Adolfo Gilly is a longtime activist and prominent historian of the Mexican Revolution. This interview appeared in the Argentine magazine Sudestada (Buenos Aires, No. 88, May 1, 2010). According to the Larousse dictionary, a “#8220;sudestada” in Argentina is “#8220;wind with persistent rain that comes from the southeast and usually causes rivers to swell.” This was translated for Against the Current by Rene Rojas with the assistance of Micah Landau.
WHAT FEATURES OF peasant culture in Mexico gave force to the revolutionary movement led by Zapata?
Adolfo Gilly: During the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the expansion of capitalist relations throughout the Mexican territory led to a new wave of expropriation of lands from indigenous communities in the central and southern regions of the country, and of settler peasants’ lands in the North.
These land seizures were backed by Porfirio Diaz’s regime and were carried out by sugar haciendas in Morelos, livestock haciendas in the North, coffee haciendas in the South, and by others of all types throughout the country.
This happened as railroads, money circulation, modern mining and foreign trade expanded. As with the whole history of capital, up to now, the expropriation of communal goods was one of the factors that sustained this expansion.
The communities in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, organized their peasant war, under Emiliano Zapata’s leadership, on the basis of community relationships passed on from generation to generation from time immemorial.
The peasants from northern Mexico, especially from the states of Chihuahua and Durango, organized their resistance based on their own traditions and forms of struggle in conquering and defending their lands against indigenous groups, the longstanding occupants of these same lands in northern Mexico and the western United States, and later against the expansion of the haciendas and the expropriation of communities.
By various means and for different reasons the northern cultural heritage entailed municipal autonomy, armed defense and control of common goods — woods, pastures, rivers, water and mountains — by the communities.
When, at the beginning of the 20th century, the division and power disputes within the ruling class afforded the right opportunity, the renewed assault by the owners of capital on these goods was resisted and confronted by the communities in the north and south, which resorted to the organizational forms relayed from generation to generation through the history of each region.
This hereditary framework included the use of arms and horses. The southern peasants led by Emiliano Zapata and other local chiefs, and those from the North — very different in their customs — led by Francisco Villa and leaders from each community, created the two largest peasant armies, headed by peasants, in the history of the continent, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
At the beginning of December 1914, at the highest point of mobilization and of the peasant war, those armies — the Division of the North (la División del Norte) and the Liberating Army of the South (el Ejército Libertador del Sur) — occupied Mexico City, while the liberal-bourgeois wing of the revolution, headed by Venustiano Carranza, a landlord and former governor, withdrew to the port of Veracruz.
This is one of the greatest feats by peasants and indigenous peoples in the entire continent, comparable — though in different times and under very different forms — to the insurrectionary occupation of La Paz, Bolivia in April 1952; and to the two occupations of La Paz in 2003 and 2005 by the native communities from the highlands (Altiplano) and by the urban settlers and workers from El Alto and the mines.
What is the place of agrarian Zapatismo in the revolutionary process with respect to other movements?
A.G.: Zapatismo was the movement that, in its Plan de Ayala drafted toward the end of 1911 and in subsequent documents, proposed the most advanced programs for radical redistribution of land and communal organization of government for communities and for the whole Republic, an anti-capitalist program in its content and dynamic. And between 1912 and 1918 it implemented the program and maintained its own government in the region which came to be known as the Morelos Commune.
The Division of the North, with tens of thousands of well-armed men and women, was the most powerful peasant army ever organized in Mexico and all of Latin America. In a series of large battles, it destroyed the Federal Army and was decisive in the conquest of the capital and in the Revolution’s victory, even if subsequent governments ended up headed by its enemies within the Revolution, Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón.
Yet this form of the masses in arms in the Revolution was decisive in determining the radical-democratic and agrarian character of the Constitution approved in February 1917, which became the basis for the radical reforms carried out by Cárdenas in the 1930s.
How can we explain the discontinuous form that the Revolution took and how did this influence the consciousness of the masses?
A.G.: It would take a book to answer this question, and even then…
All the great revolutions, from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the colonial revolutions that spanned the entire 20th century, experienced such vicissitudes, because a revolution is a turbulent process and not a magical instant in time. The best explanation I’ve seen of these reasons is found in the prologue to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, a classic text on the internal dynamic of revolutions.
What factors allowed an “#8220;agrarian” revolution to acquire an “#8220;anti-capitalist” dimension?
A.G.: The Mexican Revolution, if we can give it a definition without being overly schematic, would be in my judgment a peasant, agrarian, and radical-democratic revolution, composed of diverse social forces and changing alliances, in successive political and class conflicts during its very course.
