To Go To The Root


Painting by M. De Norvins, 1839

By Duncan Riley


“In Haiti, they eat mud with sugar and water, they make mud cakes.” This simple piece of knowledge, gleaned from a night spent volunteering at Feed My Starving Children, becomes for the child their only window into the Haitian reality. Five hundred years of colonialism, of a brutal and heroic struggle for independence, of reparations imposed by French warships, of invasions by US Marines and dictators backed by Washington, all are obfuscated by a simple statement of “how things actually are.” By separating the lives of Haitian workers from their  historical context, by making it “just the way things are,” that short story about mud cakes removes Haiti’s poverty from the realm of human understanding, it makes it both transcendent and immutable, a fact of existence rather than a product of historical forces. This preference, in both our society and our education system, to state what is rather than to analyze how it came to be, is born not of a detached or neutral attitude towards facts, but rather of the need of the powerful to justify their position in society, for to accept society as it exists is to accept all its inequalities and injustices. Indeed, as Camus observed, “to accept the world as it is”, to accept both the slave and the master, is “in the last analysis… to give one’s blessing to the stronger of the two – namely, the master.”[1] As such, just as feudal society justified its hierarchies and inequalities through the assertion that they were ordained by God, bourgeois society justifies itself with an appeal to a status quo as alien to humanity as any heaven, a status quo that was not created by human action, and consequently cannot be changed by it. Thus, if education is to encourage critical thinking and fulfill its emancipatory potential, it must not encourage students simply to accept what is, but instead encourage them to go to the root of the social problems that today threaten to devour society.

To go to the root means, simply, to accept nothing as it is, to analyze every facet of modern society, and to find the historical forces that shape our present social order and its injustices. In the case of poverty in Haiti then, the first step must be to ask why there are people in Haiti who have no food. From this first question, a long chain of questions must necessarily emerge, whose answers cannot fail to touch on not just the problem of poverty, but also upon imperialism, upon war, and upon the effects of climate change on the developing world. Finally, once this chain of questions has run its course, one more question must inevitably come to the fore: “In a world of such great abundance, is it fair that some should eat mud while others live in wealth and splendor?” And when one asks this question, when one arrives at the root of society and finds it rotting, the first bud of a new society begins to sprout from the earth, bursting from that withered old edifice into the dawn of a new day.



[1] Albert Camus, The Rebel, (New York City, NY: Alfred A Knopf, 1956), 77.

The People’s Tide: Revolution, Electoralism, and the State in the Pink Tide


Photo by Carlos Figueroa

By Duncan Riley




The world, today, is caught in the grips of a great revolt. On streets and in plazas across the globe, the world which bureaucrats, generals, and multinational corporations have so carefully constructed over the past five decades is increasingly threatened, as the long-smoldering embers of popular discontent burst into a furious blaze. From Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa and Asia, massive popular mobilizations are challenging the prevailing neoliberal economic order, and, on a more fundamental level, the inequality and injustice inherently produced by the capitalist system. However, this is by no means the first time in recent memory that a wave of popular protest against neoliberalism has swept the globe. At the turn of the last millennium, popular discontent with economic and social conditions led to uprisings across Latin America, ultimately resulting in the electoral triumph of left parties across the region in what became known as the Pink Tide. Thus, in this important historical moment, it is vital that we look back at that earlier era of rebellion, studying the lessons it has to offer both on the immense power that lies in the self-organization of the masses, and the dangers that a focus on the conquest of political power poses to movements for social transformation.

Any analysis of the Pink Tide must begin with a discussion of neoliberalism, the model of capitalism that has become dominant across the globe since the 1970s and 80s. Arising amidst the economic crises of the 1970s, neoliberalism was a response to the dominant role that the State had played in economic affairs since the Great Depression and the Second World War. It advocated for deregulation of the economy, privatization of public services such as electricity, water, and telecommunications, alongside cutting spending on social welfare programs in order to promote balanced budgets. Neoliberal economists and politicians contended that these changes, by encouraging competition and free markets, would reduce government corruption and promote social mobility, ultimately promoting a freer society. Despite this concern for freedom, however, the neoliberal model was imposed on Latin America, and indeed the entire globe, through decidedly undemocratic means. US-backed mlitary dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, like those of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina, and Hugo Banzer in Bolivia, played a key role implementing neoliberal policies through privatizations accompanied by state terror.[1] Furthermore, international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank often require countries to make neoliberal reforms in order to receive aid, resulting in public services falling into the hands of multinational corporations.[2] This history of the plunder of Latin America’s resources and the declining work and living conditions that accompanied it has been admirably summarized by the Chilean rebels who are presently struggling in the streets – “It’s not about thirty pesos, it’s about thirty years.”

Thus, neoliberalism represented a reaction against the social democratic model of capitalism that had been prominent, both in Latin America and across the world, since the end of the Second World War. The State, which for decades had played an interventionist role in the economy while seeking to provide for the public welfare through social reforms, thus shed any pretense of egalitarianism while continuing to fulfill its basic function of the application of violence and coercion in order to uphold the social order. At the same time, it most be noted that the idea that the move towards neoliberalism truly represented a shift away from State involvement in economic affairs can only exist in the minds of the most committed ideologues of neoliberalism. The State is part and parcel of the modern capitalist system, as it is used by elites to promote policies that serve their interests while its legal system exists as the primary bulwark of private property. Indeed, the mass-privatization of public services and the deregulation of the economy, all primarily for the benefit of monopolistic multinational corporations, are as much an intervention into market structures as price controls or anti-trust laws.

On the other hand, the view of many on the left that the social democracy that proceeded neoliberalism constituted a progressive alternative which must be resurrected is equally flawed. The case of Bolivia after the National Revolution of 1952 is instructive in this regard. That revolution ended the legal (but not de facto) segregation between the indigenous majority and white minority that had characterized Bolivian society up until that point, and brought the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), a coterie of nationalist reformers, to power. In order to meet popular demands, the new MNR government radically expanded the State’s role in economic affairs, nationalizing mines and decreeing land reform, forging a state-capitalist economic model designed to promote national development. While these reforms were certainly popular and did lead to improved economic and social conditions for the working classes, they never challenged the logic of capitalism, private property and the market remaining the basic foundations of the economy.[3] What truly defined the revolution and gave birth to its greatest advances was the decisive participation of the popular masses, as peasants in the country’s Andean highlands seized land from haciendas and forced radical land redistribution, while miners from across Bolivia fought and defeated the army in the streets of La Paz.[4] These revolutionary actions carried out by the masses themselves working through their own unions and organizations, rather than the MNR’s state-capitalism, constituted the true progressive step forward in history towards human emancipation.

The limitations of social democracy and its ultimate incapacity to fundamentally challenge capitalism are encapsulated in the person of Victor Paz Estenssoro, the leader of the MNR and President of Bolivia after the 1952 revolution. As Álvaro García Linera argued, in those days Paz Estenssoro, through his efforts to expand the State’s role in the economy and as a provider of social welfare, perfectly represented the nationalistic and developmentalist bent of capitalism in post-war Latin America. However, when he returned to power in the 1980s, it was as the champion of a neoliberal project, his administration cutting back on social welfare and state control in order to make way for foreign investment. Just as before, Paz Estenssoro was serving exactly the role that global capitalism demanded of him. In the face of Paz Estenssoro’s sudden turn around the established Bolivian unions and left parties, shaped as they were by decades of collaboration with the social democratic State, were unable to do more than reiterate “their demands for state-capitalism to the capitalists themselves, who were abandoning it as obsolete.”[5] The alliance between social movements and the state that the 1952 revolution inaugurated thus ultimately smothered the revolutionary nature of those movements, compromising their ability to formulate, let alone realize, an alternative to capitalism. This dynamic, in which alliances between “progressive” governments and social movements result in the loss of the revolutionary spirit and independence from political power that initially made the movements successful, has been repeated again and again throughout recent history, and would come to be one of the defining features of the Pink Tide.

Neoliberalism’s triumph in the 1980s would not be long-lasting. Indeed, as its policies were implemented across Latin America, they invariably worsened inequality and provoked social strife. After President Carlos Andrés Pérez of Venezuela implemented an IMF recommend structural reform package in the late 1980s, all it took was an increase in bus fares in 1989 to set off the mass riots of the Caracazo, which were brutally crushed by the army and police. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Argentina sank into a significant depression and ultimately defaulted on its debt, causing significant political instability and mass protests and factory seizures by workers across the country. In 2003, Bolivia saw prolonged conflicts over tax policy and natural resources that would ultimately result in the collapse of the Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada administration amidst the “Gas War.” These popular struggles, and the delegitimizing effect of the crisis on the established political parties in each of these countries, paved the way for the electoral triumph of left parties and candidates across the region, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1999), Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003), and Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006), a trend collectively known as the “Pink Tide.”

Throughout the decades of dictatorship and economic crisis that Bolivia experienced in the latter half of the 20th century, it was the everyday practices of mutual aid and assistance that held working-class and peasant communities together and improved living conditions. These practices would go on to inform the social movements that arose in response to neoliberal economic policies. In the city of Cochabamba and the surrounding area, where the public water network has long failed to reach many residents, workers and peasants worked together to build their own wells and operate them collectively, providing cheap water for their communities. When, in 1999, the government attempted to privatize the city’s water and sell these community-built wells to the multinational corporation Aguas del Tunari, working people from across Cochabamba and Bolivia came together to resist the sale, organizing within their neighborhoods to create a dynamic and militant protest movement. Besides organizing protests, the new social movements that emerged also created neighborhood soup kitchens that provided food for the demonstrators, helping to sustain the movement. The “Water War” also gave rise to new organs of self-government and direct democracy within Cochabamba’s neighborhoods, as popular assembles in which citizens freely debated what actions and direction the movement should take sprung up. These local assemblies merged seamlessly into the larger cabildo; town meetings held in local plazas that deliberated on the decisions of the assemblies. This powerful, democratic movement, coordinated by an umbrella organization known as the coordinadora proved itself more than a match for the military and police forces the government sent to crush it, ultimately forcing the privatization plan to be abandoned.[6] Ordinary working people themselves, relying on their own organizations in place of a political party, successfully stood up to the State and forced it to make concessions.

In rural Bolivia, the peasantry played a leading role in resisting the neoliberal turn. Learning from similar models and organizations in Brazil and Paraguay, the Bolivian Landless Movement (MST) organized occupations and seizures of idle land by landless peasants. Once land was seized, peasant families divided work amongst themselves and farmed the land collectively. Despite threats from large landowners and the state, peasants were able to successfully cultivate the unused land, providing subsistence for their families, and forging stronger communities.[7] Thus, in defying private property and the State, and relying only on their own expertise and capacities Bolivian peasants were able to improve both the land and their own lives, making something positive out of what would otherwise have been simply another unproductive reserve of the idle rich.

In Argentina, as economic crisis led to factories and businesses shutting down across the country and rising unemployment, workers took matters into their own hands. Across Argentina, workers occupied shuttered factories and businesses and started them up again, operating them as worker’s collectives – that is to say, without a boss. The new cooperatives were thus operated not through top-down directives from management, but by an assembly of all the workers, democratically deciding both on how to run the factories, and on their broader strategy and community relations. Furthermore, the profits, rather than going to a distant boss, are shared equally amongst the workers.[8] Some of the worker-controlled enterprises also became cultural spaces, providing rooms for community events such as film screenings, dances, and art exhibits.[9] In this way the cooperative movement began to break down the barrier which capitalism arbitrarily constructs between work and the rest of life, culture, art, and community becoming inseparable from labor within the new worker-run enterprises. Of course, as these enterprises grew up within the framework of a capitalist economy, and thus still had to obey its general rules of profit and loss, in an economic sense they did not portend the overthrow of capitalism. However, on a more profound level, the act of workers illegally seizing control of factories and operating them democratically for the common good of both themselves and their communities constituted a profound challenge to the hierarchy and centralism inherent in capitalism.

