Think Piece

Plotino Rhodakanaty and the Mexican Dimension of Fourierism

By Graeme Pente

The ideas of the French visionary socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) reached Mexico before 1861. As a “utopian” socialist, Fourier advocated for cross-class cooperation and capitalists’ voluntary surrender of their wealth and power. His disciples later elevated his ideas for making labor both attractive and dignified. Their newspaper Démocratie Pacifique (1843-1851) circulated “from Mexico to Buenos Aires,” making Fourier “the most well-known socialist in Latin America” (Pierre-Luc Abramson, Las utopías sociales en América Latina en el siglo XIX, 186). Yet the main vector by which Fourier’s thought reached Mexico was a Greco-Austrian socialist named Plotino Constantino Rhodakanaty (1828-?). Although scholars have addressed Rhodakanaty as an early Mexican Mormon (Jason H. Dormady and Jared M. Tamez, eds., Just South of Zion: The Mormons in Mexico and Its Borderlands, 59-72) and as a forerunner of Mexican anarchism, historians of Fourierism have entirely neglected him. Studies of Fourierism tend to focus on France, the doctrine’s place of origin; the United States, where reformers attempted several practical trials in the 1840s; or Great Britain, which enjoyed a small but active movement. Bringing Mexico into the study of early socialism expands the story of Fourierism beyond the North Atlantic. Indeed, a focus on Rhodakanaty’s thought and his blending of early socialism and anarchism provides new evidence of the lasting influence and adaptability of Fourierism in the Americas.

Plotino Rhodakanaty was born in Athens in 1828 (18-23 and 128-129). After his father died in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), Rhodakanaty’s mother took her infant son to live with her family in Vienna. He pursued medical training until, at the age of 19, he joined the revolutions sweeping Europe in 1848. Afterward, he found the early anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) whom he sought in Paris in 1850. It may have been at this time that Rhodakanaty discovered Fourier, or perhaps it was after he returned to the French capital in late 1857 to continue his studies. In any case, steeped as he was in the swirling ideologies of socialism and anarchism in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, Rhodakanaty eventually developed a blend of communitarianism and democracy in which Fourier’s influence rose to the top. While in Paris in the late 1850s, he learned of Mexican President Ignacio Comonfort’s land reform program, which offered large tracts to foreigners willing to settle. Rhodakanaty envisioned the potential for an agrarian colony along Fourierist lines and set out for Mexico.

When Rhodakanaty arrived in Veracruz in late February 1861, his plans for Mexico changed. Benito Juarez had succeeded Comonfort to the presidency, and the latter’s land grants remained in question amidst the chaos of the War of the Reform (1857-1861) and the French Intervention (1861-1867). Rhodakanaty opted to stay in Mexico supporting himself as a medical doctor and teacher in the capital. He remained a figure in radical politics in Mexico City and the surrounding countryside, involving himself in the struggles of both urban and rural workers, until the 1880s. In that decade, Rhodakanaty may have fallen afoul of the new Porfirio Díaz regime, as he departed Mexico in 1886 and disappeared from the historical record.

Rhodakanaty started spreading Fourier’s ideas as soon as he arrived in Mexico. In 1861, he published a primer on socialism entitled Cartilla socialista, o sea el catecismo elemental de la escuela de Carlos Fourier: el falansterio. Rhodakanaty followed the French and American Fourierists in emphasizing the principle of association as the key to overcoming social ills. Socialization could combat competition and lead to harmony. He hoped that “some day, the Mexican people [will] emancipate themselves from the terrible yoke of plutocracy by means of association” (Plotino C. Rhodakanaty, Escritos, 11) In place of a world divided by various interests—industrial, class, political, national—association offered a “reign of wealth, truth, justice, peace, [and] work” (ibid., 17). This last ideal was a notably Fourierist one, as American followers of Fourier centered the notion of “attractive labor” in their propaganda and their French counterparts emphasized “the right to work.”

