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.

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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In his essay “Four Seasons of Mexican Culture” (1981), Krauze picks up the thread of an old generational argument, deeply entrenched in the Hispanic tradition since José Ortega y Gasset, to offer a family portrait of several generations of Mexican intellectuals since the beginning of the twentieth century. A synthesis of his predecessors, the text can also be read as an impassioned defense of Krauze’s own intellectual genealogy.

According to Krauze, the members of the first generation of the twentieth century, known as the Generation of ‘15 (which he discussed in Cultural Caudillos), were defined by having observed but not participated in the armed movement that brought about the defeat of President Porfirio Díaz. Those “active, organized, rational, practical, inquisitive, and realistic men” awaken in Krauze nostalgic admiration of their long-lost public-spirited actions.

Then came the Generation of ‘29, defined by the ill-fated presidential candidacy of José Vasconcelos—one of the main characters of Redeemers—and the establishment of the authoritarian Partido Nacional Revolucionario (forerunner to the PRI) as the predominant party in Mexico. With time, many members of this group became “organic intellectuals,” ones who, while not directly serving the revolutionary state, worked to legitimize it. Their sin, according to Krauze, was their optimism: they believed that the will to implement reforms would alone compel the PRI to turn its back on its authoritarian lineage and become a democratic party. Two of Krauze’s intellectual heroes belonged to these generations (even if the relationship between the two men was quite complex): the historian Daniel Cosío Villegas and the poet Octavio Paz.

The so-called Generation of Midcentury, on the other hand, started off with a deep distrust of the Mexican revolutionary model, with its nationalistic constraints and restrictions on freedom of expression. Although its members were irreverent and harsh, they invariably found a place for themselves in the public institutions created by their forebears. Krauze acknowledges this generation’s desire to overturn rusty revolutionary principles, but he deplores its leftist tendencies, its flirtations with Cuba and its indulgence of the PRI. It’s no accident that its most famous member, Carlos Fuentes, was the object of Krauze’s most merciless attack, which when published in Vuelta in 1988 ended four decades of friendship between the novelist and the magazine’s director, Paz.

Finally, Krauze discusses the generation he belongs to but barely identifies with: the Generation of ‘68. Its appetite for revolutionary militancy, the counterculture, sexual and artistic experimentation and drugs was quite opposed to the temperament of the scrupulous engineer who had buried himself in explorations of the past. With time, Krauze’s distance from his contemporaries only increased: in the 1970s, while some of them were listening to protest music and worshiping Che or Ho Chi Minh, Krauze was already moving toward the very “liberalism” that his ideological rivals of the time, such as Carlos Monsiváis and the historian and novelist Héctor Aguilar Camín, considered to be a capitulation to the right.

At the end of “Four Seasons,” Krauze summarizes his skepticism regarding the ideas and loyalties of his contemporaries:

Under it all lies a deep resentment. If that libertarian spirit of solidarity from the student movement had prevailed, this generation would now be combining elements from previous generations with its own negativity and constructing new, viable, and better alternatives for Mexico. But what has prevailed is Tlatelolco. The Generation of ‘68 has to even up the score, hence its destructive nature.

Krauze’s choice of mentors is clear: the men of the generations of 1915 and 1929. He sees himself like those of the first, as “active, organized, rational, practical, inquisitive, and realistic,” and deeply misunderstood in his own lifetime. And like Paz or Cosío Villegas, he defends the critical spirit as the only way to maintain distance from the dogmas of one’s era. Krauze rejects the Generation of Midcentury. Although he admires their aesthetic risk-taking and struggle against nationalism, he despises their ethical ambiguity toward the PRI. Nor does he treat his contemporaries from the Generation of ‘68 any better: the student movement, in his opinion, managed only to undermine the institutions created by previous generations (Krauze frequently criticizes his alma mater, the “massified” Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México); caught in the stranglehold of Marxist ideology, they never managed to become authentic champions of democratic change.