Similar to Bolivia, popular protest in Argentina against the political and economic system that had led to economic collapse gave birth to new forms of organization and social life within communities. Barter systems and other alternatives to formal currency, devalued as it was by inflation, sprung up to facilitate exchange and address poverty and unemployment. In the midst of the crisis, neighborhoods pulled closer together, organizing assemblies and finding ways to get food to those who needed it most.[10] Thus, the crisis provoked greater cooperation and solidarity amongst the Argentine working class, which created its own form of social safety net which prevented an even greater humanitarian disaster. In this profoundly creative movement, both for and of the working class, we can see the seeds of a new society based on liberty and equality, and a true alternative to capitalism.

In many ways, the mass movements and political struggles of the late 1990s and early 2000s were confrontations between Society and the State. Society, in this sense defined as the series of relationships which bound neighbors, coworkers, and protestors together in solidarity, faced with economic collapse and political instability, developed its own independent institutions to ameliorate conditions. However, the assemblies, mutual-aid networks, and worker-controlled factories should not be seen simply as reactions to the crisis, but also as indicative of a movement towards a new set of social relations and conception of society. This new conception of society, based upon direct democracy at the local level, addressing social problems through cooperation and solidarity, and a general disregard for private property, thus directly opposed itself to the State’s centralizing instincts and its traditional role as the guardian of capitalist property relations. As such, Argentines and Bolivians were, in deed if not in word, rejecting the maxim of capitalist society which Kropotkin summarized so aptly as “every one for himself, and the State for all.”[11] Indeed, at a historical moment when the inherent contradictions of class society were so apparent, when state policies that were driven entirely by the interests of the wealthy and multinational corporations had provoked economic ruin, and when the only hope for working people was to be found in their own solidarity and cooperation, the absurdity of the liberal notion that the State exists to serve society was laid bare for the world to see.

However, as was noted earlier in this paper, popular revolt in turn of the millennium Latin America was accompanied by electoral victories by left parties which pledged to use state power to oppose neoliberalism and imperialism and bring about social justice. These new governments, typified by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, were legitimately popular and brought about some major advances, including the creation of new social welfare programs that helped lift millions out of poverty and new constitutions which granted far more rights and autonomy to indigenous peoples. However, at the same time, the new left governments, following the centralizing logic of the state, sought to expand their control over the social movements, taking from them the very independence that had defined the popular revolts which the parties rode into power. The increasing subordination of the popular struggle to the State thus caused it to lose its vitality and paved the way for the steps taken towards popular autonomy and local direct democracy to be walked back.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” was particularly defined by the way it collaborated with social movements to create new educational and aid programs to assist the nations poor. Interestingly, while the government may have provided funding, the successes of the programs relied on the dedication of volunteers at the grassroots level, working in literacy programs and organizing free community dining halls. Furthermore, the intense and personalistic focus around the figure of Chávez that was promoted by the government had a negative impact on these social programs, as the portrayal of Chávez as a savior figure undermined their democratic and participatory aspects.[12] The move away from independent movements based on organizations created by the workers themselves, and the consequent shift towards electoral campaigning, thus encouraged reliance on the “progressive” State, rather than the construction of an alternative to capitalism by the working class themselves.

Had the new left governments truly constituted a progressive step away from capitalism this would be less of a cause for concern. However, despite their passionate rhetoric against the injustices of capitalism, the “pink tide” governments never truly constituted a challenge to capital. Programs to redistribute wealth and land to the poor, while certainly beneficial, don’t actually challenge the basis of capitalism, private property. Thus, while poverty levels may have been reduced, since the landlords and bosses still owned the factories and the fields, workers still had to sell their labor to them to survive, allowing the capitalist class to continue to make a handsome profit off the exploitation of labor. Consequently, while the economic and social conditions of the workers may have improved, the material bases of inequality in society went untouched. The best that can be said of these governments is that they constituted a return to the social-democratic model of capitalism, as they nationalized key sectors of the economy and used profits from exporting natural resources to fund a growing welfare state. However even this was half-hearted. The Chávez government continued to collaborate with multinational companies to exploit oil and mineral deposits in the country, continuing the extractivist policies associated with neo-liberalism. These economic ventures caused serious environmental damage and violated indigenous peoples’ land rights, but despite this the Chávez government remained deaf to protests from environmentalists and indigenous peoples.[13]

In Bolivia, after the prolonged social conflicts related to water and natural gas, Evo Morales was swept into power in 2006, becoming the first indigenous President of Bolivia. Significant step forwards were taken under the Morales administration, as a new constitution in 2009 for the first time fully recognized the cultures, languages, and land rights of Bolivia’s indigenous majority. It also initiated land reforms that recognized the right of indigenous communities to collectively own and farm their lands and oversaw a period of economic growth that led to significant reductions in the national poverty rate.[14] However, just as had occurred in Venezuela, the Morales government also centralized power, incorporating social movements into state and party structures. This move would have dire consequences in 2011, when the government, in a clear violation of the land rights guaranteed to indigenous peoples by the new constitution, sought to build a highway across the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). The plan provoked major protest by indigenous communities, somewhat undermining Morales’s image as a defender of the nation’s indigenous peoples. Following the protests, the Government actively promoted schisms within the social movements, using the police to help government-affiliated groups within the movements to seize leadership positions. These power grabs led to a feeling of general demoralization amongst the social movements, a shift which significantly contributed to the recent military coup against Morales.[15] Empowering the state at the expense of the working classes thus weakened the potential for revolutionary change in Bolivia, and ultimately created space for reactionary elements to seize power and roll back the progress that was made.

Equally, the extent to which the Morales government truly broke with the legacies of neoliberalism is questionable. The rationale behind the TIPNIS highway project was to facilitate expansion of the region’s agricultural potential, a proposal which protestors feared could lead to deforestation and environmental degradation. Furthermore, it was only a few years before, in a further flagrant violation of both the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment, the government began to encourage hydrocarbons exploration in protected areas,.[16] While the government did initiate the most significant land reform in recent history, it fell far short of the expectations of the peasantry, largely due to the government’s unwillingness to challenge the powerful ranchers, landowners, and agribusinesses that dominate Santa Cruz province and the Bolivian lowlands.[17] Indeed, Morales’s government would eventually forge an alliance with the agricultural and ranching elite of the eastern provinces, allowing them to clear the Amazon rainforest in order to expand the agricultural frontier – a policy which culminated in the devastating wildfires throughout the Bolivian Amazon earlier this year.[18] Thus, despite the aura of indigeneity and environmental friendliness which surrounded the Morales administration, it continued many of the same neoliberal policies which had characterized previous governments, at great cost to indigenous peoples and the environment.

Both of these governments thus demonstrate the limitations of electoralism and the seizure of State power as paths to social revolution. While Chávez, Morales, and their supporters no doubt truly did wish to bring about revolutionary change and make their countries better and more equal places, by seizing the State they ultimately put an end to the revolutionary popular movement that had been germinating since the turn of the millennium. The State, in its modern form, arises out of capitalist society, born of the upper classes’ need for an effective and centralized power base, from which, through coercion and cooptation they could maintain their control over society. Thus, when leftist parties seize the State, they are tacitly accepting the present economic and social order and its drive towards the concentration of power and wealth. For this exact reason those parties become increasingly alienated from the masses who brought them to power, as they find that maintaining power within the State system has far more to do with forging alliances between different sectors of the elite than it does with mass popular support. As popular influence diminishes and elite influence grows, the new government’s policies increasingly come to reflect the interests of the elite, ensuring that the capitalist economic system, and all the inequality and injustice it entails, will remain in force. Meanwhile, when the workers and peasants, frustrated by the lack of realization of their revolutionary aspirations, protest and rebel, the “progressive” government, warped by the privileges that come with power, view these calls for revindication as treason, and deploy all the old tactics to repress them. As the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, observed more than a century ago, “Such is the nature of political power ever since its origin in human society… men who were the reddest democrats, the most vociferous radicals, once in power become the most moderate conservatives.”[19]

As Latin America, and, indeed, the entire world explodes once again into popular revolt, we would do well to remember the lessons of the “Pink Tide.” Above all, we must remember that in those days of struggle and hope, the most revolutionary agent for the transformation of society was not a political party or government, but the people themselves, who seized factories, convened assemblies, and constructed new social institutions based upon solidarity and equality. While this revolution was ultimately not able achieve that new society, swallowed as it was by the push towards electoralism and the deleterious influence of the State, it did build the capacity and self-confidence of the masses, as they demonstrated to the world that they were capable of building alternatives to capitalism without the aid of bosses or politicians. We see this process yet again with the local assemblies that have been influential in pushing the protest movement in Chile forward, and the unity of labor and social organizations in Colombia’s November 21st General Strike. What will take these movements and protests to the next level, pushing them towards revolution and the end of the capitalist system, is greater coordination between them, both nationally and internationally. This will be achieved not through the artificial impositions of a political party, forcing all to obey a central authority, but organically, as workers, increasingly confident in their own abilities, forge alliances between town and country, north and south, and across racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries. However, these conclusions are provisional by their nature. The social revolution is a gargantuan task, and its success will depend not on formulaic adherence to the limited conclusions of any one thinker, but on the participation of the grand mass of the people, organized in their own, independent organizations. Indeed, if one thing can be said for certain about revolution, it is that for it to truly succeed, it must be achieved by the workers themselves.



[1] Benjamin Dangl, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2007), 25-29.

[2] Ibid., 59-60.

[3] Álvaro García Linera, and Eugenia Cervio, Plebeian Power Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 123-124.

[4] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 21.

[5] García Linera and Cervio, Plebeian Power, 123-124. Despite Linera’s Left Communist roots, in a twist of irony he would eventually become Evo Morale’s Vice President, a position he continued to hold up until the recent coup.

[6] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 58-60; 63-68.

[7] Ibid., 96-97.

[8] The Lavaca Collective, Sin patrón: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories, (Chicago Ill.: Haymarket Books, 2007), 38-39.

[9] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 103.

[10] Ibid., 83-84.

[11] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid – a Factor of Evolution, (Dover Publications Inc., 2006), xvii.

[12] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 130.

[13] Ibid., 130-131.

[14] Emily Achtenberg, “Bolivia: The Unfinished Business of Land Reform.” NACLA, March 31, 2013.

[15]  Raúl Zibechi, “Bolivia: The Extreme Right Takes Advantage of a Popular Uprising,” Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, November 12, 2019.

[16] Emily Achtenberg, “Why Is Evo Morales Reviving Bolivia’s Controversial TIPNIS Road?” NACLA, August 21, 2017.’s-controversial-tipnis-road.

[17] Emily Achtenberg, “Bolivia: The Unfinished Business of Land Reform.” NACLA, March 31, 2013.

[18] Emily Achtenberg, “Will Evo Morales Survive Bolivia’s Fires?” NACLA, October 16, 2019.

[19] Mikhail Bakunin, “On Representative Government and Universal Suffrage,”, September 1870.

Turning Workers into Criminals: Gender, Class, and State Violence in the Twin Cities’ Responses to Sex Work, 1870-1900

By Duncan Riley



What Makes Someone a Criminal?

Modern society tends to view criminality as a product of immorality. If someone commits a crime, it is because they are a bad and antisocial person. However, the relationship between law and morality is in reality far more complicated. When John Brown and his party of White and Black supporters attempted to seize the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry and ignite a general revolt against slavery, their actions were illegal. Meanwhile, slavery itself was perfectly legal, and defended by the state and its monopoly on violence. Equally, today the most odious policies of our government here in the United States, whether mass deportations, family separation, or the roll-back of reproductive rights, among others, are carried out under the protection of legality (or, at least, without legal consequences) and with the active participation and collaboration of all branches of government. Thus, even as the state commits widespread abuses of human rights on a massive scale, its actions are still regarded, broadly, as legal. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of people, particularly Black and Brown people, face arrest and incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes, petty thefts, and crossing borders in order to look for work or reunite with their families. Thus, considering that the worst and most horrific violence in our society, the violence of the state, goes unpunished, while millions of poor people are locked up for nonviolent crimes, it is time that we recognize that it is not immorality that makes someone a criminal, but rather a legal system more interested in defending the social order and property than justice.

