Workers Vanguard No. 973
4 February 2011
A Marxist Anaysis of the Mexican Revolution of 1910
The following is a slightly edited translation of an article that first appeared in Espartaco No. 12 (Spring-Summer 1999), publication of our comrades of the Grupo Espartaquista de México. In 1999 Mexico’s ruling bourgeois party was the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, whose seven-decade reign would be broken the following year with the election of Vicente Fox of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN), since succeeded by the PAN’s Felipe Calderón.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a long and bloody process that lasted almost a decade, during which more than two million people—almost 10 percent of the population—lost their lives. The gigantic peasant insurrection against the dictator Porfirio Díaz and its bloody suppression by the bourgeois reaction of Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón are events that had a profound impact on the country and have delineated the features of the Mexican bourgeois regime to the present day. For decades, the Mexican bourgeoisie has benefited from using the symbolism of the Revolution of 1910 to legitimize its capitalist order of exploitation and oppression, promoting a pervasive nationalism that continues to be the main ideological basis for the political subordination of the working masses in the city and the countryside.
The 1988 split in the ranks of the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), which later led to the formation of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, reinforced the old nationalist symbols that had been successfully used for more than 70 years by the decaying PRI to derail and repress class struggle. Subordinated to this nationalism, the reformist left, which feeds illusions in the bourgeois PRD, tries to convince the workers that only “Yankee imperialism” or the current PRI president are their enemies, and not the entire Mexican bourgeoisie as a class. Thus, the bourgeoisie, the PRD and their pseudo-leftist followers try to prevent the workers, youth and poor peasants from struggling against capitalist exploitation, and the working class from turning toward a common internationalist struggle together with the powerful working classes of other countries, especially in North America.
The nationalism encouraged by the bourgeoisie, which seeks to tie the exploited to their exploiters, intoxicates the masses with the lie that there is a “progressive and patriotic” sector of businessmen, politicians and the armed forces that can unite with the exploited and save the country from bankruptcy. The nationalist left, within and outside of the PRD, also helps to encourage class collaboration through the illusion that it is possible to solve burning democratic and social questions within the framework of capitalism. Nevertheless, this confidence in “progressive” sectors of the bourgeoisie and in the possibility of pressuring and reforming the capitalist state is a fatal illusion and a dead end for the working class and the oppressed in the struggle for their emancipation from capitalism.
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 had a tremendous impact in the semicolonial countries of the so-called Third World, which have become even more subordinated to the imperialists and their bloodsucking financial institutions. In growing competition with its rivals in Europe and Japan, North American imperialism continues through its NAFTA pillage to transform all Latin America into its backyard and its supplier of raw materials and semi-slave labor for its manufacturing plants. The generalized discontent over the effects of NAFTA has been shown in increasing social turbulence in Mexico, weakening the control of the PRI and helping to feed the growth of new bourgeois oppositions like the PAN and the PRD.
The hegemony of bourgeois nationalism in the organizations of the workers movement, in the corporatist unions as well as the “independent” ones, is the main reason why there has been no authentic proletarian challenge to the capitalist order. Thus, while most of the unions are still captives under the iron control of the PRI bureaucracy and its enforcers, the leadership of the “independent” and dissident union movement (from the UNT [National Union of Workers] and STUNAM [National University workers] to the SME [electrical workers] and the CNTE [teachers]) feeds illusions in the bourgeois politicians of the PRD or even in “democratic” sectors of the PRI. Nor is it uncommon for meetings of these unions and student marches to end with the singing of the national anthem, which is the anthem of the bourgeoisie. In this sense, the 1994 EZLN Zapatista rebellion, which arose in protest against the annihilation of indigenous villages by the imperialist rape of NAFTA, also reinforced the old nationalist ideology. The petty-bourgeois leadership of the EZLN, subordinate to the PRD, asks [then PRI president] Ernesto Zedillo to “lead by obeying” and demands that the national anthem be sung and the flag honored at all the unions and assemblies they visit. This is the same flag that is carried by the Mexican Army that murders indigenous people and that was saluted by [former PRI president] Díaz Ordaz after he ordered the massacre of hundreds of students in Tlatelolco [in Mexico City] in 1968!
