Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume III

National Liberation Struggles

Britain and Mexico, 1938

Fair Play for Mexico

Dear Sir:

In the vocabulary of all civilized nations there exists the word, cynicism. As a classic example of brazen cynicism, the British government’s defence of the interests of a clique of capitalist exploiters should be introduced into all encyclopaedias. I am therefore not mistaken if I say that world public opinion awaits the voice of the British Labour Party regarding the scandalous role of British diplomacy in the question of the expropriation of the Eagle joint-stock oil company by the Mexican government. [1]

The juridical side of the question is clear to a child. With the aim of exploiting the natural wealth of Mexico, the British capitalists placed themselves under the protection and at the same time under the control of Mexican laws and the Mexican authorities. No one compelled Messrs. Capitalists to do this either by military force or through diplomatic notes. They acted entirely voluntarily and consciously. Now Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax [2] wish to force mankind into believing that the British capitalists have pledged themselves to recognize Mexican laws only within those limits where they find it necessary. Moreover, it accidentally occurs that the completely “impartial” interpretation of the Mexican laws by Chamberlain-Halifax coincides exactly with the interpretation of the interested capitalists.

The British government cannot, however, deny that only the Mexican government and the Supreme Court of the country are competent to interpret the laws of Mexico. To Lord Halifax, who nourishes warm sympathies for the laws and courts of Hitler, the Mexican laws and courts may seem unjust. But who gave the British government the right to control the inner politics and legal procedure of an independent state? This question already contains part of the answer: the British government, accustomed to command hundreds of millions of colonial slaves and semi-slaves, is trying to fit those same methods also to Mexico. Having encountered courageous resistance, it instructs its lawyers hurriedly to invent arguments in which juridical logic is replaced by imperialist cynicism.

The economic and social side of the problem is as clear as its juridical side. The executive committee of your party would, in my opinion, act correctly if it created a special commission for studying what British, and in general foreign, capital has contributed to Mexico and what it has extracted. Such a commission could within a short period present to the British public the stunning balance of imperialist exploitation!

A small clique of foreign magnates, in the full sense of the word, pumps out the living sap of Mexico as well as of a series of other backward or weak countries. The solemn speeches about foreign capital contributing “civilization,” about it assisting in the development of national economy and so forth, are the sheer Phariseeism. The question, in actuality, concerns plundering the natural wealth of the country. Nature required many millions of years in order to deposit gold, silver, and oil in the sub-soil of Mexico. The foreign imperialists wish to plunder these riches in the shortest possible time, making use of cheap labour power and the protection of their diplomacy and their fleet.

Visit any centre of the mining industry: hundreds of millions of dollars, extracted by foreign capital from the earth, have given nothing, nothing whatever to the culture of the country; neither highways nor buildings nor good development of the cities. Even the premises of the companies themselves often resemble barracks. Why, indeed, should one spend Mexican oil, Mexican gold, Mexican silver on the needs of far-away and alien Mexico when with the profits obtained it is possible to build palaces, museums, theatres in London or in Monaco? Such are the civilizers! In the place of historical riches they leave shafts in the Mexican soil and ill-health among the Mexican workers.

The notes of the British government refer to “international law.” Even irony powerlessly drops its hands in face of this argument. About what kind of international law are we talking? Evidently about the law which triumphed in Ethiopia and to which the British government is now preparing to give its sanction. Evidently about that same law which the aeroplanes and tanks of Mussolini and Hitler are already announcing in Spain for the second year with the British government’s invariable support. The latter held endless conversations about the evacuation of foreign “volunteers” from Spain.

Naive public opinion long thought this meant the halting of intervention by the foreign fascist bandits. Actually the British government demanded of Mussolini only one thing: that he remove his armies from Spain only after he guaranteed the victory of Franco. [3] In this case, as in all others, the problem consisted not in defending “international law” or “democracy” but in safeguarding the interests of British capitalists in the Spanish mining industry from possible attempts on the part of Italy.

In Mexico, the British government carries on basically the same politics as in Spain – passively in relation to Spain, actively in Mexico. We are now witnessing the first steps of this activity. What will be its further development? No one can yet foretell. Chamberlain himself does not yet know. One thing we can affirm with assurance: the further development of the attempts of British imperialism against the independence of Mexico will to a great degree depend upon the conduct of the British working class. Here it is impossible to evade the issue by resort to indefinite formulas. Firm resoluteness is necessary to paralyse the criminal hand of imperialist violence. I therefore finish as I began: world public opinion awaits the firm voice of the British Labour Party!

