Mexico - The Mexican revolution and the origin of the PRI

Feb/Mar 2001

On July 1, 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the party that had ruled Mexico for 71 years, lost the presidential election to Vicente Fox Quesada, the former head of Coca Cola in Mexico and candidate of the right-wing opposition PAN (National Action Party). This led many commentators to characterize the election as a kind of revolutionary change, something that Fox himself encouraged, calling his campaign and election "the first revolution of the 21st century."

Of course this was little more than a media exercise. On the other hand, it was also a way of relegating to the dustbin of history the revolutionary developments which led to the emergence of the PRI and gave it, for some time, a relatively radical edge. And for revolutionaries, there are still lessons to be learnt today from this history.

At one time the PRI and the PAN had represented very different policies. In 1929, the predecessor of the PRI claimed to embody the ideals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. In the 1930s, when the party was led by Lazaro Cardenas, it nationalized the U.S. and British-owned oil industry, and it implemented a broad land reform. Cardenas leaned on the mobilization of the Mexican working class and peasantry to carry out these nationalist measures in defiance of imperialism and in opposition to some of the most reactionary elements in Mexican society. The PAN, on the other hand, was formed in 1939 by Mexican officials who opposed the reforms, as well as the efforts by the Cardenas government to curtail the power of the Catholic Church. But since then, the PRI has moved so far backwards that what it came to represent is basically indistinguishable from its shadow on the right, the PAN, even though the PRI formally still claims that it represents the traditions of both the Mexican Revolution and Cardenas.

The dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz

In 1910, when the revolution broke out, the dictator Porfirio Diaz had been ruling the country for over 30 years with an iron hand in the name of "freedom, order and progress." Freedom, of course, was that enjoyed by capitalist entrepreneurs; order was maintained by a judicious application of both "the carrot and the stick"; as for progress, this meant only the development of industry and trade, which was pulled along by the rapid development of the railways. Between 1891 and 1910, mining production increased by 239 per cent.

Industrialization started in the Monterrey area, an area rich in metals, to which came many of the North American entrepreneurs from the Confederacy, after being defeated in the U.S. Civil War. It also began in the regions around Mexico City and Guadalajara, where the textile, chemical, food and hydro-electric industries dominated. Although Mexico had been free of Spanish domination since 1821, becoming somewhat industrialized in the north of the country, the national bourgeoisie was insignificant in comparison to the imperialist predators, the main ones of which were the United States, Great Britain and France. Foreign investment made up 80 per cent of the capital invested in the mines in 1910, for example.

In the countryside much land remained unproductive or was used to cultivate products for export. The farming of basic foods was rare, and the corn used to make tortillas, which has always been part of the staple diet of the poor, had to be imported. In return for a few land surveys, large foreign companies received a third of the measured public land. The remainder was sold at a low price to Diaz's clients: generals, politicians and foreign speculators. The American press magnate Hearst received seven million hectares, the second largest holding in the country after Diaz himself. Three quarters of the local bourgeoisie topped off their incomes with the big salaries attached to comfortable positions in the state apparatus.

The Indians (13 per cent of the 15 million inhabitants at the time), whose uprisings in 1885 and 1898 had been crushed, were thrown off their common land. The haciendas, those relics of the era of Spanish rule, absorbed their land in a move to concentrate agricultural exploitation. On the eve of the 1910 revolution, land concentration reached incredible proportions: 97 per cent of arable land belonged to a tiny minority of owners who represented one per cent of the rural population. Eighty per cent of the rural families had no land whatsoever. Together with the agricultural workers of the large estates, most of the peasants were treated like serfs (peons) and lived under feudal conditions: bad treatment, malnutrition, life-time indebtedness to the "tienda de raya," the shop which gave them credit for goods. Although the poverty-stricken peasants' thirst for land could not be extinguished, the situation was not the same everywhere. The most dedicated fighters in the revolution were recruited in places where the hacienda was not yet dominant and where villages still owned land or at least maintained their communal way of organization.