In intransigent opposition to bourgeois nationalism and its pseudo-left apologists, which block the development of conscious, decisive class struggle by the working class, the Grupo Espartaquista de México seeks to bring the program of communism to the vanguard of the workers and youth who want to struggle against the exploitation and oppression of capital. The GEM is dedicated to forging an internationalist Leninist-Trotskyist party to lead the proletariat to power. We struggle together with our comrades of the Spartacist League/U.S. and the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste of Canada, seeking to mobilize the powerful, multiracial North American proletariat against the imperialists and the Mexican bourgeoisie and in defense of all immigrants and the oppressed. As part of the International Communist League, we struggle to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.
The Permanent Revolution
With its nationalist, paternalistic ideology, the Mexican bourgeoisie justifies the social backwardness, rural poverty and illiteracy of millions of workers and peasants, blaming the victims themselves for the ravages of their exploitation. To redirect the dissatisfaction of the masses, the bourgeoisie also incites rotten xenophobic hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-indigenous racism, machismo and homophobia, relying on the willing help of the church. For their part, the bourgeoisie’s arrogant North American imperialist masters portray Mexicans as a weak and lethargic people, using all types of disgusting racist stereotypes, unleashing the terror of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and border vigilantes as well as the racist death penalty. Against all this garbage, the communist program explains that the backwardness and grinding poverty in the semicolonial world are not the result of some “cultural” cause but instead come from powerful historical factors in the development of capitalism.
We communists base our struggle for workers revolution on the program of permanent revolution developed by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. In Trotsky’s perspective, because of the combined and uneven development of the world economy, the bourgeoisies in backward countries are strongly linked to imperialist interests, thus preventing them from carrying out the fundamental tasks of bourgeois revolution—democracy, agrarian revolution and national emancipation. In the face of peasant rebellion and a combative working class, each and every one of these goals would directly threaten the political and economic control of the capitalist class. The democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution, then, can be resolved only by an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. Marxism maintains that there can only be one dominant class in each state. Because the proletariat is the only consistently revolutionary class, as the Communist Manifesto declares, this alliance must take the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, supported by the peasants.
Trotsky was unequivocal that the peasantry cannot play an independent political role. In carrying out the democratic tasks of the revolution, the proletarian state must inevitably make “despotic incursions into the rights of bourgeois property.” Thus the revolution passes directly to socialist tasks, without stopping at any arbitrary “stages,” or, as Lenin put it, without the existence of a “Chinese Wall” between the bourgeois and proletarian phases. The advent of a genuinely socialist society (that is, without classes) can only be achieved on an international scale, requiring the overthrow of capitalism in at least several advanced countries.
That is why we communists base ourselves on the central role of the proletariat and fight for the working class to arise as the leader of the oppressed masses in the cities and the countryside in order to overthrow the bourgeois order. But for the working class to be able to free itself from the exploitation of capital, it is necessary for it to sweep away the ideology of the bourgeoisie and draw its own lessons from the historical event that exploded in Mexico at the dawn of the 20th century. Without a materialist understanding of its own history, the working class, and with it all those oppressed under capitalism, would be condemned to suffer new bloody defeats at the hands of the bourgeoisie. The fundamental task of the Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard, as we intervene to change history, is to take this understanding and the revolutionary program to the working class, fighting to raise its consciousness to the level required by its historic tasks.
The Absolutist Spanish State and the Colonization of America
There was a time when the bourgeoisie played a revolutionary role against the old feudal order and the obscurantism of the Middle Ages. The classic bourgeois-democratic revolutions that broke out in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries had concrete results: the liberation of the peasantry, national independence and unification, the elimination of feudal constraints on markets and industry, etc. Marxism came to this generalization after analyzing the results of several bourgeois revolutions, such as the English Revolution of Cromwell in the mid 17th century, and especially the Great French Revolution of 1789, which is the archetype of the classic bourgeois revolution.
Marxism also pointed out that after this radical period the bourgeoisie stopped being revolutionary. The reactionary course of the bourgeoisie was clearly shown in the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and especially in France, where the bourgeoisie bared its counterrevolutionary teeth when it brutally smashed the proletariat. After that, one sees the European bourgeoisie repudiating its original political ideals, ceding power to the forces of reaction—all because of its fear of the working class.
