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Fourth International, September 1944


Donna Kent

The Mexican Revolution of 1910


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.9, September 1944, pp.275-279.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


by Edgcumb Pinchon
Doubleday, Doran & Co., New York, 1941.332 + X. $3.00.

* * *

The story of Emiliano Zapata and of his role in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 has been brilliantly told by Edgcumb Pinchon, under the title of Zapata the Unconquerable.

Pinchon spent one year in field research in Zapata’s native state. He also had for reference three biographical sketches of Zapata written by men who had served for several years in Zapata’s Liberator Army of the South, as well as a script prepared especially for him by Colonel Serafin Robles, who was Zapata’s personal secretary for seven years.

Because of this research and this wealth of information about Zapata’s personal life, it may be safely assumed that the liberty the author has taken on constructing conversation and depicting the inner workings of Zapata’s mind has not caused him to stray from the truth. Certainly this account of important revolutionary events has lost nothing because of the novelistic technique employed.

The characters are brilliantly portrayed. There is Porfirio Diaz, for forty years Dictator-President of Mexico. As “the Father of his People,” Padre to the Indios, he sheds sentimental tears over his humble origin and early revolutionary struggles. As “the Strong Man of Mexico,” he sheds no tears for the “massacre of some thirty thousand men, women and children in the Valley of Papantla so that room might be made for land speculators; nor for the two freight trainloads of millworkers, the dead and not yet dead, dumped to the sharks of Vera Cruz Bay for asking a few centavos more pay; nor for the newspapermen gone mad in the undersea dungeons of San Juan de Ulua.”

There is Francisco Madero, liberal reformist politician, who in 1910 boldly campaigns for the presidency with a program of demands for constitutional government, social reform, and the restoration of the village lands to the agrarian masses. He is supported on the one hand by the bourgeoisie, who desire a constitutional democracy and a modern “business” administration, and on the other hand by the desperate, disposessed masses of Mexico, who see in him a savior.

There are the famous military men; Huerta, Obregon, Carranza – ruthlessly unconcerned for the welfare of the Mexican masses.

There are the loyal Zapatistas – villagers, farmers, a few scholars and intellectuals, completely devoted to Zapata and the Revolution.

There is Pancho Villa, blustering conqueror of the North, loyal Maderista, who with Zapata was master of Mexico and let the power slip through his fingers.

But towering above all others, there is Zapata, the Unconquerable, who in the words of his biographer, was for nine years the unconquered leader not of an army but of a people in arms.” Incorruptible, uncompromising revolutionary, Zapata’s spirit and personality dominate the whole book. His singleness of purpose makes him an inspiration to his people. He burns always with the same intense passion to secure for his people Tierra y Libertad! – Land and Liberty!

Historical Background

What was Zapata’s heritage? What events in Mexico’s history culminated in the revolution of 1910?

Mexico’s independence from Spain had been achieved in 1821 after 11 years of struggle. The first independence movements were agrarian uprisings, led by the patriot priests, Hidalgo and Morelos, for whom Zapata’s home state was named.

The rebellions led by Hidalgo and Morelos were opposed by the sons of the Spanish Conquistadores and the reactionary Mexican clergy because their interests lay in the protection of the Spanish Crown. But in 1820, during the short-lived triumph of the liberal constitutionalists in Spain, the Mexican clergy and landowners did an about-face and joined forces with the movement for Mexican independence. They feared a liberal Spain might institute constitutional reforms in their own territory.

The revolutionary upsurge of Mexico’s landless peasantry and the movement for national independence were thus diverted by the reactionary forces of the Church and the feudal barons and utilized as a means of perpetuating their own feudal regime.

The establishment of the Republic of Mexico brought no change for the masses of Mexico. Chattel slavery was formally abolished, but debt slavery took its place. Serfdom was succeeded by peonage. The hacendados (landlords) paid their peons at a rate below the subsistence level. The difference between the wage paid and the amount required to sustain life was entered on the hacendado’s books, and this debt load passed from the backs of the fathers to the backs of the sons. The law supported the hacendado. A debt slave who attempted to escape could be brought back and whipped to death.

Such was Mexico of 1821. The next half-century saw Mexico the scene of about fifty revolutionary uprisings. Some of the struggles were the sporadic revolts of desperate peons, and some were led by bourgeois radicals, attempting to destroy the semi-feudal system, which was strangling the development of their class as surely as it was reducing the peasants to starvation.

The outstanding figure of this period, during which Mexico was invaded by troops from England, the United States, Spain, and France, was Benito Juarez, a pure-blooded Indian. Juarez led the reform movement to power and as president separated Church from State and began distributing the land among the peasants.