Krauze chose a different path. After a brief flirtation with socialism, shared by his friend of those years, Héctor Aguilar Camín, Krauze turned toward Cosío Villegas’s “liberalism.” Unlike that of Paz or Vargas Llosa, Krauze’s experience of socialism was brief (like a flu). Perhaps this is why his tone carries neither the fury nor the doubts of the convert but rather the authority of someone who believes he has always been right.

In the 1980s, when he was deeply involved in running Vuelta, Krauze sealed a tactical alliance with Paz, who, after following a very different trajectory, slowly began to sympathize with the “liberal” ideas of his young disciple (even if, as Krauze points out with some dismay in Redeemers, at the end of his life the poet once again felt drawn to the socialism of his youth).

Krauze is a rara avis within the panorama of Mexico’s intelligentsia: a Jew among a Catholic, or brutally anti-clerical, majority; “liberal” among mostly leftists; a stranger to academia and public office in a country where the majority makes its living from one or the other; a businessman in a cultural environment dominated by state sponsorship. But his voluntarily marginal position was compensated for in two ways: by the explicit support of Paz, the most powerful intellectual figure in Mexico during the last third of the twentieth century, and by Krauze’s ability to gather around him a group that subscribed to his “liberal” ideas—which some would call rightist—in a country where the liberal tradition had been practically wiped out by the revolutionary regime.

Krauze’s contradictions are not those of his contemporaries or his masters. Although he was immune to the Marxist virus, his ideological consistency is admirable. Yet his books, especially Redeemers, exhibit an intense fascination with people who burned with the passionate intensities of the twentieth century. In his political essays—starting with Por una democracia sin adjetivos (For a Democracy Without Adjectives), published in 1984—Krauze set himself the task of fighting this trend, whereas in his historical work he shows a certain approval bordering on admiration of men with impetuous and dyspeptic temperaments, so different from his own, such as José Martí, José Vasconcelos, José Carlos Mariátegui and even Paz. Perhaps this explains why his portraits of them are the most brilliant ones in Redeemers. It almost doesn’t matter that he then starts throwing darts at Che, Evita Perón, Subcomandante Marcos and even Hugo Chávez. After all, they are simply politicians: men, and one woman, with ideas, not of ideas, to use his rather tortured formulation.

Once again in the company of Aguilar Camín, the editor of Nexos, Krauze has become one of the last surviving members of his species. If someone were to write a sequel to “Four Seasons of Mexican Culture,” they would discover that contemporary writers are behaving quite differently. The traditional path to achieving recognition—by founding a magazine, forming an ideologically coherent group, being on good terms with various power players, publishing articles about current events and appearing frequently in the media—has become impractical and even irrelevant for the generations of 1985 and 2000. That Krauze’s Letras Libres and Aguilar Camín’s Nexos are currently the only journals of record in Mexico is the best proof of this change; nobody younger has founded a print or electronic publication that’s even remotely equivalent.

Starting with the transition to democracy in 2000, the Mexican cultural world began to break apart and lose the influence it enjoyed under the PRI. The job of political commentary has passed from intellectuals to political scientists and pundits, and the privilege of creating literary prestige has moved from magazines to blogs and social media networks. Within this chaotic and unstable scenario, Krauze and Aguilar Camín—and maybe one or two others—are survivors, living witnesses to an era in which intellectuals tried to be men of ideas as well as men of action. Redeemers is a lucid and moving homage—a swan song—to that tradition by one of its last protagonists.

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Formally, Redeemers has six parts, but it can be divided into three separate sections that don’t necessarily follow a chronological scheme. First come the prophets, the “four Josés”: Martí, Rodó, Vasconcelos and Mariátegui. Then comes the longest essay in the book, a meditation on Octavio Paz. And finally, Krauze plays with a series of “parallel lives”: Evita Perón and Che Guevara, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Samuel Ruiz (the former bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas) and Subcomandante Marcos. In a final chapter, Krauze offers a parting shot at Hugo Chávez, who “is trying to turn the history of his country into his personal biography.”