Spain and Portugal are a special case, because they lagged behind the bourgeois development experienced in several other European countries during those centuries. Spain was the first great unified, absolutist monarchical state to arise in Europe after the Reconquest in 1492, marked by the taking of Granada and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. The victory over the Arabs consolidated the power of the Spanish monarchy as well as the Catholic church, which played a central logistical role in the struggle against the Moors. The Spanish church was the pillar of the Inquisition, which was a reaction against modernization and the Protestant Reformation of Calvin and Luther. Torquemada’s Inquisition also proceeded with brutal terror against the Jews. (This is one of the origins of the anti-Semitism that is deeply rooted in Latin America and in the nationalist and centrist left of today.)
The monarchy unified the church and the army under its banner, and, with the conquest of the Americas, the Inquisition and colonization went hand in hand. Thus, the Spanish state experienced a brief flowering from 1500 to 1550, above all because of the vast plunder wrenched from the American colonies. But this plunder failed to strengthen commercial capital, which was now ascendant in the rest of Europe. The Spanish mercantile class used it for the consumption of luxury goods, and the Spanish monarchy used it to purchase aristocratic titles and vast landed estates. A popular saying from that time captures something of this social reality: “Grandfather, a merchant; father, a nobleman; son, a beggar.” The Spanish monarchy did everything in its power to keep the nascent Spanish bourgeoisie and feudal lords weak and in debt to the throne. Everything passed through the monarchy, which tried to interfere with and control all aspects of economic, political and cultural life.
For the Spanish Crown, the new colonies in the Americas did not represent commercial or settlement expansion but rather tribute-paying protectorates, new sources of royal income that were not much different from the various Spanish provinces. After the brief flowering it experienced through consolidating as a national state, Spain began a downward spiral toward stagnation and decadence. In a short time, the main function of the monarchical state became that of a simple mediator, extracting tribute from the colonies to purchase articles produced in other locations by the manufacturing capital of Britain, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. The Spanish conquerors in the Americas soon became collecting agencies for the throne in Madrid, replacing the ancient Mexicas as collectors of tribute. But this extraction of tribute did not last long, owing to a catastrophic decline of the indigenous population in Mexico, which fell from some 16 million to about a million—in only two generations!
The annihilation of the indigenous population, the result of the brutal exploitation of the encomienda [peonage] system, famine and disease, was accompanied by a great influx of Spanish immigrants. With the impossibility of continuing to extract more tribute, other sources of exploitation appeared. Slowly, the development of a more diversified economy was achieved, one centered on mining, the textile industry and agriculture (dyes, sugar, and coffee, etc.) for the domestic market and for commercial export.
Thus, during the colonial period that lasted three centuries (1519 to 1821), we cannot speak of a capitalist Mexico in the Marxist sense of the term (contrary to the assertions of some pseudo-Marxist authors like André Gunder Frank and Nahuel Moreno, for whom the conquest and colonization of America was fully capitalist). What was implanted in the New World was a mixture of tributary, parasitic despotism with decadent feudal elements and an embryonic mercantile capitalism. All this was woven together and organized by the Spanish Crown in the world market of mercantilist capitalism. (This mixture of several elements is not exclusive to colonial Mexico.)
Colonial domination by a backward Spain stifled Mexico and Latin America at a decisive stage of capitalist development. That was why Mexico could not reproduce the pattern of booming commercial and industrial capitalist development that appeared in the most advanced areas of Europe, something that was also achieved by the English colonists in North America, for example. The fact that some elements of mercantile capitalism can be perceived in the Spanish colonies in that era does not mean that those societies were already organized on the basis of capital. For Karl Marx, capitalism was essentially a mode of production, not a network of overseas commerce (something that had already existed since the time of the Phoenicians).
The War of Independence of 1810
By the end of the 17th century, Mexico was nevertheless the richest of the Spanish colonies, responsible for more than 60 percent of the precious metals sent to Spain from the Americas, especially silver. Over time, the Mexican political economy developed beyond mining, unlike in the rest of Latin America. For example, during the colonial period the income of the wealthy criollo [Creole: Mexican-born of Spanish descent] landowning hacendados was several times greater than that of their alter egos in Peru. By the middle of the 17th century, Mexico City rivaled Spanish cities in size and wealth. The name given to colonial Mexico, “New Spain,” was not an accident.