Shortly after Juarez’ untimely death in 1872, General Porfirio Diaz, erstwhile revolutionary fighter under Juarez, made a pact with American interests, drove the legally elected president, Tejada, from office, and established himself as dictator-president of Mexico.

Mexico under Diaz

Foreign financiers and industrialists congratulated themselves and the Mexican people each term that Diaz succeeded himself in office. Mexico had found her Strong Man. Mexico was now a safe place to do business. The Mexican government had secured huge loans from German and other European capital. The Diaz regime had suspended the constitutional provisions which had reserved the subsoil resources as the property of the Mexican nation.

English and American capital owned the railroads. English and American capital owned the oil wells. American interests owned 90 percent of the mines, Mexico’s most important industry. American money had swallowed up plantations of cotton, sugar, timber, and vast “cattle ranches. William Randolph Hearst, for example, owned thousands of acres of Mexican land.

The foreigners enjoyed extra-territorial privileges: tax-free concessions, customs-free machinery, right of way in the courts – the foreigner was always right. But topping all these privileges was the guarantee of cheap labor, obedient and long suffering.

The Diaz cabinet was composed of elderly scholars and gentlemen, Los Cientificos, the scientists, who believed the true science of government was to nourish business. The governors of the states were chosen personally by Diaz from among the big landowners and businessmen. Each governor was in his own state a dictator with a well-organized police machinery to take care of people suspected of having dangerous thoughts. The towns were ruled by political chiefs who were chosen by the governors, subject to the approval of Dictator Diaz. Mexico’s roads were patrolled by rurales, agents of law and order, who combined with their more humdrum duties the kidnapping of villagers and peasants for service in the army, or for shipment to the tropics at 25 pesos a head.

The Diaz standard for the Indian masses was pan y pale, bread and the club. “Let them work and keep the peace.” It was Mexico’s misfortune, said Los cientificos, to be saddled with such a burden – more than 85 per cent of the population illiterate, and what was worse, more than 75 percent were nearly pure-blooded Indians. What a misfortune that the Spanish Conquistadors had allowed so many of the Indian creatures to live and propagate! How much wiser had been the Indian policy of the United States! How could such lowly beings claim any participation in government? Destiny had marked them for slaves.

All was glitter and brilliance at the top. Lavish entertainments were daily occurrences. The Porfirian Peace seemed destined to last forever.

But in the minds of the Indian masses, the hatred of centuries was smoldering. They had been driven off their ancient communal lands and herded to work on the big plantations or in the factories, sometimes being driven by armed riders. At night, on some estates, they were chained to their miserable little cabins.

Occasional strikes and small rebellions were ruthlessly put down by troops, Mexican and American. Newspapermen indiscreet enough to report the incidents truthfully were thrown into dungeons.

In 1908, there was a planned, well-organized strike – put Down with much bloodshed – at the Rio Blanco Textile work, which was owned by German and Spanish capital. The strike was directed by two exiles living across the border in St. Louis. They were two brothers, Enrique and Ricardo Magon. They published and smuggled across the border a little revolutionary weekly called Regeneracion. Regeneracion was the voice of the revolutionary junta of the Mexican Liberal Party, which had been crushed by Diaz. The junta had fled across the border into St. Louis and there, living a hand-to-mouth existence, continued their revolutionary activity.

It was a copy of Regeneracion which crystallized Zapata’s rebellious thoughts into the slogans Viva la Revolucion! Viva Tierra y Libertad! – Long live the Revolution! For Land and Liberty!

Zapata set about organizing a secret revolutionary group. Other similar groups were being organized in other villages, in other states, and even in Mexico City itself. Zapata attended a meeting of the group in Mexico City, which was composed of liberal lawyers, writers, teachers and students.

* * *

1910 Events

The year 1910 marked the one hundredth anniversary of Mexico’s independence. Preparations were made for the gala celebration that was to last the entire month of September. Distinguished guests from all the important nations of the world were invited to attend, at the expense of the Mexican government. The culture and prosperity of Mexico were to be displayed for all the world to see – and no expense spared. Indians and peasants were forbidden to use the central thoroughfares, lest their poverty strike a jarring note and offend the sensibilities of the foreign elite.

As part of the Centennial celebration, Porfirio Diaz had for the first time permitted the formation of opposition political parties and announced that there would be free elections. The old Dictator wasn’t worried about any serious opposition and the campaign would bring his enemies out in the open to be picked off by various Porfirian methods.