Every radical and armed mass struggle, against plunder, exploitation, humiliation and scorn, such as the Mexican Revolution, has an internal anti-capitalist dynamic, just as today’s struggle by indigenous communities in Chiapas and their Zapatista Army of National Liberation does. But that is not to say they are necessarily socialist, which implies a proposal and a specific program of reorganization of the entire social life, as in Russia in 1917 or in Cuba in 1959-1961.
I don’t view this as a defect or a shortcoming, but instead as a result of the experience reached by every people in every moment of its history in which, once more, it rises against accumulated wrongs and injustice. The organizational forms of these insurgent peoples are, in each case, the result of an accumulation of their experiences, even programmatic ones, and of their history.
Only thus can we explain the fantastic series of general strikes and of union and shop-floor organization in the Argentine workers’ history, while in Mexico that history is rooted in armed rebellions, communitarian organization with deep indigenous roots, autonomous municipalities, anarchist traditions and nationalist and agrarian mass movements.
That’s what Cardenismo of the 1930s was: some 20 million hectares were distributed into communal ejidal property, the oil was nationalized, mass unions were organized, workers’ rights were affirmed and the Mexican government gave unlimited support, in the form of arms and money, to the Spanish Republic.
None of this can be erased from the historical memory transmitted through generations in a specific country, just as in Argentina or Chile the deep experiences and traditions of union organization, of popular and workers’ strikes and of factory occupations cannot be erased.
Every time a new rise in mobilizations and demands opens the way for new experiences, this ascent begins, in its organization, from what was lived and created by previous generations, not from emulating what was done in other countries. Something similar happened, incidentally, in the Cuban Revolution, one of whose antecedents in the 1930s was the anti-imperialist, socialist and insurrectionary movement of Antonio Guiteras.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II has written about this in a recent and magnificent biography of Guiteras. It’s worth reading in order to go back to the Cuban genealogy of Fidel Castro, of the 26 of July Movement and the radicalism of the revolution, which did not come from Soviet communism but rather from the history of Cuba.
How was Zapatista ideology preserved throughout the 20th Century?
A.G.: Zapatismo has remained as the program, the attitude and the inspirational myth of every peasant and indigenous struggle all the way through to today’s Mexico. Even the PRI and the PRD, as established parties within the state apparatus, opportunistically invoke it. No one believes them, not even their voters; if they vote for them, it’s for other more immediate political reasons.
I don’t think, by contrast, that the EZLN [present-day Zapatista National Liberation Army — ed.] are performing what some have called an “#8220;ideological appropriation.” The armed indigenous uprising of January 1994, headed by the EZLN, has won the right, through its actions, its organizational forms and its programmatic documents, to invoke the Zapatista heritage and tradition of the Revolution of 1910-1920.
In each country and even in each region, revolts, rebellions and revolutions have their own genealogy. In most Latin American countries this genealogy has, among its various currents, anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist traditions originating in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th: from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, all the way to Mexico and Cuba.
At the beginning of the 20th century, IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) syndicalists from the United States were influential in the North of Mexico through Ricardo Flores Magón’s Mexican Liberal Party. Governments have never been able to seal this fluid border.
The institutional — or institutionalized — left parties have always sought to erase these rebel genealogies. It’s impossible. Workers, through their ways of being, of making and of conceiving of organization and struggle, have inherited, preserved and enriched them, including those who have never heard of or read about their predecessors.
The question of the genealogy of uprisings is vital for understanding the motives and logic of each case. The Mexican Revolution for Independence in 1810, headed by the priests Hidalgo and Morelos, was a great agrarian and indigenous insurrection. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was as well, following the content and organizational forms of its time. Every authentic Mexican revolutionary movement — and the EZLN is one — is heir to this double genealogy.
Similarly, the genealogy of the great general strikes of 1969 in Argentina, which included factory occupations, has its roots in, among others, the “#8220;Tragic Week” [Semana Trágica, the brutal suppression of a general strike with hundreds of people killed in January, 1919] and Rebel Patagonia [military violence against agrarian workers in the far south of Argentina in 1920-21, with as many as 1500 killed — ed.]. And so the genealogy of the piqueteros and their methods of struggle — including the great urban rebellion of 2001 — comes from the organizational forms of their fathers and grandfathers in Argentina.
Genealogy is not repetition. It is receiving, enriching and renewing the inheritance which they have left for us.
ATC 148, September-October 2010