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Mexico’s Crisis in Historical Context

“Mexico’s Crisis in Historical Context,” Against the Current, # 148 (September/October 2010), 17-19, and

In this article I offer an historical context for understanding Mexico’s current economic, political, and human crisis triggered by 28 years of neoliberal economic policies. Neoliberal governments have privatized most sectors of the economy and reduced the Mexican state’s role to one of being a repressive apparatus. NAFTA and related neoliberal policies have left the economy without a dynamic internal market for local products and with a socio-economic inequality that is one of the most extreme in the world.

Mexico’s corrupt political architects of neoliberalism -- who do not confront the centuries-long low-wage basis of incomplete industrialization but rather try to take advantage of it -- have built a castle of sand propped up by the dollars of narco-trafficking and the guns of imperialism. They have mortgaged the country and its huge reserve of inexpensive labor power to foreigners. On an unprecedented scale, Mexico is transferring capital to the United States, not only in natural resources and “value added” by labor at the points of production, but also in the literal transfer of almost a fifth of its labor force to work in the United States (capital as “accumulated labor”).

Foreign domination of Mexico’s economy has long been a key factor in reflecting the general law of historical processes, unevenness. Leon Trotsky called this “the law of uneven and combined development,” by which he meant the drawing together of different stages of historical process, a combining of separate and disparate steps, “an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.” He saw this law as especially applicable to those parts of the world less fully developed economically than Europe, or unevenly developed in their adaptation of, and subjugation by, capitalist forms of production.

More than a hundred years ago the Mexican anarcho-communist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón understood well the historical process of combined economic forms and the need to internationalize the revolutionary process. Flores Magón understood that the Mexican countryside was not “feudal.” Therefore, a “bourgeois revolution against feudalism” was not needed.

The Magonistas, as members and supporters of Flores Magón’s Mexican Liberal Party (PLM for its initials in Spanish) were known, called for the immediate seizure of the means of production in both the countryside and the cities. That is what they did when they briefly took control of Tijuana and Mexicali and organized “the Commune of Baja California” in 1911. Later, that is what the Zapatistas did when they organized “the Commune of Morelos,” under the PLM slogan of “Land and Liberty!” suggested to Emiliano Zapata by Magonista emissary José Guerra. (Morelos had some of the most modern sugar mills in the world.)

However, an incipient unity between left-wing urban workers and the rural proletariat collapsed in 1915 when future president Álvaro Obregón signed a pact with Mexico City’s Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker) and its 50,000 members, who were suffering food shortages at the time. The pact created “red battalions” of militant workers to fight and help defeat Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s northern army of workers, small landholders, and jornaleros (day laborers) and weaken Zapata’s southern peasant army. It tied the organized labor movement to the emergent “Constitutionalist” state led by Venustiano Carranza and Obregón. And it generated a corrupt labor bureaucracy that usually sided with capitalist bosses and only occasionally benefitted the workers. The end result would be a poorly paid labor force dependent on an authoritarian and increasingly technocratic corporatist state.

There was no social revolution in 1910-1917, only a political one, and even that political revolution was less complete than is customarily assumed. The immediate results of the revolutionary upheavals were a defeated peasantry, a crippled and dependent labor movement, a wounded but victorious bourgeoisie, and, for a divided Mexican people, a paper triumph -- the 1917 Constitution that expressed an ideological change for the ongoing economic development of the nation along capitalist lines.

Surely these results were not the causes for which so many workers, peasants and young Mexicans gave their lives and limbs. The true goals of the revolution were the ones of social justice and democracy proclaimed by the Magonistas and their successors in Mexican history: Zapata and Villa; the oil, railroad, and electrical workers who obligated president Lázaro Cárdenas to act against imperialism in the 1930s; Valentín Campa, Demetrio Vallejo, Rubén Jaramillo; and the political prisoners of the broad-based student movement of 1968 and every decade since who continued the Magonistas’ combative tradition.

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.

Formulistic explanations of the Revolution contain elements of truth but do not adequately embrace the complexity and “Mexicaness” of the events before, during and after 1910-1917. That is why the following formulas are erroneous:
• The Revolution was a bourgeois revolution against feudalism.
• The peasants and workers lacked “political development.”
• There was no leadership of a “vanguard party.”
• The Revolution continued and was “permanent.”

Without denying the historical and cultural roots of the current class conflicts wracking Mexico, we must recognize that the country has changed considerably since 1910, especially after 1940 when the economy semi-industrialized. Mexico continued changing after the 1968 massacre of peacefully protesting students and workers who wanted to democratize the country. A new labor militancy emerged, guerrilla fighters appeared, and the government, aided by US imperialism, carried out its “dirty war” of the 1970s -- massacres, disappearances, torture. The nation changed again with the ascent of neoliberalism starting in 1982; the 1985 earthquake and people’s solidarity in the absence of adequate government response; NAFTA and the neo-Zapatista uprising in 1994; the nascent narco-state alliance, narco gangland killings, and the economic collapses of 1982, 1994-95, and 2009-2010.