One area where this lesson has long been apparent has been in the response of political and legal authorities to sex work. Ever since the 19th century, moralists, politicians, and lawyers have sought to put and end to sex work through increasingly more draconian penalties, frequent police raids, and endless sermons denouncing female “immorality.” One key case demonstrating this trend is the postbellum Twin Cities in Minnesota. In the initial decades after the Civil War, the Twin Cities’ authorities attempted merely to regulate prostitution, controlling it through fines and arrests, but not abolishing it. But, towards the end of the 1880s and 90s, city officials, particularly in Minneapolis, came under increasing pressure from reformers to mount an aggressive campaign to “abolish” sex work. This campaign, despite claims that it would “save” and “reform” women, ultimately would end in turning sex workers, and working class women generally, into criminals under the law, resulting not only in the arrest and incarceration of a great number of women, but also reinforcing patriarchal gender norms and hierarchies both on the individual and societal levels.

Before we begin, a brief note on terminology. This study will generally prefer the terms sex work and sex workers to prostitute and prostitution, due to the moralistic and oft-times discriminatory overtones of the later terms. However, while the modern term sex worker refers to a wide variety of occupations, in the context of the study it simply refers to women who, either in brothels or independently, received payment for sex. At times, the terms prostitute and common prostitute will also be used, the latter because it was a specific legal category in the time period, and the former because the term prostitute in the 19th century did not just encompass payment for sex but also a wide variety of activities that broke with traditional female gender roles.

Gender Oppression, Class Divides, and the Laws that Maintained Them

As the Twin Cities grew after the Civil War, city officials initially focused on regulating rather than eliminating sex work. In St. Paul, common practice was to arrest madams every month and force them to pay a fine, in what effectively amounted to an informal tax granting a “one-month license to manage a brothel.”[1] In Minneapolis, similar practices seemed to prevail. An 1877 City Ordinance mandated a maximum $100 dollar fine or 90-day jail term for operating a “house of ill repute.”[2] Under this ordinance the police and courts were thus able to compel brothel owners to pay into the city coffers. For example, in July 1883 both Claude Adams and Sarah Weeks were compelled to pay $50 fines, while   Edna Leon was summoned in August 1884 to pay a $100 dollar fine to the city.”[3] Furthermore, a later article in the Tribune would allege that widespread informal collection of fines and fees from sex workers in the city was common, claiming that “each house of ill repute pays $50 a month [to the city],” eventually receiving a “license” to facilitate its operations.[4] In both cities, the system of fines put into place thus served to control sex work through the regular intervention of the courts into the operation of brothels, without actually shutting them down and driving them underground.[5]

It is important to note, however, that the Twin Cities’ regulatory policies were not only aimed at madams, but also targeted the sex workers themselves. The aforementioned 1877 ordinance also made it a crime to simply live or be found in an “house of ill fame,” putting sex workers at constant risk of arrest.[6] As such, police raids often resulted in sex workers and anyone else lodging in a “house of ill repute,” themselves being fined by the cities, though generally for smaller amounts than the madams were subject to. Indeed, an 1883 raid in Minneapolis would net $70 dollars in fines from seven women for “occupying apartments in a house of ill fame,” while an 1887 raid in St. Paul would collect $60 dollars in fines.[7] Sex workers could also be arrested on the charge of being a “common prostitute,” which in St. Paul usually carried with it a fine of $20.[8] Thus, the Twin Cities’ efforts to control prostitution throughout the 1870s and 80s did not only entail the informal taxing of madams, but also a general criminalization of sex work, subjecting sex workers to arrests and fines, and consequently granting the police and courts broad power over sex workers’ daily lives.

Indeed, hardly any aspect of sex workers’ lives went untouched by the law, as they were even prevented from attaining their fundamental needs. The same 1887 ordinance that made it a crime to live in a “house of ill repute,” also made it illegal to rent or sell any house or room to a “common prostitute,” consequently making it extremely difficult for sex workers to find stable housing.[9] Considering that the ordinance simultaneously denied sex workers independent access to housing while also making it a criminal offense to find lodging in a brothel, one must conclude that, at least to a certain extent, the ordinance must have been intended to force sex workers into illegal living arrangements in brothels, where it would be easier for police to monitor and arrest them. St. Paul equally sought to criminalize sex workers’ quotidian existence, an 1884 ordinance making it an offence punishable by a $10-$100 dollar fine for a common prostitute to enter a public park.[10] Considering the ways in which municipal law in the Twin Cities criminalized their basic needs like housing alongside their mere existence in public spaces such as parks, sex workers could not help but become criminals. Rather than being the result of any sort of inherent immorality on their part, the criminality of sex workers was the product of the legal authorities themselves, and their efforts to control and regulate sex work.

Thus, when the municipal governments of the Twin Cities’ sought to control sex work, this did not simply mean the de facto taxes imposed upon brothels, but also the use of ordinances to criminalize and exercise authority over sex workers as a social group. The various restrictions that the law placed upon those categorized as “common prostitutes,” had the cumulative effect of segregating sex workers from the rest of society, resulting in their isolation from the larger working class. From the standpoint of the Cities’ authorities, this segregation of sex workers within the city served two important purposes, firstly by ensuring that sex work remained in certain areas and thus its supposed immorality would not infect the rest of the Cities, and secondly because it made it far easier for the police to control sex work if it was confined to certain, specific “vice districts” of the cities.[11] For the sex workers, this meant that they could be subject to arrest at almost any time, and thus faced the constant danger of state repression and incarceration, giving city functionaries a far greater degree of power over them than they held over the rest of the city’s working class. For the cities’ governments, criminalization was therefore an extremely powerful tool in their effort to expand their authority over not just institutions, but people, that were seen as immoral.

The criminalization of sex work must be understood within a broader context of the application of law by political and legal authorities to enforce feminine gender norms and punish behavior that violated them, in particular targeting working class women. Behaviors or actions that violated what the powerful in society perceived as “acceptable” female behavior were penalized and could result in arrest and incarceration. Sex work itself was a key example of this process, as for a woman to engage in intercourse outside of wedlock, or to have multiple sexual partners, ran directly against Victorian society’s emphasis on what was seen as women’s innate “innocence and purity.”[12] As a result, sex workers were particularly singled out as targets for arrest and incarceration by the legal system.

However, aside from sex work, a wide variety of behaviors that flouted contemporary female gender norms were subject to criminalization. When, in 1887, Lizzie Bernholtz dressed in men’s clothes and attempted to join the circus, the police arrested her.[13] In another case about a month earlier, Annie Linstrom, described by the paper as a “strange creature,” was also arrested for “masquerading in male attire,” after a farmer complained to the police about her. Linstrom, who had been herding cattle when she was arrested, protested the charge, explaining that “I wear men’s clothes when herding so as to get around. If I wore women’s clothes I’d be bothered all the time. I never go on the streets without a dress, but I did this time, because the only dress I’ve got was in North Minneapolis.” The judge was unmoved by this appeal, and, recalling that she had been arrested once before for the same offense, stated “You must wear the garments of your sex or be punished. Your sentence is twenty days at the workhouse.”[14] Both these cases demonstrate that women’s transgressions of “acceptable” female behavior were viewed by the police and courts as criminal behavior which, if serious enough, merited incarceration. Further, Linstrom’s case in particular shows how working-class women could be extremely vulnerable to the repression that the Cities’ legal apparatus meted out to maintain female gender conformity. As a cattle herder, it was entirely impractical for her to wear a dress as she engaged in her work, and thus it was her very employment in physical labor which made her vulnerable to the accusations that she was breaking with traditional conceptions of femininity, ultimately leading to her arrest. Therefore, the efforts by the authorities of the Twin Cities to regulate gender roles through criminalization should be understood not only as a function of gender oppression, but as one of class oppression as well.

The usage of the law to delineate “correct” feminine behavior also resulted in women receiving far harsher sentences then men did for the same crimes. The year prior to her arrest for wearing men’s clothes, Linstrom had been arrested for reckless driving and received a sixty-day sentence in the workhouse.[15] On the other hand, when Charles Brown was arrested for the exact same crime that year, he was sentenced to pay a $3 fine.[16] Furthermore, when Tim McMahon was arrested for reckless driving, after causing a collision that hurt a young boy, he was sentenced to a fine of $11.60.[17] Thus, despite the fact that the charges facing Linstrom were no different from those facing the two men, only she was subject to incarceration, and for a significant period of time at that. Behind this disparate sentencing is the law’s dual purpose of both social and gender control. As Victoria Law notes, incarcerated women have broken “both laws and acceptable notions of feminine behavior and morality.”[18] Thus, in handing down such a harsh sentence on Linstrom, the courts were not only punishing her for her breach of the social order, but also for her breach of the social protocols that demanded docility from women. As such, in sentencing, as in all other aspects of the legal system, the need of the authorities to control and defend gender norms was far more important than any abstract notions of justice or equality.

The legal apparatuses of the Twin Cities as they emerged more fully in the post-Civil War era were thus instruments of repression directed not only against sex workers, but against any woman who did not adhere to notions of “respectable” feminine conduct. Thus it must be understood that the law, far from being a neutral expression of the public good, was rather the reflection of the desires of the men in power to defend their own and their class’s conception of morality and justice, imposed upon the women of the Twin Cities and defended by the armed force and coercive power of the police and courts. The law, thus, was a buttress of patriarchy, seeking to secure and ensure men’s rule over women in society. Equally, the law was a tool of class rule, as it was working class and poor women who would be most subject to criminalization under the efforts of the city governments to control behavior they viewed as unvirtuous. Considering this, we must understand the process of criminalization not simply as the making of something illegal, but also as the making of someone illegal.

The human costs of repression and incarceration, which have so often been obscured by societal and scholarly disinterest in, and indeed aversion to, those the state has labeled as criminals, cannot be forgotten. When Hannah Rack, a Swedish immigrant, was arrested a third time for drunkenness, she tried to hang herself in the city lockup.[19] The next day, the court, considering that she was a repeat offender, was unmoved by her situation, and sentenced her to thirty days in jail. Thus, while criminalization of women like Hannah Rack may have served the interests of city authorities in their quest to defend public morality, it came at the cost of forgetting their humanity.

The Reform Movement and the Escalation of Criminalization

Across the 1870s and 1880s the Twin Cities’ policies to simply regulate, and not eliminate, sex work met opposition from within the cities’ elite, sectors of which increasingly felt that any form of “vice” needed to be completely removed from the cities.[20] These upper and middle-class reformers, often led by clergy and supported by women’s reform groups, argued that “vice” was sinful, and thus that to merely regulate it rather than seeking to abolish it was immoral. In a similar vein, many reformers argued that regulatory policies violated the spirit of the law, which clearly stated that sex work in all its manifestations was illegal. It was also argued that regulation discriminated against women, as sex workers, rather than johns, were most subject to arrest.[21] One exposé of the system of regulated prostitution in Paris published by the Globe in 1887 clearly reflected the views of these reformers, criticizing the abuse and mistreatment women suffered at the hands of the “police des moeurs,” and warning other countries against any system of “legalized prostitution.”[22] Other articles of the period focused on the threat the system posed to the cities’ reputation, one piece in 1889 arguing that farmer’s would not send their sons to university as long as they were “situated in the very heart of a den of prostitution.”[23] Thus as the years drew on, the Twin Cities’ governments came under increasing pressure from the cities’ upper classes to change their focus away from the regulation of sex work and towards its elimination.

