WHILE THE MOST violent stage of the Mexican Revolution was over by 1920, the country faced a series of new crises in the 1930s. The era opened in 1928 with the assassination of former President Álvaro Obregón, killed by a Catholic militant opposed to the secularizing Revolution in the formerly officially Catholic country.
Óbregon, who had served as president from 1920-24, had thrown the country into political panic by announcing that he would run a second time for the presidency. Since the Revolution had been fought to end Profirio Díaz’s decades-long practice of presidential self-succession, that move had outraged many.While the Catholic assassin had been apprehended, some believed that Luis N. Morones, head of the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) and one of the regime’s main backers, had been the intellectual murderer in order to advance his own ambitions. The Obregón assassination shook the new revolutionary regime to its foundations, threatening to throw the nation back into civil war.
Outgoing President Plutarco Elías Calles, Obregón’s principal collaborator in the ruling Sonoran Dynasty, as the ruling group was known, moved decisively to prevent the political crisis from leading to a new period of conflict. In 1929, Calles summoned the country’s political elite from every state to create a new revolutionary party that would have the social support and the political legitimacy to rule the country.
The National Revolutionary Party (PNR) brought all of the various revolutionary factions into one political organization, subordinating to a large degree their regional, social or personal interests to the goals of national stability and capitalist reconstruction. The PNR was, however, principally a fusion of factions and a party of political functionaries without a broad base of support.
The re-organization of the ruling party sparked the last great rebellions of the period. In the northern state of Sonora, Gonzalo Escobar led a quickly defeated rebellion from within the Sonora Dynasty. Calles’ new government also soon entered into conflict with the Catholic Church and with its parishioners in the western states of Jalisco and Zacatecas. The Cristiada (or Cristero War) as the rebellion came to be called, which saw armies as large as 50,000 men in the field against the revolutionary government, lasted from 1926 until its final gasp in the early 1930s.
Catholic peasants, some of whose very mixed goals included both the restoration of the Catholic Church and a Zapatista-style land reform, were put down by Calles and his leading General, Joaquín Amaro, using the most brutal methods.(1) Over one million Mexicans fled the violence, as many as had fled during the violent years of the Revolution itself, most to the former Mexican territory that had become the U.S. Southwest.
During the period from 1920-28, Obregón and Calles had been the Bonapartist bicephalic strongman of the Mexican Revolution, the caudillo-in-duplicate who had been able to rise above and become relatively autonomous from all of the country’s social classes, as they created the new state. With the creation of the PNR, the individual Bonapartist leader gave way to something new: a Bonapartist party-state. Calles modeled the new regime in part after Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy, trying to fit the Mexico Revolution into Italy’s counter-revolutionary institutions. While three men — Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio and Abelardo L. Rodríguez — would serve as presidents between 1929 and 1934, Calles was the power behind the throne during this period, which came to be known as the Maximato.
Although the United States and most foreign investors declined to invest in Mexico, the economy, initially devastated by the Revolution, had begun to grow again in 1916 and continued through 1926. The new revolutionary state of Obregón and Calles worked in the 1920s to rebuild the foundations of a capitalist economy: the banking system, state finances and taxation, customs and duties, as well as agricultural policy and industrial relations.
The country’s bourgeoisie, however, resisted the state’s attempt to dominate the economy, just as workers resisted the capitalists and landlords. All of this made the re-establishment of the capitalist economic order extremely difficult. Progress was slow and the world economy’s vicissitudes only exacerbated the problems.(2)
The U.S. stock market crash of 1929 detonated the Great Depression that spread around the world and also engulfed Mexico. Some sectors of the Mexican economy had already gone into crisis. The oil industry had taken a downturn in 1921, partly a result of conflicts between the state and the foreign oil companies, and partly a result of the exhaustion of existing wells. In 1927, even before the Crash, the Mexican economy in general began to stagnate; by 1929 it was in decline.
