Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920

Part one of a three-part series

THE MEXICAN Revolution, even after a hundred years, remains an important reference point in Mexican politics. The centennial celebrations in Mexico this year—coinciding with the bicentennial of Mexico’s War of Independence—will, as in years past, present the official, congratulatory story: that what was fought for in the revolution was triumphantly achieved by the governments that followed it. Also celebrated will be the revolution’s principal leaders: men like Francisco Madero, the idealistic scion of a landowning family, whose call for democracy in Mexico sparked a wider revolt; Emiliano Zapata, the radical agrarian leader who mobilized villagers in the state of Morelos and beyond; Pancho Villa, the audacious ex-bandit and popular chieftain from Chihuahua; Venustiano Carranza, the aristocratic state governor turned rebel; and Álvaro Obregón, the brilliant military and political strategist, who in 1920 assumed the presidency after ten years of conflict and popular upheaval.

Yet there are those who argue that all this is something best forgotten. Such is the view of historian Roger Bartra, who contends that Mexicans should “bury the Revolution” and recognize that it is “something of the past.” Revolutions are, in his view, “tragic circumstances” and ones that “should not be turned into a source of constant agitation.” The revolution’s principal legacy, in his view, was an authoritarian regime: the one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its predecessors, which dominated politics for much of the twentieth century in Mexico. The revolution, moreover, “has become a conservative idea,” Bartra claims, in large part because of how its image was used to justify successive PRI governments over the course of decades.

For many on the political left, however, the revolution and its legacy is not something that should be forgotten or buried. It should be remembered and understood, albeit freed from the a sanitized official story serving as a political prop for governments hostile to so many of its ideals. Rather, what we ought to remember is the history of mass popular revolt and the demands for social transformation that arose between 1910 and 1920. For radicals, this legacy points to the political possibilities, and change, that are created by struggle. In addition, the legacy of the revolution points to the ways in which these political possibilities can be undermined by their opponents. The purpose of this article, then, is to discuss what was achieved with the struggles of the revolution, but also why so many of the possibilities contained within it were left unrealized. To do so will require taking a close look at the course of the revolution itself. To this end, this article will be divided into two parts: in this issue of the ISR we will examine the profound political and social conflicts that gave rise to the revolution; in the issue to follow, we will discuss the narrative of events of the revolution itself, and its outcome.

In basic terms, the first major reason the Mexican Revolution took place was due to the existence of an increasingly corrupt, inflexible, and violent dictatorship in Mexico at the start of the twentieth century. Overseen since 1876 by President Porfirio Díaz, this regime severely restricted the prospects of Mexico’s middle classes for political and economic advancement. The second major reason the revolution took place was that the Díaz dictatorship oversaw the broadest and most rapid period of economic expansion and change in Mexican history, but one with fateful consequences: it led to the mass dispossession of the lands and traditional rights of Mexico’s rural villages, due to the huge profits to be made in commercial and export agriculture. These two factors taken together—extremely rapid capitalist economic transformation in the countryside, and a closed and dictatorial political system—produced the widespread disaffection among various social classes that exploded in 1910. We will turn to the fate of the rural village under Díaz later; here we will first address the nature of the Porfirian political and economic system.

Politics and economics before 1910
Díaz came to power in 1876 after more than thirty years of civil war and foreign invasion in Mexico. Political instability, armed conflict, and popular upheaval had characterized much of the country’s nineteenth-century history. Over the course of his rule, Díaz and his allies sought to create a powerful central government that the country had lacked, and to place Mexico on the path of modern capitalist development. He also made it his goal to contain and repress the country’s long tradition of rural and agrarian revolt. Mexico’s landlord class, meanwhile, was extremely grateful to Díaz for the political stability and economic expansion that came with his regime. In December 1905, five years before the outbreak of revolution, Mexico’s pliant Congress would present the dictator with a jewel-encrusted medallion in an elaborate ceremony. It bore the words: “He Pacified and Unified the Nation.”

One clear outcome of the Díaz regime was a massive economic boom that radically transformed Mexico. Over the course of his rule (1876–1910) total railroad track in the country expanded from 640 kilometers to nearly 20,000. Exports increased by a factor of six, averaging a growth rate of more than 6 percent per year. Boom towns appeared almost overnight: Cananea, for example, in the northern state of Sonora, was a village of a hundred people in 1891; by 1906 it was a bustling mining center of some twenty-five thousand people, producing 10 percent of Mexico’s mineral output. Increased commerce meant that the total money in circulation in Mexico increased twelvefold in thirty years, from 25 million pesos in 1880 to more than 300 million in 1910. By 1895, Mexico’s government had a budget surplus for the first time. Meanwhile, foreign investment also soared—primarily in railroads, mining, and banking—increasing from 110 million pesos in 1884 to 3.4 billion pesos in 1911, with the United States as largest foreign investor. And by 1911 Mexico was ranked as the third-largest oil producer in the world, with an annual production of 14 million barrels. It was a transformation unprecedented in Mexican history; the country was increasingly, and rapidly, integrated into the North Atlantic capitalist world.

