Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920: Part 3

The final installment of a three part series. Find part one in ISR 74 and part two in ISR 75.

AT THE conclusion of the previous article, General Victoriano Huerta—the brutal usurper who had overthrown and murdered President Madero, the moderate leader of the initial phase of the revolution—had at last been driven from Mexican soil. It was 1914, and the motley rebel forces of the Constitutionalists and their allies were nominally in control of the country. Venustiano Carranza, their “First Chief,” was planning to assume the presidency of Mexico; indeed, this outcome had been explicitly written into the Constitutionalist program from the start.

Yet Carranza was a leader in name only: the rebel forces he had assembled against Huerta were rife with divisions. Political stability was not close at hand. The Constitutionalists would soon break apart, with several more years of civil war to come—Villa’s and Zapata’s forces would make up one camp, and Carranza and his supporters another.

At stake in the conflict were not merely the formal programs of either faction; they ended up overlapping to a large extent, in fact. Many who went with Carranza, including many radical reformers, believed that his camp was the one most capable of imposing a nationwide solution to the conflicts raised by the revolution, and creating a strong central government when the dust settled. For Villa’s and Zapata’s supporters, the question was whether the social changes to come would happen under the watchful eye of armed campesinos. Without their forces calling the shots, agrarian radicals like Zapata believed that Carranza—a friend of the landlords—would not press for land reform, and would attempt to undermine any gains already made. They ended up being right.

Carranza’s ability to carry out his agenda depended on crucial setbacks and defeats for Villa’s and Zapata’s forces. In late 1914, however, this outcome seemed unlikely. Villa and Zapata looked to be firmly in command of the revolution, while Carranza was the weaker party. The person most associated with turning around the political and military situation in Carranza’s favor was one of his generals, the brilliant strategist Álvaro Obregón.

How did this reversal happen? A key factor was that the revolution’s campesino forces were unable to secure the support of the urban labor movement in the struggle with their opponents. Obregón, in contrast, successfully obtained this support. The political decisions made at this key juncture in the conflict tell us a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of the different camps, and why the revolution ultimately took the course it did.

This last article in the series, then, takes up the social and political composition of the Constitutionalists, how and why they broke apart, and why the forces of Villa and Zapata ultimately did not prevail. It’s to these questions that we now turn.

The roots of the great revolutionary split 
Following the defeat of Huerta, the Constitutionalists were hardly unaware of their differences: they called a revolutionary convention to hopefully resolve them. It was called to order in October 1914 in the center-north city of Aguascalientes, three months after the dictator Huerta’s ouster. Delegates from the various revolutionary armies were present; even the Zapatistas—who had maintained their independence from the Constitutionalists—sent representatives. They were received with great fanfare, much to the dismay of Carranza. Indeed, Carranza had been forced to agree to the convention. His preferred scenario was that he assume the presidency directly, with no debate or dissent among his forces.

Yet the dissent was already in evidence during the struggle against Huerta, particularly among the more radical Constitutionalist military officers. Villa was only the most prominent of these. For many of them, Carranza’s clear desire to centralize political power in his hands might take Mexico back to the days before Madero’s democratic opening. But the question of political control was connected to another all-important issue: that of land reform. This was something Carranza steadfastly opposed; in his words, there would be no taking away the landlords’ “legally sanctioned rights” in order to hand over their property to those “who do not have the right.” This position was contested by many of Carranza’s officers from the very start.

Well before the convention, a Zapatista delegation to Carranza had already been told that, “this land-redistribution business is absurd. Tell me which haciendas you own and are able to redistribute, so that each of you can redistribute what belongs to you, rather than what belongs to someone else.” For a rich landlord, Carranza, to say this to poor campesinos fighting for land, it should be clear, was a deliberate provocation. It was increasingly obvious that a closed, centralized regime composed of Carranza and his closest and most conservative allies would not bode well for Mexico’s campesinos.

Moreover, aside from land reform in the future, there was a pressing question in the present: what to do with the land that had already been confiscated, mainly from landlords who had supported Huerta and the Federal Army? There was a great deal of this confiscated property in Chihuahua, Villa’s home base. The fate of this land was a major issue for Villa and his supporters. Carranza had tolerated these land seizures, but only if it was against political enemies, and used to fund the rebellion. What Carranza would not accept was the redistribution of this same land to campesinos. His plan was to return this land to its original owners once the conflict was over, or perhaps sell it to new investors. Campesinos squatting on this land and tilling it—likely with arms in hand—would make this goal near impossible. Moreover, it would only raise the expectations of campesinos elsewhere.

One early case, during the war against Huerta, made Carranza’s position very clear. Lucio Blanco, one of his officers, distributed lands from a confiscated hacienda in the northern state of Tamaulipas, along with a great deal of speechmaking about the importance of land reform. Blanco was publicly censured by Carranza, and quickly transferred from his post. It’s not surprising, then, that Carranza also viewed the distribution of land to campesinos under Zapata as simply an illegal act, one to be stopped, if not punished.

But it was Villa who represented the most immediate potential threat to Carranza. He was an immensely popular figure, and led the most powerful single armed force in Mexico, the famed and feared Northern Division. It wasn’t just his military victories that granted Villa respect and acclaim, however: it was also the social measures he carried out in Chihuahua. He effectively nationalized wide swaths of territory previously owned by the state’s hacendados, as well as a number of factories owned by Huerta supporters. Some of these properties were administered by his generals to fund the Northern Division, but most passed directly into the hands of the state government. These measures were significant: Chihuahua, having experienced near-constant warfare and economic crisis, was facing a desperate food supply situation. In cities and towns under Villista control, the Northern Division distributed generous food rations to the urban poor, the unemployed, widows, and orphans. Meanwhile the price of beef was radically reduced by government decree.

Villa was never strongly ideological, but as a popular military strongman (a caudillo, as discussed in the previous article), he firmly believed in taking care of “his people.” This at minimum meant distributing land to his soldiers, or their widows, when the fighting was over. Indeed, it would be almost inconceivable for Villa to betray his men—to disgrace himself, in effect—by voluntarily conceding on this point. Carranza’s taking power, and the way he would use that power, would be an obstacle to Villa maintaining and extending the social reforms he had decreed for the people of Chihuahua. This was increasingly clear: Carranza had already appointed a governor in Chihuahua who was unfriendly to Villa, and he demanded that Villa begin to return expropriated property, something he simply refused to do.