With the crash, the prices of metals — among Mexico’s most important exports — also fell precipitously. Mexico’s Great Depression lasted roughly from 1927 to 1932. The fact that many Mexicans lived from subsistence agriculture meant that the world-wide economic depression affected them less. By 1933, the economy began to recuperate; this revival would form the basis for the social movements and political changes of the 1930s.(3)
While the most violent stage of the Mexican Revolution had ended by 1920, the coming to power of the new revolutionary government under the leadership of the Sonoran Dynasty raised the hopes and aspirations of millions. Consequently, the 1920s saw the growth of widespread movements of peasants, workers and the urban poor, some attempting to push the revolutionary state to realize their dreams, others concluding that it was nothing more than a new capitalist state and working to overthrow it.
The most powerful agrarian reform movements developed in the western state of Michoacan and in the Gulf State of Veracruz. The labor movement was most militant and radical among industrial and service workers in Mexico City, the railroad workers, and the petroleum workers on the Gulf Coast and docks of Veracruz and Tampico. The left also led an important rent strike by the urban poor in Veracruz. While the new state promoted its own labor union federation — the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) — and attempted to take control of the various peasant leagues, many of the most radical workers gravitated to the anarchist General Confederation of Workers (CGT) and some to the new Mexican Communist Party (PCM).
The struggles between the state and its official unions and the radicals was brutal and bloody, and by 1924 President Obregón and CROM leader Luis N. Morones had succeeded in crushing the railroad unions, the anarchist street car workers in Mexico City, and marginalizing the CGT. Small groups of radical workers, however, survived in all of the important industries and urban centers. With the economic recovery, they began to organize and take action.
Calles, the Jefe Máximo of the Revolution, continued to pull the strings of the three presidential puppets during the difficult and tumultuous 1928-33 period. Still seeking stability, his rubber stamp legislature lengthened the presidential term to six years; he then sought a candidate who would serve as his front man for the 1934-40 period. Various rival revolutionary generals jostled for the position, but in the end Calles chose General Lázaro Cárdenas. Cárdenas, originally from Michoacan, had come up through the Constitutionalist ranks and had served not only in the revolutionary, but also in the post-revolutionary conflicts. Calles had absolute confidence that Cárdenas would be his loyal minion. He was wrong.
Though Calles’ backing and the PNR political machine would ensure his election, in the pre-election period Cárdenas traveled throughout Mexico meeting with peasant and Indian communities, talking with workers, and visiting towns and cities. Following his election, to Calles’ surprise, Cárdenas began to exert his presidential authority, constructing his own ruling group, reorganizing the commanders of the military districts into which the country was divided, and developing relations with labor unions and peasant leagues. Cárdenas took up the banner of social reform and even began to talk about a socialist Mexico.
The new dynamism in the Mexican government and the change of direction toward the left brought responses from all sides. Nicolás Rodríguez, a former Villista and Escobarista, organized los Dorados, the Golden Ones, to fight against a feared Communist-Jewish takeover. The Communist Party, having, by the early 1930s, established a small but solid organization in Mexico, also denounced the Cárdenas government. Then in their radical “#8220;third period,” the Communists called for the government’s revolutionary overthrow. The Dorados and the Communists engaged in fights in the streets of Mexico City, but Cárdenas ignored both.(4)
More importantly, however, Calles himself began to organize to remove Cárdenas from the presidency, as he had in the past imposed and deposed others. When the newspapers reported that Calles had accused Cárdenas of promoting “#8220;individual differences” among the revolutionaries and encouraging social chaos, the President called Calles an enemy of the revolutionary government and of the Mexican people; he encouraged a great popular mobilization in support of his administration.
The labor movement rallied to his defense. One important supportive figure was Vicente Lombardo Toledano, formerly the house intellectual for Morones and the corrupt CROM unions. He had broken free, visited the Soviet Union and returned to Mexico a staunch ally of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Strangely enough, although serving as Stalin’s agent in Latin America and Mexico, Lombardo Toledano declined to join the Communist Party.
The Communist Party, meanwhile, having left its “#8220;third period” and entered the Popular Front period, also rallied to support Cárdenas. They played an important role in several of the industrial unions. Fidel Velázquez, one of the principal leaders of the Mexico City unions, also brought those unions into the pro-Cárdenas column. Throughout the country peasant leagues rushed to support Cárdenas in his struggle with Calles. Most strategically, Cárdenas was able to maintain the support of most of the generals of the Mexican Army.