As Mexico’s economy developed, creole landowners and artisans and the middle and lower hierarchies of the church and the army clashed against the Spanish viceregal power that mediated and blocked their access to international commerce and political power. Many hacendados complained about a law that prohibited indigenous Mexicans from putting themselves more than five pesos in debt. This regulation blocked the transformation of indigenous Mexicans into debt peons—i.e., semi-slave laborers who would toil on large agricultural estates where production was completely for export. This type of Spanish protectionism was consciously maintained as a counterweight to the development of a creole bourgeoisie in Mexico. The Creoles began to demand the right to export agricultural goods as well as free importation of manufactured products and other prerogatives.
This contradiction was the material basis for the War of Independence that broke out in September 1810. This first Mexican revolution (1810-1821) was an attempt to resolve the conflicts between the nascent creole bourgeoisie and the stifling government of the parasitic Spanish monarchy. In his Historia del Capitalismo en Mexico (History of Capitalism in Mexico), historian Enrique Semo points out:
“The despotic-tributary system did not cease to exist by itself. A revolution was needed to help it exit the historical stage, and this is a fact forgotten by those who argue that the revolution for independence contributed little or nothing to the development of the Mexican nation. The rule of the Crown and its viceregal bureaucracy constituted not only a system of external dependence but also an internal form of rule. The task of the turbulent years of 1810-1821 was to destroy it, and this was, to a large extent, achieved. The Spanish official who controlled down to the last detail a society divided into conflicting corporations, who intervened between the owners of the means of production and the laborers, who extracted riches from the colony to enjoy them in the metropolis, who opposed any local enterprise that went against his own or the Crown’s interests had to go, and with him went all vestiges of the encomienda, the repartimiento [system of forced labor], the tribute, and so on. His place was taken by the hacendado, the main beneficiary of the revolution for independence, the natural representative of large private property and local particularism who—in conflict with the church—had to make his interests prevail over those of other social classes.
“The revolution of 1810-1821 did not mark the victory of bourgeois trends over feudal modes, but rather the removal of all vestiges of tributary despotism with its bureaucratic centralism, and the victory of large semifeudal landed property with its parochially oriented caciquismo [cacique means local boss].”
As in all the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the push to declare independence in Mexico was accelerated by the fear on the part of the creole propertied classes and the church of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808. At the same time, news of the French Revolution arrived in Mexico very early. Its language may be found in the struggle for independence, although strangely refracted. The priest Miguel Hidalgo, who initiated the insurrection, roused the indigenous masses with his famous Cry of Dolores, with slogans such as: Long live Religion! Long live our most holy mother of Guadalupe! Down with the usurping government! Long live America! Hidalgo was an educated man and very familiar with the writings of the French Revolution. His letters include phrases like “the sacred fire that inflames us,” “sons of the fatherland,” and “days of glory,” all from the Marseillaise.
But separation from Spain did not come until 1821, when Agustín de Iturbide, who was assigned to smash the rebellion, went over to the side of independence, among other reasons because of his appetite to anoint himself as emperor of Mexico. His slogan was “Independence, unity and religion!” By “unity” he meant unity with the Spanish monarchy—temporarily overthrown by the episodic revolution of 1820 in Spain, which tried to institute the radical democratic constitution of 1812 that called, among other things, for the separation of church and state. By “religion,” he meant defense of the privileges of the Catholic church, the largest landowner and also the largest moneylender in Mexico. Thus, independence from Spain ultimately had a distinctive smell of counterrevolution.
War with the United States, 1846-48
The next 40 years of Mexican history were full of revolt and internal struggle. There were constant clashes between the regional liberal elites, tending to appropriate indigenous lands (which were often controlled directly or indirectly by the church), and a weak conservative center based on the church, the army and the state administration. Between 1821 and 1861, there were 56 presidents in Mexico! It was during this time that Mexico suffered the first intervention by the United States, ordered by President James K. Polk in 1846—an event that presaged the current U.S. colonialist domination and rape of Mexico.
