaders in front of some 60 delegates from country-wide labor unions: “The A. F. of L. gang could talk in Mexico the way they could not in New York, Chicago, and Washington.” White-haired Mother Jones, 91 years old, shrieked, “They call us Bolsheviki. We are Bolsheviki.” Even though the Americans engaged in radical discourse, this Pan-Americanism in Mexico smacked of the Monroe Doctrine, and subsequent to the congress several Mexican delegates withdrew from the CROM.
Seizing on the opportunity, Phillips and his Mexican cohorts issued a call to organize an anti-CROM labor convention. Allen said: “Radical elements were very much dissatisfied with the Pan-American labor congress and are endeavoring to have a radical congress held in the near future, as shown by the enclosed convocation.” Allen provided other details to his benefactors: “The writer saw a letter written to SEAMAN from Russia in which the latter was advised that SEN KATAYAMA is coming to Mexico from Russia, as a representative of the 3rd International.”
In February 1921 the radical labor unions and associations met to create the Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT). The Minister of the Interior, Plutarco Elías Calles, and the Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos, no firebrands by any stretch of the imagination, lent them a meeting hall in the National Museum. This largesse gave the wrong impression to friends and foes alike. The foreign radicals in Mexico believed that the government was more radical than in fact it was and that their space for maneuver was boundless. In fact, a group of anarchists expelled from Cuba participated in the founding congress of the CGT. The revolutionary government had its reasons to appear a friend of the workers. The beginning of 1921 was a moment of aggressive posturing by foreign investors, backed by their respective governments, to press the Mexican administration into giving up its radical reformist program. In response and self-defense the government showed its strength by projecting popular support. The AFL’s backing of the CROM the previous January also helped.
The congress, an amalgam of anarchists and communists, seemed to be a success to its organizers. Between 60 and 70 delegates from around the country gathered in Mexico City, representing workers, artisans, peasants, and the renters union from Veracruz, men and some women. One of the topics discussed at the congress was the relationship between labor unions and political parties. The congress attendees agreed with the goal of seeking the dictatorship of the proletariat, but in the form of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils, not ensconced in any party, alienating the representation of organized workers. The CGT was clear that it did not want any connection with political parties that refused to undertake the destruction of capitalism by direct revolutionary action. They recognized the legitimacy of the Mexican Communist Party as a cultural organization. The CGT provisionally agreed to adhere to the Profintern until all of its regional organizations approved the affiliation.
Charles Phillips was among the signatories to the final document setting up the CGT, although it contradicted the assignment of the Pan-American Bureau of the Comintern by not recognizing the need for a communist party as the vanguard of the proletariat. The unexpected windfall was the constitution of a labor confederation that could mount a respectable opposition to the CROM. The CGT immediately took to the streets to organize strikes, and Phillips agitated to draw labor unions away from the CROM and into the fold of the CGT.
Katayama arrived on March 31. He reached Mexico alone and undetected with $3000 of Comintern funds tucked into the wall of his little suitcase; only Phillips knew of his arrival. After unification of the two communist parties, or their fractions, failed in the USA Jansen stayed behind to try again, on the understanding that he would join Katayama following successful amalgamation. Fraina left for Berlin sometime in February, because the Comintern money the American Agency had at that time was insufficient to undertake the enormous task ahead of it: to organize communist parties throughout the continent and bring an unspecified number of labor unions under their umbrella.
Before anything else, however, the Agency had to select suitable delegates from the labor movement from both the USA and Mexico and send them to the founding congress of the Profintern in Moscow. For Mexico Phillips proposed Manuel Díaz Ramírez, a trusted anarchist worker with experience in the USA and therefore with a knowledge of English. The CGT agreed to the nomination, although it did not propose Díaz Ramírez. Katayama equipped him with traveling expenses and Díaz Ramirez left Mexico in early April for New York. Jansen looked after him in the North American metropolis before Díaz Ramírez embarked on the next leg of the journey.
Katayama’s position in Mexico was difficult. Fearing detection by the Japanese and American intelligence services he lived in isolation and the only regular contact he maintained was with Phillips and three Mexicans whom he incorporated into his team. The Comintern did not cosset him either, and he felt cut off even from the office that had sent him to Mexico. As Katayama admitted, “I knew very little of Mexican comrades and their mental attitude, I might say, or national characteristics.” Unaware of Allen’s hidden identity, he met him several times. After each occasion Allen reported to the US Embassy the details of their encounter, although with no consequences for Katayama’s security. Katayama divided the bulk of the Agency’s work between Phillips and himself. Phillips was in charge of the Pan-American Agency and Katayama of the American Agency. What this meant was that Katayama took care of the political and ideological propaganda, while Phillips managed the labor movement issues. In addition, having arrived in Mexico with the wrong idea that, as in the USA, there were two communist parties, Katayama set out to meet their leaders and seek their “amalgamation.” They were Linn Gale, who claimed to head the Communist Party of Mexico, and José Allen, considered the head of the Mexican Communist Party.