Rhodakanaty’s Fourierism was clear throughout the Cartilla. He structured his primer on socialism as a series of short “lessons,” in which he provided answers to a list of questions. In the second lesson, he offered a philosophical outlook on the factors shaping human behavior. Rhodakanaty mused on how the conduct of man was determined by “being surrounded by circumstances favorable to the harmonious movement of our native faculties, which would prompt him to seek the satisfaction of his passions in the way of the good… [these] prove the extent to which social organization exerts itself over him, and his moral and material action” (ibid., 19). Rhodakanaty here invoked Fourier’s faith that unleashing human passions would redound to the common good. The key was to adjust social circumstances to the natural passions, not to try to suppress them. Rhodakanaty similarly noted in Lesson Six that civil, moral, and political laws were created to establish and maintain order in a dysfunctional social system (ibid., 41-42). Thus, the perfection of the social system would make such laws irrelevant. The abolition of such laws represented steps away from the coercion already existing in society. The proposed dismantling of the legal apparatus attests to Fourierism’s anti-authoritarian character and its compatibility with anarchism.

Rhodakanaty engaged with Fourierism most thoroughly in the Cartilla, but he remained heavily influenced by Fourier throughout the 25 years of his activism in Mexico. Rhodakanaty often wrote in the language of Christian socialism and cast nineteenth-century socialists as the proper inheritors of Christ. Yet he also connected Jesus with the French Revolution’s triad of liberty, equality, and fraternity. He set this triad in an intellectual genealogy of thinkers advocating social perfectibility that stretched back to Plato and culminated with Fourier himself. For Rhodakanaty, these conceivers of diverse utopias kept the dream of social perfection alive through millennia: from Plato’s Republic through Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) to Etienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie (1841) and “the immortal and famous” Charles Fourier (ibid., 84).

As much as Rhodakanaty remained influenced by Fourier, however, he also blended Fourierism with other socialist and anarchist influences during his decades in Mexico. He admitted no adherence to orthodoxy, himself, noting that his school was “forming, in short, a syncretic compilation of the brilliant theories of the wisest socialists, ancient as well as modern” (ibid., 68-69). One major difference between Rhodakanaty’s Fourierism and that of his French and American comrades was his opposition to the rights of private property. Rhodakanaty envisioned abolishing private property to return man to “his primitive origin in his simple state of nature when scattered throughout the forests and jungles he wandered the entire face of the earth, whose possession was in common” (ibid., 60). With the end of private property, there would no longer be a need for the army either (José C. Valadés, El socialismo libertario mexicano (siglo XIX), 38). Rhodakanaty’s opposition to private property and the army reflected the historical role of each in the oppression of the Mexican people: the power of the hacendados (large landowners) and the reign of the military. Rhodakanaty’s hostility to property clearly bore the mark of the early anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s thinking. Proudhon was most famous for answering the question “what is property?” with the exclamation “Theft!” But Proudhon was also known for his intense hostility to the State, which had often set him at odds with his socialist colleagues during the French Second Republic (1848-1851).

In Mexico, Rhodakanaty married the schools of Proudhon and Fourier. For instance, he opened his Fourierist tract Garantismo Humanitario (1876-1877) with the call, “People: no more governments! Abolish tyrannies! Pass to social Guaranteeism!” (Plotino C. Rhodakanaty, Obras, 103). Rhodakanaty elsewhere suggested that the transition to socialism would see the formation of a system of territorial banks (Rhodakanaty, Escritos, 65). These banks had something in common with Proudhon’s conception of a People’s Bank, which would offer artisan cooperatives easy access to credit. Rhodakanaty seemed to adapt the idea to the Mexican context, where concerns with land and farming prevailed and the hacendados’ domination of landownership loomed large. Ultimately, Rhodakanaty set the systems of Proudhon and Fourier at the service of each other. He dismissed all government as “disorder,” and asked what purpose government would serve once the people were organized into phalansteries. The people “would form three, five, ten, twenty, one hundred, or one thousand phalansteries or communities and then they would unite freely, for solidarity, in a great federation, for the exchange of production and consumption” (quoted in Valadés, El socialism libertario, 38). The federal vision belonged to both Fourier and Proudhon, while autonomous communities of exchange belonged more to the anarchist. Yet the organizing unit was the phalanx, and the predominant idiom remained Fourierist.