The two men had tried to bury the hatchet with the Torreón Pact, where Villa declared his loyalty to Carranza, but also insisted that language be inserted into the accord stipulating that the revolution was “a struggle of the oppressed against the encroachments of the powerful” and that its goals included “to fight against the Federal Army until it is annihilated, to create a democratic regime in the country, to bring prosperity to the workers, and to liberate the peasants economically with a just distribution of land or with another solution to the agrarian question.” Later Villa made his conditions for participating in the convention that land reform be explicitly on the agenda. Ultimately Carranza’s stalling and duplicity on these issues led Villa to break publicly with his “First Chief,” before the great revolutionary convention began. The stage had been set for a fight.

Further polarizing matters, meanwhile, were the Zapatistas, with their radical agrarian Plan de Ayala in hand. They already knew Carranza was hostile to their cause, indeed, Carranza’s internal communiqués increasingly referred to Zapata’s forces as “the enemy.” But Villa was a different story: in 1913, Zapata had sent an emissary to meet with Villa, and became convinced of his commitment to agrarian reform. Although Villa did not make any formal proclamations on the subject, his attacks on the property of landlords and the rich in Chihuahua had made his sympathies clear as far as Zapata was concerned. Moreover, Villa’s opposition to Carranza’s bid for power, and his criticisms of Carranza’s positions on land reform, brought their alliance closer together, even if from afar.

Carranza in hot water at Aguascalientes
All these political conflicts came into play at the great revolutionary convention in Aguascalientes. Delegates from the various armed camps, consisting principally of young military officers, were in attendance were. Carranza would emerge the loser, as the convention moved to the left on a range of issues. Zapata’s representatives won over a majority of the body to agrarian reform, for example, and they voted to support the Plan de Ayala. His principal spokesmen in this period were two young anarchist-influenced intellectuals who had committed themselves to the Zapatista cause: Manuel Palafox and Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama.

The convention further committed itself to meeting the country’s “deep social needs,” including the restitution of village lands and the destruction of large landholdings. It would eventually declare itself a sovereign body, and form a government, nullifying Carranza’s presidential aspirations. Carranza, however, continued to challenge the convention’s authority, and was finally declared to be in open revolt. The next phase of the armed conflict had begun: the question was what side people would choose, and why.

First, it is important to realize that many of the military figures present at the convention were not veterans of agrarian reform movements, nor did they necessarily come from poor campesino villages. Recall from the first article in this series that (along with agrarian conflict) a key motive force in the revolution was the way it united people across social classes against the power of the central government. Also significant was how the previous regime had severely restricted the prospects of Mexico’s middle classes for political and economic advancement. Those who identified with these perspectives were also represented at the convention. Thus, they did not all share the visceral sense of land hunger that characterized Zapata’s movement, nor its egalitarian philosophy. But they had been radicalized by the tragic fate of President Madero, and the recent experience of several years of revolutionary upheaval, including Zapatismo.

Thus many in this loose camp were moving beyond the broad, longstanding current in Mexican politics of middle-class liberal reform, and the relatively limited program of rolling back the influence of central government. They had become sympathetic to ideas of radical change, including land redistribution and expanding labor rights. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly clear that for Mexico to progress and carry out these important reforms, the entrenched privileges of the past had to be broken, including among the landlord class.

Carranza’s general Álvaro Obregón would fall into this category, as would many others. These radicals were not explicitly anticapitalist, but were certainly disgusted with the capitalists that Mexico had. They did not believe that either campesinos or workers should rule, but they did believe that campesinos and workers should be granted significant reforms. These radical reformers have been described by historians and their contemporaries as Jacobins, a reference to the radical middle-class camp in the French Revolution.

They faced a choice at the convention: Carranza was a landlord, personally hungry for power, and clearly committed to limiting change in Mexico. Villa and Zapata were the representatives of the dispossessed campesino and plebian forces in the revolution, and were pressing change forward. At first blush, the choice would seem obvious—and many radical reformers in fact went with Villa and Zapata. Lucio Blanco, the aforementioned military officer who attempted land reform against Carranza’s wishes, was one of them.

But their support for the campesinos would also have its limits. The Jacobins’ middle-class vision of change still remained one carried out from the top down, by the enlightened few, via legalistic, administrative means. They were never keen on the campesinos’ unruly and unrestrained approach to reform. Showing up at the hacienda, shooting the administrator, and freely distributing the land—this was out of line. The appropriate decrees had to be issued, documents signed, agronomists consulted. Villa and Zapata’s armed campesino and plebian forces were not the vehicle that could create a nationwide apparatus to carry out orderly, systematic change from above. Moreover, when Carranza radicalized his program soon after the convention—declaring his support for land distribution and labor rights—the middle-class “instincts” of the Jacobins pulled them closer to the bourgeois Carranza, and away from the coarse and undisciplined armed campesinos.

It would be more accurate to say, in fact, that they were drawn to Carranza’s general, Álvaro Obregón. It was he that impelled Carranza to radicalize his program, against the narrow-minded landlords’ own wishes. As historian Adolfo Gilly put it, the success of Obregón’s approach “depended on the partial incorporation of its enemy’s [Villa and Zapata’s] program.” The point, however, was not just to defeat Villa and Zapata. Presidents Díaz, Madero, and Huerta had tried this—basing themselves on a program of status quo for the rich—and failed. For Obregón the goal was also to break the other enemy: the old Porfirian landlords and their allies.

To do this required mobilizing the support of workers and campesinos by granting them significant concessions. Obregón sought to build a strong, centralized national regime that could bring an end to the revolutionary upheaval, grant social reforms to the masses across the country (to not do so, as Carranza wished, would be political suicide), and reestablish Mexican capitalism on a sounder basis. All this also meant crushing the resistance of the remaining reactionary elements of Porfirian society, who had continued to exert their influence under both Madero and Huerta. For Obregón and his radical Jacobin allies, the forces of Villa and Zapata would not be able to accomplish these combined tasks.

Moreover, Zapatismo posed a political threat to the Jacobins’ program. They had their own independent revolutionary agenda for the land, and were carrying out change from below, on their own initiative, not under the direction and control of the centralized authority Obregón wished to build. Zapata also had a powerful military ally in Villa. Ultimately, despite their differences with Carranza, Obregón and many other radicals made their choice following the convention: while significant social reform was needed in Mexico, it could only happen from the top down, by means of a strong, centralized national government. Only this could guarantee a return to social stability.

So who was the influential Obregón? His personal background was that of a small-scale commercial farmer and entrepreneur. He was from Sonora, a booming northern state that had developed, likely more than anywhere else in Mexico, that mobile, entrepreneurial, ambitious (and angry) middle class that characterizes many modern capitalist economies. But his relatively humble origins and work experience meant he, unlike the aristocratic Carranza, was not that far removed from the country people he led. He spoke a bit of Yaqui and Mayo, the languages of the indigenous people in Sonora, and recruited their bowmen and scouts into his forces, while others scoffed. Obregón had also had his military successes fighting against Huerta, mainly in the northwest, but he was far more cautious and deliberate than the more audacious Villa. Indeed, unlike Villa, whose approach to combat was often improvised, Obregón became an avid student of military strategy and tactics. And while Villa had the grassroots appeal of the tough plebian bandit, Obregón was the populist self-made man who could also rally his troops and command their respect. In time, they would face one another on the battlefield in a series of clashes that were crucial to the outcome of the revolution.