From a demographic point of view, at the beginning of the 19th century Mexico and the U.S. were almost the same—each had about six million inhabitants. (The population of Mexico was actually a bit larger.) But the characteristics of the economic systems in both countries were very different. The political economy of the United States was a transplant of the developed commercial capitalist system in Britain, whereas that of Mexico, as we have seen, issued out of Spain’s backwardness and tributary despotism. U.S. capitalism was very dynamic, exactly the opposite of the Mexican economy. Thus, the northern border of Mexico was strongly attracted to the economic orbit of the U.S. More than 90 percent of the region’s commerce was with that country.
Political pressures on Mexico had already been seen with the settlement of U.S. colonists in the province of Texas. The war of pillage that was waged against Mexico also had much to do with the conflict between the North and the South in the U.S. over the issue of slavery. The Southern plantation slaveowning class, which dominated the weak federal government, feared that the territories acquired from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase would tip the balance of power, and the South would be in a subordinate position. Thus they looked to the north of Mexico for new slave territories. Under the pretext of “independence” for Texas, the U.S. intervened to seize half of Mexico’s territory from one of its many governments, that of Santa Anna. The U.S. Civil War’s prominent Union general Ulysses S. Grant fought in the war against Mexico as a lieutenant. At the end of his life he wrote his memoirs, wherein he wrote of the Mexican war:
“Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
The War of the Reform and the Porfiriato
The war with the U.S., and the constant interference of the European powers, sharpened the conflicts that had dragged on since Independence. In this context, the War of the Reform (1858-61) broke out, undertaken by President Benito Juárez in the name of radical bourgeois ideology and influenced by the principles of the French Revolution. This second Mexican revolution differed from its predecessor because it had more of the features of a movement of the dominant and semi-dominant classes fighting against one another, without the plebeian mobilization that took place during Independence. Juárez established the separation of church and state, forced the sale of the church’s great landed estates and also abolished many of the collective properties of the indigenous peoples. Juarism established secular education and some social services. The Reform aimed for the bourgeoisie to be able to acquire property on a capitalist basis. From the Vatican, Pope Pius IX angrily railed against Juárez and declared “null and void” the laws of the Mexican government, excommunicating Juárez himself.
Under the pretext of the Mexican debt and with the cry of “Religion and Privileges!”, France and Britain intervened militarily in Mexico in 1863, seeking to impose the monarchy of Maximilian of Habsburg. This new rapacious intervention was possible because of the proximity of the U.S. Civil War. France and Britain would not have intervened in Mexico if the U.S. had not been in the middle of a civil war. The North, which had already recognized the Juárez government, preferred to remain “neutral” for fear that France and Britain might recognize the Confederate slave power in the South. Juárez declared war against the invaders, and although at one point he was pushed into the north of Mexico, he finally won the war in 1867. Maximilian was captured and executed.
Juárez became a national hero. His conservative opponents, including the church, were discredited in the eyes of the masses because of their collaboration with the invaders. Nevertheless, in spite of the prestige Juárez gained, the climate of instability not only continued but was aggravated by the war’s bloodletting and a boycott by reactionary forces. Thus, in 1876, General Porfirio Díaz, at the head of a liberal alliance, abruptly took power, installing a military dictatorship that would last more than 30 years. The coup was planned in close collaboration with U.S. interests. Díaz’s peculiar motto was “Little politics and much administration.” And to restore “order” in turbulent Mexico, Díaz threw out the Jacobin ideology of Juárez and achieved an understanding with the church, instituting the so-called “peace of the tomb”: immediate military repression of any peasant or popular rebellion, jail and exile—including the massive exile of entire populations such as the indigenous Yaqui and Mayo of Sonora—to the death camps in Yucatán or Valle Nacional in Oaxaca.
The new Porfirian cabinet tried to shape a Mexican bourgeoisie that might enrich itself by riding on the coattails of the imperialists. To guarantee that the imperialist corporations and the weak Mexican bourgeoisie would benefit from the exploitation of natural resources, the Díaz regime promoted the construction of a vast system of railroads. Díaz tried to do a balancing act between the United States, Britain, France and Germany, setting them against each other in distributing investment concessions. The result was that toward the end of his rule, more than one-fourth of Mexican land was the property of foreigners, as well as 90 percent of industrial capital.
