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New International, May 1938


Bernard Ross

The Land Problem in Mexico

From New International, Vol.4 No.5, May 1938, pp.151-153.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SINCE pre-Hispanic times, the struggle for land has been the crucial issue around which Mexican economic existence has revolved. The land problem, far from being mitigated, still less liquidated, has progressively increased with the passing centuries and far overshadowed all other economic and social problems.

Successive Indian migrations and the subsequent clashes they entailed between the various aboriginal nations and tribes, had as their motive power the desire for more land and its usufruct. The social results of those struggles took the form of dominant and tributary nations with the latter, as a result of conquest, forced to yield as tribute an ever-increasing amount of their agricultural products.

The arrival of the Spaniard accentuated an already acute land problem. The communal agricultural system of the Mexicans, prevalent alike among the dominant as well as subject nations, and guaranteeing to the entire population a means of subsistence, proportional to good or bad harvests, was displaced by a decadent European feudalism. The aborigine population, dispossessed and landless, was enslaved to a new class of Iberian feudal landlords. During the four centuries of Spanish rule, successive Spanish monarchs parcelled out among court favorites, lesser Hidalgos, army officers, upper clergy, soldiers and adventurers, immense tracts of the country’s best arable land. The land grants of the Spanish monarchy or land taken by adventurers and subsequently sanctioned by the crown, were immense. The conquistador Hernan Cortes quite modestly carved out for himself an estate of twenty-five thousand square miles.

The Spanish governments did decree legislation aimed at protecting the Indians against some of the more flagrant abuses of the hacienda system. The Campulli, or communal lands adjacent to the villages, were declared inviolable and the usufruct of those lands to be enjoyed exclusively by the villagers. Indians were exempted from the payment of taxes. A royal decree declared illegal any formal enslavement of the natives. However, virtually all the protective legislation remained a dead letter and, with the passing of time, the Indians, if not legally, actually became enslaved to the feudal hacienda system. A means to that end were the brutal and iniquitous debt systems devised by the landlords which shackled the peasant and his offspring to the landed estate during their entire lifetime. The hacendado received with the royal grant the right of encomienda, allowing him to draft Indians from adjacent villages to labor upon his estate. Under the system of repartamiento, Indians under the supervision of their own foremen were transplanted to various regions of the country either to toil exhaustingly in the mines or on the haciendas.

The economic hardships of the peasantry, the product of outmoded feudal relations on the land, steadily increased after Mexico obtained its independence in 1824. The standard of living of the impoverished peasantry sharply decreased during the century preceding the bourgeois revolution of 1910. While in 1908 a peasant earning 25 centavos daily could purchase 30 litres of corn, the average daily income of 35 centavos in 1908 could only purchase 8 litres. Particularly under the Diaz regime, representative par excellence of the feudal aristocracy, did the economic despoilment of the peasantry reach new heights. We already mentioned the fact that during the colonial epoch the Spanish government protected the communal holdings of the villagers. Diaz and his clique of Cientificos (intellectual supporters), abetting a formerly unheard of land speculation, permitted and encouraged the landlords to encroach upon those meagre holdings. The final result was that by 1910 over 25,000,000 acres of national lands had been turned over to the hacendados and foreign imperialist interests. The acute stage the land problem had reached by 1910 can be shown by the following: while a population of close to 13,000,000 possessed 26 per cent of the arable land, 11,000 landlords possessed 55 per cent.

The Mexican war for independence, unlike the American revolutionary war, was not led by a strong, influential commercial or manufacturing bourgeoisie. Therein lies an explanation for the fact that the forces of feudal-clerical reaction were able to utilize the independence movement for their own ends. The father of Mexican independence, the Catholic curate Hidalgo, initiated the struggle for liberation from Spain on September 16, 1810. He was primarily motivated by the abstract political slogans of the French revolution and only vaguely and casually treated of the necessity for a social upheaval based upon a radical overturn in land relationships, i.e., the confiscation of the large country estates of Spaniard and Criole and their division among the landless peasantry. But the millions of illiterate peasants steeped to their very marrow in ignorance and superstition, the great majority not even knowing Spanish, flocked to the Hidalgo banner not for “liberty”, “equality”, and “justice” – political conceptions absolutely meaningless to them – but because they instinctively felt that with the hated Spanish oppressor expelled, their stolen lands would be returned.