During 1935 and 1936, the peasant leagues joined together in what would later become the National Confederation of Peasants (CNC) and the labor unions formed the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). With the Army, the CTM and the CNC supporting him, Cárdenas ordered Calles arrested and deported to the United States in 1936, along with many of his supporters. The Mexican people by and large enthusiastically supported this destruction of the old political machine that had dominated the government for 16 years. They hoped Cárdenas would fulfill the Revolution’s promises.
With the reins of power now firmly gathered in his hands, Cárdenas began to set a new direction. Through a series of dramatic actions taken between 1936 and 1940, Cárdenas would fulfill many of the goals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, transforming Mexico into an altogether different country than it had been in the days of Porfirio Díaz. At the same time, he would broaden and deepen the structures of the state-party, through the “#8220;politics of masses,” drawing workers, peasants, the self-employed and public employees into the party.
Cárdenas encouraged the organization of unions, but insisted that industrial workers, peasants, and other workers each have their own separate organizations. Thus industrial workers had the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM), peasants’ the National Confederation of Peasants (CNC), and the self-employed and the public employees’ the National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CNOP). Cárdenas then reorganized the ruling party, changing its name to the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM), based on the four constituent groups: the CTM, CNC, CNOP and the Army and other armed services. The new party had deeper roots and a far broader reach than Calles’ PNR, providing the regime with greater strength, stability and flexibility.
The organization of the party thus excluded the Mexican bourgeoisie, except for some of the generals who had in the course of the revolution used their positions to acquire land, create business partnerships, or in other ways enrich themselves. Still most of the capitalist class remained outside. Thus the state-party continued to have a Bonapartist character, rising above all the classes. The state itself, however, necessarily established relations and negotiated with capitalists as it developed the banking system, industry and agriculture.
While Cárdenas proved to be a political genius, Mexico remained a fractious society. Conservatives feared the transformation of Jacobin nationalism into what seemed to be evolving into a kind of Mexican socialism. Many generals resented the incorporation of the Army into the ruling party. Various regional leaders resisted Cárdenas, and some contemplated revolt. Given the tenuous nature of his political superiority, Cárdenas’ political strategy required that he continue to push forward in order to keep the right off balance.
From the left Cárdenas had nothing to fear. The Communist Party, with few exceptions, supported Cárdenas’ policies. They would have preferred that Cárdenas create an actual political front and parliamentary coalition in which they could participate as a party, but when that failed to happen, they were happy enough to simply endorse the president’s policies.
Cárdenas established a kind of political partnership with Stalin’s man, Vicente Lombardo Toledano and let the Lombardistas and Comunistas play a leading role in the labor movement. The Secretariat of Education became peopled with Communist officials and PCM leaders held some few posts in some other government departments, all completely dependent on Cardenas’ good will.
With much of popular society now organized into labor unions and peasant leagues, brought together in the Party of the Mexican Revolution with its slogan “#8220;For a Socialist Mexico,” Cárdenas now undertook to deal with the central issue of the Revolution: land reform. The worldwide depression and consequent failure of many haciendas made the elimination of that ancient economic institution easier than it might otherwise have been. Within just a few years Cárdenas distributed 45 million acres of land to peasants throughout Mexico, about a tenth of that land taken from U.S. or other foreign owners.
Carrying out this great agrarian reform met resistance from local political leaders, landlords and their gunmen in many states. This required federal intervention on numerous occasions. Cárdenas encouraged the organization of agrarian defense leagues, distributing arms to those local militias that were sometimes incorporated into the Army. The agrarian reform thus provided the occasion for Cárdenas to remove resisting conservative opponents.
The Cárdenas government distributed hundreds of times more land in the mid- to late-1930s than all of the previous revolutionary governments. Land was given to male members of peasant or indigenous communities in the form of ejidos, state-leased land to be held in perpetuity by them and their descendents, based on the principle of usufruct, Zapata’s old slogan: the land to those who work it.
On the coasts land was distributed to villages of fishermen and their families. While thought of as being “#8220;collectively owned,” ejido land was held in the form of individual parcels belonging to the male heads of families. When family lines died out, left, or for some serious offense were removed from the communities, the land was to be redistributed among remaining members.