Yet while Obregón was cautious in military matters, he did display a high degree of audacity in the area of political maneuvering. Prior to the convention, for example, Carranza had sent Obregón to negotiate with Villa to try to paper over their differences. It was a risky move: Villa was not only angry with Carranza, he was a highly unpredictable character. An in fact, Obregón almost lost his life, not once, but twice. Obregón was welcomed by a military parade at Villas’s headquarters. But while the two men were conferring, Carranza ordered the rail lines from Chihuahua to Mexico City cut, in a clear attempt to hem in Villa’s forces. Rightly suspecting treachery by Carranza, Villa ordered his messenger, Obregón, shot. As Obregón awaited his fate in a prison cell, Villa changed his mind. Obregón was made the guest of honor at a banquet. Villa and Obregón went so far as to produce a joint letter to Carranza proposing an accord. But as Obregón was departing, Carranza rejected their letter. The angry Villa again ordered Obregón shot. By this time, however, the wily general had already escaped. Meanwhile, he had kept his cool throughout, and used the whole affair to suss out the state of Villa’s forces, the loyalty of his officer corps, their political inclinations, and so on.

The two men had thus come to know each other well, but the direct, armed confrontation between them would come later. Following the convention, Zapata and Villa were the clear victors. Carranza, Obregón, and their troops—now officially in revolt—retreated from the capital toward the coastal city of Veracruz. The city was eventually handed to them by the departing U.S. occupation forces. It was another step in the clumsy policy of the United States: although Washington did not want Carranza as president due to his strident nationalism, they also wanted a counterweight to a possible future President Villa. In the end, almost nothing they did turned out as they expected or wished.

With their rivals in retreat, Villa and Zapata met for the first time, in the town of Xochimilco, just south of Mexico City. Their combined forces then entered the nation’s capital. It was surely the high point of the campesino struggle during the revolution. But the Constitutionalist camp was far from defeated, even as they fled to the coast. The key remaining potential ally were urban workers, and more specifically, the increasingly organized working class in Mexico City. Crucially, Obregón saw this clearly, whereas Villa and Zapata failed to. The former was able to secure urban workers’ allegiance to his banner, whereas the campesino wing of the revolution did not. It was a political development that helped tip the overall balance of the struggle in Mexico.

Provincialism vs. nationalism
Over the course of 1915, Mexico City would change hands various times, as both factions jockeyed for position and territory. One such occasion was especially significant. In February 1915, before he was engaged in action against Villa, Obregón briefly retook Mexico City from Villa and Zapata’s convention government. During this period he obtained the political and military support of the main trade union federation in the capital, along with that of other labor organizations. In other words, he quickly accomplished something that Villa and Zapata could not do—or would not do—in the time when they held the capital previously. How did this happen? Obregón was certainly politically astute, but it was hardly due to this fact alone. Nor was it simply a question of bad judgment on the part of Villa and Zapata.

Ultimately, the steps taken by either side reflected the social composition of the different camps, and the overall political approach and outlook that characterized them and their leaders. The key was that one camp—the forces of Villa and Zapata—held to a parochial or provincial political perspective, one focused on local affairs over national ones. What occurred beyond their respective provincial confines was not as important to them. The other camp—Obregón and Carranza’s—had a national perspective, focused on carrying out their program over the whole country, and building a powerful state to this end. Villa and Zapata had a track record of radical reform, broader popular support, and, by extension, more men under arms. But their local outlook made it very difficult for them, in various ways, to carry out their agenda on a wider scale.

In contrast, the rump Constitutionalist camp was able to translate their broader perspective into a more effective political and military force. Put simply, Obregón could tell potential allies, including the working class, that, “We will promise reforms to you; we will begin to implement them where we have power; we will make it happen nationwide; and we will ultimately back it up with legal, government authority.” The zeal and effectiveness of the radical Jacobin officers around Obregón made these promises seem like more than just words. Villa and Zapata might have had the means to pursue this more ambitious road, but they did not have the political inclination. In what follows we explore why.

First, where did this political provincialism or parochialism come from? On the one hand, it reflected one of the key motive forces of the revolution already discussed: a desire for local control, regional autonomy, and an end to central government interference. This was, in short, the politics of “leave us alone”—and it meant a lack of concern with national political questions and government. Ambitious national programs of reform, of whatever stripe, carried with it the likelihood of additional meddling by the national state. There were rural people, accustomed to the decades of how this operated under the Porfirian dictatorship, who wanted none of it. And they were well-represented in Villa’s camp. For them, it was better to fight for the right to manage your own affairs within the patria chica, the small homeland.

Political parochialism also reflected the nature of rural campesino life of this era. Their day-to-day focus was very often on the land, soil, rainfall, planting, and harvest. When this life was under threat, campesinos in Mexico had shown they were capable of tremendous political radicalism, best represented by Zapatista Morelos. But leaders of volunteer campesino armies—like the Zapatistas—also had to recognize that major offensives could not happen at planting and harvest time. The campesinos’ way of life consistently pulled them back to the patria chica. For them what happened in Mexico City should, in the best of circumstances, be of little or no concern.

Indeed, Pancho Villa probably wanted more than anything to return home: to live as a popular caudillo, a benevolent patron for the people of Chihuahua. He fought against the obstacles to this goal, not for national power. With his hopes for “his people” satisfied, Villa would gladly have left government to the men in starched collars. Then he could settle into a nice ranch, devoting himself to raising horses and trading war stories—which for a time, toward the end of his life, he did.

But to do this he had to defeat his enemies. His approach was a very pragmatic one: assemble the largest army possible. Villa gathered whatever forces would ally themselves with him, of various political stripes; he didn’t seem to mind who jumped on board. He also wouldn’t force them to adopt the kinds of radical changes he had made in Chihuahua. Villa believed he could command them all via his successful military leadership and personal charisma, rather than by means any particular ideology or political program. For Villa, assembling the broadest possible forces under his command was the key source of strength, and it served him well in the fight against Huerta.

