‘My Very Modest Utopia’: A Visit with Enrique Krauze, Part I

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Editor’s Note: In two parts, we will publish an expansion of a piece we have in the current issue of National Review. Today’s installment deals primarily with Enrique Krauze’s work, background, and influences. Tomorrow’s will deal primarily with current politics, in Mexico and elsewhere.

For many years, Enrique Krauze had a dream for Mexico: that the country have “real elections, a free press, separation of powers, and the rule of law.” This was “my very modest utopia,” he says — “and this very modest utopia came to life in the year 1997.”

In that year, there were free and fair elections, supervised by an independent body. These elections broke the monopolistic power of the PRI — whose initials stand for “Partido Revolucionario Institucional.” We are talking about the party that ruled Mexico for some 70 years.

For about 20 years, Krauze’s “very modest utopia” held, although with the usual problems that beset Mexico, and some other ones to boot. But then, a master populist — Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a.k.a. AMLO — was elected president. And Krauze fears that Mexican democracy will be lost for generations to come.

He is one of the leading intellectuals in the country, and in great Latin America at large. He is a historian, an essayist, an editor, a TV producer, and more. I have come to see him at his home in Mexico City. It strikes me as a writer’s paradise, this home, with books, desks, paintings, objets d’art, and lots of natural light. If a writer can’t get work done here, I think, he can’t get it done anywhere.

Krauze has a lot of work to do. He runs Letras Libres, the magazine he founded in 1999. (It is a literary-intellectual journal.) He runs Clío, the company he founded in 1992. It produces documentaries about Mexican history, and publishes books about the same. (You remember from Greek mythology that Clio is the muse of history.) He writes a biweekly column. And he writes his books and essays. “I have always combined many tasks in my life,” he says. “If you take life seriously, you can do that.”

I can’t help thinking of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, who kept up a range of activities, with energy and aplomb.

Krauze tends to do most of his writing on the weekend, particularly at his home in Cuernavaca, some 55 miles from Mexico City. He cites Philippe Ariès, a French historian of the 20th century. Ariès wrote a memoir called “Un historien du dimanche”: “A Sunday Historian.” Krauze allows Saturday too. And when it is time to draft a book, he puts everything else on hold — trusting those tasks to his colleagues — until the draft is complete.

In an aside, Krauze tells me this, about Cuernavaca: “It is a beautiful place, known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring.’” Humboldt gave it that name in the 19th century. “Now it is hellish, because of the violence we have through all Mexico — but that is another subject.”

He was born in 1947, here in Mexico City. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. With other family members, they came here in the 1930s. From where we are sitting, looking through the window, we can see the building where Krauze’s great-grandparents lived. The neighborhood is called “Hipódromo.”

His father, Moisés, started a printing business. His mother, Helen, was a journalist. (She is in her mid 90s today and still active.) To one another, the extended family tended to speak Yiddish.

Enrique speaks good English, by the way. He protests that he is “not fluent,” but he is more fluent than a good many native English-speakers. He never had formal instruction, he says. He learned the language mainly from reading — that and “listening to music, from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles.” In the early 1980s, he was a visiting professor at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford.

Well before that — from the age of four until he was sixteen — he attended a Jewish school (a secular one, not a religious one).

I ask him about anti-Semitism, starting with anti-Semitism in Latin America at large. You don’t hear much about it, or at least I don’t. In virtually every other region of the world — yes. “Borges used to say that Argentinian anti-Semitism was a facsimile of the real one,” Krauze tells me. (Jorge Luis Borges, you remember, was the great Argentinian writer.) “The real anti-Semitism was European.”

Personally, Krauze has not experienced much anti-Semitism in his life. In the past, there have been attacks from the far Right, and now, he says, there are attacks from the far Left, especially in the social media. This is because he is a critic of populism, he says. His defamers make the usual accusations. But “I can say confidently, at the age of 72, and after an intellectual career of 50 years, that I have never had major problems as a Mexican Jew.”

Krauze earned an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and a doctorate in history. He worked in his father’s printing business for a couple of decades. All the while, he was writing. Then he became a full-time writer and “cultural entrepreneur,” to borrow his phrase.

By some Americans, he is thought of as a conservative, because he has stood for democracy against dictatorships, not only of the Right but also of the Left. (Few are those who are consistent in this regard.) By some Mexicans, he is tagged as a conservative — even a reactionary — because he opposes the Left populism of López Obrador (and Right populism elsewhere). Strictly speaking, however, he is a liberal, he says — a liberal “in the classical sense.” He is an admirer of George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin, to name four.

When he mentions Berlin, I think of Charles Krauthammer — who told me about his intellectual development. (His own, I should make clear.) When he was a young man, Krauthammer read Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, and thought, That’s what I believe. He never wavered from it. When Berlin died in 1997, Krauthammer paid tribute to him in a beautiful column, hailing the Four Essays in particular.

Krauze got to know Berlin in Oxford. Once, he asked Berlin how the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded. Lenin, Berlin said. If not for Lenin, that revolution would not have been pulled off. That is a powerful statement about the effect one man can have, for good or ill. Krauze tells me, “The only dogma I have in my life is this: Total power concentrated in one man leads to disaster and doom. If we didn’t learn that from the 20th century — Mao and the rest — we didn’t learn anything.”

Early in his career, Krauze had a mentor, an “intellectual grandfather,” he says. That was Daniel Cosío Villegas, who lived from 1898 to 1976. He was a Mexican economist, historian, and diplomat. He was also “a builder of institutions,” as Krauze says. Most significantly, he founded a prestigious publishing house, the Fondo de Cultura Económica. In his politics, Cosío Villegas was “a pure liberal,” says Krauze — a liberal in the classical sense. “He believed in human freedom. He was not an anarchist, mind you. He believed in freedom within the framework of a republic, within the framework of institutions.”

Krauze says that he has tried to model his life on Cosío Villegas’s. No one would say he has not succeeded. Krauze himself says simply this: “You feel you are building a culture, and that you have a responsibility to the country.” He continues, “I have devoted my life to Mexico, out of love — and out of thankfulness, to a country that opened its hearts to my family, Jews who came from Europe.” (They could not get into the United States, Krauze says, owing to a quota.)

If Daniel Cosío Villegas was his “grandfather,” Octavio Paz was his “father,” intellectually. Paz was another all-purpose writer and intellectual, who also served as a diplomat. “Octavio Paz is, and always will be, the towering intellectual figure in Mexico,” says Krauze. “His books, his essays, his interpretation of the Mexican soul, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, his poems . . .” All of these things add up to a singular achievement, says Krauze.

“He came from the very far left,” Krauze says of Paz. “I didn’t come from the very far left, but I did come from the left in the 1960s.” They both arrived at liberalism (again, classically understood.) Paz was shocked by revelations about the Soviet Union. And then he was “very much like the New York intellectuals, such as Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol. These were his contemporaries, and many of them were his friends.”

In the early 1970s, Krauze started to contribute to Paz’s magazine, Plural. (There’s an essential liberal word, right?) He met Paz, face to face, for the first time at Cosío Villegas’s funeral. “I glimpsed him behind the trees,” says Krauze. “He was very discreet.”

Not long after that, Paz started another magazine, another literary-intellectual journal: Vuelta (indicating a return, a going back to the basics, or fundamentals, or origins). At Vuelta, Krauze worked alongside Paz for almost 20 years.

Octavio Paz is probably best known for his poetry. It is for this, primarily, that he won the Nobel prize in 1990. But Krauze thinks he was actually best as a cultural essayist.

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