The distribution of land to the peasantry who still made up the vast majority of Mexican society made Cárdenas a hero in his home state of Michoacan, in the La Laguna region in the north, and, for that matter, virtually throughout the country. The agrarian reform cemented the foundations of the new Party of the Mexican Revolution and of the state that it ruled, and established Cárdenas’ reputation for generations to come. He was referred to as “#8220;Tata” or father, and was seen as the new father of his country, or better, the father of a new country.
With the labor unions and peasant leagues having been recognized, and the land having been distributed to the peasants, Cárdenas was now able to take on the greatest revolutionary challenge: the British- and U.S.-owned oil industry. Mexico’s oil industry, located on the Gulf Coast, was dominated by Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, the two largest and most powerful petroleum corporations of the era. Both the United States and Great Britain were world powers looming on Mexico’s northern border and nearby in Central America and the Caribbean, their possessions protected by fleets of battleships and cruisers.
Mexico’s concerns about foreign intervention were well founded. It had, of course, lost about half of its territory to the United States in a series of wars and concessionary treaties between 1836-54, and had been invaded and occupied by France with British complicity between 1862-66. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the United States had seized Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain, taken Panama from Colombia, and been involved in long-term occupations in Haiti and Nicaragua. Just as the Romans had once called the Mediterranean “#8220;mare nostrum,” so too the Americans had come to consider the Caribbean to be “#8220;our lake.”
The United States had invaded Mexico twice during the Mexican Revolution, once by sea in Veracruz on the Gulf Coast in 1914, landing 3,000 occupying troops, and a second time by land in Chihuahua in 1916 when General “#8220;Black Jack” Pershing led 4,000 Marines on a failed expedition to capture Francisco “#8220;Pancho” Villa.
After the adoption of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 with its Article 27 proclaiming that the people owned the country’s subsoil, foreign powers became increasingly worried that the government would seize the foreign-owned oil industry. Throughout the 1920s U.S. fleets and troops had been mobilized on Mexico’s borders in order to intimidate its government.
Cárdenas calculated, correctly as it turned out, that with Europe about to be embroiled in World War II and the United States likely to be drawn into the war, the great powers would not be prepared to undertake a new war in Mexico.
The occasion for the nationalization of the oil industry was presented by a conflict between petroleum workers and the foreign companies. Mexican oil workers had been organizing since the 1910s, initially facing repression from the oil companies and the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and later dealing with the vacillating support of the revolutionary federal and state governments. Radical labor activists from the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist General Confederation of Mexican Workers, and later the Mexican Communist Party had always been at the center of these efforts both in the oil fields and on the docks.
Once Cárdenas came to power, the oil workers received more constant support from the government in their organizing efforts and by 1935 succeeded in bringing all of the regions workers together into the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM). During the mid-1930s, oil worker strikes against the foreign-owned companies grew, leading to conflicts overseen by the Federal Labor Board (JFCA) and the Secretary of Labor. In 1936 the STPRM, now backed by the new Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), struck, its total economic demand amounting to 14 million pesos.
The foreign-owned companies responded by saying that they could not afford to pay such a sum. The conflict then became a matter for the Labor Board and the Federal government, and the company was forced to open its books. The government found that the company could easily pay such a sum but the companies decided to take the matter to the courts. On March 1, 1938 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the companies could and must meet the workers’ demands.
On March 18, 1938, with the companies still refusing to pay, President Lárazo Cárdenas went on the radio and nationalized them. He agreed to pay the companies what they had estimated to be the value of their property. Since this estimate was for tax-paying purposes, it was an amount far below their real value. To pay the compensation, Cárdenas called upon all Mexicans to go to their local government offices and contribute. Tens of thousands of Mexicans came, from little children with their pennies to wealthy women with their gold necklaces and earrings, each giving what they could in order to control their own oil and their own country.(5)
Cárdenas had foreseen correctly: With Europe about to go to war and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt involved in assisting the Allies, the oil companies were left in the lurch.
Cárdenas also dealt with the other major issue of the Mexican Revolution: education. Before the Revolution, the Catholic Church provided education for Mexico’s people. But the Catholic school system was largely confined to major cities, reached only a small percentage of the population, and its curriculum was intellectually wanting. In 1920 Álvaro Obregón named left-wing philosopher José Vasconcelos the first rector of the Autonomous University and then Secretary of Education, and the country’s educational transformation began.(6)
Vasconcelos held the view that the Mexican government should educate and uplift Mexico’s masses through literacy campaigns to teach the Spanish language (at the time a large percentage of the Mexican population in rural areas still spoke only their indigenous languages) and should base the curriculum on European, especially Spanish, literature. Vasconcelos and his literacy brigades would throw cheap government editions of Cervantes, Dante and Homer into the trunks of their cars and head out to rural villages to teach Indian communities Spanish.