Fourierism took on new dimensions with its importation to Mexico. In this new context, Rhodakanaty effected a reconciliation between the schools of Fourier and Proudhon that their leaders in France were unwilling to countenance. He recognized that the two doctrines complemented each other in their mutual emphasis on non-domination and small producers’ cooperatives. Against the centralization of Mexican state-building, Rhodakanaty offered a vision of the harmonious future inspired by and steeped in the language of Fourier. In turn, the Fourierist vision of small, autonomous communes tapped into local ideas of the traditional political independence of the Mexican village. The agrarian socialist vision that Rhodakanaty helped to formalize and spread among Mexican radicals endured the modernizing project of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship to reemerge a generation later during the Mexican Revolution in the popular movements behind Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

Graeme Pente recently completed a Ph.D. in history at the University of Colorado Boulder. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and serves as a contributing editor at Erstwhile: A History Blog.

Featured Image: Street scene in Mexico City, c.1880. Attributed to William Henry Jackson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Think Piece

Performing Migration: Corridos, Mexican Masculinities, and American Empire (1917-1932)

by guest contributor Monique Flores Ulysses

Growing up as the child of a Mexican mother, when I heard Alejandro Fernández’s rendition of the popular corridoPaso del norte” blasting out of our old speakers on a Saturday morning, I knew it was time for my least favorite childhood activity: cleaning the entire house from top to bottom. As I got older and moved away from home, I stopped having to worry about those dreaded Saturday morning wake up calls. They come to me now as intermittent waves of nostalgia. Despite my best efforts as a kid to roll my eyes and pretend I was too cool for la música de mi mama, I could never deny the power behind corridos, rancheras, and música norteña. And so over the years, I have found myself constantly revisiting the music of my childhood—out of pleasure, but also out of academic interest.

Corridos are the Mexican ballads popular today throughout all of México and the vast Mexican diaspora. They can serve as beautiful renderings of historical storytelling that originated “por y para el pueblo“: for and by the people of México. In many of the corridos from 1917 (the year the current Mexican Constitution was signed) to 1932 (when American deportations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were at their height during the Great Depression), a racialized, migrant hetero-masculinity takes center stage. This occurs against the backdrop of negotiated dynamics of power between the expansion of American imperial ambitions and an impoverished, weakened Mexican state. Between 1917 and 1932, Mexican migrants used music, specifically corridos, as a broadly accessible vehicle of storytelling that allowed them to engage in this negotiation. The corridos reveal how migration and the relational experiences of policing and farm labor affected the performance of various forms of Mexican masculinities.

Corridos, as a specific genre of Mexican music, are characterized by restrictions on who is generally viewed as an acceptable performer. In A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border, Mexican-American author and folklorist Américo Paredes notes that although women “were important in the transmission of songs” they were, however, “not supposed to sing ‘men’s songs’ such as corridos and rarely did so in public.” While the borderlands/fronteriza culture allowed some transgressions of this patriarchal performance structure, the gender identity of the migrants in the following corridos is always implicitly that of a heterosexual Mexican man who engages in manual labor (xix).

Songs such as “Despedida de un norteño” (222-24) provide a glimpse into what the migration from México to the United States could entail, focusing specifically on the internal journey from Salvatierra, Guanajuato to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua as told through a difficult, protracted goodbye to “mi madre querida/ la Virgen Guadalupana (my beloved mother/ the Virgen de Guadalupe),” “mi patria amorosa/ Republica Mexicana (my beloved land/ [the] Mexican Republic),” and the speaker’s biological mother. By focusing on three central aspects of an assumed Mexican femininity that in the narrator’s view need protection, his masculine duty has been fulfilled. The narrator makes clear that while it is his obligation as a man to leave for where there is work to be done, it is also, conversely, his duty to stay with the three mothers (national, familial, and religious) so long as he is able to afford it. The narrator’s masculinity is therefore upheld despite leaving for the United States, as it is the only way he can fulfill his national, familial, and religious duties to México. If he were a richer man, this would have been done from the comfort of home.

