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The New International, January 1935


Jean Mendez

The Anti-Catholic Drive in Mexico

From New International, Vol. II No. 1, January 1935, pp. 23–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FOR OVER A hundred years church and state in Mexico have been engaged in a struggle for power. The question of whether or no the Catholic church is to retain the position and privileges it always claims, in a Catholic country, appears at the head of the list when the bourgeois democratic revolution begins in 1810, because the Church fights to retain:

  1. Complete control of education and social welfare.
  2. Complete control of intellectual activity.
  3. Tax-exemptions and financial support.

These claims conflict with the bourgeois democratic program, since because of them the church condemns freedom of speech, press and assembly, freedom of belief, and the doctrine that sovereignty resides in the people – supporting instead the theory of divine right. Within the church itself, however, a class division appears, the poorer priesthood agitating for democratic government, against the episcopate and the rich orders, such as the Jesuit company, who support the absentee-landlord system and the rights of royal monopoly attacked by the bourgeoisie.

Inevitably the church fights all liberal governments and uses all its power to overthrow them. In Mexico the process of this struggle can be seen in cycles: liberal government overthrown, reactionary government in power, liberal government again triumphant, and so on, and each time a liberal government takes power the economic, and political privileges, of the church are cut into. The climax of this struggle is reached in 1857, when the church, together with French bankers and the Hapsburg crown, put Maxmilian and Carlotta on the Mexican “throne” in order to crush the Juarez democrats. Juarez victorious, a far-reaching reform is carried out. Church and state are separated, church property is nationalized, convents and monasteries are dissolved and made illegal, education is taken over by the state, and the democratic liberties are proclaimed in the new constitution.

This constitution and these laws really break the back of Catholic power in Mexico. The Diaz counter-revolution does not restore the church to its old position, but arranges to ignore some of the more radical laws, especially those having to do with education. Catholic schools are openly “bootlegged” for some thirty to forty years, and convents and monasteries exist in weakened disguise. The church therefore fights the Madero revolution of 1910, and when Madero is murdered, and the popular agrarian revolution breaks out, peasants sack, burn, and destroy churches, and drive the enormous majority of the clergy out of the country.

The constitution of 1917, written towards the end of the agrarian civil war, embodies the laws of 1857 and sharpens and emphasizes them, completing what is probably the most radical body of anti-church laws in the world. Against this constitution and all the governments which support it, the church mobilizes what is left of its power. Object: to overthrow the government and revise the constitution – in alliance with landowners, oil companies, mining companies, and other capitalist and semi-feudal interests affected by the new laws. In other words, the goal is counter-revolution.

In 1926 the anti-constitution campaign breaks out openly. It appears as part of other rebellions: generals planning palace revolts, leaders financed by foreign and native capitalists, and others. The spearhead of the movement, however, is the Catholic campaign. The government hits back hard, and the church then calls out all its reserves – it goes on strike, and orders a national economic boycott, with the object of paralyzing business and thereby bringing the government down. Few historians foresaw the outcome. It was taken for granted that, given the great piety of the overwhelming majority of the population, the church challenge constituted a major threat and would mean, probably, civil war.

But the civil war that the church thought it could start by pushing a button, fizzled into scattered rioting and some skirmishing by guerrilla bands. Ninety-five percent of the people did nothing at all. They talked excitedly, but they neither boycotted nor fought. And when in 1929 Morrow arranged to have the churches reopened, the priesthood returned on the government’s terms – and found that in hundreds of villages, welcomes were markedly cool. The people had discovered that they got along very nicely without the priests. They saved money.

Today the situation is that of a Catholic country that is nevertheless indifferent to the pleas, orders and instructions of the Catholic clergy. The power of the church is almost totally gone, and it can count for social support only on the wealthier layer of the upper class, and a small part of the petty bourgeoisie. The majority of the petty bourgeoisie, the workers, and the peasants, are either indifferent or hostile to the political program the church presents. Most of the women, however, are definitely pro-church, but at present they have very little political weight, and moreover are guided – weeping but obedient – by the wishes of their men folk.

The church-state question has therefore, no longer the importance of being Number One goal for the bourgeois democratic revolution. For by now, the Mexican workers and peasants are growingly class conscious and interested in concrete economic gains: land distribution, higher wages, union organizations, workers’ insurance, and other issues part of a class-revolution program. They are uneasily, suspiciously, angrily wondering what happened to the “Revolution” in which they all fought so hard. The constitution makes many promises, but nevertheless living conditions have not changed enough to justify the fighting that was done. Prices, governed by an inflationary policy, are beginning to climb. The mines are now working full time, roads are being built, factories are being started, but of this boom they get nothing but the uncomfortable feeling that they have been gypped.