One of the results of this period of enormous economic expansion was a significant growth in Mexico’s rural and urban middle classes. These included educated professionals such as lawyers and journalists; small commercial ranchers and farmers; middling merchants, shop-owners, and traders; and self-employed artisans and other commodity producers. People such as these survived and advanced—or expected to—by means of their education, skills, and commercial acumen. But the Porfirian system effectively shut them out. It prevented middle-class people involved in commercial activity, for example, from partaking in the growing prosperity clearly visible at the top of Mexican society. It prevented middling landowners and ranchers from growing, or even surviving, in the face of the power of the very rich. It prevented the educated middle class—intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, and the like—from having the influence that they believed, as always, corresponded to the extent of their education and learning. But the fact that the middle classes were often barred from accessing the levers of wealth and power in Porfirian society was not merely due to the humdrum functioning of capitalism. The principal reasons for their exclusion were political in nature: these included the widespread existence of political corruption and privilege, the abuse of political power, and a lack of local political autonomy. Put differently, they were tied up with the dictatorial nature of the Porfirian state and its connections to economic activity.

We can take up the issue of political privilege and corruption first. In short, those with access to people in government—whether through friendship, family connections, commercial links, or bribery—made out far better than those without access. This may sound like an unremarkable observation, common to all capitalist economies to some degree. But the degree to which it existed in Porfirian Mexico was massive, and generated profound and widespread resentment. In any legal dispute, for example, judges could invariably be expected to issue a decision that benefited the nephew of a government minister, or the cousin of a state senator, or the son of a municipal president. Indeed, merely challenging such influential people could land you in jail. Moreover, the disputes that arose with monied political insiders were not necessarily trivial ones. Take losing a fight over access to water from a river: it might not just mean that the losers did with less; in fact, it could mean that the losers were utterly ruined. Yet these sorts of political advantages existed at all levels of the Porfirian system.

Another egregious example for contemporaries was taxation. That the rich don’t pay enough taxes may also seem like an unremarkable observation, common to all capitalist economies to varying degrees. But in Porfirian Mexico the rich, including large landowners and other capitalists, enjoyed tax privileges that would make contemporary Wall Street bankers blush. Political connections and avoiding taxes went hand in hand. This meant, of course, that the burden rested on everyone else. It was said, for example, that the vegetable vendors in the city of Guanajuato paid more in taxes than all the landowners in the region. Another case was the state of Chihuahua, where property taxes were officially regressive, operating to the marked disadvantage of those with smaller landholdings. On top of this, taxes had increased eightfold in the two decades before the revolution.

In short, capitalists in Porfirian Mexico frequently employed the power they held outside the context of the market—particularly political influence—to secure advantages over their less-fortunate rivals. To use Marx’s apt phrase, they were “vampire-like,” but significantly, they sucked the blood of not just the workers, but of petty capitalists as well. Such ambitious and angry petty capitalists of various sorts—or those who shared their outlook—placed their stamp on the politics and course of the revolution, as we shall see.

The second factor mentioned above was the issue of abuse of political power. This went far beyond questions of bribery or favoritism. During the dictatorship, government authorities at all levels consistently made use of their positions for the purposes of private gain, usually at the expense of all those who were not already political insiders or the rich. The Porfirian jefes políticos, the appointed local political officials, were especially despised for this reason. One contemporary described this figure as “the local authority of the central government, the boss of the town and often its moneylender, pawnbroker, house agent, merchant and marriage broker at the same time, and all greatly to his own profit.” They often enriched themselves not only through control over commercial activity, but also through extortion—via arbitrary “taxes” and “fines”—directed at shaking down nearly all sectors of the population, be they small farmers, shop owners, tradesmen, or poor townsfolk. Again, usually the only ones exempt from such abuse were the local rich. But perhaps their most feared authority—one typically used on dissidents and troublemakers—was that of deportation to the Yucatán peninsula. There the victim would be forced to work in the slave-like conditions of the henequen plantations, producing a fiber used to make twine and rope. This work—which made up another booming Porfirian export business—often brought an early death. Some jefes políticos even turned this into a lucrative business, shipping off the indigents and drunks that ended up in local jails in return for a cash payment from the planters.

If national politics was a dictatorship, so was every state and town. As one revolutionary leader later observed of this arrangement, “I began to feel the need for change in our social organization when I was 19, when, back in my town.… I saw the police commissioner get drunk almost every day in the town pool hall, in the company of his secretary; with the local judge who was also the … tax collector; with the head of the post office; and with some merchant or army officer, persons all of whom constituted the influential class of that small world.” This may sound like small-town politics to some, but Mexico at this time was a country of small towns and villages. Moreover, if you crossed these sorts of people, they could ruin your life, and your family’s. And if you were a victim, you might well be among those who took up arms across Mexico with the outbreak of revolution.

Lastly, there was the issue of local political autonomy. Mexico’s nineteenth-century liberals, who designed the country’s 1857 Constitution, had placed great emphasis on political federalism, meaning the devolution of power to the states and local municipal control. Rural and provincial Mexicans had long valued the ability to manage their own local affairs without interference from outsiders, and this right was ostensibly enshrined in the Constitution. The Porfirian dictatorship, however, in constructing the most powerful centralized state in the country’s history, ran roughshod over this ideal. State governors and local officials (such as the hated jefes políticos) were subject to approval from the national executive, often from Díaz himself, when they were not simply imposed. Once in power, as we have seen, they benefited their limited circle of friends, and typically ignored, or punished, everyone else. Meanwhile, people among the lower and middle social classes were subject to increasing and arbitrary taxation from afar with little visible benefit in their localities, and certainly with no political representation. Young men were subject to the feared and hated leva, that is, forced recruitment into the national army, which was often nothing more than a ticket to hunger and disease.