This also meant that Villa’s movement eventually became a grab bag of all those opposed not to the old Porfirian rich, but specifically to Carranza and Obregón. This included northern landlords, even ones opposed to land reform, who were rivals of Carranza; representatives of the Church, who feared the anti-clerical bent of Obregón and his followers; and even former Federal Army officers—after being given no quarter by Villa during the fight against Huerta, they were welcomed into his camp. Indeed, Villa’s most prominent military adviser was a former Federal, Felipe Ángeles. He was a brilliant officer and artilleryman, but for much of his life no friend of land reform and social radicalism. Ultimately, these heterogeneous elements hoped to ride the Villista horse to political influence once the dust settled. Meanwhile, Carranza and Obregón were able to paint Villa as a “reactionary” among some potential allies—mainly for having allowed so many reactionaries into his ranks.

Most importantly, this extremely mixed social composition was another factor limiting the ability of Villa’s movement to articulate a national program. The movement’s heterogeneous makeup meant that it could not agree on a great many things, aside from defeating Carranza and Obregón. As Friedrich Katz has noted, “Where there was consistency in the [Zapatista] South, there was ambivalence in the [Villista] North.” This “broad Church” would eventually come to be the undoing of Villa’s movement. As we will see, it could not govern nationally. Its internal divisions would paralyze the convention government: when it came time to put forward concrete political solutions and reforms—even land distribution and labor rights—the right wing of Villismo was a continuous obstacle.

Moreover, its uncertain politics couldn’t win the battle of hearts and minds with Obregón’s forces, which increasingly focused on carrying out a concrete set of social reforms across the country. Thus while Villa continued to broaden his camp, Obregón focused his program. Obregón’s first concern wasn’t the size of his coalition or his army. It was its adherence to a consistent political agenda. He wanted a force that could take and hold national power, and carry out its objectives nationwide.

These differences were not yet in evidence when the convention swung to Zapata and Villa, and ostracized Carranza. It was the forces of the former that triumphantly occupied the nation’s capital in December 1914. But they didn’t use this opportunity to secure an alliance with the working class and urban poor. Why? It was again linked to this question of political provincialism.

Villa and Zapata in Mexico City
For the Zapatistas, the occupation of Mexico City after the convention was not a first step toward creating and administering a national regime. Taking the capital was simply a step to beat back the forces that would not let them carry out land reform as they wished in Morelos. Zapata himself had little interest in political affairs in Mexico City: he remained in the capital only briefly, staying at a modest hotel near the train station. He even declined to address the crowds gathered to hear speeches at the National Palace. Urban politics and urban society were a largely foreign place for the Morelos campesinos, Zapata included. In one noted incident, Zapatista soldiers, approached by a fire engine in the capital, attacked it—they mistook the giant red truck, its bells ringing, for a machine of war.

Meanwhile, the convention government, despite the radicalism of many of its members, was in disarray. The Zapatista left maneuvered, debated, and wrangled with the more conservative faction from Villa’s extremely broad movement. In effect, they had set up a parliamentary talk shop in the midst of a civil war: there was no unified political direction coming from the convention. Shockingly, it took the body more than a year to promulgate a nationwide land reform law, by which time their armies had already put to rout. Obregón had secured such a decree within his camp within a few weeks.

More importantly, when the convention did issue laws and decrees, they couldn’t really enforce them. The convention did not develop effective political, administrative, or military resources of its own. Indeed, Zapata and Villa were so uninterested in questions of urban politics that they simply handed over various duties in the capital to past Porfirian officials and bureaucrats, including the former chief of police. Meanwhile, the bulk of the convention’s military forces—under Villa and Zapata—soon returned to Morelos and Chihuahua, focusing on reinforcing their home bases. Significantly, when a demonstration of working-class women came to the convention demanding relief and bread, all the delegates were able to do was to take up a personal collection among themselves. Obregón would take a very different approach when he retook Mexico City.

Another factor limiting working-class support for the convention was the chaotic nature of Villista authority in the capital. It was related to the lack of centralized discipline around a clear political program that characterized Villa’s camp. This led to a form of arbitrary, lawless rule when his troops were billeted in Mexico City. Villa’s “rowdies” soon went on repeated rampages in the capital, principally directed against the rich. Homes were ransacked and looted, wine cellars emptied, hotels and restaurants trashed, cars seized and taken on joy rides—all accompanied by a great deal of shooting and revelry. Wealthy residents were kidnapped and extorted for ransom, and a significant number of summary executions took place.

None of this helped win them many supporters among the urban working class and the poor. It was not that the latter had much sympathy for the rich. But in a city increasingly beset by hunger, lack of fuel, and overall insecurity, the lawlessness of Villa’s officers stoked fears among many beyond the wealthy elite. Most importantly, kidnapping or shooting a few rich people for their money was not part of a clearly articulated policy that could actually help the poor and working class—and they recognized this.

Villa and his officers were undoubtedly hostile to the old Porfirian elite, but not especially concerned, politically speaking, with support from Mexico City workers. In addition, a good number of the Villista officers were highly ambitious and acquisitive. While they were certainly anti-government rebels, they were not consistently animated by an egalitarian outlook. In a sense, they held on to an influential aspect of middle-class thinking: the powerful desire for individual self-advancement, unrestrained by others. The influence of this perspective was limited in the case of the Zapatistas: the close connection between their struggle to the fate of the villages as a whole meant that the advance of any one campesino was seen intimately tied to that of others. Thus while some of the lawless Villista behavior could be characterized as plebian revenge, some of it was also a product of middle-class resentment, personal ambition, and greed.

In contrast, the Zapatista campesinos—politically disciplined in a way by their collective village-based movement—were reported to be both humble and respectful of the capital’s residents. But the patria chica was still where the their political attention lay, not in making changes in Mexico City. The campesino troops, whose struggle focused on their local villages, did not want to fight (or legislate) far from them. Friedrich Katz has described Zapatismo as “well-nigh invincible at its center, but virtually ineffectual beyond its confines.” The Zapatistas were like the sports team that performs exceedingly well at home, but relatively badly on the road. Obregón’s agenda, in contrast, was all about winning on the road.1 This meant not focusing on one “home” region, but aggressively exporting the Constitutionalist agenda to various parts of the republic.

The political approaches of the two camps could not have been more different. According to historian Alan Knight, for the Zapatistas the taking of Mexico City was “a painful necessity, dictated by the strategic needs of Morelos.” For Obregón’s camp, the eventual taking of Morelos by force was also a painful necessity, dictated by the strategic needs of national power. Despite his setback at the convention, and his reduced forces, Obregón took the military and political initiative.