Zapata’s little group of revolutionaries plunged boldly into the electoral campaign. Zapata said they would take the old Dictator at his word and rouse the people to use their ballots.

“We’ll rouse up the people to such a hope and enthusiasm that if he goes back on his word, then overnight the state will be in arms ... Since we can’t be sure ourselves that Don Porfirio is just playing a trick, we ought not to take the heart out of the people by telling them that it is ... They must believe sincerely that the doors are opening; they must be encouraged to march to the polls to the last man. And we shall not be fooling them, because it is our determination that the doors shall be opened. If we find we cannot open them with ballots, then, por Dios! we will open them with bullets ...”

In the northern part of Mexico, the liberal son of a wealthy hacendado had published a sensational book, The Presidential Succession, an exposé of the Diaz administration, and had organized a new opposition party under the name of “Anti-Re-electionist Party” He was Francisco Innocente Madero, a liberal lawyer, spiritualist vegetarian, experimenter in cooperatives. It was said that he was dissipating his portion of the Madero estates in the interests of the Mexican people.

Liberals and revolutionaries of all shades flocked to the banner of Madero, who demanded constitutional government, social reforms, and the return of the village lands to the people.

Madero’s campaign was too successful. He was thrown into jail and the Maderistas were driven underground. Madero escaped and fled across the border, where he continued his activities.

So! The old Dictator was going back on his word ...

Little bands were gathering and becoming bigger bands – Maderistas. In the North the rebels were led by Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza; in the South, by Emiliano Zapata. In Zapata’s home state, the Morelenses were responding to the staccato roar of the teponaztli, long-forbidden drum of war.

The armies of Carranza and Villa were backed by the Constitutionalists of the North, the Mexican middlemen, who wanted to break up the American monopoly and let the Mexican businessmen and industrialist have a chance. Madero was their man.

Zapata’s army was the Liberator Army of the South. They fought only for land and liberty. Madero was their man, too. Wasn’t he demanding the restoration of the village lands? The Maderistas were guerrillas. They had no supply line, no real organization. They provided themselves with supplies and ammunition as they went along. The armies of Villa and Carranza were, of course, much better equipped than the Zapatistas. Some of Villa’s and Carranza’s men even wore uniforms. The Zapatata’s wore their simple peasant garb, or like Zapata, the flashy costume of the rodeo rider.

Both armies took along their women, even whole families. The women looked after the wounded, cooked and foraged for food. The women fought too. If a woman’s husband fell in battle she had the right to take his equipment and replace him on the field.

The foreign capitalists were frantic. This revolution was very bad for their business. And who could tell how far it would go? American troops stood menacingly at the border. Diaz sent messengers with orders to make some deal that would prevent trouble with the United States and stop the flight of foreign capital.

A provisional government was agreed upon. Diaz was to be out. One of his reactionary appointees, Francisco de la Barra, Mexican ambassador to Washington, would head a cabinet composed partly of Maderistas and partly of Diaz men. The provisional government was to function for a year, call elections, and demobilize the revolutionaries.

In the first free elections ever held in Mexico, Francisco Madero was elected president. Madero, the compromiser, pursued a policy of attempting to reconcile his enemies rather than supporting his friends. The land, the wealth, and the power remained in the hands of the hacendados and the foreigners. Madero, the mild idealist, was caught between the demands of the foreign investors for damages for property and life lost during the Revolution, and the demands of the peasants for the land he had promised them. Seemingly without his volition, Madero’s policies constituted a monstrous betrayal of the humble folk who had put him in office.

Madero was president. The Revolution had gone far enough for the time being. Order must be restored. Nothing must be done too hurriedly. The division of the land would have to wait. The Zapatista awaited, still armed. They were for the distribution of the land now. What else had they been fighting for?

Trouble broke out. Disgruntled generals rebelled. The Federal troops attacked the Zapatistas. Madero was helpless, irresolute. He praised the Federal troops for trying to maintain order and explained to Zapata that he had to avoid the appearance of seeming to favor the radical elements.

Violent struggles continued. Just 15 months after Madero had taken office, the reactionary general, Huerta, was escorted to the Presidential Chair by the American Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. Madero had been murdered as a part of Huerta’s plot. Big Business heaved a sigh of relief. In President Huerta, Mexico had another Strong Man.

But the Revolution was not finished. Four great guerrilla chieftains, Carranza, Villa, Obregon, and Zapata, united in a common drive against their common enemy, Huerta.

