Of Saints and Caudillos: On Enrique Krauze | The Nation


Of Saints and Caudillos: On Enrique Krauze

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In 1974 a 27-year-old engineer named Enrique Krauze presented his doctoral dissertation at El Colegio de Mexico, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country. Its subsequent publication as Cultural Caudillos of the Mexican Revolution (1976) transformed its author into one of the most promising historians of his generation. As the years have passed, Krauze has become one of the few remaining Latin American intellectuals whose relationship to power has also been the subject of his work.

Ideas and Power in Latin America.
By Enrique Krauze.
Translated by Hank Heifetz and Natasha Wimmer.
Buy this book.

This essay was translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

About the Author

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In the introduction to his first book, Krauze wrote:

The following pages were written with the hope that they would comprise a collective biography. The original focus of my work had been quite different. At first I wished to examine the “question of intellectuals” in Mexico, take a close look at the role they have played in the country’s contemporary history; attempt to explain, as far as possible, why the Mexican intellectual has, for the most part, chosen to play the part of Plato in Syracuse rather than Socrates, the humble seeker of truth. I wished to examine cases in which the intellectual’s integration into the State had generated a moral tension, as has occurred with so many intellectuals throughout the history of the East and the West.

Krauze took the work in other directions, and ended up focusing on the careers of Manuel Gómez Morín and Vicente Lombardo Toledano, two men of ideas who were also men of action in postrevolutionary Mexico. (Morín founded the center-right Partido Acción Nacional; Toledano, the leftist Partido Popular, later the Partido Popular Socialista.) Yet the initial focus of Krauze’s work, the “question of intellectuals,” would remain one of his principal obsessions in the area of historical research as well as in his public career.

The young engineer was soon involved in Vuelta, the cosmopolitan literary magazine founded by Octavio Paz in 1976 and directed by him until his death in 1998. Among its many contributors were Carlos Fuentes, Susan Sontag, Leszek Kolakowski, Isaiah Berlin and Samuel Beckett. Krauze himself was first a contributor to Vuelta, and then its managing editor (1977–81) and deputy director (1981–96). He also founded the publishing house Clío in 1992 and a magazine of his own, Letras Libres, in 1999, and was soon an essayist and columnist widely published in Spain, Latin America and the United States, where The New Republic has been the main venue for translations of his work. Today he is, without a doubt, one of the most renowned and important intellectuals in Mexico.

Krauze has written more than a dozen books of popular history and political criticism, produced numerous television documentaries, become embroiled in countless polemics, addressed all the urgent issues facing Mexico and the world and, without ever holding public office—a circumstance that distinguishes him from his predecessors—exercised a considerable influence on Mexican public life. This last is because of his close relationships with a wide range of politicians, including the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

In the thirty-five years since the publication of Cultural Caudillos of the Mexican Revolution, Krauze has repeated in many of his texts two words from that book’s title. The first—caudillos, or strongmen—is used almost always with disdain and as a warning, and the second—cultural, signifying the world of ideas—with enthusiasm and a decent dose of admiration. Krauze sees the polarity between the two as a constant in Latin America, one from which even he has been unable to escape.

Krauze’s most recent book, Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America, closes the forceps opened by Cultural Caudillos. Whereas in that first book he focused on just two Mexican political-intellectuals, he has now, almost four decades later, turned his gaze upon politicians and intellectuals across all of Latin America. At the risk of making a pedestrian psychoanalytic judgment, I’d say this consistency has a clear autobiographical underpinning: Krauze’s interest in these “redeemers” reflects his own attempts to transform Mexican society—dominated as it is by authoritarian tendencies, official corporatism and the remnants of a poorly integrated socialism—through his faith in democratic “liberalism.” Contrary to its meaning in the United States, the term “liberalism” is linked in Latin America to the nineteenth-century tradition of “classical liberalism,” inspired by people like Adam Smith or, in Mexico, Benito Juárez. Like Mario Vargas Llosa and, to a certain extent, Paz, Krauze sees “liberalism” as more than a collection of political ideas; instead, it is a passion and a sword. For Krauze it is the perfect tool for transforming Latin America into a prosperous and modern region.

Throughout all these years, Krauze the Historian has deplored caudillismo—“the concentration of power into the hands of a single man”—in a thousand different ways, while Krauze the Intellectual has practiced it in the cultural arena. Be that as it may, his books do not gloss over this “moral tension”: despite the slightly disdainful nuance of the title, Redeemers goes beyond a critique of the messianic detours taken by Latin American intellectuals and attempts to understand them, from the inside out.

Krauze could be considered a “cultural caudillo” of the Mexican transition to democracy. He is an omnipresent figure in the intellectual life of Mexico, one whose enormous symbolic power has undoubtedly helped shape the country since the end of seventy years of PRI hegemony in 2000. Although he would probably prefer to be seen otherwise, he has never behaved like Socrates, the “humble seeker of truth,” but rather like Plato in Syracuse, knowing how to defend, whether in the open space of the public sphere or behind closed doors, the best ideas of classical liberalism in Mexico.

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