School teachers in Mexico in the post-revolutionary period played a key role in Mexican urban and rural society. During the Revolution the school teacher was often the secretary and intellectual advisor of the railroad worker or peasant turned leader of a revolutionary band. Sometimes the teacher was the leader. After the Revolution teachers often served as shop stewards or lobbyists, so to speak, of the illiterate or monolingual indigenous-language speakers in the countryside.
When peasants had a grievance, they often took it to the teacher to write up. Sometimes they asked the teacher to serve as their spokesperson. And when the landlord or governor sent his pistoleros to respond to the grievance, the teacher was often hanged alongside the leader of the village. In the cities, the school teachers’ unions and other organizations stood on the left wing of the labor movement, although generally under Communist tutelage.
When Cárdenas came to power, he too wished to continue the program of uplift in the rural communities and to support those teachers who fought for agrarian reform alongside the peasants. Calling for “#8220;socialist education,” Cárdenas and the Communists whom he had put in charge of the Secretariat of Education shared the notion that Mexico’s teachers should challenge religion — what they called “#8220;obscurantism and fanaticism” — as well as teach the Spanish language and Mexico’s mestizo cultural values, increase the productivity of rural areas, and turn peasants and workers into stalwart defenders of the revolutionary government.
The attempt to implant socialist education in rural Mexico failed for many reasons. The conservative right wing increased its attacks on teachers as atheists, Communists and libertines, killing many. Yaqui and Nahua indigenous groups rejected the education program out of hand in order to to protect their own language and culture. While some mestizo communities embraced the program to promote democracy and equality in their regions, by and large the “#8220;socialist” education project failed, although the power of the Secretary of Education bureaucracy and control over teachers and many communities increased.
The Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 had by 1940 been completed and in many ways fulfilled. The great issues of the Revolution — distribution of land to the peasants, recognition of labor unions, nationalization of the oil industry, and creation of a national system of free, public, lay education — had all been realized, finally, under the Lázaro Cárdenas government. Cárdenas also rebuilt the Mexican state on a much broader basis. The Mexican state would prove to be both durable and resistant to the military dictatorships that swept over much of Latin America in the period from 1964 to 1984.
Cárdenas created a paternalistic, benefactor state which he believed could and would provide land, jobs, and justice to the Mexican people. The state would stand as the arbiter between the new modernizing capitalist class that had come to power, and the workers and peasants who sought living wages and education. Workers and peasants now had unions (although those unions became increasingly dependent upon the party and the state) and peasants had land (but the land too was dependent on the Agrarian Bank and government officials).
When workers got jobs in the state-owned oil company or railroad, they joined the unions affiliated with the state-party, and automatically became members of that party. Similarly, peasants on the ejido became members of the CNC and thus of the party, and so came to be citizens of a sort of state within the state.
Adolfo Gilly has suggested that Cárdenas and the cardenistas believed that the revolutionary state served as a bridge between indigenous and peasant communalism and the socialist future toward which the world was evolving.(7) In reality, however, the reforms of the Cárdenas era laid the basis for an expansion of industrial capitalism, of the working class, and of the service sector and middle classes, that is to say, for the full flowering of a modern capitalist society, with all of its class contradictions.
During subsequent decades, even as the paternalistic aspect of Mexican government continued to expand through the nationalization of other industries and the establishment of social programs such as the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS), the national health plan, the capitalist class came to play a larger role within government, the economy, and society. Still the Mexican Bonapartist state continued to exist, evolving into what Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called “#8220;the perfect dictatorship,” a government which, without military dictatorship, could exert control over every aspect of Mexican society.
By 1968, when the Mexican military killed hundreds of students marching for democracy at Tlatelolco, it had become clear that the old Mexican Revolution was over, and that another Mexican Revolution loomed on the horizon. The Revolution Is Dead! Long Live the Revolution!
ATC 148, September-October 2010