P.S. – Several imperialist newspapers have attempted to represent me … as the initiator of the expropriation. Such nonsense does not even deserve refutation. I, a private person, enjoying the hospitality of this country, have learned only from the papers all the stages of the struggle of the foreign capitalists against the Mexican laws. But this was completely sufficient to form an opinion. To state this opinion aloud is the elementary duty of every participant in the liberating struggle of the proletariat.

Letter to the editor of the Daily Herald (dated 22nd April 1938),
published in Forward, 7th May 1938

* * *

Mexico and British Imperialism

The international campaign which imperialist circles are waging over the expropriation of Mexican oil enterprises by the Mexican government has been distinguished by all the features of imperialism’s propagandistic Bacchanalias – combining impudence, deceitfulness, speculation in ignorance with cocksureness in its own impunity.

The signal for this campaign was given by the British government when it declared a boycott upon Mexican oil. Boycott, as is known, always involves self-boycott, and is therefore accompanied by great sacrifices on the part of the boycotter. Great Britain was until recently the largest consumer of Mexican oil; naturally not out of sympathy for the Mexican people, but out of consideration for her own advantage.

Heaviest consumer of oil in Great Britain itself is the state with its gigantic fleet and rapidly-growing air force. A boycott of Mexican oil by the British government signifies, therefore, a simultaneous boycott not only of British industry but also of national defence. Mr. Chamberlain’s government has shown with unusual frankness that the profits of Britain’s capitalist robbers loom above state interests themselves. Oppressed classes and oppressed peoples must thoroughly learn this fundamental conclusion.

Both chronologically and logically the uprising of General Cedillo [4] grew out of Chamberlain’s policy. The Monroe Doctrine [5] prevents the British admiralty from applying a military-naval blockade of the Mexican coast. They must act through internal agents, who, it is true, do not openly fly the British flag, yet serve the same interests as Chamberlain – the interests of a clique of oil magnates. In the White Book issued by British diplomacy just a few days ago we may be sure that the negotiations of its agents with General Cedillo are not included. Imperialist diplomacy carries on its major business under cover of secrecy. In order to compromise the expropriation in the eyes of bourgeois public opinion, they represent it as a “communist” measure. Historical ignorance combines here with conscious deceit. Semi-colonial Mexico is fighting for her 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 natural resources of a foreign country, standing on their billions and supported by the military-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. The British government not only did everything at the end of the eighteenth century to retain the United States under the status of a colony, but later, in the years of the Civil War, supported the slaveholders of the South against the abolitionists of the North, striving for the sake of its imperialist interests to thrust the young republic into a state of economic backwardness and national disunity.

To the Chamberlains of that time, too, the expropriation of the slaveholders seemed a diabolical “Bolshevik” measure. In reality the historic task of the Northerners consisted in clearing the arena for the independent democratic development of bourgeois society. Precisely this task is being solved at this stage by the government of Mexico. General Cardenas [6] stands in the series of those statesmen of his country who have been fulfilling work comparable to that of Washington, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and General Grant. [7] And, of course, it is not accidental that the British government in this case, too, finds itself on the other side of the historic trench.

The world press, in particular the French, preposterous as it may seem, continues to drag my name into the question of the expropriation of the oil industry. If I have once already refuted this nonsense, it is not at all because I fear “responsibility” as was insinuated by one talkative agent of the GPU. On the contrary, I would consider it an honour to carry even a part of the responsibility for this courageous and progressive measure of the Mexican government. But I do not have the least basis for it. I first learned of the decree of expropriation from the newspapers. But, naturally, this is not the question.

Two aims are pursued in interjecting my name – first, the organizers of the campaign wish to impart to the expropriation a “Bolshevik” coloration; secondly, they are attempting to strike a blow at the national self-respect of Mexico. The imperialists are endeavouring to represent the affair as if Mexico’s statesmen were incapable of determining their own road. A wretched and ignoble hereditary slaveholders’ psychology! Precisely because Mexico today still belongs to those backward nations which are only now impelled to fight for their independence, greater audacity of thought is engendered among her statesmen than is granted to the conservative dregs of a great past. We have witnessed similar phenomena in history more than once!