The construction of the railway lines engendered the wage system. Along the railway tracks were groups of peons who had escaped from the yolk of the hacienda. Six or seven hundred thousand peasants made up the first contingents of workers on the railways, directed mainly by foreign foremen. The proletariat, influenced by anarchist ideas expressed in the newspaper Regeneracion of the three Flores brothers, launched itself into battle. Strikes, which became more and more widespread, were severely put down. In Cananea in 1906, strikers were put down by the Mexican army, aided by several hundred North American mercenaries, led by Arizona state rangers. In Rio Blanco in 1907, they were put down by the local police and army (200 dead , 400 prisoners).

Diaz had come to power in 1876, campaigning under the slogan, "a real vote without re-election." He overcame the legal prohibition which prevented him from being re- elected in 1880 by appointing a figurehead, whom he succeeded 4 years later. In 1887, he modified the constitution, thus enabling himself to stay in power and to be "re-elected" seven times! Similarly, ministers and senators were elected after being designated by the ruling clique. Judges were appointed by the government, while oppositionists were often executed, their murders justified by the "ley fuega," a law which allowed police to kill people who tried to run away from them.

During the 1910 electoral campaign, Diaz found Francisco Madero blocking his road. Madero was the son of an important landowner, a big bourgeois from the north, who thought that the political regime was favouring foreign capital over the national bourgeoisie. At the same time, he had the support of American oil interests. He campaigned for a constitution which would establish democratic liberties. In order to be re-elected, Diaz put Madero into prison. Madero escaped from prison and fled to Texas, from where he issued a call for an uprising. The call was circulated in Mexico, where it found a response in a population already brought to the brink of rebellion. In May 1911, an angry demonstration in Mexico City demanded that Diaz resign. The revolution had begun. Diaz left for Europe saying, "Madero has unleashed a tiger, let's see if he can control it."

The Mexican revolution

Madero, the Constitutionalist, was elected. He soon found out that he should have handed out some land in order to obtain the peasants' support. Madero, without support and facing General Huerta, the leader of the army inherited from the former dictator, was arrested and shot in February 1913. Civil war spread. Carranza one of the "Constitutionalist" generals, a landowner and one of Diaz' ex-senators took over from Madero. In Chihuahua in the north, a breeding and mining region, and in Morelos, a large sugar-producing region, the poverty-stricken peasants rose up. This uprising helped two peasant armies grow and gain strength: one led by Doreteo Arango, better known as Pancho Villa, and the other by Emiliano Zapata.

The two peasant armies did not have the same idea about land ownership. In the zone controlled by Villa, his generals grabbed the land the peasants had seized, adopting a luxurious lifestyle and constituting a new group of landowners. On the contrary, Zapata was a strong supporter of the destruction of the haciendas and the restitution of the stolen land to the peasant communities. "Land and Liberty," he proclaimed in the Ayala programme (1911). These were not mere promises: he led the beginning of an agrarian reform in Morelos. At the revolutionary Convention of March 27, 1915, in Aguascalientes, the Zapatistas used a radical language while the Villaists continued to defend the traditional 19th century rights of individual property.

But the answer to the agrarian question was closely linked to the question of power. The two peasant armies entered into the capital city of Mexico, and Villa and Zapata were photographed in the presidential seat before separating to go back to their respective regions. When they left Mexico City, it showed that they did not have any solution to offer concerning national politics. The Zapatista fighters wanted land. Once they had land, everything else lost importance. They also refused to extend their military operations outside the Morelos region.

Even though the peasant armies could wage a social war in the countryside and contribute to destroying Diaz's regime as well as Huerta's, the question of power could only be resolved by one of the two urban classes, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. The towns, where the question of power would be settled, were precisely the place where the peasants could not control the power because of the very isolated nature of their social activity.