In other corridos, relationships with Anglo-American women are central to the performance of Mexican migrant masculinity. In one version of “Bonita esta tierra,” the narrator sings of the sheer amount of wealth found in the United States, with part of this bounty being access to Anglo-American women—if not in reality, at least through fantasy (Paredes). In another corrido, “Consejos a los norteños,” the narrator concentrates on items of clothing as signifiers of newfound wealth in the United States, while singing about Anglo-Americans, especially women, in mocking and sarcastic tones (Guerrero, 1957). The narrator at one point tells the audience that “las güeras de allá/ no se enamoran (the blondes [American women] from over there/ don’t fall in love)” with Mexican men, so one should make sure to bring one’s wife to the United States. “Bonita esta tierra” and “Consejos a los norteños” each grapple with the tense relationship Mexican migrants felt in relation to American wealth and race relations, and both corridos also tie in with larger themes relating to gendered experiences of migration and acceptance in the United States. Each song gestures towards the male narrator’s relationships, or lack thereof, with Anglo-American women as central to these tensions.

This tradition of using music to locate oneself in a long history of migration and to document the journey millions of Mexicans have taken to the United States rests upon songs that have fallen if not into anonymity, then into such localized transmission that they are difficult to trace for outsiders. Just as Jorge Negrete sang of a longing for “México lindo y querido” in the mid-twentieth century, so too have contemporary twenty-first-century singers continued to sing of an idealized México to which those in el México de afuera long to return, if not in life then in death.

In 1995, when Alejandro Fernández released his album Que Seas Muy Feliz with various classic corridos and rancheras, one of them was the popular corrido “Paso del norte” that served as my Saturday morning alarm. Even into the late twentieth century, Fernández’s rendition of “Paso del norte” and its extreme popularity among Spanish-speaking audiences worldwide conveys the continuing importance of the experience of migration, of being far from el interior (México), and of upholding machista masculinities to the collective memories of Mexicans across the world. Yet despite this song emphasizing the masculinity of “el hombre/ [que] anda ausente/ muy lejos ya de su patria (the man/ [who] is absent/ [and] very far from his homeland),” the song also makes clear that though Mexican men may be forced to uphold patriarchal ideals of (heterosexual) manhood, there is space for them to publicly acknowledge their emotions. This public acknowledgement of sadness and sensitivity comes through the very performance and reception of corridos such as “Paso del norte,” wherein the narrator sings of how the tragedy of a man longing for México is so terrible he wishes to “ponerme a llorar (start to cry).” The tough exterior of heterosexual Mexican migrant masculinities are therefore ironically upheld through the very music that gives them the space to challenge these conceptions of what it means to be a man.

The questions with which all of the corridos of migration dealt remain unanswered, despite the volume and urgency of migration increasing to the United States from México and other Latin American countries. This is often due to policies enacted in these nations in order to further secure American imperial and capitalistic ambitions. The tensions involved in leaving your home country due to socioeconomic circumstances beyond your control, only to do so by seeking out a livelihood in the very nation that has worsened these circumstances, continue to be sung about on both sides of la frontera/the border. Central to this tension are questions of negotiating migrant masculinities in patriarchal and machista contexts, couched within larger questions of imperialism, dispossession, and economic imbalances.

Thousands of Mexicans migrated northward in the years after the Mexican Constitution was signed in 1917. Their recollections form a collective body of individual experiences. Though the corridos of Mexican migration cannot recount every emotion felt along the journey to the United States, they can direct us towards a greater understanding of how thousands of individuals negotiated the power dynamics at play between México and the United States from 1917 to 1932 and how they used music to make sense of their lived transnational experiences. Corridos prove fruitful grounds for interpreting how cultural forms served as unifying forces of storytelling during a time when both México and the United States, and Mexicans and Americans, were shaping their fraught relationships with each other. Though corridos of migration exemplify the painful and often humiliating effects of the strengthened policing of la frontera/the border by American officials, they also serve in preserving the voices of those who found dignity through the shared music of their communities. The narratives that have been passed down through these corridos serve as a reminder of the power of a genre of music “por y para el pueblo.” Through these corridos, many of which are almost one hundred years old, the voices of contested boundaries remind all people who have a stake in these borderlands that the constructing of migrant masculine identities across fronteras continue to echo in our shared histories.

Monique Flores Ulysses is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of History at Yale University. Monique is interested in the cultural history of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans on both sides of la frontera/border, with particular interest in divergent understandings of race in relation to marginalized femininities and masculinities, the role American Empire has played in shaping music, fashion, performance, and physical culture, and in the use of popular culture as resistance to oppression. Previous to beginning her studies at Yale University, she received a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Victoria in History and Environmental Studies, and a Master of Arts from McGill University in History.