Understanding the Mexican Revolution

THE MEXICAN Revolution was a defining moment of the twentieth century and one of the most radical and transformative political events in North American history. Yet on the US Left it remains largely understudied and misunderstood. Stuart Easterling’s book The Mexican Revolution: A Short History 1910–1920 can contribute to reversing that trend by opening up a new discussion about the significance of the Mexican Revolution.

The Porfiriato
The saga begins with the thirty-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1910), known as the Porfiriato. Díaz achieved a major objective that had eluded Mexican capitalists for a generation: in a country wracked by civil wars, deeply divided political loyalties, and a tradition of regionalism, he was able to create a strong centralized state that could direct national economic development. The path he chose produced the first social revolution of the twentieth century.  

In a foreshadowing of modern-day neoliberalism, Díaz opened up Mexico’s economy to a flood of foreign investment, which effectively handed over control of the economy to North American and European capitalists. Díaz aimed to spur growth through the integration of Mexico into the North Atlantic capitalist world by exporting Mexico’s rich mineral and metal deposits and diverse agricultural products.

Earlier liberal capitalists like Benito Juárez envisioned national development taking place through breaking up large, nonproductive estates (such as private holdings and church lands) and transferring the land to those willing to exploit it more profitably. Díaz instead allied himself with the church and oligarchy and focused on privatizing ancestral indigenous lands and village commons. His economic advisors, the científicos, hoped to create a massive commercial and export agricultural complex by giving land to the big haciendas, foreign enterprises, and railroad companies to build railways that would link Mexican products to US markets. To contain displaced peasants and minimize political opposition from the domestic capitalists this arrangement subordinated, Díaz expanded the police apparatus and stacked state governments with his cronies.  

Corruption, heavy-handed repression, and rapacious profiteering consolidated an entrenched Porfirian clique that degenerated and became increasingly isolated. As Easterling describes:

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, tradespeople, or poor townsfolk.

While the system functioned for three decades, “when the opportunity presented itself in 1910, these combined political factors—privilege and corruption, abuse of political power, and a lack of political autonomy—would produce armed revolt on their own, even in the absence of agrarian demands.” Linking this political revolt with a mass uprising of the Mexican peasantry produced the Mexican Revolution.

Conditions in the countryside
Conditions for the nation’s peasant majority deteriorated rapidly. About 80 percent of the population lived in villages with a population of five thousand or less; at the outbreak of the revolution, 70 percent of the country’s fifteen million people worked in agriculture. Díaz’s dubious policies set off a massive land grab in rural Mexico, which was further accelerated when in 1883 a law was passed permitting simple acquisition of so-called terrenos baldíos. In theory, these were unused or unoccupied lands. In reality they were used in common by indigenous and mestizo villages. These policies dispossessed tens of thousands outright and threatened many more. A total land area the size of California was shifted to investors and speculators in a few decades.

The hacienda system became more closely linked to the world market and US cities via the railroads, gradually deepening capitalist relations in agriculture. A growing pool of displaced farmers migrated to the cities or, more commonly, became absorbed into the hacienda system as wage workers, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. Others from the pueblos, like those who rallied around Zapata in the state of Morelos, turned to active resistance, forming the backbone of the revolutionary armies that took to the field. The agrarian revolt produced new leaders, such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who took the fight to Díaz.

Citing historian Friedrich Katz, Easterling describes Pancho Villa as “a complex mixture of [twentieth-century] social revolutionary and nineteenth-century caudillo.” He was able to rally landless peasants, ranch hands, unemployed workers, military veterans, and other disparate elements into a fierce fighting force. Adding to his popularity, Villa engaged in frontier justice and radical populism to build support in his base of Chihuahua. This included attacking symbols of Porfirian oppression, carrying out public prosecutions of hated hacendados, redistributing wealth to the poor, and even nationalizing landowners’ properties. Nevertheless, Villa was more pragmatic than ideological:

This meant that he was willing to carry out even highly radical measures when he thought it was necessary for victory. . . .

Villa’s army did not have the cohesive grassroots social base of the Zapatistas. Villa therefore maintained his authority and commanded his army via the methods of the caudillo, the nineteenth-century strongman. The caudillo, broadly speaking, could be characterized as having great personal charisma, courage in battle, skills with both horse and rifle, loyalty to those loyal to him, generosity with subordinates and the less fortunate, and a propensity for the quick and merciless use of violence.

The political weaknesses within the Villista camp, expressed by the lack of a unified vision for a revolutionary transformation of Mexico, meant that the movement would later divide and splinter when confronted with the prospect of governing the nation.

The most advanced political edge of the agrarian revolt was embodied in the Zapatista movement, which functioned as a collective of landowning villages with a common outlook, traditions of mutual reciprocity, and a shared history of resistance. In late November 1911 they produced the Plan de Ayala, a far-reaching plan that proposed a radical alteration of class relations in the countryside. All lands of regime supporters and counterrevolutionaries were to be forfeited.

Furthermore, lands taken from the pueblos through dubious means by any hacendado, including forest land, water sources, or other common areas, were to be returned to the people. To facilitate the expropriation, the revolutionaries constructed popular revolutionary tribunals based on the appointment of local campesinos. The plan—carried out on the ground—was the revolution in practice, effectively liquidating the landlord class as the peasant armies moved through the field.

Despite the Zapatistas’ more developed ideology, they too lacked a national vision that extended beyond the village. The agrarian revolutionary movement, while the largest and most potent military force, was unable to appeal to the urban working classes, an inchoate but emerging power that would come to play a decisive role in the final outcome.

