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Mexico's RevolutionThe state and the Mexican revolution

The Mexican revolution of the early 20th century occupies a special place in history. Mexico’s Revolution Then and Now, by historian James Cockcroft, outlines subsequent people’s movements in Mexico in a vivid way. Review by Phil Sharpe

The Magonista movement, which was named after Enrique and Jesus Magón, led an anarcho-commmunist current that managed to realise some of the aims of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, one of the most progressive of its time. They were pioneering thinkers who championed the rights of women and the indigenous peoples of Mexico, establishing organs of struggle within the working class including Communes that represented the new society within the old.

They worked for world revolution, recognising the historical importance of the Bolshevik revolution. The movement’s legacy is to be found in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation formed in 1994, and in the attempts of workers to oppose neo-liberalism and the transnational corporations. Magón’s philosophy also inspired the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca - Ricardo Flores Magón,  formed in 1997. 

Calls have been made to renew the Mexican revolution that started in 1910 with the popular peasant uprisings. However despite the unrest, the present form of struggle is defensive. This is, in James Cockcroft’s view at least, because:

“Right now the correlation of forces does not favour the protestors. Why is this? There is a long history of corrupt unions and men-on-the make in the political world, combined with clientelism and co-optation. There are divisions in the Mexican left and many defeats. There are deep currents of conservatism and apolitical behaviour in the traditional society.”

The present struggles, he says,  are dispersed, fragmented and often marginalised and lack the political development of unity. This will be required if struggles are to go onto the offensive:  “There will have to be coordination of the fight of workers, peasants, students, women, LGBT activists, Indians, schoolteachers, state doctors and nurses, the urban poor, small business people, eco-activists and, of course, the civil rights movement by immigrants in the United States,” he writes.

The author has understood an important reason as to why the movements in Mexico have not acquired revolutionary dimensions. They are preoccupied with sectional concerns and take place at different times. More significantly, those leading them have illusions in the role of the state and lack strategic clarity. The various struggles may have militant forms and involve broad sections of the people but they lack unifying aims and so remain dispersed. Despite these problems the different types of struggle often involve popular types of participation and are a challenge to the limitations of the existing union leadership. Indeed they can represent the development of a new popular type of leadership that is critical of the existing relation of the unions to the state. However, the various struggles have not acquired unifying methods and aims that could establish a concerted challenge to the hegemony of state power.

In this context the struggle of the Zapatista movement remains isolated and often has a tendency to promote reformist illusions. This is why it is important to learn from the Magonistas. They did not compromise with the state and instead considered that only class struggle and revolutionary aims could realise the success of their aims.

Cockcroft outlines how the history of Mexico has been influenced by the defeat of the Mexican revolution in 1915 because of the splits between the workers and peasants which were exploited by the bourgeois class. The supposed success of the 1917 Constitution was only formal because what was actually established was a state that acted in the interests of capitalism. The only gains of working people were when they managed to wrest important concessions from the state because of the impact of mass struggle. Only when the workers and peasants have been able to act in the spirit of the Magonistas, such as the peasant popular revolution and working class pressure to nationalise the oil industry in the late 1930s and the student rebellions of 1968, has the state made concessions.

The Mexican revolution of 1917 was essentially a bourgeois revolution, but it had a revolutionary anarchist element.  Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the revolutionary peasants was assassinated in 1919, on the orders of the new bourgeois president, Venustiano Carranza. His death was a major setback to the revolutionary aims of the peasants. His Liberation Army of the South fell apart.  The  history of class struggle in Mexico has been based on this legacy of defeat: “In terms of peasant and worker interests, the Mexican revolution was not aborted or ’interrupted‘. It was defeated. On the other hand, the lower classes did not lose the war for their liberation. They lost a battle, but the war continued, here peacefully, there violently, in the ensuing decades,” Cockcroft opines.

Mexico has continued to be transformed by capitalism, and has undergone industrialisation, and, more recently, the impact of neo-liberalism. The class struggle has continued in this context but it has been the ideology of the ruling class to argue that the revolution has been institutionalised by the role of organisations like the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This development has led to clientelism and the attempt to establish corporatist relations between the capitalist class and working class:

“In sum, it was not the Revolution but rather the class struggle that continued. The Revolution was neither interrupted nor permanent. Some peasants, workers and elements of the intermediate classes kept fighting for the Revolution’s original goals but experienced state repression, co-optation, and clientelism. They made periodic attempts at self-organisation through groups independent of the state, that is an adjustment to the new counterrevolutionary conditions. And they continue trying to do that today - and learn lessons from the past.”

Cockcroft concludes that the working class has been incorporated into the operation of the mechanisms of the state because of the influence of the myths about the past. One of the most important myths is the view that the revolution has continued to influence the development of the institutions of the state in the period of the capitalist transformation of Mexico. Instead, Mexico’s development as a capitalist state followed the defeat of popular and democratic revolution in the period 1910-15. The reality was the creation of a low wage economy that was incorporated into the interests of American imperialism, but the mythology was that the popular and democratic revolution on the past had become institutionalised in terms of the process of the creation of a Constitution.