Katayama was optimistic about his work in Mexico, and the fact that he had the entire continent on his shoulders added importance and urgency to his mission. He organized the publication of the newspaper El Trabajador and distributed several pamphlets written by European syndicalists and communists. At the end of the first two weeks the Agency had spent $2252.52. One expense was sending Díaz Ramírez to Soviet Russia. Another outlay was financing the travels of several anarcho-communists to various parts of Mexico to agitate in favor of workers’ adherence to the Profintern, even in areas, like the oil extraction region in Tampico, where the wobblies predominated. Katayama suggested that Allen travel to Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua to bridge the border with El Paso in order to facilitate communication between the Pan-American offices in Mexico and New York by making contacts on the border. The publications, Katayama’s and Phillips’s living expenses and salaries to hire collaborators, consumed most of the remaining funds. Fraina’s arrival in early July saved the Agency from financial problems.
The Mexican milieu seemed ideal for revolutionary work in April and early May. The CGT turned the May Day celebrations into a show of strength by hoisting the black and red flag on the cathedral roof in the center of the city and then gathered in front of the American and Spanish embassies without anyone bothering to remove the agitators. According to Allen, the CGT was to organize the celebration of Karl Marx’s birthday on May 5, and the mayor of the city was to provide the confederation with a band to heighten the spirit of the event. Thus, the government attack on foreign radicals on May 16 came like a bolt from the blue to most members of the CGT and some active in the American and the Pan-American Agencies.
On that day Phillips, the Spanish anarchists, and the American radicals of all ideological shades were deported from Mexico. Some of the deportees were on political missions outside the city while others were working in the offices of the CGT when they were arrested and accused of participating in the disturbances at the Congress the previous May 13. None of them had anything to do with the foray by several dozen CROM labor unionists at the Congress. It is possible that President Álvaro Obregón was waiting for the opportunity to get rid of the foreign agitators, who were more a nuisance than a danger. Bad press in the USA about the Mexican government combined with the incriminating evidence the American Embassy had gathered against these foreigners, which it could have used to pressure the administration to abandon the reformist program, probably convinced Obregón that the least his government could do to allay US fears of “bolshevism” was to expel them. Most were sent to the US border. When a CGT commission approached the government with a request not to send Phillips to the USA for fear of a prison sentence Mexican officials obliged and deported him to Guatemala instead.
Once again, Katayama emerged out of this crisis unscathed. He went even deeper underground and, except for one trusted comrade, ceased all live contact with the outside world. Since he did not want to stop the Agency’s work, Katayama continued writing didactic treatises to encourage the workers to reflect on their position in society and take up the struggle against capitalism. He wrote them from his hiding place in Mexico City as if he were back in New York, confusing many, including historians, for he never left Mexico. Katayama’s optimism did not abate after the misfortunes that affected the normal course of the American Agency’s work. After Fraina’s arrival with a fresh supply of money, around $27,000, Katayama wrote to a Japanese friend:
For the first time since I left my native village in the summer of Meiji 14 I am doing the most interesting [work] to me and this without care about money. They placed me in such a position so that I can go on working free from the care of finance. To say that is a very great position to occupy for me.
Yet life was not easy for Katayama, as he told his friend: “For [the] past two and a half months I have hardly got out of the house where I stay.” Despite difficulties, Katayama continued to write propaganda pieces to the rank and file, oversaw publication of the weekly El Trabajador, made plans to start two other newspapers and prepared Lenin’s State and Revolution for publication, while he had helped print 5000 copies of Bukharin’s The Program of the Communists. Operating under the genuine belief that he was contributing to the march of world revolution, Katayama was eager to present the fruits of his mission to the Comintern in the most favorable light.