And so when the opportunity presented itself in 1910, these combined factors—political privilege and corruption, abuse of political power, and a lack of local autonomy—would produce armed revolt on their own, even in the absence of agrarian demands. Most significantly, they would produce revolt that united people across social classes against the power of the central government; this point is key for understanding the course of the revolution. A poor rural family, for example, could easily be devastated by the loss of one of their able-bodied sons (or worse, the father) to the leva. A village shopowner would resent having to provide goods on indefinite credit to the local jefe político, his relatives, and his cronies; not to do so would likely mean going to jail. An ambitious mule-driver could be driven out of business when his trade route was coveted, and taken, by a friend or crony of a state government official. A local rancher would resent increased taxes, which, in his eyes, were merely to pay for banquets in the state capital or Mexico City, and he was probably not far from the truth. Such taxation would be even more galling when his larger and better-connected competitors seemed to pay no taxes at all. All this combined to form a deep cross-class resentment of central government, and a desire to get rid of its influence. The loudest dissent, as we shall see, came from the booming states of the Mexican north which bordered the United States: Sonora (home to Obregón), Chihuahua (home to Villa), and Coahuila (home to Madero and Carranza).

In the face of such conflicts, the problem the Porfirian regime faced was that it was very difficult for it to change with the times. While it may have kept the peace in the interests of the very rich, and created the conditions that made Mexico’s economic transformation possible, it would not allow the ambitious and growing middle classes, and even disaffected members of the landlord class, a space to express themselves politically. The strong hand of Díaz, and the powerful state he created, had been necessary to keep in check the conflicts and revolts that had typified nineteenth-century Mexican history. But the centralized and corrupt Porfirian political system became extremely rigid and inflexible. It was not able to do away with the aforementioned abuses and tyranny that characterized it throughout, especially when these abuses seemed to keep society in a state of order, meaning an order that benefited Mexico’s most powerful and politically connected landlords and capitalists.

So how did the system work, as it went into crisis? At the very top of the regime stood Porfirio Díaz, who had historically administered it in a direct, personal, hands-on manner. Indeed, it has been said of the U.S. political system that it was built by geniuses to be run by idiots; the Porfirian system was also painstakingly built by a political genius—Porfirio Díaz himself—but it required a genius to run it. Díaz possessed an intimate knowledge of the coalitions and deal-making going on in states and even towns across the country, and was frequently involved in them. But as Porfirio Díaz aged—he was eighty at the outbreak of revolution—the vigor and acumen with which he had ruled the country was in decline. The same was true of the Porfirian government ministers, senators, and governors: the average age of these men was seventy years, whereas only 8 percent of Mexicans were over fifty years old. Four men in Díaz’s cabinet, in fact, had held their posts for at least twenty-nine years; state governors also typically held office for absurdly long periods. In short, it was very difficult for “new blood” to break in to the system, and especially for a younger generation of ambitious middle-class reformers. As one of these men put it, the Porfirian political system was dominated by “mummies that obstruct our march towards progress.”

The lack of democracy in Mexico meant the state did not allow for a renewal or turnover of its personnel, through elections or other means, even when loyal critics thought it extremely necessary. Those outside the narrow circle of Porfirian politics were unable to promote simple changes in policy and basic reform in their own interests, or as they saw it, the interests of society as a whole. Even though few among the middle classes had a desire to usher in radical change, as political outsiders they were repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to make adjustments to the Porfirian political and economic system. Their most prominent attempt to encourage such changes was the widespread formation of so-called Liberal clubs starting around the turn of the century. They focused on a restoration of the norms of the cherished Constitution of 1857, and a program of moderate social reform. Their lobbying and criticisms of government were frequently met with arrests and repression.1

Díaz and his advisors, with their entrenched systems of political privilege, corruption, and violence, were increasingly regarded as being unable to manage Mexico’s now highly complex society. More specifically, they could not do so in the interests of all members of the economic elite, much less the frustrated middle classes. Political democracy became a burning issue, and when Francisco Madero launched his presidential campaign, and later his revolt, many in the middle classes rallied to his banner, which he undoubtedly expected. An unexpected and undesired consequence, however, was that the rural poor rallied to his banner as well. It was their grievances and demands that radicalized the course of the revolution. We now turn to their plight.

Campesinos and villages before 1910
Dictatorships can come to an end without widespread revolutionary upheaval. After all, if the only source of conflict in Porfirian Mexico were the political and economic grievances of the middle classes, the revolts that broke out in 1910 would have been far easier to contain, or to make concessions to. However, a crucial second factor behind the outbreak of revolution was the deteriorating conditions faced by many of Mexico’s rural campesinos under Díaz.2 The Mexican Revolution was, above all, driven by agrarian grievances and mass agrarian mobilization. Middle-class social reformers and discontented landowners may have started things off, but what made the Mexican Revolution such an intractable conflict was the question of land for campesinos and their villages.

Indeed, in spite of all the major socioeconomic changes under Díaz, Mexico remained a rural and agrarian society: 80 percent of the population lived in communities of less than five thousand inhabitants, and nearly 70 percent dedicated themselves to agriculture. Over the course of the Porfirian dictatorship the conflict between villages and the hacienda, the landed estate, became more and more contentious, polarized, and bitter. Some of these agrarian disputes had gone on for generations; children in the village would be raised with a consciousness of the conflict and its history. But key changes during Díaz’s rule tipped the balance sharply in favor of the landowners. First was the effect of the railroad and the access to expanded domestic and international markets that came with it. This set off a massive land boom—or more precisely, a land grab—in rural Mexico. The possibilities for gain “dazzled landed elites,” in the words of one historian. Secondly, Díaz gave these landed elites every opportunity to profit. In 1883 a law was passed permitting the easy acquisition of so-called terrenos baldíos, that is, unoccupied or unused lands. Any private company that surveyed these lands was entitled to a third of them and the right to purchase the remaining two-thirds from the government at rock-bottom prices. The only thing that could stop this process was an official title of ownership, something few rural villages had. Moreover, even when they did, the landlords’ attorneys often found ways to invalidate the villagers’ dusty old documents. When villages could not produce a title to their common lands—including woodlands, water sources, mule paths, or pasture that they had used for generations—entrepreneurial landlords, backed by the force of law, easily took them away. Barbed wire would go up soon after, fencing off what the villagers had always regarded as theirs, and often depended on for their survival.