The working class and the revolution

The course of the Mexican revolution could have changed radically had the town workers taken part in the social war, to defend their own political interests and to offer their alliance to the peasants already engaged in battle. What was required to give life to this policy was a party of the working class. It did not exist. La Casa del Obrero Mundial (the House of the International Worker) was a trade union organization founded in Mexico by anarchists in 1912. Individually, some of its leaders chose to join up with the Zapatistas. The others who remained in the towns and industrial areas led ambiguous struggles. Strikes were organized only against companies belonging to foreign capital. In theory, La Casa was for an international working class struggle, but in practice it had a nationalist orientation.

The Constitutionalist government of Generals Carranza and Obregon attempted to subdue the embryonic working class movement by giving some of the trade union leaders administrative roles in Mexico's public services. Obregon had once had some links with the workers' movement. Luis N. Morones, one of the main union leaders, forgetting his revolutionary past, used this collaboration with the generals for his own account. He thus enabled himself to retain control over the trade unions, where he continued to direct an anti-anarchist and corporatist policy, while avoiding any head to head confrontation with their radical fraction.

The more threatening the peasant armies appeared to be, the more Carranza and Obregon sought support from the reformist leaders by aiding the development of the trade union movement they led and by intervening somewhat benevolently to resolve social conflicts. And they set up a system of aid for the poorest inhabitants of Mexico City. Although such gestures were limited, to many workers they appeared to be more concrete than the radical speeches of the anarchists who supported the peasant armies. Thus began a gap between the workers and the peasants, which was only going to get wider.

When the peasant armies camped in Mexico City, the workers, who were mostly atheist, were led to believe that the Zapatistas were Catholic, implying that they therefore represented reaction. The humble attitude of the Zapatista peasants, who begged for food in the rich areas of the city, and the signs of religious devotion they made helped confirm these rumours. Even the anarchist trade unionists ended up deciding, in the name of their anti-clerical principles, that they had more in common with the urban petty bourgeoisie which rallied around Carranza and Obregon, characterizing them as "Jacobins," than with the peasants forgetting that during the French revolution the owners relinquished some of their privileges only because they feared the peasant upheaval immensely.

No working class leader, even the most radical, understood or wanted to understand that it was necessary to establish a link between the town and the countryside which would have increased the workers' and peasants' strength and that such an alliance, if the working class took its head, could sweep away Huerta, Diaz' former supporters and the forces of Carranza- Obregon. To do this would have required that the organizations which put themselves forward as representing the working class set, as their objective, the conquest of power by their class.

In February 1915, a workers delegation from La Casa went to Veracruz to meet with representatives of Carranza and Obregon. There the alliance between the leaders of the workers' movement and the leaders of the Constitutionalist army was made. Claiming to have "no illusions" about the ties Carranza had with the bourgeoisie, they most certainly had some about what they could obtain from Obregon, who had cultivated a close relationship with Morones. In any case, they placed six "red battalions" of workers at the disposal of the Constitutionalist generals.

After Villa's defeat, in which his cavalry was decimated by the Constitutionalist machine guns at the battle of Celaya in 1915, the radical wing of the trade unions judged that the time had come to put an end to the sacrifices made for the war effort the lack of food, inflation, unemployment and low wages. Strikes broke out which, to the bourgeoisie, looked threatening. But Carranza and Obregon, who had not yet finished with the peasant uprising, still needed the working class. They made the bosses who had profiteered "too much" pay heavy fines. And they distributed food.

In 1915 when the anarchist leaders who had fought with Villa and Zapata returned to Mexico City, they campaigned fiercely against Carranza and Obregon, denouncing the "bourgeois government" and calling for a "workers revolution." The workers struggle, which until then had targeted only American factories, was spread to those belonging to Mexican bosses. The owners of the big industrial bakeries had to hand out big wage increases and guarantee a price for bread which the poor could afford. The oil workers attacked the Mexican Oil Company. Then it was the turn of the textile industry. Building workers imposed wage increases of 150 per cent. The strike spread to the miners of the companies controlled by American, English and French bosses (at the same time that Villa's troops were attacking the American mining companies in the north of the country).