If the propaganda work on behalf of the Profintern seemed to go well, the reorganization of the communist party was not going anywhere. The effort to fuse what were putatively two parties was a waste of time. Neither group had the workers’ support and both Gale and Allen had been deported from Mexico in April and May, respectively. As an alternative course of action Katayama approached a group of young Mexican radicals, organized since 1920 in the Liga de Juventud Comunista. This group, set up under the influence of the Swiss immigrant Edgar Woog, alias Alfred Stirner, was a mixture of anarchists and starry-eyed communists, some of whom had already been collaborating with the American Agency. Fraina and Katayama turned the Liga into the core group with which they intended to found the Mexican Communist Party. However, one problem that confronted the initiative was that the workers were under the hegemony of anarcho-syndicalism, and these radical labor leaders “despised” political parties. Katayama believed that it was possible “to show the workers the differences between the existing political parties and our Communist Party,” and he hoped that the workers’ deception by the Mexican revolution would help the Agency entice them into the communist fold.
Katayama was wrong. He, like the Comintern, was convinced that a labor movement without a leading communist party, and a communist party without workers to follow, made no sense. Katayama, like the Comintern functionaries, knew that other labor organizations existed with which the Third International had to compete for the workers allegiance, but they believed in the superiority of their overall communist project in terms of the radical transformation of social, economic, and political relations. When propaganda and agitation were not sufficiently strong media to convince the rank and file of this truth, other stratagems had to be employed. One such strategy was the presentation to the workers of two different organizations, the Pan-American Agency and the American Agency, which were, in fact, the Mexican and the hemispheric versions of the Profintern and the Comintern. The goal was to attract the working people to communist labor organizations and to attach them to the communist party, as if it were a natural process. However, the Mexican workers organized in the CGT saw through the strategy and refused to collaborate with the Agency.
Aware of the fact that organizing a communist party in Mexico would be arduous, Katayama proposed proceeding slowly and prudently:
We should not be very severe on the Communist understanding of the Communist groups who are to organize the Communist Party, providing they are honest and actually represent workers. That is to say, we shall for the present deal gently with the Anarcho-Syndicalists, trusting that once they are in the party the party work and the influence of the Executive Committee of the Communist International will change their opinions. But we shall so organize the Congress that the best Communist elements will dominate.
Katayama placed his hopes on the CGT congress of September 1921, but the meeting resulted in a debacle for the communists in attendance. The congress was supposed to be the opportunity to prepare the way for the creation of a communist party with a mass following. The communist group within the CGT sent proposals to the leadership, drafted by Katayama and Fraina, for discussion during the congressional sessions. The CGT leaders did not even make the proposals public, let alone deliberate on them, and went so far as to organize sessions without inviting the communists. The disastrous outcome for the communists reflected several circumstances. One was the persecution of anarchists in Soviet Russia, which threw a negative light on the country that promoted international communism. Katayama was well aware of the impact of this persecution in Mexico. He also knew of the anarchists’ repudiation of political parties as usurpers of popular power. However, he firmly believed that only a communist party could organize the anarcho-syndicalist workers for proper action.
The CGT congress did not create the expected conditions for the foundation of a communist party. Some delegates declared that gold roubles were sent to Mexico “in order to capture and corrupt the Mexican labour movement. Attacks were even made upon Soviet Russia itself, as being a dictatorial government over the working class. The communists tried their best, but could not overcome the hostility of the majority.” The CGT did not renege on but neither did it confirm its adherence to the Red International of Labor Unions. Under these circumstances there was no point in pumping more resources into the confederation. Katayama had to admit that:
Even our Communists have lingering Anarcho-Syndicalist prejudices, and it is quite likely that the Congress which organizes the Communist Party will declare against parliamentarianism and participation in the elections. But while systematically trying to destroy these prejudices, we are not forcing the issue: we must first get a party.
The Agency scheduled the party congress for December, and reported to the Comintern that it had funds until then.
At the same time as the Agency was making plans for the future, rumor reached the emissaries in Mexico:
that the Comintern contemplates liquidating the American Agency. We do not know the source of these rumors or how true they are. But if true, then we suggest that you send a competent Communist comrade to Mexico as your representative to work here, with support; otherwise the whole movement will go to pieces.
The Executive Committee of the Comintern did not break the news to the head of the Agency directly; rather the rumor came from the USA by way of Jansen. Yet Katayama was convinced that Mexico was an important bridge to Central and South America for the dissemination of communist propaganda. New York might have been a more convenient location, but the problem to be overcome was an unwillingness on the part of the South American proletariat
to listen to the American talk, owing to a certain prejudice that exists today between the two continents. And then American (USA) comrades are accustomed to look down on Latin American workers. Personally I think the choice of the seat of the Agency is [a] wise one in the long run. Mexico is the very key to the Communist movement in Latin America and countries in Central America.