The overall effects of this process were stunning. During the Díaz regime thirty-nine million hectares of untitled land was converted into private property, or about a fifth of Mexico’s total land area, equivalent in size to the state of California. Much of it was highly concentrated in terms of ownership, and some also went to foreign interests: 547,000 hectares in northern Mexico, for example, became the sole possession of the Richardson Construction Company in Los Angeles. The newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst also acquired a large estate for himself in the state of Chihuahua, one measuring 350,000 hectares, that is, a property of 1,351 square miles, or more than four times the size of New York City’s five boroughs. But these were not even the biggest players in the land grab. One Mexican investor, for example, obtained properties of more than one million hectares; and another domestic investment group acquired lands exceeding two million hectares. The king of them all, however, was undoubtedly Luis Terrazas, the Chihuahuan magnate, perhaps the largest landowner in all of Latin America. Among his many other business enterprises, he also owned roughly fifty haciendas and ranches, totaling nearly three million hectares in all.

One example of the consequences of these developments for Mexican campesinos was the village of Naranja, a Tarascan-speaking community residing in one of the valleys of rural Michoacán. A neighboring marsh had for generations provided the villagers with a source of fish, game birds, as well as reeds to weave into baskets for sale in nearby towns. But with the coming of the railroad, a group of outside entrepreneurs (and their lawyers) arrived on the scene and petitioned the government to survey and purchase the “unoccupied” lands around Naranja. The villagers protested, but could not produce an official title and lost access to the marsh: it was drained and became part of the landlord’s fields. Villagers, if they were lucky, were able to sharecrop on the hacienda’s most marginal and infertile lands; others were forced to walk two days to the lowlands to find work as gang laborers on plantations. Many of them, not surprisingly, would become agrarian revolutionaries in the years after 1910.

But Naranja was probably among the more fortunate villages facing the land grab that took place in rural Mexico. During this process whole villages were often literally swallowed up. Haciendas surrounded these communities entirely; one hacienda in the state of Hidalgo, for example, held twenty-two villages within its boundaries. In many places throughout Mexico, the landowner’s property began at the spot where the last village street ended. In the town of San José de Gracia, in the state of Durango, the hacienda boundary stone rested at the foot of the church tower. In Morelos, the community of Tepalcingo was completely surrounded by a stone wall several miles long that a local landlord built. Such villages caught in the hacienda’s web—with little or no land, pasture, or water resources of their own—typically stagnated, and often disappeared entirely. At times this elimination was more deliberate: the centuries-old village of Tequisquitengo, also in Morelos, had been locked in a legal battle with a hacienda over the use of a river. The landlord ultimately chose to dam the river and deliberately flood the town. When the job was finished, only the church spire showed above the waters.

As a result, in many parts of Mexico the hacienda became practically the only source of arable land or employment. By 1910, roughly half of all rural Mexicans were reckoned to live or labor on the haciendas. In certain regions this figure was even higher. In the north-central state of Zacatecas, for example, it was 76 percent. Many villagers became renters, sharecroppers, or seasonal day laborers on the estate, subject to the terms set by the landlord.3 Other rural Mexicans became peones acasillados, that is, resident laborers and servants on the hacienda, and completely dependent on the estate for their basic survival. The estate’s peones would receive a meager wage, along a small plot and a roof over their heads, in exchange for their labor, personal services, and loyalty to the landlord. In some cases they were paid in “scrip” rather than cash, which had to be spent on goods sold at the tienda de raya, the landlord’s monopolistic “company store.” Corporal punishment, including whippings, was also not uncommon, but the most feared punishment was to be evicted from the hacienda entirely. Meanwhile, landlords would frequently make a show of their paternalism, giving out articles of clothing and candy when they arrived at their estates. Many would also house a chapel on their property, staffed by a loyal priest, who graciously offered free baptisms. A graveyard would be available as well, where the peones often met an early grave, but at least received a dignified burial. The life of the resident peon was far from comfortable, but it was assumed that if they remained under the landlord’s protection, at least their families wouldn’t starve. These dependents living on the hacienda (which also included skilled workers and managers) usually only numbered a few hundred on a large estate, and they were typically not the ones to rebel.

Yet overall the landlord cannot be described as a magnanimous feudal baron. Rather he was an aggressive and diversified capitalist entrepreneur who ruled over “a productive enterprise capable of turning plants into money,” in the words of historian Arturo Warman. This capitalist orientation especially characterized his relations with the hacienda’s tenants, the renters and sharecroppers. As the economic opportunities and competition expanded for the landlords, conflicts between them and their tenants became sharper and sharper in many parts of Mexico. Be they successful or struggling, landlords used their tenants to minimize their own risk, moving them about like factors of production, making tenants’ lives progressively more insecure. The landlord would shift to demanding crops, cash, or labor for payment as it suited him; he would regularly revise contracts, and demand more production from tenants; he would push them to more marginal lands; he would offer seasonal wage labor, but only depending on the state of the market. Tenants on haciendas lacked the security of stable employment or the independence that came with owning one’s own land. One might say that insult was increasingly heaped upon injury. One estate manager in the Laguna region, in a notable understatement, noted that the hacienda system was one that “lent itself throughout to the abuses that led to the Revolution.” Indeed the Laguna—a productive agricultural territory where the northern states of Coahuila and Durango meet—would become a hotbed of revolutionary upheaval after 1910.