One can regret the absence of certain writers and politicians, such as Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; or question the wisdom of making Bishop Ruiz the counterpart to Marcos instead of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who would have provided a better contrast. Krauze’s intention, however, is to offer not a complete panorama but rather a collection of biographical sketches that allow him to analyze the longstanding conflict between “letters” and “arms” in twentieth-century Latin America.

Some reviewers have criticized Krauze for being a popularizer of history rather than a historian. They are wrong: though it’s true that Krauze is not an academic and his strength is not archival research, the interpretation of history is also history, and Krauze is the most rigorous and profound of its practitioners. He also has a first-rate instinct for storytelling that grabs the reader from the very first page. Over the years he has shaken off certain rhetorical tics he inherited from Paz—the dualities, the declarative emphasis—and developed a prose style of expressive clarity and metaphoric restraint that has enormous impact. His books read like novels: the greatest possible achievement for a historian of ideas.

Redeemers, like some of Krauze’s other books—the series Biografía del poder (Biography of Power; 1987), Siglo de caudillos (A Century of Caudillos; 1994) and La presidencia imperial (The Imperial Presidency; 1997)—is not intended as a collection of biographies in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, laden with footnotes and offering an exhaustive review of the literature. It takes a different approach—portraiture—and Krauze is better at it than anybody else in Mexico. Moreover, each portrait constitutes a chapter in the history of ideas. Few writers have his ability to synthesize and interpret the life and opinions of a person in a few pages.

The first part of Redeemers is arguably the most solid: its movement from Martí to Rodó, from Rodó to Vasconcelos and from Vasconcelos to Mariátegui plays out like a family saga. For Krauze, Martí initiates—a bit in spite of himself—Latin America’s revolutionary path: he is the patriarch who will set in motion the mechanism that will, tragically, lead to Fidel Castro. Describing Martí’s years in Cuba and his exile in New York City, Krauze re-creates the breeding ground for all subsequent liberation struggles. When Martí abandons letters and takes up arms, he is allowing himself to be swept up in the whirlwind that will ultimately destroy him. His death, by the hand of a peasant working for the Spanish, seems more horrifying than heroic and establishes the pattern for other immolations, such as Che’s.

Krauze reaches a harsh conclusion: men of ideas who aspire to become men of action betray their ideas and fail in their action. This is what happens, in varying ways, to Rodó (a Uruguayan essayist who became an irrelevant parliamentarian), Vasconcelos (a minister of education betrayed by the Mexican Revolution he served, then consumed by a resentment that pushed him toward Nazism) and Mariátegui (a Peruvian Marxist journalist devastated by illness and his comrades’ dogmatism). As in an old-fashioned melodrama, the four Josés constitute a dysfunctional family, and like some kind of curse, the legacy that the patriarch left his descendants, the revolutionary idea, ends up destroying them.

This section of Redeemers also traces the evolution of an idea that comes to permeate Latin American history: the need to find a distinctive mark, a particular raison d’être. The virus of “identity” also passes from father to son, along a path that leads from Rodó’s Ariel to Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, Vasconcelos’s La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race) and Mariátegui’s Siete ensayos de interpretación sobre la realidad peruana (Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality). Krauze observes this tendency from a distance and with a note of commiseration. So many pages written, only to reach Paz’s final conclusion: Latin America has no essence; all it has is a history.

It is to Paz whom Krauze dedicates the longest and most important essay in the book. Even if we count a few splendid approximations, such as Poeta con paisaje: ensayos sobre la vida de Octavio Paz (A Poet With Landscape: Essays on the Life of Octavio Paz; 2004), by Guillermo Sheridan, there is no definitive biography of the writer. (Enrico Mario Santí, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, has been working on one for a while.) In this sense, Krauze’s “The Poet and the Revolution” is an important contribution to the portrayal, still inevitably fragmentary, of the author of Piedra de sol (Sun Stone). Krauze clearly and subtly takes apart the poet’s “itinerary”—a term never used more aptly than in the title of Paz’s intellectual autobiography, published in 1994—linking anecdotes through a compact analysis of his essays and essential poems. In addition to Krauze’s well-known admiration for his old boss and mentor, for the first time he marks out a clear distance from him. A homage? Yes. But also a settling of accounts.