The End of the Mission
On October 15, 1921 Jansen, alias Scott, wrote to the Comintern about the Agency’s failures in Mexico: “Up to the present nothing positive has been done. After several months of ‘unification’ work, it became apparent that there was no justification for such work, as no C. P.s were in existence.” Worse still, “Katayama and especially Fraina did not take up a definite enough position [on] how to decide upon things and how to use the funds which you sent.” Slandering Fraina, Jansen wrote that the Agency would not have fulfilled its tasks “even if one of its members had not spent all his time knocking about Germany.” Moreover, Jansen was derogatory of Fraina’s attempt to create a communist party in Mexico: “There is much talk but nothing will come of it in the end.” In addition, Jansen implied that the Comintern money being used in Mexico was wasted, whereas his efforts to organize a communist party in Canada were a better investment. Overall, “The hopes in connection with the Pan-American agency have not been realized.” Everywhere on the continent the communist parties were in their infancy, and the “Pan-American problems are for them still a book with seven seals.” In addition, the US communist parties “are simply a sorry parody of the R.C.P. and are unable to take any interest in the Southern countries.” Jansen’s proposal was immediate dissolution of the Pan-American Agency, the relocation of funds, about $20,000, to the USA, Canada, and Argentina, with some to remain in Mexico.
Who or what was responsible for the cancellation of the American Agency? In and of itself Jansen’s report could not have determined that outcome, but it may have helped, possibly with the help of other reports, to demonstrate that unification of the labor movement on a continental level was a tall order and a costly enterprise for non-existent or small and fractured communist parties. What was happening in the Americas was not different from what was happening in other parts of the world; the labor unions proved more resistant to communist influence and showed greater vitality than the Comintern had expected. The regional autonomy of the Comintern agencies was not conducive to a change in the current situation. Therefore, the Comintern decided that, after the Third Congress and the foundation of the Profintern in the summer of 1921, the tactics to attract the vast laboring masses to communism had to follow a different path. It was called the united front. It consisted of undermining labor unions from within in an attempt to convert workers to communism before incorporating them into the communist party. The new tactic required closer supervision by Moscow.
Personal animosities and jealousies also detracted from the Agency’s efficiency and might have contributed to the decision to abolish it. To begin with, as early as January and February 1921 the communist parties in the USA questioned the American Agency’s authority to serve as a link between them and the Comintern, as well as its right to appoint party representatives to the Agency instead of having them do so. This situation was made worse by the presence of two communist parties locked in a dispute over supremacy in the American political sphere. These parties were nominally subordinated to the American Agency, whose initial task was to unite them. The Communist Party of America saw this as meddling in their internal affairs, interfering with more important party business. Furthermore, the three emissaries of the Comintern did not agree on how to divide their money between work in the USA and Mexico and between salaries and the publication of newspapers, or on how much Katayama was to take with him to Mexico. This was hardly a good beginning to successful collaboration.
To make matters worse, Jansen did not recognize Katayama’s authority as chair of the American Agency, which made communication between the two difficult once Katayama arrived in Mexico. While Fraina, alias Littlebit or Thompson, went to Berlin to secure further funds for the Agency, Jansen remained in New York to collaborate in unification of the two American communist parties. As early as April 1921 Jansen let Katayama know that “certain forces are working against the Agency; by those forces the office may abolish the Agency.” Katayama did not think much of the rumor and believed that the quality of their work in itself was the best justification for the Agency before the Comintern. He urged Jansen to relocate to Mexico in the belief that Mexico provided better conditions for the Agency’s work than the USA. Once unification of the two American parties was accomplished in May there was no reason for Jansen to delay his trip: “Therefore, you are imperatively instructed to leave at once and join the main agency. There is no reason why you should not do this, and no excuses will be accepted. Make arrangements accordingly.” In August Katayama wrote to Jansen again: “Our connections are very bad, we can’t expect to do much under such a circumstance but we must try our best. I would like to know very much as to when you are coming here.”
Jansen, it seems, never had any intention of going to Mexico. He engaged in party and labor organization work in Canada and the USA, and it could well have been that it suited him to be a lone actor without interference from the head of the Agency. What troubled him, however, was that the main bulk of the Agency’s funds were in Mexico, in Fraina’s hands, and as long as Jansen ignored the Agency as a collective body, Katayama refused to send him any:
General authority is vested collectively in the Agency, and more in myself as its chairman. You are completely ignoring this authority …. This work suffers because of your repudiation of Agency authority and instructions. It is an impossible situation.”