Yet the strongest core of the agrarian revolution was undoubtedly among the campesinos of the “free” villages, that is, those that had retained some of their lands and a precarious independence. Residents of these villages were often the ones who most resisted and resented the hacienda’s growth and domination. The villagers of Hueyapan, Morelos, for example, believed that no good could come of money earned on the neighboring hacienda, because the landlord’s wealth had come through a secret pact with the devil. Although life in these villages was neither egalitarian nor without conflict, they provided their residents with a basis for collective organization, and typically a history of collective solidarity, against the landowners. This was even more so in the villages that practiced a form of communal landownership, where land could not be sold, and was distributed or assigned to residents by the village leadership. It was these villages that provided the basis for the Zapatista movement, the most intransigent and unbreakable of the revolutionary forces. In its home state of Morelos, as well as in neighboring ones, rapidly expanding commercial agriculture collided with longstanding, often communal, landholding villages. The results were ultimately explosive.

Mexico’s rulers, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the gathering storm. The detached and aristocratic governor of Morelos, for example, informed of the campesinos’ grievances immediately prior to the outbreak of the revolution, famously responded by saying “let them farm in a flowerpot.” Indeed, the anger and resentment directed at the hacienda and the landlords during the revolution cannot be underestimated. The revolution was, at its core, a sustained mass assault on the hacienda as a social and economic institution over the course of ten years, and it continued long after the revolution was officially over.

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, campesinos across the country acted on their rage, typically through land seizure as well as various forms of collective armed action. From 1910 onward, armed campesinos attacked estates throughout the country, often distributing their land without waiting for official sanction, and recovering access to forest, pasture, and water resources previously denied them. Towns and cities in Mexico were crowded with landlords who had fled the countryside in fear. Even where grassroots land distribution did not take place, popular bandits robbed the estates and shot landlords and hacienda managers despised by local villagers, when they did not raze the landlord’s buildings to the ground. Take one such hacienda, in the state of Durango: according to a fawning contemporary, it was a “magnificent country estate … furnished in regal style and containing many priceless old paintings.” It was blown up by rebels with dynamite.

What about the working class?
Having discussed the grievances and politics of both Mexico’s middle classes and campesinos, it is appropriate to turn to a third actor in the revolutionary drama: the Mexican worker. The process of rapid economic development under Porfirio Díaz beginning in the 1890s had created the country’s first significant industrial working class. Railroad workers, for example, numbered in the tens of thousands by 1910, whereas they had not existed before the creation and expansion of the industry.4 The arrival of the streetcar, now found in a number of major Mexican cities, created another skilled working-class occupation that did not exist before. In the two decades before the outbreak of the revolution a modern textile sector also emerged. It reached a total of thirty-four thousand workers, many concentrated in large factories producing cloth for domestic consumption. Mining, a boom-and-bust industry that dated from the colonial period, recovered and expanded considerably thanks to the railroads. In 1910 miners numbered almost a hundred thousand in Mexico. They lived in mining camps and towns found largely in the Mexican north. More generally, various mass consumer goods were increasingly shifting to small-scale factory production, including items like soap, candles, beer, furniture, soft drinks, cigarettes, meat, and baked goods.

In many areas the expansion of the working class happened extremely quickly. The dramatic growth of the mining town of Cananea has already been mentioned; another case was the town of Torreón, a crucial railroad hub in the Laguna region, which grew from about 200 people in 1892 to 34,000 in 1910. But in relative terms the Mexican working class was still small; workers in “industrial occupations” (which included mining and manufacturing) represented 16 percent of the labor force, and this category still included large numbers of artisanal laborers. So while the expansion of the working class was rapid, the concentration of production (shifting from small shops to mechanized factories), and the proletarianization of artisanal labor (converting more independent artisans into wage workers), was nonetheless historically still at its inception. A comparison may help to illustrate this point. As mentioned, Mexico had 34,000 textile factory workers in 1910. But it also had 44,000 shoemakers, 23,000 potters, 23,000 mat-weavers, and 18,000 hatmakers. These mostly worked in artisan shops and family businesses, or on a “putting out” basis, where workers labored in their homes for a buyer rather than in factories. In some industries, such as cloth and textiles, the artisan had largely been displaced by factory production. In others, such as shoemaking, the process was still under way in the years before 1910. In still others, such as mat-weaving, which produced a fairly universal consumer item in Mexico, production remained on a smaller, non-industrial scale.

Reflecting this ongoing transition, Mexican labor organizations had historically been based in artisanal traditions, and were focused on mutual aid, self-improvement, and the formation of cooperatives. Utopian socialism, in the form of the doctrines of Charles Fourier, also had some influence in Mexico the late nineteenth century. Mass trade unionism was a relatively recent phenomenon, in many cases successfully appearing only in the ten years before the outbreak of revolution in 1910. Anarcho-syndicalism also found roots in Mexico in the trade unions, primarily through the influence of immigrants from Spain. But many of the early unions were, not surprisingly, still largely focused on economic and workplace issues.

