‘Why Mexican Workers Rebel’ by John Kenneth Turner from International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 10. April, 1911.

The most radicalizing event of the twentieth century for U.S. workers before the Russian Revolution was easily the revolutions in Mexico. The journalism of John Kenneth Turner was an important element in popularizing the struggle, as well as the role of U.S. imperialism in Mexico. Many of those articles appeared, like this one, in International Socialist Review which was unapologetic in its support of the Magonista revolt and defense of those comrades persecuted in the U.S. Turner had a long relationship with the Mexican Revolution, morphing from chronicler to participant, including gun-running and often donned a persona for his reporting outings.

‘Why Mexican Workers Rebel’ by John Kenneth Turner from International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 10. April, 1911.

IN Mexico there are no labor laws in operation to protect the workers—no provision for factory inspection, no practical statutes against infant labor, no process through which workmen may re- cover damages for injuries sustained or death met in the mine or at the machine. Wage-workers literally have no rights that the employers are bound to respect. Policy only determines the degree of exploitation, and in Mexico that policy is such as might prevail in the driving of horses in a locality where horses are dirt cheap, where profits from their use are high, and where there exists no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Over against this absence of protection on the part of the governmental powers stands oppression on the part of the governmental powers, for the machinery of the Diaz state is wholly at the command of the employer to whip the worker into accepting his terms.

The six thousand laborers in the Rio Blanco mill were not content with thirteen hours daily in the company of that roaring machinery and in that choking atmosphere, especially since it brought to them only from twenty-five to thirty-seven and one-half cents. Nor were they content with paying out of such a sum the one American dollar a week that the company charged for the rental of the two-room, dirt-floor hovels which they called their homes. Least of all were they content with the coin in which they were paid. This consisted of credit checks upon the company store, which finished the exploitation—took back for the company the final centavo that the company had paid out in wages. A few miles away, at Orizaba, the same goods could be purchased for from twenty-five to seventy-five per cent less, but the operatives were unable to buy their goods at these stores.

Insurrectos on the firing line.’

The operatives were not content. The might of the company towered like a mountain above them, and behind and above the company towered the government. Behind the company stood Diaz himself, for Diaz was not only the government, he was also a heavy stockholder in the company. Yet the operatives prepared to fight. Secretly they organized a union, “El Circulo de Obreros,” which means “The Circle of Wonders,” holding their meetings not en masse, but in small groups in their homes, in order that the authorities might not learn of their purposes.

Immediately upon the company learning that the workers were discussing their troubles, it took action against them. Through the police authorities it issued a general order forbidding any of the operatives from receiving any visitors whatsoever, even their own relatives being barred, the penalty for violation being the city jail. Persons who were suspected of having signed the roll of the union were put in prison at once, and a weekly newspaper which was known to be friendly to the workers was swooped down upon, suppressed and the printing plant confiscated.

At this juncture a strike was called in the cotton mills in the city of Puebla, in an adjoining state. The mills of Puebla were owned by the same company as owned the Rio Blanco mills, and the operatives thereof were living under similar conditions to those at Rio Blanco. The Pueblo workers went on strike and the company, knowing that they had no resources behind them, decided, as one of its agents told me, “to let nature take its course” ; that is, to starve put the workers, as they believed this process could be accomplished inside of a fortnight.

The strikers turned for aid to those of their fellow craftsmen who were at work in other localities. The Rio Blanco workers themselves were already preparing to strike, but thereupon decided to wait for a time longer, in order that they might collect from their meager earnings a fund to support their brothers in the city of Puebla. Thus were the ends of the company defeated for the moment, for by, living on half rations both workers and strikers were able to eke out their existence. But no sooner had the company learned the source of strength of the Puebla strikers than the mills at Rio Blanco were shut down and the workers there locked out. Other mills in other localities were shut down and other means taken to prevent any help reaching the Puebla strikers.

‘Insurrectos skirmish line outside Juarez. Feb 8th.’

Locked out, the Rio Blanca workers promptly assumed the offensive, declared they were on strike and formulated a series of demands calculated in some measure to alleviate the conditions of their lives.

But the demands were unheard, the machinery of the mill roared no more, the mill slept in the sun, the waters of the Rio Blanco dashed unharnessed through the town, the manager of the company laughed in the faces of the striking men and women.


The six thousand starved. For two months they starved. They scoured the surrounding hills for berries, and when the berries were gone they deceived their gnawing stomachs with indigestible roots and herbs gleaned from the mountain sides. In utter despair, they looked to the highest power they knew, Porfirio Diaz, and begged him to have mercy. They begged him to investigate their case, and for their part they promised to abide by his decision. President Diaz pretended to investigate. He rendered a decision, but his decision was that the mills should reopen and the workers go back to their thirteen hours of dust and machinery on the same terms as they had left them.

True to their promise, the strikers at Rio Blanco prepared to comply. But they were weak from starvation. In order to work they must have substance. Consequently on the day of their surrender they gathered in a body in front of the company store opposite the big mill and asked that each of their number be given a certain quantity of corn and beans so that they might be able to live through the first week and until they should be paid their wages.

The storekeeper jeered at the request. “To these dogs we will not even give water!” is the answer he is credited with giving them. It was then that a woman, Margarita Martinez, exhorted the people to take by force the provisions that had been denied them. This they did. They looted the store, then set fire to it, and finally to the mill across the way.

The people had not expected to riot, but the government had expected it. Unknown to the strikers, batalions of regular soldiers were waiting just outside the town, under command of General Rosalio Martinez himself, sub-secretary of war. The strikers had no arms. They were not prepared for revolution. They had intended no mischief, and their outburst was a spontaneous and doubtless a natural one, and one which an officer of the company afterwards confided to me could easily have been taken care of by the local police force, which was strong.

Nevertheless, the soldiers appeared, leaping upon the scene as if out of the ground. Volley after volley was discharged into the crowd at close range. There was no resistance whatsoever. The people were shot down in the streets with no regard for age or sex, many women and children being among the slain. They were pursued to their homes, dragged from their hiding places and shot to death. Some fled to the hills, where they were hunted for days and shot on sight. A company of rural guards which refused to fire on the crowd when the soldiers first arrived were exterminated on the spot.

‘Insurrectos firing line. February 8th.’

There are no official figures of the number killed in the Rio Blanco massacre, and if there were any, of course they would be false. Estimates run from two hundred to eight hundred. My information for the Rio Blanco strike was obtained from numerous widely different sources—from an officer of the company itself, from a friend of the governor who rode with the rurales as they chased the fleeing strikers through the hills, from a labor editor who escaped after being hotly pursued for days, from survivors of the strike, from others who had heard the story from eye witnesses.

“I don’t know how many were killed,” the man who rode with the rurales told me, “but on the first night after the soldiers came I saw two flat cars piled high with dead and mangled bodies, and there were a good many killed after the first night.”

“Those flat cars,” the same informant told me, “were hauled away by special train that night, hurried to Veracruz, where the bodies were dumped in the harbor as food for the sharks.”

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v11n10-apr-1911-ISR-gog-Corn-OCR.pdf

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