Case in point: shortly after leaving Mexico City, the Constitutionalists assembled armies and dispatched them to some of the more remote southern states of the republic: Tabasco, Yucatán, and Chiapas. The forces were led by some of their most radical Jacobin officers: Francisco Múgica, Salvador Alvarado, and Jesús Agustín Castro. The far south of the country had seen little revolutionary upheaval: in certain regions, campesinos labored on haciendas under semi-slave conditions of debt-bondage. Rather than make deals with local elite interests and power brokers, the Constitutionalists attempted to break them, and gain support among the masses. In regions they conquered, the Jacobins abolished debt-bondage; minimum wages were set; forced loans levied on the rich; public works and education projects established; old caciques (political bosses) were jailed; land distribution programs initiated; and trade unions and peasant associations were set up and supported—as long as they remained loyal to the new regime. As Alvarado famously declared of the Yucatán campesinos, “give them lands, and we bind them to Mexico.” He added that the goal was “creating real interests for them which they owe to the Revolution.”

The taking of the Yucatán, meanwhile, guaranteed a steady stream of cash for the Constitutionalist coffers, due to the region’s high export revenues. The same was true when the Constitutionalists took the gulf port of Tampico, a major center of oil production. Following the above pattern, the Tampico was successfully held not by gaining the support of the oil and shipping companies, but by granting major concessions to the city’s oil and dockworkers unions. Increased taxes on oil exports, meanwhile, went from less than half a million pesos annually to more than twelve million, also filling the Consitutionalist war chest. The next step was to take this approach to Mexico City.

Obregón and the working class
Where Villa and Zapata were by and large politically uninterested in the labor movement and the poor of Mexico City, Obregón consciously wooed them. He was clearly far more attuned to day-to-day working-class concerns in the city. Upon retaking the capital in February 1915, he quickly set up a Revolutionary Junta for Aid to the Public, to distribute food and cash relief. To fund the effort, a half a million pesos was immediately demanded from the Catholic Church, and a similarly large sum from the businessmen of the capital. When both groups balked, their representatives were summoned to a meeting at the National Palace, and immediately placed under arrest. The Church, Obregón told the capital’s residents, “which gave forty millions to the execrable assassin Victoriano Huerta…today has not even half a million for our needy classes.” Meanwhile, food speculators and price gougers were also arrested, and made to sweep the city’s streets. This approach was a step ahead of Villista “rowdyism”: Obregón was using his military strength to institutionalize popular, immediate political changes at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas responded to Obregón’s retaking of Mexico City by attacking and cutting off the capital’s water supplies—a potential disaster for the poor in terms of thirst and disease.

Obregón’s greatest coup, however, was with the Mexico City labor unions. The most important alliance he forged during his brief stay in the capital was with its main labor federation, the Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the Global Worker).2 It is often described as an anarcho-syndicalist organization: this is overstated, but its publications and many of its leaders were influenced by contemporary anarchist doctrine. It was founded in 1912 as an organization largely composed of skilled workers and artisans, and intended as a “Center for the Doctrinaire Dissemination of Advanced Ideas.” The Casa thus had an initial focus on the sort of education and cultural improvement that characterized the many mutualist organizations among skilled laborers. Working-class attendees at its early events often wore jackets and ties. But the Casa also advocated “direct action” by workers, and a rejection of political activity, as befitted the anarchist influence within it. That said, it still had little experience with either.

Workers in Mexico City had begun organizing confidently with the political opening under Madero: in 1913, the Casa successfully called the largest May Day march in Mexican history. Even after Madero’s fall their work continued, including a march presenting demands for an eight-hour day and a six-day week to the Huertista Congress. They focused on the economic struggle rather than joining the armed revolt, and Huerta allowed them to operate legally for most of his rule. But it was in the months after Huerta’s defeat that the ranks of the Casa grew significantly, as workers increasingly began to join unions, and they affiliated with the Casa. By the time of the split at the convention, the Casa claimed 52,000 members in twenty-three affiliated unions. The numbers may have been exaggerated, but the change was significant. It was no longer a group of skilled workers, but also had a large component of industrial and unskilled labor. When Carranza first arrived in the capital, the Casa presented its demands for labor reform to him, which Obregón seized upon to radicalize the Constitutionalist program.

Later, upon retaking Mexico City, Obregón went to the Casa almost immediately. He ordered a wealthy convent confiscated, and it was given to the Casa for its own use, along with a printing press belonging to an influential Catholic newspaper. Later the Jockey Club—a longstanding institution of Porfirian high society—was also confiscated and made theirs. They were also given cash to distribute to unemployed workers. But Obregón intervened directly to assist labor struggles as well. One important ongoing conflict, for example, was by electricians at the Mexican Telephone and Telegraph Company. The convention had been unable to resolve the strike during its rule in the capital. Obregón, in contrast, simply expropriated the company and put the union in charge of its management. A young trade unionist name Luis Morones was made the boss of the enterprise.3 These moves by Obregón were both popular and impressive among workers. One Zapatista General made note of this key difference between the camps, saying that, “the enemy is growing, winning the sympathies of the People, on the account of our apathy.”

So what did Obregón want? Ultimately, not just popularity, but military support. His agitators were relentless in trade union and worker meetings. In February 1915, at a meeting of sixty-seven leaders of the Casa, after much debate, it was decided to offer support to the Constitutionalists. Later, a general meeting of three thousand workers ended without a clear agreement. The organization was divided, but the pro-Obregón elements in the Casa leadership went forward. They cemented the alliance, and formed volunteer Red Batallions, composed of workers, to join the Constitutionalists in the fight against Villa. Some five to seven thousand workers eventually signed up, a significant number.

How did this happen? What about the anarchist influence in the Casa? Some argue that the workers were just deceived, or outmaneuvered. This is far too simple: for workers and their leaders there was something compelling about Obregón’s arguments, as against the more anarchist ideas in play in the movement. For the pro-Obregón Casa leaders, the Constitutionalists’ policies offered the best chance to expand labor’s reach in various parts of the country where they previously had little influence. Some also saw the Pact as a gamble of sorts: they knew it wouldn’t last forever, but it could put them in a much stronger and more influential position when the civil war was over. The Casa was growing by leaps and bounds, and they wanted to seize the opportunity. And this they did, aggressively organizing unions in the cities taken by the Constitutionalists, much to Carranza’s annoyance.

Meanwhile, the anarchist-influenced arguments against any political involvement were ultimately insufficient, and unconvincing, when political questions were clearly on the agenda for the working class. There was a major civil war underway in the country, and workers became convinced that they should ensure that its outcome was favorable to them. That workers should maintain their neutrality, or that all sides should lay down their arms—the principal counterargument to Obregón—failed. Indeed, it’s not unfair to say that the Jacobin agitators allied with Obregón ran circles around the more anarchist figures in the Casa.