Conditions for workers, after all, were grim. Workdays of twelve hours, and at times sixteen hours, were the norm. The wages of a textile worker or miner were higher than that of the rural peones, but their lives were often not appreciably better. Workers in these two important industries frequently labored in dictatorial “company towns,” and textile workers were—like the peones—subject to the tienda de raya, and the payment of part of their wages in scrip. Numerous “fines” by managers, for breaking workplace regulations, cut into workers’ wages. Further undermining their income was the dramatic rise in the prices of basic food staples in the last decade of Porfirian rule. Industrial labor, meanwhile, was also extremely unsafe. Miners were especially at risk, and received little or no compensation in the case of death or injury. When a miner died, a company might limit itself to paying for a pine box to bury him in. In another case, when seventy miners died in a blast in Coahuila in 1910, the mining company paid their widows the equivalent of two weeks’ wages. Miners were also susceptible to the wild fluctuations of the international market for minerals and had little job security: in the three years before the Revolution, in fact, mass layoffs devastated the mining industry in the north. Many of these unemployed workers would end up in Pancho Villa’s armies.

To the conditions of work one must also add the conditions of urban life that workers and the poor faced. Those that did not live in company towns ended up in the rapidly expanding and squalid cities of the Porfirian era. Mexico City was one example; then, as now, a glittering jewel for the rich, and purgatory at best for the poor, with the middle classes looking upward with envy and downward with fear. The capital had nearly doubled in size between 1890 and 1910, as displaced rural people flooded into cities across the country. The urban poor typically lived in cramped conditions with no running water, plumbing, or garbage disposal. One survey of a working-class area in Mexico City found that people on average lived, or just slept, seven to a room. A pro-labor newspaper, El México Obrero, caustically noted that the bathrooms of the rich were more hygienic than the living quarters of workers in the capital. As a result, diseases such as typhus were rampant. The death rate for Mexico City was the second highest in the country (only the semi-slave plantation region of the Yucatán exceeded it), and moreover higher than the rates for large cities in other developing countries, such as Madras or Cairo. Adding to this was the incidence of crime; the rate of murder doubled, and for robberies, tripled, in the ten years before 1910. It was no surprise that the influential newspaper El País referred to the working-class districts of the capital as “centers of sickness and death.” Urban life, and especially life for workers and the poor, was more and more insecure and desperate under the Porfirian dictatorship.

In this overall environment workers increasingly turned to strike action to better their conditions. In the four decades from 1865–1905, textile workers led the way with a total of seventy-one strikes; on the railways there were twenty-five; the mines followed with seventeen; and tobacco workers carried out fifteen. None of these indicate a high density of strike activity over the bulk of the dictatorship. After 1905, however, strikes were progressively more numerous and militant in certain industries, and helped undermine the legitimacy of the regime. Strikes by textile workers in 1906–1911, for example, exceeded the total of the previous forty years. This clearly alarmed the authorities.

Mexico’s Porfirian rulers had kept a close eye on the state of Mexico’s nascent industries, which they saw as the basis for the country’s future economic development. But they did little to improve workers’ conditions, and as time went on, Díaz was ever more likely to respond to labor dissent with direct and bloody repression. In the eyes of many middle-class social reformers, meanwhile, the solution was modern labor legislation—in the form of an eight-hour day, restrictions on child labor, and even the right to organize—so that Mexican capitalism, and particularly Mexican industrial capitalism, could take a step forward and avoid the destructive conflicts that were clearly on the rise.

Undoubtedly the two most prominent strikes of the Díaz era were among miners in Cananea, Sonora in 1906, and among textile workers in the “textile corridor” states of Puebla and Veracruz in 1907. Both strikes were politically significant because of where they took place: the first hit the largest mining center in the country, which employed 7,500 workers; the second involved 6,000 workers striking multiple textile factories, in what was considered one of the country’s most modern industries. Indeed, the textile strike in 1907 was perhaps Mexico’s first mass strike. In both cases wages were relatively high by Mexican standards, and were not the sole or principal factor behind strike action. In Cananea, a town residing close to the U.S. border, a number of workers had been exposed to anarcho-syndicalist ideas from Mexican radicals in exile, as well as from the Western Federation of Miners in the U.S. Southwest. Among their demands were the elimination of wage differentials between Mexican and North American workers, an eight-hour day, and the dismissal of abusive foremen.

In the case of the textile workers, strike action took place after employers universally introduced new dictatorial factory regulations in their mills. The initial walkout shut down some thirty factories, an indication of the growing extent of labor organization in the industry. Another major target among the textile strikers was the tienda de raya and its abuses. When the owner of one such store fired on workers in Río Blanco, Veracruz, it was burned to the ground along with many others in the area (the struggle came to be known, for this reason, as the Río Blanco strike). Both strikes, however, were ultimately ended through the use of repression. In Río Blanco and its environs, between fifty and seventy workers were killed, either in attacks on crowds, armed skirmishes, or subsequent summary executions. In the case of Cananea, the Díaz regime allowed the company, which was U.S.-owned, to invite U.S. Army Rangers over the border to help carry out the repression (after quickly swearing them in as state militiamen, of course). The ensuing outcry helped greatly erode the credibility of the Díaz dictatorship, and severely tarnished the claim that he could peacefully lead the country to progress.

Workers in Mexico were increasingly participating in the conflicts and struggles associated with mass union organization. By 1910, with the arrival of Madero’s presidential campaign against Díaz, many artisans and industrial workers eagerly took up his banner. Industrial workers hoped that the democratic opening Madero promised would provide them with the opportunity to organize, as well as some measure of protective legislation in the workplace. Later on, Mexican workers participated and fought in the different phases of the revolution, and their demands had to be taken into account by the different revolutionary camps and national governments from 1910–1920.