The anarchist trade union leaders demanded that the workers control production, wages and prices. Never before had the Mexican working class so openly defied the owners. This radicalization led to two general strikes in 1916. Whatever illusions the anarchists had once had in a "Jacobin" petty bourgeoisie had disappeared. The "red battalions" demobilized by Carranza rejoined the workers' movement. They demanded the nationalization of industry, and new jobs in the public sector. Carranza and Obregon replied with two military raids against La Casa, the workers' headquarters. The leaders were sent to wallow in prison. On August 2, 1915, martial law was declared in Mexico City. With a revolver held up against his head, the leader of the electricians' union was made to explain how to re-activate the electrical power stations. Responding to demands made by Mexican and foreign bosses, the army closed down La Casa.

The bourgeoisie's political representatives had managed to prevent the working class movement and the insurrectionist peasantry from joining together. At the same time, different sectors of the possessing class, in alliance with groups of the urban petty bourgeoisie, were able to use Morones' trade union against the radicalized workers. It was a success for the Constitutionalist government, which represented this alliance; and it reassured the United States which publicly recognized the Constitutionalist government in 1915.

The Constitution of 1917 revealed the balance which had come to exist between the different social forces. While guaranteeing absolute power to the bourgeoisie, the Constitution had to give some concessions in favour of the poor classes. The Constitution gave precedence to secular education over religious education; it provided for separation of church and state, the liquidation of large estates, agrarian reform and work laws; and it affirmed the right of the state to own the national resources.

In 1918, the government of Carranza and Obregon helped Morones to set up a trade union central, the CROM (Mexico Regional Workers Confederation), whose leaders were linked to the government. At the end of the 1920's, Morones even became the Minister of Industry, Business and Labour. He had improved his social position while the trade union movement was reinforcing the power of the nationalist bourgeoisie. What distinguished this nationalist bourgeoisie was that, from its origin, it made this alliance with trade unions which themselves, from their origin, were integrated in the state apparatus. In 1936, a new confederation, the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers), was founded, but it was just as integrated in the bourgeois state apparatus. (It still dominates the working class today.)

The first stage of the revolution ended in 1919-1920 with the elimination of Zapata on the left and Carranza on the right, while Villa left the political arena (he was also assassinated in 1923). Obregon, the main instigator of the alliance with the trade unions, became the first president of a stabilized Mexico.

Arriving in Mexico in 1937, Trotsky had the possibility to offer a number of analyses of what was going on in the country. In 1938, he characterized the kind of regime which resulted from the Mexican revolution: "In countries which are underdeveloped industrially, foreign capital plays a major role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in comparison to the national proletariat. This leads to particular conditions of state power. The government manoeuvres between foreign and national capital, the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This confers a particular Bonapartist sui generis' role on the government. It raises itself above, so to speak, the different classes. In fact, it can govern either by becoming the instrument of foreign capital and maintaining the proletariat in the chains of military dictatorship, or by manoeuvring with the proletariat and even going as far as to make concessions to it, thereby acquiring a certain amount of freedom from foreign capitalists."

Cardenas consolidates the new regime

In 1929, Calles, who succeeded Obregon, founded the PRN (National Revolutionary Party) which finally ended up being called the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). The PRN started as a coalition of generals and politicians who had decided to give each other mutual support. Putting reforms and nationalization on hold, effectively they gave the upper hand to foreign capital, mainly North American. This only exacerbated nationalist sentiments, all the more so because Mexico was being affected by the severe worldwide economic crisis. In 1934, General Lazaro Cardenas became president; resting on these nationalist sentiments, he carried out the single largest agrarian reform in Mexico's history.