Another common argument amongst reformers for the complete prohibition of sex work was the assertion of the existence of a “white slave trade.” According to the theory, women were either tricked or coerced into sex work by “evil procurers,” madams or traffickers. From there, a woman would fall into vice and corrupt the young men around her, becoming a “sinister polluter.” However, while “the white slave trade” gave middle and upper-class reformers a powerful argument for prohibition, it had little to do with the reality of how and why women became sex workers.[24] In most cases, women were not coerced into sex work by “procurers,” but rather entered into it due to social and economic conditions. For example, abandonment by a lover, especially if a woman was pregnant or had children, often led her to sex work. Economic factors were also important, as the jobs available to working-class women, domestic service and needle trades, paid very poorly.[25] Indeed, when two hundred women went on strike at a clothing factory in Minneapolis, one of the strikers asked “How can girls live on such wages… and live and dress respectably… It is impossible. She must either go without clothing or board, or she must steal or get money in a way that I would blush to mention.”[26]  Furthermore, at times women themselves, when charged with prostitution, denied that they had been compelled. Jane Conwell, after being charged with prostitution by the court and urged by her mother to reform, refused to do so, saying that even if they sentenced her to the workhouse the moment she was released she would return to sex work.[27] Despite reformers’ assertions and their inability to believe that women were able to make independent economic choices, sex work was not the product of a “white slave trade,” but rather grew out of social conditions and the fact that women and their labor were treated unequally by capital.

Reformers also targeted the treatment of women by the legal system. In an 1886 conference on prison reform, Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) representatives condemned the abuse that women often suffered at the hands of male police and guards while incarcerated, arguing for the necessity of “prison matrons,” women to care for female prisoners in police stations and workhouses. The reformers, however, also displayed a deep strain of paternalism in their attitudes towards working class women, arguing that as girls emigrated to the cities from the country to find employment, they often found themselves unable to afford “to board in a decent place and dress as they were expected to. Then they drifted into wages of shame…”[28] Thus despite their concern for the treatment of women and girls by the prison system and society more generally, these reformers ultimately never challenged the underlying problem that lay at the heart of the issue, that the law, reflecting the patriarchal society that produced it, served as an instrument to criminalize any woman whose behavior did not conform to contemporary notions of moral feminine conduct. For the reformers, while those women who could not afford to act as they ought to and fell into “wages of shame” certainly did not deserve to be abused, they still had acted immorally, and thus incarceration and reformation under the guiding hand of the matron was still necessary. Indeed, much of the work reformers like the WCTU actually did within jails actually reinforced their role as institutions of gender control. For example, in the Minneapolis jail, the WCTU distributed schoolbooks and writing material to male prisoners, while women were given sewing, knitting, and crocheting tools and materials.[29] Thus while men were given educational opportunities, women were taught to be good wives, mothers, and homemakers, how to “reform,” and better meet societal expectations of their gender. As such though reformers may have sought to curb some of the worst abuses, they ultimately reinforced the broader efforts of the authorities to control women’s behavior.

Consequently, despite the concerns reformers had for the wellbeing of women and their pretensions of preventing discrimination and injustices, the question of reform was only ever to be discussed amongst the Twin Cities’ bourgeois. The women who would actually be affected by these policies, the “delinquents,” sex workers, and prisoners, were not consulted, their views or perspectives never considered. Thus, the Twin Cities’ influential elite, whether they defended the system of regulation or sought to put an end to “vice” once and for all, turned to the police and as such to the application of force and incarceration to address the problem of sex work.[30] In selecting the police as their tool, however, the cities’ reformers ensured that their goal of correcting the discrimination women suffered would be left unfulfilled. As has been noted above, the role of the police, and the legal system more generally as the enforcers of contemporary gender norms as they were expressed in law meant that empowering these institutions could only result in an even deeper and greater criminalization of women who did not adhere to those norms. Furthermore, the conceptions of morality that drove reformers’ desire to put an end to sex work were the same moral values that underlaid contemporary gender norms, and thus legal discrimination against women. The very women that reformers sought to help and “uplift,” would thus, through fines and incarceration, pay the price for the middle and upper classes’ vaunted reforms.

Indeed, despite reformers stated desire to protect women against discrimination and reform sex workers, their actual efforts at reform were generally motivated by moral and economic concerns and offered little aid to arrested or incarcerated women. In 1878, when a group of prominent citizens opposed to St. Paul’s regulation policies was organized by Reverend William McKibbin, its arguments generally focused on the immorality of the cities’ policies, not on concern for the wellbeing of sex workers.[31] When in 1881 a group of property owners in the wealthy neighborhood of Irvine Park organized a legal campaign against sex work, it was primarily out of a desire to push brothels away from their neighborhood and into other parts of the city.[32] In the most aggressive campaign, led by St. Paul Mayor Christopher O’Brien from 1883-1885, brothels were ordered closed and sex workers who refused to plead guilty to violating the city’s ordinances were charged with felonies, and if convicted, jailed. Meanwhile, men were simply prevented from entering brothels.[33] Thus, while reformers may have professed a desire to aid and uplift “fallen women,” the actual campaigns and policies they championed focused primarily on the moral castigation of women engaged in “vice,” and the defense of their economic interests. Furthermore, in the case of O’Brien’s campaigns against sex work, it would be the sex workers, not the abusive johns that reformers castigated, who would face arrest and incarceration. Thus, regardless of reformers’ intentions, the law, designed as it was to punish women for violating gender norms, would always fall most harshly upon the sex workers.

Though their reforms were only serving to escalate the criminalization of sex workers, this did not cause the reformers to reconsider their approach. On the contrary, in April 1889, Alderman Bradish of Minneapolis brought forward a new ordinance that would constitute the most aggressive anti-sex work measure that the city had seen thus far.[34] The “Bradish Ordinance,” which went into effect on the 16th of May 1889, defined a common prostitute as any female over the age ten that engaged in “concubinage” or “indiscriminate sexual intercourse with men, whether the same be for hire or not.” The new penalty for common prostitutes would be a fine not exceeding $100 dollars, or no more than ninety days in jail.[35] The new ordinance not only drastically increased the penalties for “common prostitutes,” it also defined the term in such a broad manner that any expression of female sexuality that transgressed contemporary social standards could be considered, and punished, as prostitution. This latest escalation in the trend towards making a criminal out of any woman who broke with patriarchal expectations of female behavior would lay the framework for the most aggressive police campaign against “delinquent” women that the city had seen up to that point.

The War on Sex Work

Sentences under the new ordinance generally became more severe. Indeed, less than a month after the ordinance’s passage, it was common to impose the maximum penalty on alleged common prostitutes.  In one of the first prosecutions under the new ordinance, Clara Hobart was sentenced to pay the maximum $100 dollar fine mandated by the ordinance or spend sixty days in the workhouse.[36] Two days later, Fannie Jones was fined the same amount.[37] Another common sentence initially was a $50 dollar fine or 60 days in the workhouse, falling upon both Hattle Armstrong and Nellie Whiby in the months that followed.[38] For reference, $100 dollars in 1889 would in today, 2019, be approximately equivalent to $2,790 dollars, and $50 to $1395.[39] The new ordinance also seems to have had an impact on how the courts sentenced women generally, regardless of whether they were charged with being a common prostitute. After Ella Brown was arrested in August 1893 for drunkenness, she was also sentenced to 90 days in the workhouse or a $100 dollar fine.[40] In only the first few months of its enforcement, the Bradish Ordinance had greatly increased the penalties not just for sex work, but for any woman who found herself before a judge.

While certainly many women would be incarcerated under the new ordinance, the stiffer penalties would also serve as a tool the courts could use to threaten women into behaving in a desired way. Mary Black, after being arrested as a common prostitute, had her sentence suspended so she could leave the city and rejoin her husband in the Dakotas.[41] Black therefore avoided a fine or jail sentence by rejoining her husband, and thus entering back into an accepted female gender role as a wife. Furthermore, the harsh sentences were at times also used to convince alleged sex workers to leave town. After Nellie Whitney was sentenced to sixty days in the workhouse, the sentence was suspended after she promised to leave town.[42] When women failed to keep to their promise, as Mary Dunn did, they were incarcerated.[43] Thus the Bradish Ordinance’s harsh penalties were leveraged by the court system to convince women to return to “correct behavior,” while also serving to drive unwanted practices, and, indeed, unwanted people, out of town.

Furthermore, despite the oft-stated concern of the reformers for the discrimination sex-workers and women suffered from the courts, facing significant penalties while the johns got off free, the new campaign in Minneapolis to end sex work would not change this. When Carrie Stratton was arrested for “being in a house of ill fame,” she was sentenced to thirty days in the workhouse. The two men also arrested received small fines.[44] Whatever the intentions of the reformers, the actual enforcement of their crusade against sex work made it abundantly clear that the courts, as institutions that were shaped by a patriarchal society to perpetuate itself and its notions of “correct” male and female sexual behavior, would always punish sex workers far more seriously than johns.

Accompanying the greater penalties were more aggressive police tactics targeting women suspected of being sex workers. Officers began to carry out sting operations, approaching women on the street and making “improper offers.” Mollie O’Donnell was arrested in one such case, and though she denied the charges, the court convicted her of being a common prostitute upon the testimony of the officer and sentenced her to the full ninety days.[45] In a similar case in November, Mary Glach, who worked as a washerwoman, was arrested for being a common prostitute after police claimed “they made a bargain with her.” Glach responded that the bargain had been for washing, not sex.[46] Considering that both women protested their innocence and argued that the police accounts of events were incorrect, the more aggressive tactics seem to have resulted in legally questionable arrests, and may not have even been targeting actual sex workers. Indeed, as the latter case shows, the sting operations seemed to have been targeting working-class women, regardless of whether or not there was any evidence beyond the officer’s perceptions that they were sex workers. In this way, the criminalization of women deemed by society as deviant, particularly working-class women, when combined with the new tactics greatly increased the police harassment women in Minneapolis would face.

The aggressive nature of the campaign to end sex work would also allow abusive conduct by police towards suspected sex workers to flourish. In 1890, after Sergeant Kirkham arrested Mary Niver and brought her before the court, Niver stated that while she previously had served time in the workhouse for being a common prostitute, she had since reformed and was innocent. Indeed, the judge found her innocent, as there was no evidence that she “had been plying her trade.”[47] Niver was arrested, not because there was any evidence, she had committed a crime, but because her personal history made her suspect to the police. Indeed, that the article still identifies sex work as “her trade” demonstrates that even after women had left sex work, they were still associated with it and could face arrest. A few weeks later. Kirkham arrested Mary O’Brien for being a common prostitute. Initially the judge, due to “Kirkham’s uncorroborated evidence,” declined to convict her, but more evidence was produced, and O’Brien was fined $50.[48] In a similar case several years later, Kirkham arrested Hattie French. French initially pleaded guilty, but later changed the plea to innocent, stating that Kirkham had advised her to plead guilty. Kirkham’s case, however, was saved, as Judge Mahoney declared she was “anything but a prude,” and sentenced her to a $50 dollar fine or sixty days in the workhouse.[49] In both of these cases, the evidence against the accused women was weak, and Kirkham’s conduct, especially in the French case was extremely questionable, trying to persuade her to plead guilty. However, Kirkham would suffer no consequences for this behavior, while O’Brien and French would have large fines or months in the workhouse. Furthermore, the fact that French was solely convicted on the basis of the judge’s prejudice that she was “anything but a prude” demonstrates once again that the effort to abolish sex work was in reality a wider campaign to punish, through arrest and imprisonment, any women who broke with the sexual norms that society placed upon her.

The Bradish Ordinance did not only serve to reinforce the authority of the law over women, but also helped husbands assert control over their wives, calling on the State and its repressive apparatus as an ally in familial disputes. When John Lavis came to Minneapolis looking for his wife, who had left him, he found her living in rooms rented from a man named Kelly. When she refused to come back to him, he swore out a warrant for her arrest as a common prostitute.[50] Rachel Davis was also accused of being a common prostitute by her husband, after she left him for a piano player. When brought before the court, she “preferred a fine, the workhouse, anything, in fact, to living with her husband.” She was sentenced to pay a $25 dollar fine, which, fortunately for her, the piano player paid.[51] In both these cases, husbands, having lost control of their wives, accused them of being prostitutes in order to have them arrested, using the courts to try and force their wives to accept their authority. Thus, the private, familial patriarchal control that husbands exercised over their wives was inseparable from the law’s broader role in regulating and controlling women’s behavior on a societal level, both oppressive dynamics mutually reinforcing each other. One result of these interlocking oppressions, one private and one public, was that women in abusive relationships found themselves being abused again by the state. In September 1896, Julia McKay testified in court that her husband abused her, but the judge ultimately dismissed the case after the defense brought forward evidence “to show the character of the plaintiff,” and that the couple was in the process of divorcing. Upon the dismissal of his charges, Fred McKay’s first action was to swear out a warrant for his wife’s arrest as a common prostitute.[52] Thus the violence of Mr. McKay was mirrored and compounded by the violence of the state.