Yet while workers were clearly disposed to struggle in their interests and for their rights, they did not as a social class exert a preponderant influence over the course of the revolution, in terms of collectively changing its political direction. Put differently, the working class and its young organizations were unable to successfully put forward their own program for the revolution. Nor were they able to consummate an alliance with the radicalized village campesinos. A more detailed explanation of why workers played this more limited role will have to wait until the next issue.5 But the political consciousness of the working class and its organizations overall followed that of radical middle-class forces, as we shall see. This was in spite of the fact that—or partially because of it—radical anarcho-syndicalists led some of their key organizations.

The revolution: many social classes in motion
Few revolutions have had as diverse and contradictory a cast of characters as Mexico did from 1910 to 1920. Moreover, of the five leaders mentioned above—Madero, Zapata, Villa, Carranza, Obregón—nearly all bitterly contested one other on the battlefield, and all of them died by the gun rather than in their beds. There was, as we shall see, a great deal of conflict—including armed conflict—among the various camps within the revolution itself, following the fall of Porfirio Díaz. Zapata gave his support to Madero’s rebellion, but then continued the armed agrarian struggle against his government; Pancho Villa was allied with, then broke with, then bloodily fought Carranza and his general Obregón; Carranza claimed to support land reform, but his forces attempted to crush Zapata’s movement, and eventually orchestrated his assassination; and Obregón finally assumed power by rebelling against his former chief, Carranza, who was killed as he fled the revolt.

The details of this story, and their significance, will be discussed in the subsequent issue. But at first glance it can all seem very confusing. Some have responded to the history of shifting conflicts, loyalties, and even political programs of the various camps by arguing that the revolution can only be understood as a process driven by personal rivalries and ambitions, and their associated opportunistic struggles for power. From this standpoint, then, there is little to be learned by looking at it in terms of politics and social conflict; or to paraphrase Shakespeare, the revolution was a tale full of sound and fury, but ultimately signified nothing. This sort of approach, however, is insufficient as a means to understanding the shifting course of events between 1910 and 1920.

A key point to understanding the Mexican Revolution is that it did not consist of a single movement. It was not led by a single political party, nor did it mobilize only one social class. Indeed, of the major camps within the revolution, only that of Zapata and his allies, based in the campesinos of the “free” villages, was highly homogenous in class terms. The revolution must be understood by looking at the various social forces it unleashed—from campesinos and middle-class reformers to industrial workers and disgruntled landlords—and the political outlooks that they developed. It is true that along with this, there were also self-interested opportunists within the revolution. They came to be a force in themselves, but their role can also be explained in social terms, and not merely as a question of personal failings or an individual lack of principles.

Overall, the various revolutionary camps and leaders did not simply float unattached above these various sorts of people, their goals and aspirations, and their visions of what the revolution should accomplish. It was from this basis that various leaders and camps formed worldviews and political programs, upholding ideas of what was good for Mexico, or at least for some subset of Mexico. But the worldview of the ambitious middle-class reformer, for example, and the rebel campesino were often very different. While many middle-class reformers might have had a clear political and social vision for the country, to prevail they also had to appeal to social forces—like campesinos or workers—which held different ones. This was especially the case as the revolution unfolded over time, and agrarian radicalism and labor organizing could not be ignored by even those leaders (like the landlord Carranza) who wanted to have nothing to do with either. As the revolution progressed, the various camps united, broke apart, and came into conflict as these different political visions or goals for the revolution were laid bare.

So how did these varied class and political conflicts ultimately play out? This story will be taken up in the issue to follow. It begins with the efforts of Mexico’s most earnest democrat, the wealthy young idealist Francisco Madero. He challenged the mighty Díaz for the presidency, and—to nearly everyone’s surprise—he succeeded, although it required armed revolt. As the defeated Díaz left Mexico to go into exile, he issued a prophetic statement: “Madero has unleashed a tiger—we will see if he can tame it.” The revolution was under way.

Many thanks to Shane Dillingham, Sarah Hines, Kate O’Neil, and Lance Selfa for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Suggestions for further reading
THIS SECTION is provided for the reader interested in looking at the Mexican Revolution in more depth. Here we will focus on the issues discussed above: the political and social conflicts that gave rise to the revolution. (The subsequent issue will offer suggestions for further reading on the events of the revolution itself.) There are numerous survey works on the revolution and its origins; what follows are some suggestions that are most likely to be useful to readers of the ISR. These books can all be easily purchased online, or found at a well-stocked local bookstore or library. Also included are a few academic articles; these can be harder to obtain. The journals in question can usually be found at any good-sized college library; find one that permits access to the public. Students or employees at a college can also often obtain electronic copies of these for interested readers.

The book widely considered to be the definitive history of the revolution is Alan Knight’s The Mexican Revolution, a weighty study published in two volumes. The length and painstaking detail in the book—and Knight’s seeming love of erudite expressions in French and German—might be a bit daunting or offputting for the general reader. Nonetheless, his work is useful in many ways. Knight argues very effectively that the motor of the revolution was the agrarian demands and mobilization of campesinos, and that for all their limitations, the upheavals of 1910–1920 did produce revolutionary change. That said, Knight’s work is not without its flaws. These are mainly connected to his explanations of the conflicts between the revolutionary camps, a subject that can be left to the postscript of the next issue. For the origins of the revolution, read chapters one through three in the first volume of Knight.