Just before the last elections, strong deep-flowing currents of revolt were already perceptible nearly everywhere in Mexico. Strikes, guerrilla raids on Calles’ party headquarters, all sorts of minor and major incidents signalled clearly that the Mexican working class was on the move. At the same time, naturally, the old and new capitalists, alarmed, began to mobilize too, in order to take the government over, either as an old-style dictatorship, or in Fascist form. The church campaign began again, started cleverly on a very small issue, spread methodically by Jesuit agents particularly, since it is they who constitute the backbone of the clerical Fascist movement all over the world. (Spain, Austria, Portugal, Argentine.)

It was easy, convenient, and spectacular for the government to pick that movement up and make a big show of revolutionarism by cracking down hard on the Catholic clergy and Catholic agitators. This was done especially by the nationalist demagogues such as Garrido Canabal, Adalberto Tejeda, and others jockeying for political position on a combined agrarian-anti-foreign-anti-church program. Calles shrewdly gave them plenty of room, admitting most of the saint-eating gang into the new Cabinet in order to color the new government a good cheap red.

It wasn’t enough, however. The Partido Nacional Revolutionaria, struggling hard to maintain its grip on the government, had to make a number of startling concessions. They are all put down in a beautiful red book called the Plan Sexenal (Six-year Plan). It is worth detailed consideration, for it states in black and white that the class struggle is inherent in the economic system under which we live, calls for a strengthening of the working class in order to “go towards socialism”, and provides for: universal closed shop; minimum wage laws; free medical care of workers; unemployment, old age and sickness insurance; government-supported producers’ and purchasers’ cooperatives; nationalization of mines, railways, oil, and electric power. And finally, for socialist education (undefined).

How much of this amazing plan, which also contains some neat chiselling in favor of native versus foreign capitalists, and opens the door to glittering vistas of graft in semi-state, semi-private finance, mortgage, and other enterprises – will be carried out depends, of course, on how much pressure is exercized by each favored class. With all its jokers, it should not be underestimated, for it gives the workers a good deal of leverage. So far it has had one important effect. It has stimulated organization, so that now for the first time in several years, Mexico has a strong labor movement again.

To be sure, the “pro-worker” clauses in the Six-Year Plan exist because the workers were already powerfully organizing. They are significant clues to a rapidly developing revolutionary situation. In the face of it the Calles gang manoeuvres to keep the struggle in the cultural field. It is easier, obviously, to go “Left” in painting, writing, and teaching, than to give way to revolutionary pressure where it touches Calles and Co. capitalists and affects imperialist pockets. Hence the focus of the fight now is the “socialist education” law which constitutes exactly nothing more and nothing less than a stiff blow to the church. For the only economic basis left the clergy is teaching in “lay” private schools. Obviously they cannot teach “socialism” as the law requires; it means excommunication from the church. The church takes a desperately defensive position, calling for American intervention, since that is now, literally, its only hope. The government meanwhile, builds a good rousing show out of the fight. It gives the petty bourgeois demagogues something to do, and the intelligentsia – noisily “socialist” on the Left wing of the Calles party-something confusing to think about. Presumably it is supposed to convince the workers and peasants that Calles is Lenin after all.

But they are not impressed. They take no part, unless paid well, or threatened formidably, in either pro-church or pro-government parades. Riots around churches are, as a rule, artificially provoked by one or the other side. The bourgeoisie is half-indifferent, half-hopeful, and gives secret but weak support to the Catholic agitators. Certain parts of it – the liberal professionals especially – have made some attempt to support the church agitation on a “free speech” issue, claiming curiously that the socialist education measure was objectionable because: 1) It violated free speech; and 2) it wasn’t socialist enough, This petty piece of irresponsible gesturing was supported – in fact inspired by – the communist party. It made bedfellows of the reactionary rector of the University, and the radical intelligentsia, FSU brand. Much to the advantage of Calles, the Mexican working class has now reason to wonder whether the Stalinist party and the Catholic clergy are sisters under the skin. Apparently its leaders have been unable to grasp the fact that all the progressive measures advocated by the Cardenas (Calles) government were forced upon it by working class pressure. Instead of supporting them, insisting that they be carried out, they attack them on the anarchist theory that anything governmental is to be repudiated and condemned. For them too, the goal of all activity is to put on a howling revolutionary show; even if in tacit alliance with the Fathers of the Holy counter-revolution itself.

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