The Bradish Ordinance also seems to have encouraged prosecutors to classify as common prostitutes women whose actions, while breaking with accepted feminine gender roles, had nothing whatsoever to do with sex work. After ten women were arraigned in court for vagrancy, the city attorney attempted to argue that they were, in fact, all common prostitutes. The judge, however, rejected the move, and the women were discharged.[53] A few years later, after Lizzie Gunderson was arrested for drunkenly stealing a carriage and going on a joy ride through the city, prosecutors attempted to charge her as a common prostitute. The gambit failed, and the judge released her, noting that there was no evidence she was a sex worker.[54] Despite the dismissal of charges in both cases, the prosecutors’ tendency to classify any women who had broken the law as a prostitute is another indication that the Bradish Ordinance was employed not just to end sex work, but to crack down on women who failed to conform to gender roles more generally. Whether the real crime committed was vagrancy, drunkenness, or theft, or indeed even if no crime had been committed at all, any woman who transgressed “respectable” boundaries could be accused of being a prostitute. Any hint of “immorality” on the part of a woman could thus be associated with sexual impropriety, shaming and dishonoring her in the eyes of respectable society.

Just like the police and courts, the jails themselves also served as institutions for controlling and “reforming” women, training them to behave in a manner more appropriate to contemporary gender norms. When the women’s wing to the Minneapolis workhouse was built on top of the old laundry building, besides holding spaces and washing rooms the only other place women could spend their time was a sewing room.[55] Thus, in the time they were incarcerated, women would spend their hours focused on the traditional and respectable feminine trade of the seamstress, and learn a skill necessary for wives and mothers. There were no opportunities to learn other, better-paying trades, which anyways were off-limits to women. “Reforming” women through incarceration thus, in reality, meant forcing them back into traditional gender roles.

It is important to note, however, that women were not simply passive victims of the violence that both husband and state used against them, they resisted and protested with the means available to them. Often times, this took the form of sudden bursts of protest in court against harsh sentences or unfair treatment. Alice Whittaker, when confronted by a witness in court who gave particularly controversial testimony, called out “You are a liar!”[56] In an earlier case, Carrie Keyes, who, after leaving her husband was accused by him of being a common prostitute, was sentenced to thirty days in the workhouse. In response she “broke out into a torrent of abuse,” and fought with her husband and the court officers, causing her sentence to be increased by another sixty days.[57] Both Whittaker and Keyes thus refused to passively accept their treatment by the courts. These acts of individual resistance, while seemingly small in comparison to the immense power and authority wielded by the state, demonstrated that the authorities could not count on women to easily accept their fates. As such, these small acts of protest and humanity were a powerful repudiation of the conventional conceptions of gender that tend to view women as docile and weak. However, as Keyes’s case shows, this repudiation could also come at a hard price, as in rebelling women had once again broken with expected feminine behavior, and thus could face harsher treatment at the hands of the courts.

The Bradish Ordinance, and the aggressive campaign to end sex work it provoked, thus had significant consequences for women in Minneapolis. Working-class women, suspected on account of their class of being sex workers, faced increased police harassment, while sex workers themselves faced greater fines and longer sentences to the workhouse. The campaign further quickly escalated, targeting not only suspected sex workers, but any woman who did not conform to the standards patriarchal society had placed upon her. Moreover, not only did the ordinance empower the state in its efforts to control women’s behavior, it also became a weapon in the hands of husbands who sought to reassert themselves over rebellious wives. Ultimately, despite reformers oft-stated belief that a vigorous campaign against sex work would save women, the real result of their efforts was that more and more women were arrested and incarcerated, while the hierarchies of gender and class that kept those well-meaning reformers at the top rung of Twin Cities’ society were more entrenched than ever.


The Twin Cities’ campaigns against sex work during the late 19th century demonstrate several important lessons which are relevant to our own times. First and foremost is that the state, alongside its police and courts, far from being a neutral or benignly beneficent institution dedicated to the public good, is rather, as an institution, identified with a particular social stratum, whose interests it serves to defend. In the case of the postbellum Twin Cities, the social strata that dominated city government and had the most influence on its policies towards sex work were the wealthy middle and upper classes, the professionals, the clergy, and businesspeople. Equally, it must be noted that in this social group, both among men and women, traditional notions of a woman’s “proper” role as first and foremost a wife and mother prevailed, alongside a general hostility and distrust towards female sexuality and a concern for female virtue. Indeed, as was noted above, even the politically active liberal reformers of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, through their treatment both of sex workers and female prisoners, reinforced traditional patriarchal notions of women’s subservient place in society. While the Twin Cities’ bourgeois were certainly not uniform in their desired approach to sex work, split as they were between regulation and abolition, ultimately it was only their views that had any bearing on the cities’ policies. The working-class, and in particular working-class women, were not represented in the debate. The state, thus, is the creature of the privileged.

Today the state remains as much a tool of racial, class and gender oppression as it did in the 1890s. Since the advent of the War on Drugs, the number of women in prison has skyrocketed, growing by 108% between 1990 and 2000. These new prisoners primarily come from working class backgrounds, and Black and Latina women are in particular more likely to be incarcerated. This sudden and significant increase is not due to any increase in crime among women or in Black and Latina communities, but rather to aggressive police tactics, such as stop and frisk and increased patrols targeting these communities in an effort to “crack down on crime.” The more draconian sentencing and drug laws of the War on Drugs have also significantly contributed to the increasing numbers of incarcerated women.[58] Whether it is the Twin Cities’ war on prostitution in the 1890s or the contemporary nationwide War on Drugs, the state is always waging war on the poor.

The state’s subservience to the wealthier classes also tends to contradict the traditional notion that the character of institutions such as the police, courts, and prisons is dependent upon the character of the individuals that make them up – that if the police are good people they will behave justly, if prisons are run by good people they will serve the best interest of the prisoners and society, and so on. The reality however is that these institutions, having been created by the privileged and powerful to defend their interests, thus have at their core the same prejudices and hierarchies that characterize the rule of the dominant class. The injustices which the state’s repressive apparatus perpetrates daily against sex workers, women, immigrants, and so many others are not the product of the individual evil of those who make up that apparatus, but rather of the collective evil of the class that wields this apparatus in defense of its political, economic, and moral domination over society.[59] These abuses cannot be stopped, thus, simply by striving to put good or progressive people into positions of authority within these institutions and the state as a whole – they can only be stopped by abolishing the political and economic hierarchies and inequalities which gave rise to these institutions in the first place.

The lessons on power that the anti-sex work campaigns of the Twin Cities offer do not only help us outline what kind of society we need to fight for, but also how to fight for it. The quest of the Twin Cities’ liberal reformers to “abolish” sex work shows that abolition, in the final analysis, means granting new and broader powers to the state in order to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate sex workers. Abolition, thus, seeks to empower not the sex workers themselves, but the state, an institution which develops from patriarchal society and serves to defend it. Considering this, it is not surprising that abolition campaigns like those of the Twin Cities ended in reinforcing, not diminishing, the control of men over women, both on the societal and individual levels. In our own times, sex workers themselves have been carving out a far more viable path towards social progress, as they unionize on an international level. Unions have been formed in 30 countries, and formal collective bargaining has occurred in four countries, including the US.[60] This move towards unionization rejects the intervention of the state, building the collective power of sex workers, and facilitating organized action and protest against both state repression and exploitative working conditions. By empowering the state, the oppressive dynamics we seek to destroy can only be reinforced, while when the oppressed empower themselves through their own self-activity and self-organization, they create a social base for the revolutionary transformation of society.

I am well aware that historians reading these conclusions may well feel that I have crossed the line which separates detached historical inquiry from political advocacy. This, of course, is entirely true, and, in my view, a necessary part of historical inquiry. If history is to remain a vital and relevant social science, its work must not be confined to universities and lecture halls, and solely published in expensive academic journals. Rather, historical study must be directly relevant to current social struggles, as much an arm of the oppressed as the pamphlet, the strike, and the rifle. Indeed, through historical study we can understand how the institutions and systems that underlie oppression today were formed and developed, helping us, eventually, to dismantle them. Equally, historical research can serve to rescue past social struggles from obscurity, giving us both new lessons and examples, thus deepening our understanding of the full depth of the historical task which today confronts us. That task, put most simply, is to reject the hierarchies, inequalities, and injustices which for centuries have hung over human society like a thick haze, and build a new society, where the seeds of liberty, equality, and solidarity can at long last blossom from a new, green earth.


Gender Oppression, Class Divides, and the Laws that Maintained Them  

[1] Joel Best, Controlling Vice: Regulating Brothel Prostitution in St. Paul, 1865-1883 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998), 3-4.

[2] Frank Healy, et al, Minneapolis City Charter and Ordinances. Court and Board Acts, Park Ordinances, Rules of City Council, etc (Minneapolis, MN, 1905), 874-75.

[3] “Municipal Courts.” The St. Paul Daily Globe. July 28, 1883, 6. The court cases are both listed in the section of the paper devoted to events in Minneapolis.

“Brief Mention.” The Minneapolis Daily Tribune. August 23, 1884, 8.

[4] “Truthful James.” The Minneapolis Tribune. December 19, 1886, 6.

[5] Best, Controlling Vice, 5.

[6] Frank Healy, et al, Minneapolis City Charter and Ordinance, 875.  

[7] “Municipal Courts.” The St. Paul Daily Globe. July 28, 1883, 6.

“Police Notes.” The Minneapolis Tribune. November 1, 1887, 3. Interestingly the St. Paul raid the paper details seems to have also picked up two men, though the exact circumstances of the arrests are unfortunately not made clear.

[8] “A Disreputable Woman.” The St. Paul Daily Globe. October 19, 1878, 4.

[9] Frank Healy, et al, Minneapolis City Charter and Ordinance, 875.

[10] William Pitt Murray, The Municipal Code of Saint Paul: Comprising the Laws of the State of Minnesota Relating to the City of Saint Paul, and the Ordinances of the Common Council; Rev. to December 1, 1884, by W.P. Murray, (St. Paul: Daily Globe, 1884), 352.

[11] Best, Controlling Vice, 5.

12] Best, Controlling Vice, 43.

[13] “A Naughty Girl.” The Minneapolis Tribune. August 15, 1887, 5.

[14] “A Girl Cowboy.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 2, 1887, 3.

[15] “Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe. December 19, 1886, 7.

[16] “Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe. April 30, 1886, 3.

[17] “Notes About Town.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 15, 1886, 2.

[18] Victoria Law, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 9.

[19] “Minneapolis Globelets.” St. Paul Daily Globe. August 23, 1884, 5. It should be noted however that Linnie Carlson, who was also arrested with Rack on charges of drunkenness, was released as it was her first offense and she had two children no one else could care for. Thus, while the courts had little compassion for women like Rack, who had broken both laws and gender norms multiple times, they could be far more sympathetic to first-time offenders who adhered more closely to traditional gender roles, mothers and wives for example.

The Reform Movement and the Escalation of Criminalization

[20] Best, Controlling Vice, 15-16; 79-80.

[21] Best, Controlling Vice, 15-16; 79-80.

[22] Emilie de Morsier, “Vice Thrives in Paris.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 17, 1887, 20.

[23] “Conspicuous Imbecility.” The Minneapolis Tribune. May 2, 1889, 4.

[24] Best, Controlling Vice, 42.