When Hidalgo was captured by the loyalist armies, another priest, Jose Maria Morelos assumed the leadership of the revolutionary forces. A first-rank military strategist, he had a much keener political insight than his former chief and realized that the further progress and development of the nation demanded a solution of the land question. He incorporated land reform in his program and actually began to carry out revolutionary land measures in the territory under his control. Unfortunately, he was captured and executed by the enemy in 1815. The old order was triumphant. But history has a way of producing ironies.

When Ferdinand VIII granted Spain a liberal constitution in 1818, the Mexican clergy, the staunchest defender of the old regime and until then vociferously opposed to independence, fearing the consequences of the Spanish events in Mexico, aligned itself with a clique of military reactionaries under Augustine de Iturbide and proclaimed the independence of the country. Mexico became an independent nation not as the result of a socio-economic upheaval led by a revolutionary class, but as the product of a political revolution instigated by precisely those social forces interested in preserving the old feudal regime with its basic relationships of landlord and peon.

Post-independence Mexican history is replete with struggles between the reform movement which began to assume momentum toward the middle of the eighteenth century and the Catholic hierarchy, the best organized and the most powerful of the old regime’s defenders. The clergy’s interest in the land question and its manifest desire to preserve the land relations inaugurated by Spanish colonization, was not solely based upon pure metaphysical reasoning, but had its firm roots in the inexorable cold logic of social materialism. In the ‘20s when Mexico set forth on its destiny as an independent nation, over one-half of the nation’s real estate was owned by the Catholic church. Political power shifted almost incessantly between 1828-1860 (the country had about 50 revolutions during those years) but the forces of clerical-landed reaction, supported almost invariably by the military, were too strongly intrenched to be overthrown by a handful of radical bourgeois idealists expressing the aspirations of a class which as yet was economically insignificant.

In 1833, the reform camp under Gomez Farias gained, temporarily, the upper hand. The church was deprived of its property and shorn of its political power. However, clerical reaction led by general Santa Anna was not long in regaining its former privileged position. In the ‘50s, Benito Juarez again led the reform movement to power. A .pure-blooded Indian, he undoubtedly was the greatest Mexican statesman of the last century. He separated church and state and started to distribute land among the peasantry. Overcoming the powerful internal opposition of lie church and the French invasion carried out in connivance with the former, the entire reform movement came to an unfortunate end with his untimely death. The reactionary general, Porfirio Diaz seized power and, during his thirty year tenure in office, brutal terror against all enemies his main political weapon, reconsolidated and augmented the power of the clergy and feudal landlords.

It was during Porfirio Diaz’ rule that the groundwork for the bourgeois revolution of 1910 was definitely laid. With the turn of the century a new native industrial bourgeois had already sprung up on Mexican soil, particularly in the textile field. That bourgeoisie, together with a fairly numerous urban petty bourgeoisie, feeling itself shackled by the semi-feudal Diaz government, began to prepare its forces for revolution. The industrial proletariat, the greatest social force of contemporary Mexican history, molded during the last decades of the 18th century by foreign imperialism, was a necessary ally for the bourgeoisie in the anti-Diaz struggle.

It is not our purpose here to present biographical sketches of some of the outstanding forerunners of the 1910 upheaval – for example, Francisco Magon. It will suffice here to say that on the eve of the revolution the greater part of the revolutionary forces were led by Francisco Madero.