Plan de Ayala

Zapata operated in complete independence of the other revolutionaries. His slogan of Land and Liberty meant land and liberty now – and direct action to get it. Zapata’s formal revolutionary program, the Plan de Ayala, instructed the villagers to enter upon the lands they had lost and to hold them by force of arms. Those who had proof of ancient titles were to take their own lands. For the benefit of those who had no proof of title, one third of all the hacendados’ land was to be immediately confiscated and divided. Wherever an hacendado should resist, his entire estate was to be confiscated and used to support the Revolution and the widows and orphans of the revolutionaries.

The Plan de Ayala, named for the mountain meeting place of Zapata’s men, invoked “the precedent and procedure previously established by Benito Juarez and the Revolutionary Congress under like circumstances.”

It condemned as traitors all those military chieftains who arose at the call of Madero to “shed the blood of their brothers who still dare to demand the fulfillment of the promises made by Francisco Madero.”

It called for a council of revolutionary chieftains who would, upon the triumph of the Revolution, “appoint an interim president of the Republic, with power to call an election of the true representatives of the people for the purpose of casting the demands of this plan into permanent form.”

* * *

Within a year, the forces of the four guerrilla chieftains, who were all popularly called Constitutionalists had wiped out Huerta’s Federal troops and marched into the Capital.

Carranza, who during the campaign had given himself the title of First Chief, declared that the Revolution was over and that he, as Supreme Chief, would restore order and prosperity to Mexico. Elections would be held soon, but meanwhile the fighters could start turning in their guns and go back to work.

“The lawless elements who had moved in on the haciendas would have to get out and settle their grievances in court. Industrial workers who had been calling strikes and making demands would have to realize that labor could not be allowed to dictate to management.”(Anita Brenner, The Wind That Swept Mexico.)

Zapata and Villa had different ideas on the subject. Zapata said his troops would demobilize as soon as the land was divided, and as soon as the Plan de Ayala became the basis of the new government program. Five more years of warfare followed, with Carranza and Obregon on one side and Zapata and Villa on the other. For a brief moment in 1914, Zapata and Villa were in possession of the Capital, and victory seemed to be theirs. But they had no experience in national affairs and they could not consolidate their gains. For them the Revolution was just a matter of dividing up the land – of finding a man for president who would divide the land. They could find no suitable candidate for president. They took to the fields again in an attempt to wipe out the Armies of Carranza and Obregon, who had retreated but were still powerful foes.

The Zapatistas swarmed over the state of Morelos, seizing haciendas, breaking open safes, burning the deeds and papers of the hacendados. But Zapata permitted no destruction of property or looting. The property, he said, belonged to the people. They must preserve it for the future. He took only what was needed in the way of food and supplies.

In the North, Villa was defeated. But in the South, Zapata continued his independent struggle for land and liberty. In between the fighting, the Zapatistas tilled their land. They seemingly could spring from the ground at will, or melt away into nothing but handfuls of peaceful peasant tilling their little plots. How, complained the generals, could you defeat an enemy whom you could never find?

In desperation, the government sent General Pablo Gonzalez to get Zapata. Using the scorched earth method, Gonzalez destroyed every village suspected of harboring Zapatistas. The inhabitants were slaughtered; the houses were burned. But still the Zapatistas fought, and still they were led by Zapata.

Carranza offered a reward of 100,000 pesos for Zapata’s head. Jesus Guajardo, a colonel under Gonzalez pretended he wanted to desert the Federals and join the agrarians. A conference was arranged. Guajardo’s men lined up as if to present arms and fired a broadside at Zapata.

Zapata, the Unconquerable, was dead. His body was exhibited in the village plaza at Cuautla. His head was fastened to the back of a mule and sent, under heavy guard, throughout the state of Morelos to prove to the Zapatistas that their leader was dead. But still some say today that he is not dead. Superstitious peasants say that he has been seen in the mountains ... He is not dead ... He is the Unconquerable ...

Various land and social reforms have been carried out in Mexico since the beginning of the Revolution of 1910. But the land problem has not been solved. At the beginning of the Revolution in 1900, 2 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the land. In 1938, ¼ of 1 percent of the people owned 65 percent of the land, while 65 percent of the rural population had nothing.

We can see in Mexico’s history – as a colony of feudal Spain and as a semi-colony of United States and British imperialism, an illustration of one of the aspects of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution – that part of the theory which pertains especially to those countries which have a backward development.

Why Zapata Failed

In the backward colonial and semi-colonial countries, the native bourgeoisie arrives too late on the scene to solve its historical tasks, the destruction of feudalism and the division of land to clear the ground for capitalist development. The backward peasantry is also incapable of solving the problem. The division of the land is for them the whole task, and it is not enough.