It was the age of the ascendancy of modern imperialism, and the imperialist powers were deeply involved in the Mexican economy. U.S. capitalists were particularly concentrated in mining, railroads and the great cattle haciendas in the north. Yucatán was basically a satellite plantation of the International Harvester Company. The British were involved in the petroleum industry in particular, while the Germans tried to dominate the banking system. For their part, the French had large investments in textiles and amassed large amounts of Mexican government debt in the form of bonds. But with the world financial crisis at the beginning of the 20th century, marked by a precipitous fall in the prices of raw materials, the Mexican economy, sustained by the export of those materials, suffered a tremendous blow, and the Díaz dictatorship became extremely isolated and discredited.
Madero “Unleashes the Tiger”
In 1910 Mexico was an overwhelmingly agrarian country, characterized by a marked particularism and regional parochialism, where the majority of peasants had no land. This development was a direct consequence of imperialist investments and the rapid expansion of the railroads during the Porfiriato, which, by opening up the interior of the country, unleashed an explosion of land speculation and growth of agricultural production for export.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 began as a classic Mexican uprising by five northern governors. Representing the bourgeoisie in that region, which was most closely linked to the U.S. economy, they felt threatened by the decrepit central government of Díaz. With his extensive network of favoritism and cronyism, the dictator had become an obstacle for the bourgeoisie and the object of popular hatred. At the end of Díaz’s long reign, the country was shaken by a profound financial crisis, worsened by corruption, gigantic government debt and a fiscal policy that was intolerable for the population. In the years immediately preceding the revolution, a wave of combative strikes (Cananea, Río Blanco, etc.) and peasant restlessness swept the country.
Francisco I. Madero, the most representative figure in this stage of the revolution against Díaz, came from one of the richest families in the country, one which wanted to compete with companies from the United States. But Madero’s timid campaign to bar the president from running for re-election soon opened the door to a series of peasant revolts that swept like wildfire through the country, as unrest could no longer be contained by the dictator. Díaz soon capitulated to Madero and the northern revolutionary wave, which was powerfully reinforced by massive popular protests in Mexico City. In the elections that followed the fall of Díaz, Madero emerged victorious and anointed himself president. Like a good bourgeois politician, Madero left the military apparatus of the old regime intact, and the essence of his program was a colorless liberalism. Certainly, Madero had no intention of altering social relations in the countryside, nor did he grant any concessions whatever to the working class.
When Díaz left Veracruz to go into exile, he was heard to say in reference to Madero: “I hope he can tame the tiger he let out of the cage.” The tiger he was referring to was the immense peasant uprising. The intra-bourgeois conflict between Madero and Díaz had indeed opened the tiger’s cage. The agrarian question—the land hunger of millions of peasants—was revealed as the most burning and explosive question of the revolution. Madero’s unfulfilled promises quickly provoked conflicts with the forces of Emiliano Zapata, who controlled the state of Morelos. Meanwhile, various strikes broke out in industry.
By the end of 1912, the Madero regime, in power for a little more than a year, was already in deep crisis, trapped between popular discontent and reactionary forces, both domestic and imperialist, that were determined to re-establish “order.” In February 1913, in a coup plotted from the U.S. Embassy, Madero was overthrown and shot by General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta’s coup unleashed popular anger and energized the peasant forces of Francisco Villa in the north and the guerrillas of Emiliano Zapata in the south. Partly because of Huerta’s connections to Britain, the Americans later began to support the Constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza and Villa, which had taken up arms against the new dictatorship.
The Taking of Mexico City and Bourgeois Reaction
With the fall of the Huerta dictatorship in July 1914, the victorious anti-Huerta forces immediately fell apart. The more conservative bourgeois wing of Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón, representing the northern bourgeois elites and the radical petty bourgeoisie, was more adept than Villa. In a military race, Obregón’s forces occupied Mexico City on 15 August 1914, although not for long. With the definitive split between Villa and Zapata on one side and Carranza and Obregón on the other, after the Convention of Aguascalientes in November 1914, a new and acute phase of the Mexican Revolution began.