But why not ally with Villa and Zapata? From a Marxist standpoint, the best course for the proletariat would surely have been to ally with the peasantry. This is true, but this approach was not on the table, for reasons specific to the historical moment. Some of the factors in why Villa and Zapata didn’t gain the sympathy of workers in the capital have already been discussed. Obregón and his allies were also making some progress in painting Villa as a “reactionary,” given some of the unsavory characters in his camp. In addition, the anti-political anarchist milieu in the Casa leadership would not push for the egregiously “political” alternative of allying with the forces represented by Villa and Zapata, under the umbrella of the convention.

That said, the responsibility shouldn’t just rest with anarchist ideas. At this stage, the classic alliance of the proletariat and peasantry was, in a sense, still a twinkle in Lenin’s eye. Much of the left internationally, of various stripes, had not arrived at the conclusion that a progressive urban social class like the working class should ally with, and make concessions to, a “backward” and “pre-capitalist” class like the peasantry. Lenin himself was criticized for it by other Marxists, even when it led to victory in the Bolshevik Revolution.

Another frequent question is whether this alliance with labor made a difference in the revolution and to Obregón’s victory. Historians rightly point out that the Red Batallions were composed of relatively raw recruits, and may not have been a major military factor. But this approach fails to look at the question politically: what if workers and their unions had cemented an alliance with the other side, with Villa and Zapata? It would have dealt a serious blow to Obregón’s efforts, and he knew this. At minimum it would have been difficult for him to maintain his military “rear” and his supply lines while he challenged Villa. But even more importantly, in political terms it would have made his plans for national control a difficult proposition, if facing the active opposition of the working class of the capital.

None of this, however, was to be. With his working-class reinforcements, in the spring of 1915 Obregón marched out to face Villa on the plains of the Mexican north.

The Constitutionalists prevail over Villa
The showdown between Villa and Obregón—undoubtedly Mexico’s two best generals—had been expected since the bitter split at the convention the previous year. Obregón made the first move against Villa, but he was deliberate: his troops advanced carefully, maintaining their supply lines through Mexico City and Puebla, to the Constitutionalist headquarters on the coast in Veracruz.

Harassing Obregón’s rear and interrupting his supply lines was the Zapatistas’ job. But they failed to do this, much to Villa’s frustration. Puebla had been allowed to fall to the Constitutionalists, and the Zapatista troops had lost interest in far-flung campaigns with seemingly distant goals. Their focus was back on Morelos: they were busy carrying out a social revolution in their domains. The remaining hacienda lands in the state were distributed to local villages. The region’s sugar mills were collectivized, and placed under Zapatista control. Zapata’s public declarations became more and more radical, in part under the influence of the left-wing intellectuals in his camp: he spoke of the goal of “socialism” in Morelos. He also began issuing appeals to the urban working class, although it was in many respects too late.

Zapata was nonetheless carrying out the dream he had fought for. He spent much of his time administering the process of land distribution and resolving village conflicts. He tried to convince the campesinos to grow sugar for sale, rather than subsistence crops, to help develop the region. But he also spent his time hanging out drinking in village squares, betting on cockfights, attending (and performing in) rodeos, and apparently having multiple romantic affairs. For the moment, life seemed to be peaceful and relatively prosperous in Morelos.

But this was only possible because the attention of the Zapatistas’ enemies was focused elsewhere. Beyond Morelos, the war was being joined against Villa. Obregón’s forces were still outnumbered, but his strategy was based on one key thing he knew about his rival: that Villa could not resist the challenge of a straight-up fight. Villa’s military advisers—including the savvy Felipe Ángeles—counseled patience: the key was to harass Obregón forces, and allow him to extend himself farther and farther into the north seeking out Villa’s army. It was better, they argued, to wait and fight on your own terms, rather than on your enemy’s. But Villa would have none of it. He later recalled,

If I fell back before Obregón, or clung to what’s called the defensive, the prestige of my troops and my own reputation would suffer in the eyes of the enemy. After all, when…have we let the enemy tire himself out looking for us in our territory? When have I not gone out to fight him, shattering him with my momentum, putting him to rout?

Villa was, if anything, consistent. But it made him predictable.

The troops first met near Celaya, in the central state of Guanajuato. But Obregón’s plans—or at least his part in them—were almost destroyed by chance. Overlooking the upcoming scene of battle with this general staff, he was surprised by a sudden Villista artillery attack. The men fled to the trenches, but a shell exploded near Obregón, blowing off his right arm. He was quickly losing blood, and believed himself to be done for. Obregón drew his service revolver and put it to his temple, to give himself the final coup de grace. He pulled the trigger, and his gun sounded: Click. And again: Click. In one of those chance events on which history turns, Obregón’s assistant had forgotten to reload his pistol after cleaning it the night before. Obregón was rescued, and his wound successfully treated. The famous arm, years later, would end up preserved in a monument to Obregón in Mexico City.

Obregón henceforth led his troops with one arm. And in several hard-fought battles at Celaya, and later León, his forces routed the famed Northern Division. Villa’s repeated furious frontal attacks often came close to succeeding, but they were ultimately repulsed by Obregón’s well-entrenched troops, and then decimated by his astute counterattacks. Villa was in full retreat, his men deserting, and towns in Chihuahua began falling to the Constitutionalists. After regrouping his remaining forces, Villa attempted to open another front by attacking at the town of Agua Prieta in neighboring Sonora. This also ended in defeat. The town had been secretly reinforced by troops passing though the United States. Following Villa’s military setbacks, Washington had finally elected, reluctantly, to endorse Carranza.

It was clear to all that Villa had been beaten—except to Villa. He was offered amnesty for his remaining men, and even exile in the United States, but he refused. He was far too proud for that. And so Villa returned to the place where he began: guerrilla warfare. He was no longer the great patron of Chihuahua, but with a much-reduced band of hard-core loyalists he continued to fight. On this terrain he could not be beaten, and he would reappear to trouble Carranza yet again.

Carranza’s counterrevolutionary intent—and the Jacobin response
Carranza’s path to the presidency was finally clear. He returned to Mexico City in August 1915. Consistent with the landlord that he was, he quickly set out to rein in the social changes that were underway across Mexico, including those being carried out by the radicals in his ranks. This was especially the case in the area of land reform and labor rights.

The social and political circumstances affecting the country at this time went beyond Villa’s defeat and the increasing isolation of the Zapatistas. The nation was devastated and exhausted from years of warfare. Food was scarce and costly, as the disruptions occasioned by civil war had made planting and harvesting impossible in many parts of the country. Various diseases were spreading, especially in the cities, and were killing people in large numbers. Inflation was rampant: both factions had produced their own paper currency, and it was now nearly worthless. The railroad lines were in a state of disarray, where not destroyed. The breakdown in political authority in many regions led to widespread banditry, but now it wasn’t directed against the haciendas and the rich, but against terrified villages and towns.