We are living in the period when capitalism has reached the highest stage of its development – imperialism with an international economy. Today, private property and national boundaries stand in the way of progress. It is no longer possible to solve the problem in the old way. There is no room in a world already divided up among monopoly capitalists for the development of new capitalist classes on the old competitive, free-enterprise basis.

In the backward countries, the problems of the bourgeois revolution cannot be solved without going over into the socialist revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

We can see proof of this theory negatively in Mexico’s unfinished revolution, just as we see it positively in the successful October 1917 Revolution in Russia. Trotsky’s prognosis of the Russian Revolution, and it proved to be the correct one, was:

“All the tasks of the bourgeois revolution facing it, the proletariat will come to power and launch the dictatorship of the proletariat, supported by the peasantry.”

Some of the same elements were present in the pre-revolutionary situations in the Mexico of 1910 and the Russia of 1917. There were in both the semi-feudal elements, the great masses of the backward, landless, illiterate peasantry, and the dependence on, foreign capital.

But there were also two important differences, and those were the decisive factors. In Czarist Russia, in 1917, there was a highly developed and highly politicalized industrial proletariat. Petrograd was one of the great industrial centers of the world. And there was also a revolutionary working class party, the Bolshevik Party, with a correct political program. The Bolshevik Party launched the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” and wrested the state power from the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Compromisers under Kerensky, in whose hands the Revolution had reached an impasse. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks established the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In Mexico, on the other hand, the two decisive factors were lacking. At the time of the Revolution of 1910, there was only the smallest beginning of an industrial proletariat, and it was very backward and scattered. And there was no revolutionary working-class party with a correct political program. Uncompromising revolutionary that he was, Zapata had no conception of the real task, and his class – the peasantry – was incapable of taking the power. The Revolution in Mexico is still unfinished.

In Mexico, the native capitalists have been shackled by a combination of feudal remnants and advanced imperialist capitalism. From the beginning of its development, the Mexican capitalist class was tied up with the great landowners, the semi-feudal elements, and together they depended on imperialist capital. The birth of the native bourgeoisie was a by-product of the industrial development which resulted from the penetration of Mexico by European and American imperialist capital.

The ruling class of Mexico is petty-bourgeois, middle class, and so incapable of playing an independent role. It is too weak numerically and economically to carry forward a struggle for real national independence against the foreign imperialists. It cannot unite with the Mexican workers against the foreign imperialists, for such a united struggle would threaten the very existence of the capitalist class itself. Who can say that the Mexican workers would consider their task completed at the moment the foreign exploiters were driven out?

Today in Mexico there is a new revolutionary power – the industrial proletariat, with a revolutionary tradition. The development of the Mexican working class economically and politically has necessarily accompanied the industrial development which has been going on since the turn of the century. It was too weak and too young to play a decisive role in the Revolution of 1910. The industrial proletariat is still small, but it is rapidly increasing in importance. The workers in nearly all the important extractive, manufacturing industries are unionized.

The task of the Mexican industrial proletariat is to form a revolutionary working-class party with a correct political program and, united with the Mexican peasantry, to complete the Revolution.

Speaking of the nature and tasks of the colonial revolution, Lenin, after October, 1917, described them as follows:

“There are to be found in the dependent countries two revolutionary movements which every day grow farther apart from each other. One is the bourgeois-democratic movement. The other is the mass action of the poor peasantry and workers for their liberation. The former endeavor to control the latter, but the Communists must struggle against such control and help to develop class consciousness. The cooperation of the bourgeois national elements is useful, but the foremost task is. the formation of Communist Parties, which will lead them to the revolution. Thus they will accomplish the task, being led by the advanced proletariat.

“The parties in the colonies are not very large, but they reflect the attitude of the workers in these countries. The International must work with all these Parties. The leadership is in the hands of the Communist vanguard. The first step in the revolution in the colonies must be carried out with a program that will include many petty-bourgeois reforms such as the division of the land. But from this it does not follow at all that the leadership of the revolution will have to be surrendered to the bourgeois democrats. On the contrary, the propaganda must be carried on to the Soviet idea, and carried forward to the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system throughout the world.”

The collapse of the Third International and the Stalinist betrayal of the workers in Mexico, as elsewhere, with their slogans of national unity and support of the imperialist, democracies, has cleared the way for the organization of a real Communist vanguard.

In Mexico, the formation of a powerful revolutionary working-class party, united with the workers of America and the workers of the world, under the banner of the Fourth International, is on the order of the day.

Reviewed by Donna Kent

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