Workers Vanguard No. 1015
11 January 2013
On Marx, Maximilian and Mexico
The following letter was addressed to Jacob Zorn regarding an article based on his forum presentation, “Mexican-American War: Prelude to American Civil War” (WV Nos. 933 and 934, 27 March and 10 April 2009), which is reprinted in the most recent issue of Black History and the Class Struggle (July 2012).
10 August 2012
I followed closely your Mexican-American War article in “Black History and the Class Struggle, No. 22.” I did so because I am a Texan and a former newspaper correspondent in Mexico. I was anxious to know what SL had to say: the group does impressive historical research.
For years I have argued that the Texas revolution was a pro-slavery uprising, and also that U.S. imperialism dates to the Mexican war. Your article convinced me that maybe the U.S. wasn’t ready for imperialism at the time.
However, I have long believed that Marx sided with Maximilian’s invasion of Mexico, writing words to the effect that it would “drag Mexico into the modern world.” I read that many years ago in a Mexican publication. But you didn’t mention that.
I thought it important since Maximilian’s invasion postdates 1854, the date you cite as that of Marx’s last defense of the Mexican War. So I looked in my “Collected Works” set—and found nothing of the kind.
Either I was misled about Marx’s view of Maximilian or you overlooked something. Can you tell me which it was? If I’m in error, I don’t want to continue.
If you are familiar with any sources on Marx/Maximilian/Juarez, I’d also like to know.
Everything we have read by Karl Marx and/or Friedrich Engels opposes the French incursion into Mexico, which set up the rule of Habsburg “Emperor” Maximilian from 1864 until 1867. Indeed, in a November 1861 Daily Tribune article, Marx denounced the impending invasion of French as well as British and Spanish troops as “one of the most monstrous enterprises ever chronicled in the annals of international history” (“The Intervention in Mexico,” Collected Works, Vol. 19).
From 1858-61, Liberals and Conservatives fought a bloody civil war in Mexico, the “War of the Reform.” It was touched off when Conservatives resisted efforts by the government to limit the power of the reactionary Catholic church, including by decreeing the separation of church and state and seizing church property. When the forces of radical Liberal president Benito Juárez emerged victorious yet bankrupt, his government declared a two-year moratorium on paying the country’s foreign debt. This enraged the British, French and Spanish governments (led by Queen Victoria, Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Isabella II, respectively), who reacted by signing the Convention of London in October 1861. With this pact, they pledged to occupy the customs house at the port of Veracruz in order to collect their debts.
In his Daily Tribune article, Marx predicted that “the joint intervention, with no other avowed end save the rescue of Mexico from anarchy, will produce just the opposite effect, weaken the Constitutional Government, strengthen the priestly party by a supply of French and Spanish bayonets, rekindle the embers of civil war, and, instead of extinguishing, restore anarchy to its full bloom.” By January 1862, thousands of British, French and Spanish troops had landed in Veracruz. While the British and Spanish soon withdrew, the French continued their invasion, forcing the retreat of Juárez’s government to the north of the country. Attempting to establish a monarchy in Mexico, the French—with the backing of propertied anti-Juárez Mexican forces—crowned the Austrian Habsburg Maximilian I in 1864.
By 1867, Juárez’s forces had defeated Maximilian, in part with the aid of the United States. The U.S. had recently emerged from victory over the slavocracy in the Civil War—the last great, progressive act of the American bourgeoisie (and the prelude to the emergence of the U.S. over the next few decades as an imperialist power). In a footnote in Volume I of Capital, Marx noted that in Mexico, as in several other countries, “slavery is hidden under the form of peonage.... Juarez abolished peonage. The so-called Emperor Maximilian re-established it by a decree, which, in the House of Representatives at Washington, was aptly denounced as a decree for the re-introduction of slavery into Mexico.”
D.R. seems to be confusing the attitude Marx and Engels adopted toward this incursion with their earlier support to the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-48). Marx and Engels at that time believed—wrongly—that the U.S. invasion would further the development of a modern capitalist Mexico. Thus Engels wrote in 1848 that they “rejoiced” at the U.S. conquest of Mexico, perceiving “an advance when a country which has hitherto been exclusively wrapped up in its own affairs, perpetually rent with civil wars, and completely hindered in its development, a country whose best prospect had been to become industrially subject to Britain—when such a country is forcibly drawn into the historical process” (“The Movements of 1847,” Collected Works, Vol. 6).
Far from promoting capitalist development and social progress, the U.S. invasion of Mexico in the 1840s was in the main driven by the Southern slaveholders’ need to extend the territory over which they held sway. The stage was set for the war when Texas declared independence in 1836, which D.R. aptly describes as a pro-slavery uprising. As Ulysses S. Grant wrote about the U.S. Civil War in his Memoirs: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
Comrade Zorn noted in his forum that industrial capitalism, which was in the process of development, was “then a progressive force, and Marx and Engels believed that one of its most progressive features was creating a nation with a unified working class.” While they condemned the monumental crimes committed by Western powers against the peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas, they initially supported colonial penetration of such backward regions as a vehicle for promoting economic and social modernization. History would subsequently show that even though the advanced countries introduced certain elements of modern industrial technology into their colonies and semicolonies, e.g., railroads, the overall effect was to arrest the social and economic development of those areas.
Marx and Engels would soon develop a very different attitude toward colonialism, expressed, for example, in their defense of the Sepoy rebellion in British-occupied India in 1857-58. Particularly important in prompting the change in their views on the oppression of weak, backward states by stronger, more advanced ones was the major role that Britain’s hold on Ireland played in retarding the political consciousness of the English proletariat.
Having first championed the assimilation of the Irish into British society, in the late 1860s Marx and Engels came out for Ireland’s independence. In an April 1870 letter that Marx wrote to two American followers, S. Meyer and A. Vogt, he noted that “the ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland.” Marx continued: “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” He concluded that “the sole means” of hastening the social revolution in England was “to make Ireland independent.” Revolutionary Marxists carry forward this perspective by championing the national liberation of peoples subjugated by the advanced capitalist (imperialist) powers.
Certainly there was no mistaking as social progress the French intervention installing Maximilian, whose family tree included Emperor Charles V, in whose name Hernán Cortés had conquered Mexico for the Habsburgs in the 16th century.