[25] Ibid., 44.

[26] “Out on Strike.” The Minneapolis Tribune. April 19, 1888, 5.

[27] “In the Courts.” The Minneapolis Tribune, October 3, 1889, 8.

[28] “Adjourned Sine Die.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 22, 1886, 8.

[29] Report of the Annual Convention, (Vol. 10. Red Wing, MN: Red Wing Printing, 1886), 39.

[30] Best, Controlling Vice, 18.

[31] Best, Controlling Vice, 90-91.

[32] Ibid., 93.

[33] Ibid., 94-5.

[34] “The Routine of the Council.” The Minneapolis Tribune. April 20, 1889, 5.

[35] Frank Healy, et al, Minneapolis City Charter and Ordinance, 876.  

The War on Sex Work

[36] “Briefly Mentioned.” The Minneapolis Tribune. June 7, 1889, 5.

[37] “In General.” The Minneapolis Tribune. June 9, 1889, 5.

[38] “Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, July 10, 1889, 7.

“Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 18, 1889, 14.

[39] “Inflation Rate between 1889-2019: Inflation Calculator.” CPI Inflation Calculator.

[40] “Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 23, 1889, 8.

[41] “In the Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, November 24, 1889, 9.

[42] “Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 10, 1889, 3.

[43] “A Tough Place Pulled.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 30, 1889, 8.

[44] “Police Court Notes.” The Minneapolis Tribune, July 13, 1889, 7.

[45] “Monday in Police Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune. June 25, 1889, 8.

[46] “Municipal Court Briefs.” The Minneapolis Tribune, November 22, 1889, 8.

[47] “Bound for Stillwater.” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 8, 1890, 10.

[48] “Police Court Notes.” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 24, 1890, 3.

[49] “He Was Not ‘Roasted.’” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 17, 1893, 3. This article, along with the prior two, is drawn from the section of the paper devoted to events in Minneapolis.

[50] “Lavis and His Wife.” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 6, 1894, 3.

[51] “Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 7, 1894, 7.

[52] “The M’Kays Again.” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 25, 1896, 8.

[53] “Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 16, 1894, 3.

[54] “Gave Her Freedom.” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 24, 1896, 10.

[55] “At the Workhouse.” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 24, 1890, 3.

[56] “From the Police Station.” The Minneapolis Tribune, February 27, 1894, 4.

[57] “Oh Woman, Woman.” The Minneapolis Tribune, April 30, 1891, 5.


[58] Law, Resistance Behind Bars, 1-3.

[59]For example, restrictive immigration policies tend to serve the interests of corporations and business owners, allowing them to respond to any attempt to organize for better pay and conditions with the threat of deportation, one example of this being the raids in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2019.

[60] Gregor Gall, “Sex Worker Unions Are Reforming Their Industry,” (The Conversation, May 12, 2016).


“A Disreputable Woman.” The St. Paul Daily Globe. October 19, 1878. 3720733ff4f3&zoom_factor=current&search_doc=common%20prostitute&sort_col=relevance&highlightColor=yellow&color=&CurSearchNum=3&search_doc1=common prostitute&submit.x=4&submit.y=9&page_name=&page_name=.

“Adjourned Sine Die.” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 22, 1886. a. warner&sort_col=relevance&highlightColor=yellow&color=&cnt=36&CurSearchNum=5&search_doc1=m. a. warner&submit.x=0&submit.y=0&page_name=&page_name=.

“A Girl Cowboy.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 2, 1887.

“A Naughty Girl.” The Minneapolis Tribune. August 15, 1887. 8705a70f68f8&zoom_factor=current&search_doc=lizzie&sort_col=relevance&highlightColor=yellow&color=&CurSearchNum=10&search_doc1=lizzie&submit.x=16&submit.y=7&page_name=&page_name=.

“A Tough Place Pulled.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 30, 1889.

“At the Workhouse.” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 24, 1890. prostitute&submit.x=14&submit.y=10&page_name=&page_name=.

Best, Joel. Controlling Vice: Regulating Brothel Prostitution in St. Paul, 1865-1883. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

“Bound for Stillwater.” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 8, 1890. prostitute&submit.x=8&submit.y=13&page_name=&page_name=.

“Brief Mention.” The Minneapolis Daily Tribune. August 23, 1884.

“Briefly Mentioned.” The Minneapolis Tribune. June 7, 1889.

“Conspicuous Imbecility.” The Minneapolis Tribune. May 2, 1889.

de Morsier, Emilie. “Vice Thrives in Paris.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 17, 1887.

“From the Police Station.” The Minneapolis Tribune, February 27, 1894.

Gall, Gregor. “Sex Worker Unions Are Reforming Their Industry.” The Conversation, May 12, 2016.

“Gave Her Freedom.” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 24, 1896. prostitute&submit.x=11&submit.y=8&page_name=&page_name=.

Healy, Frank, L. Lydiard, William H. Morse, and Henry N. Knott. Minneapolis City Charter and Ordinances. Court and Board Acts, Park Ordinances, Rules of City Council, Etc. Minneapolis, MN, 1905.

“He Was Not ‘Roasted.’” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 17, 1893.

“Inflation Rate between 1889-2019: Inflation Calculator.” CPI Inflation Calculator. Accessed October 22, 2019.

“In General.” The Minneapolis Tribune. June 9, 1889.

“In the Courts.” The Minneapolis Tribune, October 3, 1889.

“In the Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, November 24, 1889. prostitute&submit.x=7&submit.y=4&page_name=&page_name=.

“Lavis and His Wife.” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 6, 1894. prostitute&submit.x=4&submit.y=5&page_name=&page_name=.

Law, Victoria. Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Oakland: PM Press, 2012.

“Minneapolis Globelets.” St. Paul Daily Globe. August 23, 1884.

“Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe. April 30, 1886.

“Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe. December 19, 1886.

“Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 7, 1894. prostitute&submit.x=0&submit.y=0&page_name=&page_name=.

“Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 10, 1889. prostitute&submit.x=8&submit.y=4&page_name=&page_name=.

“Minneapolis Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 16, 1894.

“Monday in Police Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune. June 25, 1889.

“Municipal Courts.” The St. Paul Daily Globe. July 28, 1883.

“Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, July 10, 1889.

“Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 18, 1889.

“Municipal Court.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 23, 1889. brown&submit.x=20&submit.y=11&page_name=&page_name=.

“Municipal Court Briefs.” The Minneapolis Tribune, November 22, 1889.

Murray, William Pitt. The Municipal Code of Saint Paul: Comprising the Laws of the State of Minnesota Relating to the City of Saint Paul, and the Ordinances of the Common Council; Rev. to December 1, 1884, by W.P. Murray. St. Paul: Daily Globe, 1884.

“Notes About Town.” St. Paul Daily Globe. July 15, 1886.

“Oh Woman, Woman.” The Minneapolis Tribune, April 30, 1891.

“Out on Strike.” The Minneapolis Tribune. April 19, 1888.

“Police Court Notes.” The Minneapolis Tribune, July 13, 1889.

“Police Court Notes.” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 24, 1890. prostitute&submit.x=14&submit.y=10&page_name=&page_name=.

“Police Notes.” The Minneapolis Tribune. November 1, 1887. of ill repute&submit.x=5&submit.y=12&page_name=&page_name=.

Report of the Annual Convention. Vol. 10. Red Wing, MN: Red Wing Printing, 1886.

“The M’Kays Again.” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 25, 1896. prostitute&submit.x=6&submit.y=9&page_name=&page_name=.

“The Routine of the Council.” The Minneapolis Tribune. April 20, 1889.

“Truthful James.” The Minneapolis Tribune. December 19, 1886. of ill repute&submit.x=2&submit.y=9&page_name=&page_name=.


La gran revolución


Mural de José Clemente Orozco

De Duncan Riley



En la historia de México, desde la Independencia, se puede trazar una línea entre dos distintas tradiciones revolucionarias, la tradición popular y la tradición de élite. La primera siempre buscaba el mejoramiento de las condiciones sociales y autonomía para las masas de campesinos y trabajadores, mientras la segunda ha intentado a establecer un Estado fuerte y liberal para facilitar el desarrollo económico y defender los intereses de los propietarios. Más que una diferencia filosófica, el enfrentamiento entre estas dos corrientes es el conflicto entre dos tipos de revolución – la revolución social, que quiere la emancipación del pueblo trabajador y es el fruto propio de las aspiraciones populares, y la revolución política, que quiere reemplazar una forma de tiranía por otra. Hasta hoy, a través de los siglos, la última tradición siempre ha triunfado, pisoteando sobre la bandera de tierra y libertad que el pueblo llevó durante la Independencia, la Reforma, y la Revolución, entronando una nueva autoridad para oprimir y sangrar al mismo pueblo. Pero, todavía, la semilla de emancipación que plantaron las masas de campesinos en 1810 sigue viva, esperando el día que el pueblo la levante de la fosa, para que ella pueda florecer entre los vientos que lleven ese aliento de libertad al mundo.

La revolución de 1810 que empezó ese gran proceso fue, en su carácter, un levantamiento campesino. Después de tres siglos de opresión e injusticia bajo el yugo español, los campesinos se levantaron en armas para quitar el trono del virrey. Aunque al principio los campesinos mantenían que la revuelta fue en defensa de Fernando XII en contra de los invasores franceses, eso no significa que fue un movimiento conservador. Usualmente en la historia los campesinos han profesado su apoyo por un monarca distante porque ellos lo veían como un protector contra los opresores locales, como los terratenientes, los burócratas, y los “malos consejeros.” Eso es exactamente lo que pasó en 1810, cuando ese huracán de rabia popular caminaba sobre México. Las milicias de Hidalgo, Morelos, y Guerrero luchaban contra los “gachupínes” y los monopolios e impuestos que el Estado colonial impuso al pueblo. También, los insurgentes declararon la abolición de la esclavitud, las castas, y el tributo indígena. Entonces, los objetivos de los rebeldes eran no sólo liberar a México del dominio ibérico, pero también liberar a su pueblo de la explotación económica y la desigualdad social.

Además, como una respuesta al abuso del poder de las autoridades centrales durante la época colonial, los campesinos lucharon por la autodeterminación y la autonomía del poder municipal. Los campesinos tomaron por su modelo las cláusulas de la constitución liberal de Cádiz que establecieron municipalidades autónomas, principios que también conformaban con los antiguos ejidos de los pueblos indígenas. Por ello, los campesinos no sólo querían cambiar el Estado colonial por el Estado independiente, sino también crear su propia forma de poder revolucionario, en que el pueblo podía ejercitar control sobre sus propias comunidades y sus vidas cotidianas. Este espíritu ácrata que empujaba al pueblo hacia la autogestión y la abolición de las jerarquías sociales fue la fuerza motriz del movimiento popular por la independencia, un movimiento que conceptualizó de la independencia no sólo en el sentido nacional, sino en los niveles comunitarios e individuales también.

Pero ellos que últimamente dominaron el proceso de la Independencia fueron los revolucionarios políticos, encabezados inicialmente por Agustín de Iturbide. Estos revolucionarios, las monarquistas liberales y los republicanos, querían realizar la independencia y establecer un régimen constitucional, pero tocaron sólo superficialmente el problema social. Aunque debido a la fuerza del movimiento popular los gobiernos de Iturbide y más tarde de la república hubieron de conceder algunas reformas, como la abolición de las castas, el tributo, y algunos monopolios, en lo general, los hacendados y empresarios, incluso propietarios españoles en lugares como Morelos, seguían dominando la economía y el gobierno. Eventualmente, el golpe de Santa Anna en 1836 y las Siete Leyes Constitucionales, con su carácter centralista, revocaron la mayor parte de estas reformas, quitando las comunidades de su autonomía municipal y aumentando los impuestos a los campesinos. Como tal, a pesar de la victoria del movimiento independentista, las aspiraciones populares todavía se quedaron sin vindicación.