In this context, the Constitutionalist military was the most powerful institution in the country, and its officer corps the best-organized and most socially cohesive group on a national level. Carranza thus had to maintain a delicate balance: he wished to carry out an unvarnished bourgeois agenda, but he also had to respect the desire for radical reform among many of his young officers, people like Francisco Múgica and Salvador Alvarado, the men who took the revolution to the nation’s south. Obregón was also part of their camp.

So on the one hand, Carranza tossed a bone to the Jacobins: he called a Constitutional Convention—to replace Mexico’s former charter of 1857. As enthusiasts of reform from above, they eagerly took up the challenge of writing a new founding political document for Mexico. At the same time, Carranza attempted to stop—and even reverse—land reform, and to break the alliance with organized labor. The unions that had supported his camp would soon be under attack.

But while this was developing there was still a new constitution to write, and the Constitutionalist radicals set themselves to it. The delegates who met in the city of Querétaro in December 1916 were overwhelmingly educated men of the middle class. There would be no agrarian appeals from Zapatista representatives, as there was at the convention only two years before. But the document the delegates produced—against numerous objections from Carranza—strongly reflected the previous years of popular revolt. The radical wing at the convention was led by the military officer Francisco Múgica. While Carranza’s original draft was a cautious reformulation of the 1857 charter, the revised version, when completed in January 1917, was likely the most radical constitution in the world of its time. Article 123 legalized the right to join unions, to strike, established the eight-hour workday and a minimum wage, abolished child labor, and stipulated a range of social welfare provisions. The famed Article 27—a lengthy and detailed tract on its own—made the expropriation of land by the state legal, nullified the alienations of village land carried out under the Porfirian regime, and mandated the creation and protection of small-scale and communal landownership. Also included were far-reaching measures in education and limiting the power of the Catholic Church.

But words were one thing, and implementation another. The cruel irony was that in spite of the letter of Article 27, or even his previous agrarian law, Carranza was already actively trying to return confiscated properties to the landlords. To this end, all lands that had been seized or nationalized during the conflict were centralized in an office within the executive branch, under Carranza’s direct control. The final decisions effectively rested with him, and his policy from 1916 to 1919 was to return the estates whenever possible. In other cases he granted property not to campesinos, but to many of his own less-principled military officers to secure their loyalty.

Indeed, Constitutionalist generals soon became big landlords in various parts of Mexico. Shortly before his death in 1919, Zapata wrote an angry open letter to Carranza, describing this very process: “In agrarian matters, the haciendas have been granted or leased to your favorite generals; the old estates of the high bourgeoisie, in mmore than a few cases, are taken over by modern landowners who boast epaulettes, a helmet, and a pistol in their belt.” Still others among the officer corps became legendary for their avarice and corruption. This was in part tied to the worldview of the ambitious middle class that had on the outs for so long: in the context of political opportunity, this meant finally getting what was theirs, as the rich had so easily been able to do before. Some enriched themselves through control of transit routes, particularly the railroads; others offered themselves as “protection” for landlords, defending them against expropriation; others engaged in kidnapping or extortion; still others just robbed villages at gunpoint.

Carranza couldn’t achieve his counter-reform everywhere, however: in various parts of the country—not just in Morelos—campesinos were too well-armed and their leadership too strong. But while some who had obtained land during the first five years of the revolution were able to keep it, the process of continued land distribution under Carranza was pathetic. From 1915 to 1920, a mere 173,000 hectares were given to 44,000 campesinos. Recall that an area roughly the size of California had been privatized under the Porfiriato; only 0.4 percent of this land was “officially” recovered and redistributed during Carranza’s presidency.

Meanwhile, the labor movement now faced a central government which, although still weak, had aspirations to establish itself as an agent of the nation’s capitalists and landlords. In spite of the new Article 123, Carranza had already gone on the offensive. “The destruction of the tyranny of capitalism,” he declared, could not be followed by “the tyranny of the workers.” The Red Batallions were disbanded, and the Casa evicted from the Jockey Club. A general strike called for summer of 1916 in Mexico City. demanding that workers be paid in gold rather than paper currency, was put down by force. Carranza went so far as to decree the death penalty for striking, although his Jacobin-influenced military courts were reluctant to convict or carry out the sentences against union leaders. Nonetheless, repression forced the Casa out of existence. Carranza was attempting to set up an unapologetic bourgeois regime, but the reality was that Constitutionalist leadership—and especially the revolutionary army—was still divided.

At the same time, with Villa effectively defeated, Zapatismo now became Carranza’s principal military target. The years from 1916 onward would be cruel and difficult for the people of Morelos. The armies of the new government carried out multiple scorched-earth campaigns in the state, much as Madero and Huerta had done before. The Zapatista rebels were chased into the hills, while entire villages were torched and their residents expelled. In 1918 alone, the population of Morelos declined by a quarter due to emigration, disease, and warfare.

While they could not be fully crushed, Zapata and his movement became increasingly isolated and desperate. The movement began to unravel internally; some of its leaders even began to defect and accept amnesty from the authorities. Others began to raid the villages in order to maintain their forces, much to Zapata’s anger and disgust. Various officers were shot for corruption and conciliating the enemy. Meanwhile, Zapata’s brother—who had always been a bit too authoritarian with his men—was killed in a drunken brawl with one of his officers, who promptly fled and took his troops to join the Constitutionalists. Manuel Palafox, the radical young intellectual, also was cast out. He was secretly attracted to men, and began making sexual advances on the officers at Zapatista headquarters. Zapata—consistent with the homophobic attitudes of his day—was furious, and wanted Palafox shot. Palafox was exiled, and also joined the enemy.

Although weakened, in the end Zapata could only be killed by treachery. In order to survive, the Zapatista movement had begun reaching out to unlikely allies, even ones who did not share their program. The Plan de Ayala was quietly shelved for more moderate appeals. One potential supporter, it seemed, was the Constitutionalist colonel Jesús Guajardo. At one time he had systematically butchered the residents of a Zapatista village who had refused to pay taxes to the national government. Now, he claimed, he wished to defect to the side of the Morelos rebels with his men. It was a sign of Zapata’s desperation that he even took him seriously. To prove his credibility, Guajardo declared himself in revolt, and went so far as to execute 59 of his own soldiers. Zapata was convinced, and decided to meet with him in April 1919. As he approached Guajardo’s camp, however, soldiers pretending to greet Zapata with an armed salute instead opened fire on him and killed him. Although the assassination was never directly linked to Carranza, Guajardo was given a generous financial reward by the First Chief. The agrarian struggle in Morelos would have to continue without its greatest leader.