During  the 1930s Depression, this mythology was already undermined by the development of class struggle. President Lazaro Cardenas acted to stabilise the situation by seeking to incorporate the interests of the various social groups within Mexico. He sought political unity between the workers and peasants and the non-comprador sections of the bourgeoisie. In a speech made in 1935 Cardenas accepted that the claims of labour were often reasonable and argued for granting concessions to labour within the possibilities of capitalism. His aim was to incorporate the aspirations of labour within organisations based on the role of the state, and he also encouraged the employers to form corporate organisations. He also supported land reform for the peasants, and nationalised the oil industry under mass pressure of the working class. Cockcroft says:

“Cardenas’s agrarian reform and oil nationalisation helped stabilise the class war, while his organising of the national political party into corporatist sectors of separate constituencies helped provide the political stability needed for the low wage industrialisation policies that followed his regime. Cardenas, and the corporatist state he left his successors, used a specific technique to channel social peace: channel divisions among people into organised competing constituencies along corporatist lines. Workers, peasants, professionals, business people, original peoples, women, students, and the poor were kept as separate as possible, while class, ethnic and gender divisions were blurred by the ideologies of populism, national unity and class harmony.”

In other words, the very act that was mythically presented as the expression of an anti-imperialist revolution was actually the policy designed to stabilise the class divisions within Mexico, and to promote the development of capitalism within Mexico. Indeed it could be argued that the actions of the Mexican regime between 1933-40 represented the interests of counter-revolution to the extent that they consolidated institutional forms of class division mnaking the development of inter-class unity and the promotion of militant struggle very difficult.

Cockcroft is quite adamant that the major aim of the corporatist state established by the Cardenas regime was to repress the class struggle. The PRI used revolutionary rhetoric to co-opt a significant part of the population and repression to crush the more “recalcitrant social activists or leftists”, who were defined as “subversive” thus keeping them in a continued minority status. By invoking the figures of Hidalgo, Morelos, Juarez, Madero, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, Obregon, and Cardenas, the state was always able to accuse its opponents of being unpatriotic or “against the nation”.

However this ideology of consensus and co-option eventually failed. In particular it was undermined by the brutal repression used against the student rebellion of 1968. Now the electoral system is increasingly considered a sham and all political parties are unpopular. The North American Free Trade Agreement ( NAFTA) signed in 1994, has increased poverty and unemployment in Mexico. The “black” economy has mushroomed alongside the “official” economy. The role of the state is to defend the strategic economic importance of the transnationals and the alliance with American imperialism. The impact of pro-corporate globalisation policies led to the revolt of the Zapatistas in 1994 and unrest was also created by the refusal to recognise the victory of the radical Presidential candidate Lopez Obrador in 2008.

In the recent period, women and the trade unions have engaged in militant struggles and are developing new organisations that are not dependant on the patronage of the state. Despite the fact that the state is resorting to the harshest forms of repression in order to maintain its domination in a situation of declining political credibility the parties of the left remain historically weak and unable to contest elections. The “left” is fragmented and often is compromised by its support for the most radical candidate in presidential elections.

In other words, massive discontent with the capitalist system in Mexico is not assuming organisational and strategic clarity. However, the state is no longer ideologically hegemonic because of its association with corruption. The most viable strategic alternative seems to be Lopez Obrador’s call for a welfare state. This is an attempt to renew the corporatism of the 1930s under new conditions. But it is precisely the importance of these new conditions, the influence of neo-liberalism, that undermine the desire to go back in time.

The example of the Magonistas, who argued for world revolution, could be a inspiration for the many struggles seeking to develop a programme of action and change. “The situation in Mexico is very complex and unstable”, Cockcroft says.

“Most of the social movements and independent trade unions have left the political parties behind and become the main force for a radical and even revolutionary change. They are ready to negotiate, but the government doesn’t negotiate; on the contrary it represses. Therefore, say some activists, it is time to create communities of resistance and self-government on the way to taking control of the government - by no means easy, but certainly possible as the peoples of Bolivia and other countries have shown.”

Overthrowing the repressive power of the state is a complex challenge. But Cockcroft reveals that the ideological legitimacy of the state has been undermined by the very character of neo-liberalism and its effects on Mexico. In this context , struggles can acquire increasingly revolutionary dimensions and will no longer be content with being incorporated into the mechanisms of the state. The end of the era of corporatism means that it can be replaced by a revolutionary era if the Mexican people develop the forms of struggle that can facilitate transition to a new post-capitalist future.

15 April 2011

Mexico’s revolution, Then and Now. James D Cockcroft Monthly Review Press New York £11.95

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