In order to mobilize the population behind him, he changed the party's name to the PRM (Party of the Mexican Revolution) and adopted the slogan "for a workers' democracy." His agrarian reform benefitted about 730,000 people, almost as many as the 780,000 who had benefitted from all the mini reforms carried out by his seven predecessors. Moreover, the plots of land which were distributed were two-and-a-half times bigger. Most of this land was given to town communities in the form of "ejidos" (communal landholding). In November 1938, Trotsky noted: "The national bourgeoisie needs an inner [domestic] market and the inner market is a more or less satisfied peasantry. That is why the agrarian revolution, especially at the expense of foreign owners, is a direct gain to the national bourgeoisie. The peasants will buy more goods and so on. This policy is of a political character. It is not clear at the beginning how far the limits are. The administration cannot say how long the bourgeoisie will tolerate, or how long the American bourgeoisie will tolerate, or how far it can go without intervention from Great Britain, and so on. That is why it is of an adventuristic character. From one side probing and from the other jumping, and then a retreat."

In 1938, in order to re-establish the balance in favour of national capital, the government decided to expropriate the oil fields belonging to British and American imperialism. This brave decision resulted in instant disapproval from the imperialist world. Foreign stockholders also lost their influence over the railways whose administration was handed over to the trade unions. In order to be able to expropriate the hacienda owners, as well as to take the field against foreign capital, Cardenas' regime dared to lean on the mobilization of the peasants and agricultural workers and on the working-class organizations. But these were all boxed in organizations whose leaders depended directly on the government.

Trotsky who had followed these events from his refuge in the suburbs of Mexico City had no illusions on the nature of these measures: " In order to compromise the expropriation in the eyes of bourgeois public opinion, they represent it as a Communist' measure. Historic ignorance combines here with conscious deceit. Semicolonial Mexico is fighting for its national independence, political and economic. This is the basic meaning of the Mexican revolution at this stage. The oil magnates are not rank-and-file capitalists, not ordinary bourgeoisie. Having seized the richest resources of a foreign country, standing on their billions and supported by the military and diplomatic forces of their metropolis, they strive to establish in the subjugated country a regime of imperialistic feudalism, subordinating to themselves legislation, jurisprudence, and administration. Under these conditions expropriation is the only effective means of safeguarding national independence and the elementary conditions of democracy.

"What direction the further economic development of Mexico may take depends decisively upon factors of an international character. But this is a question of the future. The Mexican revolution is now carrying out the same work as, for instance, the United States of America accomplished in three- quarters of a century, beginning with the Revolutionary War for independence and finishing with the Civil War for the abolition of slavery and for national unification."
Trotsky concluded, "The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defense. Marx did not, of course, consider Abraham Lincoln a communist; this did not, however, prevent Marx from entertaining the deepest sympathy for the struggle Lincoln headed. The First International sent the Civil War president a message of greeting, and Lincoln in his answer greatly appreciated this moral support.
"The international proletariat has no reason to identify its program with the program of the Mexican government. The revolutionaries have no need of changing colour, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery in the manner of the GPU school of courtiers, who in a moment of danger, will sell out and betray the weaker side. Without giving up its own identity, every honest working class organization of the entire world, and first of all in Great Britain, is duty-bound to take an irreconcilable position against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press and their fascist hirelings. The cause of Mexico, like the cause of Spain and China, is the cause of the international working class. The struggle over Mexican oil is only one of the advance-line skirmishes of future battles between the oppressors and the oppressed." (June 1938)

This policy of the Mexican state ended in 1940 when Cardenas' mandate did. It renewed its links with the United States. And in 1946, the Party of the Mexican Revolution became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (its present name). Cardenas' slogan was replaced by a more neutral one "democracy and social justice." While resting on the myth of its pretended revolutionary origins, the PRI was the guarantor, for more than half a century, of the situation which favoured the reign of capital.

3rd March 2001