Stages of the revolution
Charting the course of the revolution, Easterling begins with a call to arms by the bourgeois reformer Francisco Madero. As a representative of the subordinated domestic capitalist class, Madero challenged Díaz for the presidency in the 1910 election. The northern bourgeoisie had increased its riches through its access to US markets, but became increasingly restless with the closed political system that shut them out.

Through moderate political reform, Madero hoped to replace the Porfirian clique with far-sighted capitalists who desired more control over national development. He also hoped to open up space for the middle classes to democratize politics and to professionalize the economy. His plan was to lay hold of the Porfirian state, not dismantle it, and gradually reform it from within. For instance, he left the Porfirian military apparatus intact, thinking he could win it over to his side through promotions and blandishments.

Nevertheless, Madero’s initial call to arms to uproot the intransigent Díaz regime quickly got out of his control, emboldening tens of thousands of campesinos across the country to take action. The agrarian revolt had begun, with local movements across the country targeting the landlord class. The specter of social revolution frightened the bourgeoisie, which pulled its support from Madero. As Easterling quotes, “Madero was . . . a thoroughly bourgeois reformer whom the bourgeoisie simply refused to support.” When Madero swung to the right to try to smash what he despairingly called the movements for “amorphous agrarian socialism,” he then lost the support of his radical base.

This opened up space for a reactionary coup from within the old guard. With open support from US ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, Porfirian general Victoriano Huerta toppled and executed Madero. The brutality of the coup and the threat of a reactionary refoundation led a new consolidation of revolutionary forces to close ranks behind Coahuila governor and northern landowner Venustiano Carranza. More significantly, the northern bourgeoisie also united behind Carranza as the best chance of preventing land reform. When the combined revolutionary forces of the north and south defeated Huerta, Carranza then moved to smash the agrarian revolt once and for all.

With Huerta removed, a struggle for supremacy broke out between the forces of Carranza against those of Zapata and Villa. As Easterling shows, this wasn’t going to be resolved in purely military terms, but by which side could win over the urban working class that was beginning to assert itself. Strikes become more commonplace in the latter stage of the Porfiriato, which played a role in destabilizing the dictatorship. “After 1905 . . . strikes were progressively more numerous and militant in certain industries and helped undermine the legitimacy of the regime,” Easterling notes. Despite its militancy, the industrial working class was relatively small, itself a recent product of the Porfiriato.  As a young and politically inexperienced class, it had yet to develop an independent position and trajectory in the revolution. “The most widespread doctrine among workers critical of the Porfirian establishment,” Easterling writes, “remained the Mexican Liberal tradition, with its emphasis on inalienable rights, including freedom of association (which for workers included the right to organize unions), and democratic, constitutional government.”

The Mexican Jacobins
The radical Constitutionalist general and political strategist Álvaro Obregón understood the importance of winning over the working class and preventing any unity with the agrarian radicals. Against Carranza’s wishes, Obregón reached out to the working class when the Constitutionalists held Mexico City. He actively aided workers on strikes, distributed food aid, and redistributed wealth expropriated from the Church and wealthy residents of the city to newly created aid agencies. “Obregón,” notes Easterling, “was using his military power to institutionalize popular, immediate political changes at gunpoint.”

More importantly, he tried to demonstrate in practice that unions would be allowed to grow and thrive in a postrevolutionary Mexico if the Constitutionalist forces emerged victorious. In the end, his intervention succeeded. Several thousand workers joined the Constitutionalist armies in self-described “Red Battalions” and helped defeat Villa’s Division of the North, effectively ending the military phase of the revolution. Once in firm control, Carranza then set out to smash the remaining pockets of resistance and to reverse the land expropriations carried out in the course of the war, restoring the sanctity of private property once and for all.

This “counterrevolution” threw the Constitutionalist camp into crisis. After witnessing a popular revolt that unleashed the aspirations of millions of campesinos, the radicalized middle-class officer corps within the army broke ranks. Led by Obregón, they deposed and ultimately killed Carranza, taking effective control of the revolution. In 1916 they pushed forward a new constitution that laid the basis for expropriating the oligarchy and redistributing land to the peasantry, weakening the Catholic Church, and extending workers the right to form unions and go on strike. For this reason, they assumed the role of the “Jacobin” wing, which began the process of carrying the bourgeois revolution to its conclusion.

The defeat of the right-wing Carranzistas and the radical agrarian Left (Zapatistas and Villistas) then positioned Obregón’s government and those of his successors to turn on and smash the emergent working-class movement. As Easterling concludes, the end result was that all social classes took a beating and that “no organized social group was in a position to exercise a dominant influence over the postrevolutionary state.” The new ruling class, comprised in large part of the military officer corps turned state officials, entrepreneurs, and the nouveau riche, used the state as a means to mediate “class peace” so that national capitalist development could proceed without further conflict. While working-class militancy continued to shape the early stages of the postrevolutionary period, the consolidation of a one-party, authoritarian state that combined fierce repression with substantial concessions was able to strangle the development of an independent labor movement. Mexican working-class politics have yet to recover.

The return to “Porfirian politics,” embodied in the opening and plunder of Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), makes understanding the Mexican Revolution more relevant now than ever. Stuart Easterling’s The Mexican Revolution presents a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of the Mexican revolutionary process and its implications for today. It is written in a refreshing literary style that makes its complex ideas accessible and easy to follow, and reads like a gripping novel that is hard to put down.   

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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