Pero esas aspiraciones no habían muerto, y los campesinos, jornaleros, y artesanos seguían luchando para alcanzarlas. Después de décadas de fuertes pugnas políticas e invasiones extranjeras en que el pueblo luchaba con bravura, la caída de Santa Anna en 1854 abrió el camino hacia la Reforma, la cual ofreció una nueva oportunidad para construir un poder popular. Aunque hoy muchos historiadores ven La Reforma como otro esfuerzo de restablecer el Estado mexicano siguiendo el modelo liberal de los Estados Unidos, de verdad el proceso fue más amplio y profundo que las leyes que promulgaron Juárez y Lerdo. La revolución de Ayutla que empezó la Reforma fue, como la Independencia, un levantamiento de los campesinos en contra de los abusos del gobierno, el centralismo, y las alucinaciones monarquistas de Santa Anna, y culminó con la entrada de campesinos descalzados a la ciudad de México. En Morelos, una coalición de menestrales y campesinos se alzaron en armas en contra de los hacendados españoles que habían usurpado los terrenos de las comunidades, y en todo el país los municipios reclamaron su libertad comunal. Por lo tanto, la Reforma, al principio, fue otro intento por parte de las fuerzas populares de conseguir su propia independencia.

También, con la Reforma se vio el comienzo del movimiento obrero en México, con la fundación de sociedades de ayuda mutua entre los artesanos. Estas sociedades, además de proveer socorro a los trabajadores durante los duros tiempos de los primeros pasos de la industrialización, se convirtieron rápidamente en un arma en contra de los opresores. Por ejemplo, en 1865 la primera huelga en la historia de México aconteció, cuando los trabajadores de dos fábricas textiles protestaron en contra de las malas condiciones y la ocupación francesa. Los campesinos no se tardaron en contribuir sus fuerzas a la causa de la revolución social, luchando tanto en contra de los hacendados como de los franceses. En 1869, un grupo de campesinos encabezado por Julio Chávez llevaron a cabo una campaña de expropiaciones, arrebatando la tierra de las manos de los aristócratas. Cuando el ejército federal aplastó el movimiento, Chávez murió gritando “¡Viva el socialismo!” (Por esta sección, he confiado en la obra escolástica excelente de Angel Cappelleti en Hechos y figuras del anarquismo hispanoamericano).

En el triste acontecimiento del ajusticiamiento de Chávez, volvemos a ver la influencia de los revolucionarios élites. Estos revolucionarios sí querían acabar con las dictaduras personales y establecer una democracia liberal, pero a ellos no les interesaba cambiar la base social y económica de la sociedad. Sordos a las reclamaciones del movimiento obrero-campesino cuando llegaron al poder, las élites creían que aquellas exigencias por tierra, libertad, e igualdad amenazaban el orden social, y buscaban fortalecer el estado para defenderlo. Inicialmente ellos no podían hacer mucho a causa de las grandes amenazas de reaccionarios domésticos e invasores extranjeros. Pero, después de la crisis, y especialmente con la toma del poder de Porfirio Díaz, poco a poco el Estado se expandía la autoridad, asfixiando las libertades conquistadas por el pueblo. Los municipios libres se reemplazaron con jefes políticos, se quitó la tierra de los campesinos para darla a los hacendados, y se dio formó a los rurales para reprimir cualquier expresión de disentimiento. El poder se quedó en las manos de los hacendados y empresarios.

Pero, un pueblo que había luchado tantos siglos por la libertad no podía soportar esta opresión por mucho tiempo. En 1906 en Cananea, los mineros se lanzaron a la huelga, y murieron resistiendo el imperialismo norteamericano y la dictadura. Cuatro años después, estalló la gran revolución de 1910, cuando los campesinos se apoderaron de las tierras y derrocaron a Díaz y Huerta. Los instintos creativos del pueblo trabajador destacaban en aquellos tiempos turbulentos, cuando los campesinos forjaban en sus comunidades una democracia revolucionaria más fuerte que cualquier parlamento, basada en los ejidos y ese inmortal principio, clavado en los corazones de campesinos y jornaleros en todo el mundo: “la tierra es de quien la trabaja.” Esa gran tormenta de libertad hizo a los poderosos temblar en sus palacios, y dio esperanza a las masas oprimidas.

En esta revolución es aún más clara la distinción entre los revolucionarios sociales y los revolucionarios políticos, Zapata y los campesinos luchando para repartir las tierras y defender la autonomía de los ejidos mientras que Carranza y Obregón luchaban para salvar el orden social y establecer una mera democracia liberal. Aunque claramente los Constitucionalistas concedieron algunas reformas sociales importantes con la constitución de 1917, como la reforma agraria, derechos laborales, y soberanía sobre los recursos naturales, un proceso muy similar a lo cual que ocurrió después de la Reforma sucedió, cuando, poco a poco, el gobierno del PRI se transformó en una nueva dictadura. El espíritu de la revolución sigue viviendo no en los pasillos de Chapultepec, sino en los corazones de los obreros, campesinos y estudiantes que seguían luchando, como en Tlatelolco, para hacer los sueños de tierra y libertad una realidad.

En los siglos que han pasado después de la independencia, el pueblo mexicano nunca ha cesado de luchar para hacer la libertad y la igualdad principios universales y amplios, y esa lucha ha empujado la historia más adelante. Esta es la gran revolución de que habló Ricardo Flores Magón, cuando escribió “Somos la plebe rebelde al yugo; somos la plebe de Espartaco, la plebe con que Munzer proclama la igualdad, la plebe que con Camilo Desmoulins aplasta la Bastilla, la plebe que con Hidalgo incendia Granaditas, somos la plebe que con Juárez sostiene la reforma.” En esta lucha, el pueblo, por su abnegación, coraje, y espíritu rebelde han hecho una gran contribución al progreso humano, rescatando la razón de las garras de la reacción y cultivando la semilla de la emancipación social. Aunque hasta hoy las intrigas de los poderosos han confinado esa semilla en el suelo, el volante de la historia sigue girando, y eventualmente se ha de acabar en la primavera.


The Bourgeois Homeland and the Universal Homeland


Emblem of the Mexican Liberal Party

By Ricardo Flores Magón

Translated by Duncan Riley

Originally given as a speech on the 19th of September, 1915, it was published in Regeneración 



Humanity finds itself in one of the most solemn moments of its history. In the Universe, nothing is stable: everything changes, and we find ourselves at a moment when a change in what is referred to as the way in which human beings organize themselves with regards to the entirety of the economic, political, social, moral, and religious institutions which constitute what is called the capitalist system, in other words the system of private or individual property, is at the point of being carried out.

The capitalist system dies, wounded by itself, and humanity, amazed, witnesses its formidable suicide. The workers are not those who have dragged the nations into throwing themselves upon each other: the bourgeoisie itself has provoked the conflict, in its eagerness to dominate the markets. The German bourgeoisie realized colossal advances in industry and commerce, and the English bourgeoisie felt jealous of its rival. That is what is at the bottom of this conflict called the European War, jealousies of money-grabbers, enmities of traffickers, quarrels of adventurers. In the fields of Europe, they do not litigate the honor of a people, race, or homeland, but rather what is disputed in this struggle of wild beasts are everyone’s wallets: they are hungry wolves that try to seize a prisoner. It is not about wounded national honor nor an offended flag, but rather it is a struggle for money, for the money that the people sweated for in the fields, in the factories, in the mines, in all places of exploitation, and that today they want the same exploited people to guard with their lives, keeping it in the pockets of those who robbed it.

What sarcasm! What bloody irony! The people are forced to work for a bread crust, the masters keeping the profit, and later the people are forced to destroy each other so that this guarantee is not snatched from the nails of their executioners. Protecting ourselves, the poor, that is good: that is our duty, that is the obligation that solidarity imposes on us. Protecting ourselves, one to another, helping each other, defending each other mutually, that is a necessity we must satisfy if we do not want to be destroyed by our lords; but to arm ourselves and throw ourselves at one another to defend the pockets of our masters is a crime of stupidity, it is a felony we must indignantly reject. To arms, yes, but against the enemies of our class, against the bourgeois, and if our arm has to cut off any head, let it be a rich head, if our dagger must stab any heart, let it be a bourgeois heart. But we the poor must not destroy one another.

In the fields of Europe, the poor destroy each other for the benefit of the rich, who make them believe that they fight for the benefit of the homeland. Well, what homeland to the poor have? He that counts with nothing more than his arms to win his sustenance, sustenance that he lacks if the cursed master does not desire to exploit him, what homeland does he have? The homeland should be something like a good mother that shelters all of her children equally. What refuge do the poor have in their respective homelands? None! The poor man is a slave in all countries, he is unfortunate in all homelands, he is martyr under all governments. Homelands do not give bread to the hungry, they do not console the sad, they do not wipe the sweat from the forehead of the worker surrendered to fatigue, they do not put themselves between the weak and the strong so that the latter does not abuse the former; but when the interests of the rich are in danger, they call on the poor to risk their lives for the homeland, for the homeland of the rich, for a homeland that is not ours, but rather belongs to our executioners.

Let us open our eyes, brothers in chains and exploitation; let us open our eyes to the light of reason. The homeland is for those who possess it, and the poor do not possess anything. The homeland is the loving mother of the rich and the stepmother of the poor. The homeland is a cop armed with a garrote, who kicks us to the depths of a dungeon or who puts the noose around our neck when we do not wish to obey the laws written by the rich for the benefit of the rich. The homeland is not our mother: it is our executioner!

And for defending that executioner, our brothers, the proletarians of Europe, snuff out each other’s existences. Imagine the space that more than 6,000,000 corpses would occupy; a mountain of corpses, rivers of blood and tears, that is what the European War has produced up until this very moment. And those dead are our class brothers, flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. They are workers who from their childhoods were taught to love the bourgeois homeland, so that, when the time came, they would be ready to kill for it. What of their homelands do these heroes own? Nothing! They possess nothing more than a pair of robust arms to secure their own and their family’s sustenance. Now the widows, the mourners of those workers, will have to die of hunger. The women will prostitute themselves to bring a piece of bread to their mouths, the children will rob to bring something to eat to their aging parents, the sick will go to the hospital and to the tomb. Brothel, prison, hospital, miserable death: there is the prize that the relatives of the heroes that die for their homeland will receive, while the rich and the rulers squander at parties the gold for which the people sweated in the factories, the workshops, and the mines. What a contrast! Sacrifice, pain, and tears for those that produce all, for the selfless creators of wealth. Pleasures and joys for the idle who are upon our shoulders. Let us shake ourselves, toss ourselves, and work so that the parasites that end our existence fall to our feet. Let us place our hands resolutely on the neck of our enemy. We are stronger than them. A revolutionary said this immense truth: “The tyrants seem large to us because we are on our knees; let us stand up!”

And so: as horrible as the foolish slaughter that turns the Old World into a slaughterhouse is, it has to produce immense benefits for humanity, and in place of resigning ourselves to sad reflections considering only the pain, tears, and blood, let us take heart, let us rejoice that such a disaster has taken place. The worldwide catastrophe that we contemplate is a necessary evil. The people, debased by bourgeois civilization, no longer remember that they had rights, and a great shake was needed to awake them to the reality of things. There are many who need pain to open their minds to reason. Poor treatment debases the poor-spirited and timid; but in the chest of an ashamed man it awakes feelings of dignity and noble pride that make him rebel. Hunger vanquishes the coward and turns him over on his knees to the bourgeois; but at the same time, it spurs the people to anger. Suffering can lead to resignation and patience, but it also can put the dagger, bomb, and revolver in the hands of the valiant man. And this is what will happen when this infamous war ends, or what will make it end. The great battles in the open fields will end with the barricade and the mutiny of the rebellious people, and national flags will vanish into air to make space for the red flag of the disinherited of the Earth.

As such the revolution that was born in Mexico, and that yet lives as a whip and punishment for those that exploit, those that trick and oppress humanity, will extend its redeeming flames over all the Earth, and in place of the heads of proletarians rolling over the soil, the heads of the rich, rulers, and priests will roll, and a single cry will rise up into space, escaped from the chest of millions and millions of human beings: Hurrah for Land and Freedom!