Lacking sufficient supplies to hold on to Mexico City, the Carrancistas withdrew to Veracruz. The victorious peasant armies of Zapata and Villa took the capital in December 1914. Veracruz had been occupied by the U.S. since 21 April 1913. In an agreement Carranza made with the occupiers, he obtained a large reserve of arms and provisions as the U.S. forces evacuated the city. It is significant that when the U.S. took Veracruz for the first time, Carranza made an impassioned nationalist speech and criticized them harshly for the occupation (although it was designed to benefit him), while Villa remained silent, not wanting the enmity of the U.S., which supplied him with arms.
In this regard, it is interesting to analyze the occupation of the capital by Villa’s and Zapata’s peasant armies, as well as their withdrawal. The regional, petty-bourgeois peasant perspective of Villa and Zapata meant that these radical leaders did not know what to do when, upon taking the capital, they had state power within reach. This is despite the fact that they had arms and the overwhelming sympathy of the population, which welcomed them with great jubilation (including many workers who months later would be joining Carranza’s “red battalions” to put down the rebellion). The limited demands for more democracy and land distribution in the villages, like the Plan of Ayala, were insufficient as a national political program and a means for Villa and Zapata to hold on to power in the urban centers. It was a movement based on the peasantry, and as such, was limited by that ideology.
Along the same lines, it is notable that during this conflict, which lasted almost a decade, none of the warring factions created a political formation—a party—with any consistency. The Mexican Revolution was led mainly by spontaneously arising peasant leaders or by regional military leaders. Trotsky explained the political inability of the Russian peasantry, as a class, to lead a revolution, a characteristic that can be extended to the Mexican peasantry:
“The peasantry is dispersed over the surface of an enormous country whose key junctions are the cities. The peasantry itself is incapable of even formulating its own interests inasmuch as in each district these appear differently. The economic link between the provinces is created by the market and the railways, but both the market and the railways are in the hands of the cities. In seeking to tear itself away from the restrictions of the village and to generalize its own interests, the peasantry inescapably falls into political dependence upon the city. Finally, the peasantry is heterogeneous in its social relations as well: the kulak [rich peasant] stratum naturally seeks to swing it to an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie while the nether strata of the village pull to the side of the urban workers. Under these conditions the peasantry as such is completely incapable of conquering power.”
— “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution,” 1939
An anecdotal but illustrative example of this inability of the peasantry to assume power in its own name happened during a meeting of the Villa-Zapata Convention in Mexico City. A large group of poor women was demonstrating against famine in front of this assembly, and the only answer the Convention could come up with was to pass the hat to collect a bit of money for them! In other words, Villa and Zapata did not have, nor could they have on their own, the program to use these latent forces for a victorious revolutionary—that is to say, proletarian and socialist—solution. When Villa and Zapata occupied the capital, they certainly did not touch the church, which was a bastion of the most reactionary elements of the ruling class in Mexico and an enemy of the poor peasantry. The upper ranks of the Catholic hierarchy in the capital certainly were a different animal from those humble village priests who were won to Zapatismo. This was one more nail in the coffin of the peasant rebellion.
The bourgeois wing of Carranza, conscious of the political weakness of the peasant armies, was able to reorganize and pursued the forces of the Zapatista Convention until finally defeating them. Obregón effectively avoided the capital in order to confront Villa, who had the principal mobile forces of the Convention, in decisive battles in the north and in El Bajío [lowlands of central Mexico]. By the end of 1915, Villa’s powerful División del Norte had been dismantled. On 10 April 1919, Zapata was ambushed and slaughtered.
In July 1923, bourgeois reaction caught up to Villa, who had retired to private life and become a well-to-do hacendado in Chihuahua. He was still a symbol for the peasantry. When he supported the local bourgeois Adolfo de la Huerta against Obregón’s group, Villa was massacred and his body decapitated. (It was a very different story on the other side of the world, when in October 1917 the gigantic Russian “peasant bear,” hungry for land and justice, found a revolutionary leadership in a young and resolute working class and the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.)
[TO BE CONTINUED]