At first glance, the essay might appear to be an objective and precise description of Paz’s intellectual trajectory, from the socialism of his youth to his democratic and anti-authoritarian (though never sufficiently “liberal”) positions, but Paz’s story is told through a distorting prism. Krauze, as a skillful spinner of family yarns, would have liked to frame the poet’s career in a symbolic arc that begins with the “liberalism” of his grandfather, Don Ireneo Paz (a supporter of Porfirio Díaz); passes through the socialist detours of his father, Octavio Paz Solórzano (a critic of the Díaz regime and supporter of Emiliano Zapata); and ends, after many doubts and backsliding, with the short-lived “liberalism” of the poet himself, Octavio Paz Lozano (who always behaved more like a social-democratic liberal than a classical liberal). Therein resides Krauze’s discomfort at calling Paz a “son of the Revolution” and his exasperation with Paz’s sympathy with the rise of Subcomandante Marcos.

Paz’s path, however, is defined not by his slow and erratic discovery of “liberalism” but rather by his fierce struggle—sometimes silent and sometimes brutal—against the authoritarian brand of the socialism he believed in. Paz felt himself heir to his father’s socialism rather than his grandfather’s “liberalism.” Both impassioned and fraught, his was the lonely battle of a man who always believed that individual freedom required solidarity, and who was always ready to cross swords with anyone who wanted to constrain the one with the other.

The socialist sympathies of Paz in his youth and Paz in his later years were not adolescent mistakes or doddering blunders but rather the essential elements of his political creed. If Paz felt isolated and unjustly treated after breaking with Stalinism during the cold war, it was because his leftist comrades never understood his position. For years they identified him as a “liberal” and then as a right-winger (in 1984 demonstrators burned his effigy, comparing him to Reagan); they didn’t understand that Paz was attempting to fit the fraternal spirit of socialism into a democratic framework.

Krauze, who knew Paz intimately, never participated in this misunderstanding. Here, for the first time, he expresses his discomfort with the positions taken by a writer who, despite his resistance to becoming a “liberal,” never tired of lashing out at the left for its dogmatism and lack of critical freedom. Perhaps Krauze’s interpretation finally sees Paz for who he was, which is something his enemies have long denied him: a combative and unrepentant social-democrat who always scorned the coldness and lack of community implicit in the laissez-faire of classical liberalism as well as the totalitarian propensities of his former comrades on the left.

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The “parallel lives” that constitute the final third of Redeemers most explicitly reflect Krauze’s ideas. The first pair—Evita Perón and Che Guevara—turn out to be as “interesting” as they are repulsive. Eva’s family’s poverty and Guevara’s illness (he suffered from asthma) produced equally authoritarian and egotistical personalities, though in different ways. With her naïveté and propensity to melodrama—Krauze is right when he compares her Hollywoodesque histrionics to Fidel’s—Eva embodied one of the worst forms of populism, one that would later become endemic in the region. Ernesto Guevara, for his part, represents for Krauze the quintessence of the Catholic vein, which he claims runs through and dominates all the book’s figures in one way or another. Lay saint par excellence, Krauze’s Che turns out to be just as brutal as the medieval inquisitors, possessed by the same reductionist and abstract faith.