And for the first time the Sun will not be ashamed to send its glorious rays to this withered Earth, dignified by rebellion, and a new humanity, more just, more wise, will convert all of the homelands into a single homeland, grand, beautiful, and good: the homeland of all human beings; the homeland of man and woman, with a single flag: that of universal brotherhood.

Let us salute, comrades in hardships and ideals, the Mexican Revolution. Let us salute this epic of the peon made into a free man by rebelliousness, let us do our part, give our money, our energy, our goodwill, and if it is necessary sacrifice our well-being, our liberty, and even our lives so that that Revolution does not end in the rise of any man to power, but rather, continuing in its revendicating course, ends with the abolition of private property, and the death of the principle of authority, for as long as there are men that possess and men that have nothing, well-being and liberty will be a dream, they will continue existing as nothing more than a beautiful illusion never realized.

The Revolution should not be a method for the wicked to elevate themselves, but rather the righteous movement that deals death to misery and tyranny, things that do not die by electing governments, but rather by ending the so-called right of private property. This right is the cause of all the evils from which humanity suffers. It is not necessary to search for the origin of our evils in anything else, for because of private property there are governments and there are priests. The government is charged with ensuring that the poor do not rob the rich, and the priests have no other mission than to fill proletarian chests with patience, resignation, and the fear of God, so that they will never again think of rebelling against their tyrants and exploiters.

The Mexican Liberal Party – a revolutionary workers union – understands that liberty and well-being are impossible while capital, authority, and the clergy exist, and all its forces are directed at the death of these three monsters, or of this monster with three heads, and the fact that there is no stable government in Mexico, that a new tyranny is not made stronger, is owed to the efforts, consciousness-raising, and action of the members of this party. We do not want the rich, governments, or priests; we do not want idlers that exploit the strength of the workers; we do not want the bandits that sustain the law of those idlers, nor the wicked who in the name of any religion make out of the poor man a lamb to be devoured by the wolves without resistance or protest.

Those of you who would like to understand more deeply why the Mexican Liberal Party fights, you do not need to do anything but read the Manifesto of the 23rd of September of 1911, promulgated by the Organizing Board of the Party.

Just as the European War is a necessary evil, the Mexican revolution is a positive. There is blood, there are tears, there are sacrifices, it is true; but what great conquest has been obtained through parties and pleasures? Liberty is the greatest conquest that a dignified heart can desire, and liberty is only obtained sweeping away death, misery, and dungeons.

To think there is any other way to conquer liberty is to be lamentably incorrect.

Our liberty is in the hand of our oppressors: from there we cannot acquire it without struggle or sacrifice.

Forward! If in Europe they still fight for the homeland, that is, for the rich, in Mexico they fight for Land and Freedom! Forward! The moment is solemn. In Mexico the capitalist system is collapsing to the blows of the dignified plebe, and the clamors of the rich and the clergy arrive to Washington to disturb the brain of that poor plaything of the bourgeoisie called Woodrow Wilson, the dwarf president, the official of a one-act farce that, as an irony of destiny, has been called to be an actor in a tragedy that only characters of iron should take part in.

Forward! The remedy is within our reach. To end the capitalist system, we need do nothing more than lay our hands on the goods found in the claws of the rich and declare them the property of everyone, men and women. The man who risks his life to raise up a government, regardless of how much of a friend of the poor he professes to be, will never be as much a friend of the poor as of the rich, as now his mission is to keep vigil so that the law is respected, and the law orders that the right of private or individual property be respected. Why should you kill yourself for a government? Would it not be better and more concordant with reason to sacrifice yourself to abolish government, since the force that is necessary to overthrow one government and replace it with another is the same force necessary to tear from the hands of the rich the wealth they hold unlawfully?

Expropriation is the remedy, but it should be expropriation for the benefit of everyone and not of the few. Expropriation is the gold key that opens the doors of liberty, because the possession of wealth gives economic independence. He who does not need to rent his arms in order to live, he is free.

Forward! It is not possible to stop yourselves and be simple spectators of the formidable drama. Let everyone join with those of their class, the poor with the poor and the rich with the rich, so that everyone is with their own side and in position for the final battle: the battle of the poor against the rich; the oppressed against the oppressors, the hungry against the full, and when the smoke of the last volley has dissipated, and of the bourgeois edifice there does not remain a single stone upon rock, may the sun illuminate our ennobled foreheads, and the earth fill with pride to feel itself tread upon by men and not flocks.

Let us learn something of our brothers, the expropriator revolutionaries of Mexico. They have not hoped to raise up anyone to the Presidency of the Republic in order to begin an age of justice. Like men they have destroyed all that opposed their redemptive action. True revolutionaries have broken the law to pieces, the law, protector of injustice, the law, permissive of the strong. With a robust hand they have broken the bars of prisons into pieces, and with the bars have destroyed the skeleton of judges and pencil-pushers. They have caressed the necks of the bourgeois with the noose, and with a heroic gesture, never before witnessed throughout the centuries, they have put their hands over the land which palpitates emotionally at the sensation of being possessed by free men.

Forward! May in this solemn moment everyone complete their duty.

Long live anarchy! Long live the Mexican Liberal Party! Hurrah for Land and Liberty!

I do not want to be a tyrant


Drawing by Thea Gar

By Ricardo Flores Magón

Translated by Duncan Riley

Originally published in Regeneración, no date given


I do not fight for government posts. I have received insinuations from many maderistas of good faith, those that there are, and there are quite enough, asking me to accept a position in the so-called “provisional” government, and the position they ask me to accept is that of the Vice-president of the Republic.[1] Above all I must say that I loathe governments. I am firmly convinced that that there is not, and cannot be, a good government. All are bad, whether called absolute monarchies or constitutional republics. Government is tyranny because it restricts the free initiative of individuals and only serves to sustain a social state improper for the integral development of human beings. Governments are the guardians of the interests of the rich and educated classes, and the executioners of the holy rights of the proletariat. I do not want, as such, to be a tyrant. I am a revolutionary and I will be until I breath my last breath. I want to always be at the side of my brothers, the poor, to fight for them, not at the side of the rich nor the politicians, the oppressors of the poor. In the ranks of the working people I am more useful to humanity than seated on a throne, surrounded by lackeys and bad politicians. If the people one day had the dreadful whim to acclaim me as their ruler, I would tell them: “I was not born to be an executioner. Look for another.”

I fight for the economic freedom of the workers. My ideal is that man come to possess all that is necessary to live without having to depend on any master, and I believe, like all the Liberals of good faith believe, that the moment for all men of good will to take a step towards true liberty, seizing the land from the claws of the rich, including Madero, in order to give it to its legitimate owner, the working people, has arrived.[2] This achieved, the people will be free. But this will not be if Madero is elevated to the Presidency of the Republic, for neither Madero, nor any ruler, will dare to make a step of that nature, and if they did, the rich would rise up in arms and a new revolution would follow the present one. In this revolution, the one which we are contemplating and trying to foment, we must take the land from the rich.

Translator’s notes

[1] Maderistas were the followers of Francisco I. Madero, a liberal reformist who led the initial effort to depose the Porfirio Díaz regime in 1910.

[2] Liberals, here, refers to Magón’s “Mexican Liberal Party,” which by this time had adopted an anarcho-communist position.

La república federal y comunal


De Duncan Riley



El pueblo español estableció la segunda república por revolución pacífica el 14 de abril de 1931, causando un gran levantamiento en la esperanza popular. Pero, sólo pocos años después, la república había perdido el apoyo de la gran mayoría de las masas, lo que llevó a la victoria de la CEDA en las elecciones de 1933, el poder creciente de las fuerzas reaccionarias, y, en última instancia, el golpe contrarrevolucionario de 1936. Entonces, esta república, tan llena de contradicciones y divisiones, da un ejemplo claro de los diferentes y contradictorios proyectos históricos de la clase proletaria y el ala progresiva de la clase burguesa.

Los obreros españoles salieron a las calles el 14 de abril para derrocar a sus tres enemigos naturales. Una, la monarquía, que representaba la centralización del poder político en Madrid, y en las manos de la aristocracia. Otros, los patrones, que centralizaban todo el poder económico de la sociedad en sus propias manos. Y, tercera, la iglesia, que monopolizaba las escuelas y universidades, para negar al pueblo los frutos de la educación. En todos estos casos, la lucha proletaria es la lucha en contra del centralismo político y económico, un anatema a los obreros y campesinos. Para ellos, el centralismo representaba un poder ajeno y elitista, el poder de un capital distante y distinto sobre el pueblo familiar y querido. Entonces, el proyecto más asociado con el proletariado es el federalismo, no en el sentido burgués, mas en el sentido libertario, de la devolución del poder a las comunas y a los ciudadanos. Por lo tanto, esto, la construcción de una federación de comunidades autónomas es la misión histórica y emancipadora de la clase obrera.

Pero, aunque fueron los trabajadores de la ciudad y el campo los que sangraban en las calles para forjar la república, la burguesía progresista o “radical,” fue la beneficiaria de esta sangre derramada en pos de la libertad. En contraste con el proletariado, la burguesía radical no quiere cambiar la sociedad completamente, sino modernizar la sociedad y borrar las desigualdades más odiosas, con el último objetivo de conservar las instituciones políticas y económicas de la sociedad capitalista. Por ello, la burguesía radical quiere igualar la sociedad sin revolucionarla – una propuesta de pura fantasía. La burguesía radical siempre queda atrapada entre el deseo de los trabajadores por la emancipación completa, y el deseo de la burguesía reaccionaria de que nada cambie. Entonces, los radicales corren frenéticamente de un lado al otro, tratando de aplacar a los dos sin lograr nada en el campo de la libertad humana. De esta manera, los gobiernos supuestos de ser defensores de los pueblos humildes se convierten en los asesinos de Casas Viejas.

Por ello, sólo el esfuerzo dedicado y eficaz de un pueblo consciente de su sus derechos y deberes puede lograr la revolución social. Cuando la república trató de empezar su reforma agraria, falló contra la intransigencia de la aristocracia. Pero, cuando los campesinos se apoderaron de los campos, y formaron sus propias comunas autónomas rurales, eso empezó un cambio verdaderamente profundo en la sociedad. Los códigos laborales de los reformistas sólo trataban de reconciliar a los obreros y patrones, mientras que las ocupaciones de fábricas y el establecimiento de control obrero constituyó un golpe de muerte contra la clase propietaria. Como tal, son sólo los trabajadores quienes pueden abrir el camino hacia la verdadera democracia económica y política, la república federal y comunal.

El pueblo trabajador no lucha por partidos ni habladurías, lucha por ideales y la emancipación. En toda la historia de las revoluciones, en ningún caso los trabajadores han erigido las barricadas en defensa de los autoritarios o las jerarquías sociales. El pueblo lucha con ojos llenos de esperanza de un mundo sin tiranos ni patrones. Son los que se llaman una “vanguardia” que traicionan a los obreros y construyen la república de palabras vacías de significado, que perpetúa las fallas de centralismo y explotación. Entonces, las vanguardias no pueden construir la democracia, se aprende la democracia al lado del pueblo, que en su lucha crea una democracia más fuerte de cualquier parlamento.  

La democracia verdadera es, por consiguiente, federal en su carácter y espíritu. La “democracia” burguesa de la república le permitió mantener colonias en África, una afrenta a la libertad y la antítesis de respeto a la voluntad del pueblo. También, la república continuaba el proyecto histórico de la élite española de construir un estado fuerte y centralista, quitando el poder de los trabajadores y campesinos. La democracia federal se constituye en la devolución del poder a las comunas, sembrando el poder entre los vientos del pueblo. Por lo tanto, la autogestión, en la política y lo económico ambos, es la expresión más radical de los principios del poder popular. Por ello, el federalismo revolucionario y libertario busca la abolición de los estados, y la propagación de la democracia comunal, como la comuna de París. Esta es la única república que España necesitaba, y la república que el mundo necesita.