Katayama accused Jansen of spending money in the USA which had been designated for work in Latin America: “You are, in fact, sabotaging the Agency.” Even if there was a job to be done in the USA, it had “to be carried out by full [sic] Agency and not on your own irresponsible initiative.” By mid-September Katayama had had enough, and Fraina agreed with him. Therefore, “I temporarily withdraw your mandate as a member of [the] Agency, depriving you of all authority as a representative as long as you remain in the U.S.A.” Unless Katayama received a telegram informing him of Jansen’s change of mind, “I shall write [to the] Main Office about your astonishing, unbelievable behavior and lack of discipline.” None of these appeals endeared Katayama to Jansen, and might have inspired the latter’s report to the Comintern about the futility of the Agency’s efforts.
While personal relationships within the Agency floundered, the Comintern sent an instruction for the Agency itself to fold, terminate all business, and transfer the Agency’s tasks to communist parties. This was easier to do in the USA than in Mexico, where there was no party to take care of the unfinished business of labor organization in order to strengthen the Profintern. By the end of September Katayama knew that he was to leave for Moscow, but he did not have travel documents. While he could cross the border undetected, he could not cross the ocean in the same way. As head of the Agency Katayama transferred all authority to Fraina, as work remained to be done in Mexico and Latin America. In Mexico the foundation of a communist party was scheduled for December, and Latin America required a communist Pan-American Federation to counter the continuing activities of the Pan-American Federation of Labor.
Katayama left Mexico on October 28, although it is not clear with what passport. Fraina organized the congress at which the communist party was to be founded. Manuel Díaz Ramírez, the CGT delegate to the first Profintern congress, upon his return found that the organization on behalf of which he went to Moscow had no interest in listening to his report. However, Fraina found Díaz Ramírez useful in building the party. Fraina felt that the spirit of Bolshevik Russia pervaded Díaz Ramírez and that he carried the aura of someone who had spoken to Lenin. Although Fraina had Katayama’s full support, he was not in the most enviable position. The American communists ignored him altogether and rumors circulated that he squandered immense sums of money, that Moscow was going to reopen the spy case, which tarnished his reputation in 1919 and continued into 1920, and that he interfered in the infighting in the US party. Fraina was fed up: “I am sick and disgusted with the whole miserable business of lying and intrigue.”
The final business that kept Fraina busy in Mexico was the December congress, at which the Mexican Communist Party was founded anew. Fraina’s final report from Mexico, and his final as a Comintern functionary, reported on the meeting. Twenty-one delegates gathered, representing about 1200 members from among the peasantry and workers. The party, still tinged with syndicalist conceptions, refused to contemplate participation in elections. Fraina reported on his successful suppression of some of the party’s members enthusiasm to start a new “revolution; rather what the party needed was elementary education in socialism and unionism.” Fraina concluded that the party “is weak in membership and leaders, has tremendous tasks before it and not much should be expected from it at the start.” Foreign capital ruled in Mexico, which complicated the emancipation of the Mexican workers. In future the American communist party should not ignore the political work being done in Mexico, as it had done until then. The last letter that Fraina sent from Mexico, and one that has confused historians ever since, informed the Comintern: “In accordance with instructions left by Katayama I am proceeding to South America. I am first going to Argentina, to act with the party there in relation to the rest of South America.”
Fraina did not go to South America. Early in 1922 he turned up in Frankfurt where his wife Esther was staying, pregnant with their child. By then Fraina had “left his assignment.” Together they decided to go back to Mexico with the money Fraina still had in his keeping. Their baby was born there. Charles Shipman, alias Manuel Gómez, who had returned to Mexico from Guatemala sometime in November, after having been deported in May, left the country on the Agency’s disbandment and returned to the USA to continue working on behalf of the Communist Party of America. He left the communist movement in the 1930s. Katayama was a Comintern functionary in Moscow for the rest of his life.
The communist movement did not go to pieces after the American Agency disbanded, as Fraina forecast. It developed slowly and erratically. The early seeds of organization that the Agency had sown in 1921, and slow fulfillment of the promises of the Mexican revolution, kept the heat of radicalism alive. Small groups of communists came together in various parts of the country, yet it took several years to create a party that resembled a national organization. It remained, however, on the fringe of Mexico’s political life. In 1925 Charles Phillips, alias Manuel Gómez, went to Mexico as an American delegate to the 3rd Party Congress. His observations were probably as accurate as one could get:
If the third annual congress of the C P of Mexico had constituted my first acquaintance with the Mexican Communist Movement, I would have been very much depressed by it. As it was, however, I know that the congress marked a decided step forward. The Party is still young, disorganized, weak, and ideologically unsteady, but in spite of all this, it is slowly taking on the impress of a Communist movement and is becoming, bit by bit, a real party.