The French weekly, Marianne, a notorious organ of the French People’s Front, even asserts that on the oil question the government of General Cardenas acted not only as one with Trotsky but also … in the interests of Hitler. It is a question, you see, of depriving the great-hearted “democracies” of oil in case of war and, contrariwise, of supplying Germany and other fascist nations. This is not one whit more clever than the Moscow trials. Humanity learns, not without amazement, that Great Britain is being deprived of Mexican oil because of the ill-will of General Cardenas and not because of Chamberlain’s self-boycott. But then the “democracies” possess a simple way of paralysing this “fascist” plot: let them buy Mexican oil, once more Mexican oil, and again Mexican oil! To every honest and sensible person it is now beyond all doubt that if Mexico should find herself forced to sell her liquid gold to fascist countries the responsibility for this act would fall fully and completely upon the governments of the imperialist “democracies.”

Behind the back of Marianne and her ilk stand the Moscow prompters. At first glance this seems preposterous, since other prompters of the same school use diametrically opposed librettos. But the whole secret consists in the fact that the friends of the GPU adapt their views to geographical gradations of latitude and longitude. If some of them promise support to Mexico, others picture General Cardenas as an ally of Hitler. From the latter point of view, Cedillo’s oil rebellion should be viewed, it would seem, as a struggle in the interests of world democracy.

Let us, however, leave the clowns and intriguers to their own fate. We do not have them in mind, but the class-conscious workers of the entire world. Without succumbing to illusions and without fear of slander, the advanced workers will completely support the Mexican people in their struggle against the imperialists. The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defence. Marx did not, of course, consider Abraham Lincoln a communist; this did not, however, prevent Marx from entertaining the deepest sympathy for the struggle which Lincoln headed. The First International sent the Civil War president a message of greeting, and Lincoln in his answer highly appreciated this moral support. [8]

The international proletariat has no reason to identify its programme with the programme of the Mexican government; Revolutionists 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, like the cause of China [9] 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.

Socialist Appeal [New York], 25 June 1938

Volume 3, Chapter 2 Index


1. One of the measures of the bourgeois nationalist President of Mexico from 1934, Lazaro Cardenas. After land reforms, railway nationalization and various measures restricting the oil companies, in March 1938 the Cardenas government took over control of the property of all British and American oil companies. In retaliation the United States discontinued silver payments and the British broke off diplomatic relations. The measures, essential to the protectionist policies by which the Mexican bourgeoisie was attempting to survive the slump, had widespread support among the mass of workers and peasants.

2. Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), British Conservative politician; prime minister 1937-1940; most famous for his notorious remarks about “peace for our time” on his return from the Munich conference with Hitler after the effective annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. – Edward Wood, Lord Halifax (1881-1959), British Conservative politician; Viceroy of india 1926-31, Foreign Secretary 1938-1940 and Ambassador to the USA 1940-46.

3. Francisco Franco (1892-1975), Spanish general and fascist dictator of Spain (1939-75) after defeating the forces of the Spanish Republic in the Spanish civil War (1936-39).

32. General Cedillo (1890-1938), right wing Mexican general, provincial governor and minister in the Cardenas government, against which he led an abortive coup in 1938, losing his life in the course of it.

5. In 1823 President James Monroe of the United States announced in the wake of the South American Wars of Independence that his government would not allow any future outside interference in the affairs of any American state. This prohibition, which was frequently cited in justification of US policies during the nineteenth century, was never of course deemed to apply to the US themselves.

6. Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970), Mexican general and politician; President of Mexico 1934-40; granted Trotsky asylum in 1938.

7. George Washington (1732-1799), commander-in-chief of the American army during the American revolution and first President of the United States, 1789-97. – Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), principal author of the American Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States (1801-1809). – Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), American lawyer and 16th president of the United States (1861-65); led the Union forces against the secessionist states of the Confederacy in the American Civil War; issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which resulted in the abolition of slavery; assassinated in 1865, shortly after the victory of the Union forces. – Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), American general and 18th President of the United States (1869-77); general-in-chief of the Union forces from 1863 he led them to victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War; proponent of Radical Construction during his presidency.

8. This address, drafted by Marx, was sent to Lincoln in November 1864, on the occasion of his re-election as President and shortly before the end of the Civil War and his assassination. It denounced “the Confederate gentry” and described their “slaveholders’ rebellion” as “a general holy crusade of property against labour”. The reply, which was received in January 1865 through the American embassy in London, said that Lincoln hoped he would he worthy of “the confidence which has recently been extended to him by the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.”

9. The defence of China against the predatory assaults of Japanese imperialism. The Japanese invaded the province of Manchuria in 1931 and established a puppet state there. In 1935 further areas were taken over, and by 1938, when this was written, Japan exercised effective control over much of Northern China and was in a position to enforce the penetration of all sections of the Chinese economy under the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shek.

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Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007