A very useful Marxist analysis of the revolution (although the book avoids describing itself as such) is Friedrich Katz’s The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution. Although the book’s main focus is on diplomatic history, it also contains various chapters with excellent analyses of the various revolutionary camps. The remaining chapters on foreign diplomatic intrigue within the revolution will please any history buff. Lastly, Katz is a very good writer, and comes from an older generation of historians for whom directness and clarity were more important than flashiness. For the origins of the revolution, read chapter one in Katz. Those interested in even more detail on the structure of the rural economy can read Katz’s classic essay, “Labor Conditions on Haciendas in Porfirian Mexico: Some Trends and Tendencies,” published in the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1974.

Another excellent Marxist work is Adolfo Gilly’s The Mexican Revolution, recently reprinted as A People’s History of the Mexican Revolution. Its account of the revolution’s origins is more theoretical and statistical than others, but still very readable. Gilly’s detailed footnotes are worth perusing on their own. For the origins of the revolution, read chapters one and two in Gilly.

A book with a wider focus is John Tutino’s From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940. It is a sweeping history of agrarian revolt in Mexico, and offers some sociological analysis as to why campesinos rebel. Moreover, it examines the roots of revolution in various Mexican regions, in an attempt to explain why some rebelled, and others did not (such as in the Yucatán peninsula). Although there is unfortunately little narrative here, and his analysis can seem a bit schematic at times, the book is nonetheless useful. For the origins of the revolution, read chapter eight in Tutino.

The classic work on Zapata and the revolution in Morelos is John Womack’s Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. Womack’s approach is that of a storyteller, and as such he largely avoids analysis of the movement. The first sentence of the book says it all: “This is a book about country people who did not want to move and therefore got into a revolution.” Some may find his folksy style appealing, others not. Either way, along with Womack, readers might want to look at Arturo Warman’s history,“We Come to Object”: The Peasants of Morelos and the National State. Warman’s approach is a bit more concise and analytical than Womack’s, and his story extends into the 1940s and beyond. For the origins of the revolution in Morelos, read the Prologue and chapters one and two in Knight, and chapters one and two in Warman.

A detailed study of the labor movement before the outbreak of the revolution is Rodney Anderson’s Outcasts in Their Own Land: Mexican Industrial Workers, 1906–11. This book is rather dry and long, but the information is there, and interested readers will benefit. The key material is in chapters two through six. For a brief history of left-wing ideas within the Mexican labor movement before and during the revolution, see Barry Carr’s article, “Marxism and Anarchism in the Formation of the Mexican Communist Party, 1910–19,” published in the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1983.

Perhaps the best college-level textbook on Mexican history is Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History. Its survey of the Porfiriato is very good, in chapters twenty-three and twenty-four. The discussion of the revolution proper in chapters twenty-six through thirty is a bit flat, but provides a useful summary and overview. More generally, as a survey text of some four thousand years of history it is comprehensive and clearly written, and includes useful suggestions for further reading with each chapter.

Another good survey is In the Shadow of the Mexican Revolution: Contemporary Mexican History, 1910–1989, authored by Héctor Aguilar Camín and Lorenzo Meyer. Although the translation could be better, and some parts of the book gloss over important events, its coverage of the period before the revolution is brief but useful, in chapter one.

Lastly, something not touched on in the article above is the question of why Mexico had a revolution when it did, whereas the rest of Latin America did not. Here an article by Alan Knight is very insightful: “The Peculiarities of Mexican History: Mexico Compared to Latin America, 1821–1992,” published in the Journal of Latin American Studies in 1992. Another good essay on this subject is John Coatsworth’s “Patterns of Rural Rebellion in Latin America: Mexico in Comparative Perspective,” in a book edited by Friedrich Katz: Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico.


  1. Leading figures of this camp would later move in an anarcho-syndicalist direction, under the aegis of the Partido Liberal Mexicano, as we shall see.
  2. A brief clarification on terminology is necessary at this point. The term “campesino” (literally, country person) is preferred here to “peasant” principally because many Mexican villagers were not peasants in the strict sense of the word, meaning rural subsistence smallholders. Some, a shrinking number, were indeed smallholders growing corn and beans and chiles on their own lands for their family; others were sharecroppers or renters on the property of a local landlord; others performed seasonal agricultural labor for the landlord with little more than a garden plot of their own; still others might have produced anything from honey to reed baskets or charcoal for sale using the little bit of land they or their villages still held. What all the above campesinos often shared, however, was a desire to till land of their own, both for subsistence and commerce.
  3. A sharecropper rented a landlord’s land, but paid with a part of his harvest; a renter typically paid in cash; a seasonal laborer received wages for planting and harvesting work. At times these roles overlapped, where a sharecropper (or his sons) would try to find work as a day laborer on the estate as well.
  4. The railroad also played an important role in opening markets for other industries: the cost of shipping a ton of cotton from Mexico City to the provinces, for example, declined from sixty-one dollars to three dollars over the course of Díaz’s rule.
  5. Readers may also wonder about comparisons with the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution, in which the working class was also small relative to the rest of society, but exerted a predominant role in the development of the revolution. These comparisons will be taken up in more detail in the subsequent issue.



Issue #104

Spring 2017

Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

Issue contents

Top story





Upcoming Articles

  • Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

  • The driving forces of the Russian Revolution

    Karl Radek
  • The Front Populaire and the 
making of the French Communist Party (1920–1962)

    Selim Nadi

Upcoming Reviews

  • Uncovering Boston's radical history

    Keegan O'Brien reviews A People's History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel
  • Terror in the French Revolution and today

    Samuel Farber reviews In Defense of the Terror: LIberty or Death in the French Revolution by Sophie Wahnich
  • The New Deal and Little Steel

    Tim Goulet reviews The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America by Ahmed White