Madero started his anti-Diaz campaign in 1908 when the latter, perhaps not realizing the consequences of his action, announced that he would not seek reelection. Diaz intended to use that announcement as a political strategm to weed out all possible opponents. Declaring the presidential elections a farce, Madero proclaimed revolution in 1909. One of the planks of his plan of San Luis Potosi called for a radical redistribution of the lands. But actually, like Father Hidalgo 100 years earlier, Madero considered the revolutionary movement to be of a purely political nature, separating it from a simultaneous social upheaval. A liberal democrat, he believed that the ills of the nation could be cured by such purely political slogans as “No Reelection”, “Effective Suffrage” and the granting of other civil liberties embodied in the constitution of 1857. Madero, hence, ignored agrarian reform. At the time of his assassination in 1914, he had already alienated the support of the millions of desperate peasants who were beginning to seize the land themselves.

The greatest Mexican land reform apostle, subsequent to the revolution of 1910, was Emiliano Zapata. A revolutionary peasant leader from the state of Morelos, he condemned Madero’s betrayal of the landless peon. The Plan of Ayala proclaimed by Zapata on November 28, 1911, called for the immediate distribution of one-third of the land belonging to the large estates. The peasant movement assumed gigantic proportions and it was not long before Zapata marched into Mexico City and actually controlled the country. But as has happened to most great Mexican revolutionaries, Zapata fell victim to treachery and was assassinated.

In 1915, president Venestusiano Carranza, frightened by the surging peasant movement, decreed that all communal lands taken away from the villages since 1856 must be returned. However, by the end of 1920, only about 5,000,000 acres had been distributed by his government and in such a poorly unorganized fashion, that the reform rebounded against itself.

The constitution of 1917, the legal document of the victorious bourgeoisie, included sections on the land reform and for the first time since 1910 gave the reform a juridical foundation. The mildness of the stipulations on agrarian reform with the guarantee to pay compensation for all expropriated lands, reflects the vacillatory position of the national bourgeoisie and its absolute incapacity to resolve the land problem. Our contention that the native bourgeoisie of colonial or semi-colonial countries cannot carry out the bourgeois revolution on the countryside, i.e., the confiscation of the large landed estates and their division among the landless peasantry, is not based on blind prejudices but has been proven time and again by historical realities.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the revolution of 1910, yet the land question remains to be solved. True it is that the various bourgeois governments during the past quarter of a century, have carried out various land and social reforms and have raised the level of existence of thousands of peasant families. After stabilization had been established in the Twenties, the governments of Obregon and Calles distributed to 500,000 peasants some 8,000,000 acres of land. The Cardenas government, the most radical of all the bourgeois governments, has to date distributed 25,000,000 acres of land to 660,000 peasants. Extensive irrigation projects and dams have been and are being constructed. But latifundismo still remains a potent force. From proper government statistics we learn that the ejidos, cooperatives of peasants who have received lands, possess 45 million acres of land. Since 1910, only 1,324,759 peasant families have been benefitted. On the other hand, there are 610,000 non-ejidal farms, covering a land surface of 307 million acres. Of the latter, farms or estates of over 25,000 acres have a land surface of 171 million acres. Thirty percent of the land is still owned by large landlords. These figures, more than anything else, reveal the impotency of the bourgeoisie and its inability to give the land to the peasants.

But critics may object and interpose that the Cardenas government is different from its predecessors and will proceed with the land reform program until the land has been given to the peasantry. But the latest reports from Mexico show that possibilities for further agrarian reform are virtually excluded today. Lacking funds, the government is decreasing financial allotments aimed at bolstering and consolidating the ejidos. That, coupled with the sabotaging campaign of the landlords before which the government remains complacent, is actually undermining the economic stability of the ejidos. Ten thousand peasants are unemployed today in the famous Laguna sector where the government has been concentrating its land reform program. Serious troubles are brewing on the countryside.

What the Mexican bourgeois cannot accomplish, historical development has destined for the proletariat. If history has taught us anything during the 25 years of the Mexican revolution it is that the only class capable of resolving the land problem in colonial or semi-colonial Countries and of leading the starved landless peasantry, is the industrial proletariat. Upon its shoulders falls the truly gigantic task of resolving not only the problem of land in Mexico, but also of its complete social reorganization.

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