The next “couple” are more problematic: García Márquez versus Vargas Llosa, the Dionysian novelist against the Apollonian one; again: Plato against Socrates. The essay dedicated to Márquez, “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” is not a biographical sketch like the others but rather a bitter diatribe that repeats the argument of Krauze’s 1988 Vuelta essay “The Mexican Comedy of Carlos Fuentes.” As he did with Fuentes, Krauze tries to make an ethical judgment against the Colombian novelist through a reading of his literary work. Published in Letras Libres as a review of Gerald Martin’s 2008 biography of García Márquez, the essay makes explicit Krauze’s revulsion toward the novelist who, despite his greatness, has been a longtime friend of Fidel’s. Unfortunately, Krauze’s pretense of moral superiority casts a shadow over his intuition as a literary and historical critic. The essay’s conclusion is either too naïve or too malicious—and in both cases, irrelevant: “it would be an act of poetic justice if, in the autumn of his life and at the zenith of his glory, he disassociated himself from Fidel Castro and put his influence at the service of the Cuban dissidents. There is no point in hoping for such a transformation, of course. It is the kind of thing that happens only in García Márquez novels.”

Vargas Llosa, a friend of Krauze’s, stands at the other extreme of that ethic. Krauze explores the ideological transformation of the author of The Feast of the Goat, but this time the conclusions his subject reaches coincide with his own. By the end, however, the text veers toward apologia and a sanctification of Vargas Llosa as the only democratic conscience on the entire continent. These “parallel lives,” drawn in Manichaean opposition between a hero and a villain, tarnish the critical balance achieved in other parts of the book.

The essays dedicated to Subcomandante Marcos and Samuel Ruiz—the two faces of the Zapatista struggle, which began in 1994—are more interesting. As Krauze draws them, these two lives are not parallel but rather constantly crisscrossing in their wrenching defense of the indigenous population of Chiapas. Through them, he demonstrates, from opposite extremes, his principle thesis: the omnipresence of Catholicism in Mexico and Latin America, whether in its ecclesiastical (Ruiz’s preferred option for the poor) or its revolutionary (Marcos’s messianism) aspect.

The appendix devoted to Hugo Chávez—who doesn’t merit being contrasted with anybody else—sums up the ideas Krauze expressed in his 2008 book, El poder y el delirio (Power and Delirium). Krauze asserts that Chávez is “a postmodern mélange of redemptive ideologies, theories of heroism and Caribbean authoritarianism, without a trace of liberal or democratic conviction.”

In a brief conclusion, Krauze affirms that the greatest problems in Latin America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—the persistent mistake of its men of ideas and its men of action—have been disregard for the brief “liberal” tradition of the nineteenth century and nostalgia for colonial-era Catholicism and the monarchy. Many of the figures in the book, with the notable exception of the “second,” or liberal, Vargas Llosa, share this tendency. Krauze finds it almost incomprehensible that men as brilliant as they would allow themselves to be infected by this strange atavism.

Krauze strongly defends his point: if, instead of being blinded by the authoritarianism associated with the scepter and the cross, our intellectuals had rallied behind the basic tenets of “liberalism,” the countries of Latin America would not have wasted so much time achieving democracy. Krauze concedes that “liberalism” alone, despite its triumph in almost every Latin American nation during the nineteenth century, was not capable of lifting the region. On the other hand, he has difficulty recognizing that a democratic tradition always existed within socialism, and although that tradition may not have been predominant during most of socialism’s history, it certainly has become paramount today for the left in Europe and in most of Latin America.

Of all the characters in Redeemers, Krauze ends up identifying unequivocally with only one: Vargas Llosa. The Mexican historian considers the Peruvian novelist to be the only figure worthy of unalloyed admiration because of his ability to completely reject the authoritarian convictions of his youth and embrace, with the greatest possible energy, the “liberal” model. But Vargas Llosa, deep down, has never changed. When the author of La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero; 1962) was on the left, he clung to a pristine faith in Marxist orthodoxy; it is that same unbreakable faith that characterizes his “liberal” conversion. Krauze does not explore how Vargas Llosa’s fiery defense of liberal doctrine as the only solution to all regional problems partakes of the redemptive tendencies of his leftist past. It is not enough, it seems, to change one’s beliefs: in order to be truly “redeemed from the redeemers,” one must always be willing to criticize and doubt one’s own convictions. As Krauze demonstrates in the best pages of his book, that was Paz’s greatest wager.