All these changes were directly related to the complex legacies of the so-called Revolution. One of those legacies was the state’s propaganda that revolutionary changes were unnecessary because “We’ve already had a revolution here.” This was not how some of the lower and intermediate classes saw matters. Their ongoing struggle for social justice and democracy created problems for Mexico’s bourgeoisie, which contained conflicting fractions, torn between the benefits and advantages that accrued from their relations of dependence on foreign capital, on the one hand, and their desire for more independence on the other. Because of the heated up class war of the 1930s, the bourgeoisie’s state had to make occasional concessions to “agrarista” elements pushing for agrarian reform; to radical trade unionists in the energy sector; and to anti-imperialist radicals or revolutionaries. The turmoil climaxed with Cárdenas’ giving into the demands of striking oil workers for the nationalization of oil in 1938.

After World War II, Mexico’s ruling economic and political elites trumpeted the “institutionalization of the Revolution” under the one-party state of the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional. However, their self-proclaimed “institutional Revolution in power,” at the helm of a capitalist state organized along corporatist lines, was increasingly exposed as a social counterrevolution and a political dictatorship (since 2000, a two-party one).

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, cooptation and clientelism. They made periodic attempts at self-organization 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 from the lessons of the past.

Four important lessons of the Revolution of 1910-1917 are:
• The danger of handing over weapons prematurely and of trusting peace offers (the Zapatistas in Morelos, 1911).
• The importance of unity, and the trap of permitting the creation of an antagonistic division between the working class and the peasantry (the red battalions of the Casa del Obrero Mundial, 1915).
• The need to recognize and incorporate the demands and special needs of specific groups of the oppressed, such as women, the original peoples, and people of diverse sexual preferences.
• The importance of a genuine internationalism and anti-imperialism.

The realization of Trotsky’s law of uneven and combined development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created great wealth for a few but economic difficulties for the majority of Mexicans, including small and medium businesspeople despite their occasional moments of advance. The continued low-wage basis of capitalist growth both before and after the Revolution oppressed most Mexicans and, under the impact of the counterrevolution and neoliberalism, deepened Mexico’s economic integration with the United States.

Since the end of the colonial era Mexican employers had become accustomed to drawing on the availability of cheap labor power for their accumulation of capital. Combined with the domination of the economy by foreign investors who had more capital, production inputs, and technological knowhow, this reliance on inexpensive labor power contributed to uneven and weak patterns of capital accumulation. There failed to develop a large and dynamic internal market or a vigorous production of capital and intermediate goods. Consequently, Mexico’s labor-intensive capitalism became characterized by low levels of productivity that to this day have made most of Mexico’s manufactures non-competitive internationally. Even items produced in the foreign-dominated maquila sector of the economy (low-wage assembly plants) have suffered from the recent competition of Chinese goods.

This incapacity to compete has reinforced the Mexican bourgeoisie’s insistence on keeping labor costs down, resulting in a vicious circle. It has also maintained Mexico’s dependence on foreign capital, be it in the period 1880-1940 when capitalist economic development was structurally based on agro-mineral exports or in the post-1940 period when changes in the forces of production and strong state support for expanded capitalist development catering to foreign interests helped convert Mexico into a semi-industrialized country.

Trotsky’s law helps explain Mexico’s historical “misdevelopment” and its economic failures of recent times. These failures include the exhaustion of the models of “industrialization by import substitution” and of “stabilizing development,” followed by today’s tottering neoliberal model that has earned the bitter nickname of “stabilizing stagnation.” From the ongoing class struggles and state and imperialist interventions have come the diverse and sometimes unique characteristics of the “political culture” of contemporary Mexico and the consolidation of a “transnationalized” and “anti-Mexican” (in Spanish, “vendepatria,” or traitorous) bourgeoisie.

Mexico is a key link in US imperialism’s plans to gain control over the world’s energy, biosphere, and water resources. But it is a “weak link,” as events dating from the stolen 1988 presidential election have suggested.

The year of the Centenary of the so-called Revolution and the government’s recent violent repression of labor have generated calls for a Constituent Assembly to found a new republic, re-establish national sovereignty, and create a true democracy. 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, often citing Ricardo Flores Magón and sometimes repeating the ideas of a libertarian socialism or anarcho-communism like those he championed.

Now is an opportune time to think of resolving social justice issues not at the level of a territorial state but at an international level, as Flores Magón and Trotsky did. In both Mexico and the United States, regressive taxes, salary cuts, job layoffs, slashed budgets for public services, and inflated costs of education and other necessities are hurting the working and intermediate classes. In that sense, their problems are the same. Politicians and conservatives, abetted by the mass media, are using the consequent anger and desperation of millions of people to fortify an international right-wing offensive.

Advancing an alternative internationalism is both possible and necessary. We in the United States must deepen the nascent anti-imperialist coalition that showed itself in the Mexican immigrants’ mega-march of May Day 2006 and the immigrant marches of 2010 when social, labor, and human rights movements on both sides of the border began to unite. The key words are internationalism and unity.

Los pueblos unidos jamás serán vencidos.

[Adapted from parts of Cockcroft’s forthcoming books Mexico’s Revolution Then and Now, New York: Monthly Review Press, Fall 2010; Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution, University of New Mexico Press, Fall 2010, paperback reprint of his 1968 classic with 1976 note to Chicano readers; and Precursores intelectuales en el México del siglo xxi, México: Jorale Editores/Orfila, August-September 2010.]