Carranza’s brutal attempts to reverse the course of the revolution were not only unwelcome among workers and campesinos. They were also repellent to the Jacobin wing of the military, including their most prominent representative, Álvaro Obregón. They believed the consitution of 1917 should not be simply a dead letter; indeed, many of them had helped write it. But they had grumbled and petitioned throughout Carranza’s presidency to little avail. It was clear that while Carranza was able to weaken the popular forces that made his revolution possible, he was never ever able to fully subdue them. After years of upheaval, his refusal to make concessions to the masses, and his efforts to restore the old power of the landlord class, made it difficult for him to consolidate the state’s power. Zapata, Villa, and the unions would simply not go away: it was an unstable, even potentially untenable, situation.

Salvador Alvarado’s maxim should be remembered here: “give them land, and you bind them to Mexico”—not as enemies, but subordinate participants within the political regime. This would guarantee social harmony and stability. The ideology of the postrevolutionary system was already taking shape, in the minds and the practice of the Jacobin military officers. Even the more conservative elements in the army, and former military men, feared a loss of their new-found power and property ownership with the continued restoration of landlord influence in government. And so these military officers—the main organized power on a national level—would turn on Carranza. They would also form a powerful core of the post-revolutionary establishment.

Obregón, meanwhile, had since left his position as minister of war, and was spending his time in civilian life building a commercial chickpea empire in Sonora. But in 1919 he declared his intention to run for president in the 1920 elections. The goal was to right the revolutionary ship, and move away from Carranza’s nakedly bourgeois political approach. Obregón’s campaign for the presidency quickly sought to incorporate all the dissenting factions among campesinos and workers. The Zapatistas, under Zapata’s successor, gave him their backing; later their intellectual Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama would found the Agrarian Party, an important pillar of support for the Obregón government. Luis Morones, the electrician’s union leader, backed Obregón as well, along with his new labor federation, which was established after the defeat of the Casa. Morones also founded the Labor Party, which would become another pillar of the future regime. Obregón was rebuilding the radical Jacobin coalitions of 1915, but in a context where the forces of workers and campesinos were considerably weaker and more conciliatory.

Carranza, however, would not support his former general and his campaign, which threatened his vision of how Mexico should be governed. He declared his support instead for a pro-landlord crony, who would continue his agenda. But when Carranza attempted to undermine Obregón’s candidacy, and later arrest (and perhaps assassinate) him, Obregón called for revolt. The entire armed forces quickly came over to his side. Carranza was nearly alone: despite his attempts to revive the landlords’ political and economic fortunes, the rich still had no forces in Mexico that would fight for them and their representatives. Certainly the army was not among them. As military rebellion swept the country, Carranza fled the capital in May 1920, once again making his way for Veracruz. This time he never made it: he was betrayed by his own guard while sleeping in a remote village, and assassinated. Elections were held later that year, and Obregón assumed power on December 1, 1920.

The final rebel holdout was Pancho Villa. He had continued to fight, briefly seizing towns across the north. He had also developed a visceral hostility toward the United States: after being the clear focus of American attentions—including a Hollywood movie—they had turned on him and supported Carranza. Americans thus became a target. Around this time, one of Villa’s lieutenants captured a team of seventeen American mining engineers working in the north, and summarily executed them all. Villa even conducted a raid into New Mexico, killing a number of Americans and finally provoking a hapless U.S. expedition in pursuit of him. This move was not as crazy as it seemed: it led to an embargo of weapons to Mexico, and ensured Carranza could not get loans from the North. Villa was, at minimum, an interminable pest for the new government.

In exchange for laying down his arms, Villa demanded not just amnesty for himself and his men, but also: a large ranch in Durango (he had already picked it out); a personal bodyguard of 50 men, their salaries paid for by the government; land and cash for his remaining 750 or so loyal soldiers; and that his rank of general be officially recognized. Obregón’s representatives told him to take a hike. And so he did.

Villa saved his most amazing feat for last: he decided on another surprise attack, but to do so required crossing the Mapimi Bulge. The idea was utter madness. Then, as now, the Mapimi was a vast, merciless expanse of bone-dry desert, stretching southward from west Texas. No one had ever done it before, yet Villa somehow did. He and his men left Saucillo, Chihuahua on horseback, arriving a grueling five days later at Sabinas, Coahuila—and successfully attacked the garrison there. Villa then cabled Obregón’s people, informing them of his location, and reiterated his demands. At first they thought the man had finally lost his marbles. Soon they realized their error. They agreed to his demands.

With Villa, the last of the revolution’s armed leaders made his peace with the new state. He had given in, but he had never surrendered, and he had some say in the terms. The same might be said of the campesino and worker struggle during the revolution.

The society that emerged from ten years of conflict was still a capitalist one, but one in which the prerevolutionary capitalists no longer had political power. Landlords had lost the ability to rule, due to the battering they had taken at the hands of campesinos. They were incapable of imposing their will over society, or obtaining its consent to their domination. The resulting arrangement was one that Marxists often refer to as “Bonapartist”: when no social class has political authority—due to defeat and exhaustion, for example—then a military or state bureaucracy fills the gap, in the place of organized class rule. In this case, it fell to the army and its Jacobin leadership to found a new political regime, restore stability, and reboot capitalist development on a changed basis. In this new arrangement, the state would by necessity play a bigger role, and the masses could not be ignored.

But it wasn’t just the rich who were substantially weakened by the bitter conflicts of the revolution. So were campesinos and the working class. They traded concessions from the postrevolutionary regime for a subordinate incorporation into it, through various official, favored mass organizations. It was a state that granted reforms only when pressed, and preferably to subjects who had declared their loyalty and operated within the new system. But workers and campesinos were never successfully transformed into passive lackeys. As historian Alan Knight has noted, the revolution ensured that political participation in Mexico was probably the broadest of any country in Latin America. Bitter agrarian and labor struggles continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The culmination of this process was the agrarian reform decree of President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s—the largest in the history of Latin America, which effectively destroyed the landlords as a class.

Yet the legacy of working-class and campesino incorporation into the postrevolutionary state was a bitter one as well. It was a key means by which the state disciplined and controlled its subjects in the interests of capitalist development. This allowed the state to undermine many of the goals of the revolution, or leave them unrealized. This system has only recently broken up, with results that are yet to be determined. But in this context, a century later, the history and lessons of Mexico’s revolution—large and small—are still significant. At minimum, we can see the political possibilities, and change, that are created by struggle and mass popular revolt. But we can also see the ways that these can be limited and undermined by their enemies, including those who pose as friends.

  1. This metaphor, it should be noted, is taken indirectly from Alan Knight.
  2. This name is also frequently translated as the “House of the World Worker.”
  3. He would later become one of the post-revolutionary regime’s corrupt labor supporters, the first of the so-called charro, or cowboy, union leaders.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John