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Mike Gonzalez

Rebels and Outlaws

For land and liberty

(December 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Mexican revolution in the early years of this century changed the country’s whole history. Mike Gonzalez tells the story of its best known leader, Emiliano Zapata, through the turbulent years of struggle

Mexico in September 1910 was a society ready to explode. It had become independent from Spanish rule 100 years earlier, yet those who had fought the colonial armies saw little change in their conditions of life. The capital, Mexico City, was a city of obvious wealth – and a new class had grown rich under the protection of the president, Porfirio Diaz. But the real beneficiaries of Mexico’s economic growth were foreign capitalists – the owners of the mines and factories that produced the wealth, or the railways that transported it to the ports or the borders.

The biggest change was in agriculture. Under Diaz, the amount of land devoted to export crops – tobacco, coffee and sugar – grew dramatically. The plantations began to look like company towns as an increasingly impoverished peasantry, thrown off their land, became labourers on starvation wages. The American journalist John Kenneth Turner, writing in 1908, found conditions there little better than slavery

In the province of Morelos, for example, one community after another had lost its lands to the expanding commercial estates. When Emiliano Zapata was elected mayor of the village of Anenecuilo, he began to mark off the village lands, distribute them among the inhabitants and defend them – arms in hand – against interlopers. Later, other communities sought his help. It was the first act of a long struggle against the destructive impact of an export agriculture which absorbed food producing land and devoted it to cultivating crops. The only beneficiaries were those who made the profits – the new landowners and their financial backers in the city.

Diaz’s government sent his vicious rural police against Zapata. But many of them were already busy elsewhere crushing the strikes breaking out in the new factories of the country’s centre or in the mines of the west, nearly all of them owned by foreign capital. An increasingly fierce repression could not hold down the lid forever. The resistance of the peasantry, or ex-peasants, was matched by rural banditry against the landowners. The workers’ struggles were encouraged by the anarcho-syndicalist ideas of the Flores Magon brothers, and the small and medium business sectors felt excluded from the corrupt elite that governed Mexico under Diaz.

When they demanded political reform, supporting the electoral campaign of Francisco Madero, they unleashed a movement they could neither foresee nor control.

In November 1910 Zapata launched his Ayala Plan. It was a political manifesto, a declaration that the peasant rebels would not lay down their arms until they were guaranteed their land and the repressive apparatus was dismantled – a call for ‘land and liberty’. Two months earlier Diaz had announced his own victory in the presidential elections – again. It was the last straw.

Zapata’s manifesto was the first act of a seven year period of social conflict known as the Mexican Revolution. When it ended officially in 1917 a million people had died and countless more were displaced. For while almost every section of Mexican society baulked at the repressive dictatorship of Diaz (who fled in February 1911) there was no agreement on what should follow. The frustrated middle class wanted political reform – a bourgeois democratic national state that could negotiate with foreign capital for better terms, and economic growth which would benefit domestic capital equally. They certainly did not want a social revolution that would threaten the very basis of property itself.

With Diaz out of the country, the newly elected president called on Zapata and the other rebels such as Pancho Villa in the north to lay down their arms. Zapata refused until such time as a genuine agrarian reform was carried out and the old landowning class was removed from power in the state. Madero’s response was to send soldiers, commanded by the old military leaders, to disarm the peasant rebels. They failed but in the process the old ruling class organised a counter-revolution and murdered Madero.

Once again the revolutionary armies created an alliance of hostile brothers – united only in their desire to defeat the counter-revolution. In the event it was the peasant armies of the north and south who drove the new regime out as they entered Mexico City in November 1913.

This was an extraordinary moment. It is recorded in a set of photographs which shows how dramatic the encounter was. In one, a group of peasants sit in an elegant teahouse waiting to be served by young women in waitress uniforms who look very startled. They had never seen the wide brimmed hats and white trousers in such places before. In another, Zapata and Pancho Villa occupy the national palace. Villa slouches in the presidential throne, his uniform adorned with medals, a cigar in his hand and a broad grin on his face. Next to him Zapata, in a straight backed chair, looks grim and uncomfortable.

The photos show that the peasant revolutionaries were in a real sense in control of the capital. Their bourgeois allies – led by Carranza – were far from the city and divided among themselves. Yet neither Zapata nor Villa had a political vision of a future society. Their strategies echoed the aspirations of one section of the working classes, but not of the class as a whole. They were not prepared to seize power in the state. Instead they waited, hesitated, and finally withdrew. Their movement had held power in its hands and then delivered it to their class enemies who would wreak a terrible revenge.

It was not that Mexico had no organised workers – they had already fought important battles in the years immediately prior to the revolution. There were revolutionary organisations too, but the prevailing politics within them were defined by a group of anarcho-syndicalists who were contemptuous of politics and political organisation. Thus the revolutionaries who made a revolution found themselves without a sense of how to bind the exploited classes into a new kind of power. Their access to the working class movement was cut off.

The vacuum of politics could not, and did not, last. As soon as Zapata and Villa withdrew to their own areas, Carranza assumed power in the state (in January 1915). Not surprisingly, almost his first act was to organise the military repression of Zapata and Villa. Whereas his military leaders inflicted severe defeats on Villa in April and June of that year, Zapata proved a much more difficult enemy.

This was not because Zapata was a better soldier, but because the process of political change had continued in the area under his control. While on 15 January Carranza had issued a decree guaranteeing private property, Zapata’s first agrarian reform decree was based on an idea of the collective ownership of land in ejidos or communities. Thus Zapata’s resistance was a mass struggle, linked to political change – and that was its strength.

Had news of the full impact of Zapata’s Morelos Commune reached the workers’ organisations in the cities, Mexican history might have evolved in a very different direction. As it was, Carranza co-opted the trade union leadership, announced new laws on workers’ rights and mobilised the workers briefly against the Morelos revolution. A year later, when Carranza turned his repressive apparatus against striking workers, the stratagem would have become clear – but tragically it was too late by then.

Within the walls of the Morelos Commune, by contrast, there was intense political debate. The sugar mills were taken into public ownership, the rights of small farmers guaranteed and the property of the ‘enemies of the revolution’ confiscated. A minister of arts and culture was appointed and a system of credits set in place.

But the commune existed under siege and in conditions of increasing economic scarcity. The vision enshrined in the decrees did represent an attempt to marry an anti-capitalist rising with the needs of a class of small farmers. As the besieged nucleus looked beyond its frontiers for allies, Zapata clearly began to see that the key was to forge alliances with workers’ organisations elsewhere. But his envoys found no resonance – for Carranza had used the intervening period to draw around him the new leaders of the trade unions, the radical bourgeois democrats and the nationalists. An isolated Zapata could do very little about it.

It was particularly poignant that from his external affairs office in Havana, late in 1917, Zapata sent a message of support and a plea for solidarity to the new Russian Revolution. The rumour is that he sent one of his horsemen to carry the message to Lenin. Whether or not his message arrived, the lessons of October would have reached the embattled and isolated Zapata too late.

Zapata fought on. In 1917 a new constitution announced the formation of a Mexican bourgeois state cemented by an ideology of nationalism. It united against the demands of the revolutionary movement whose ideas and practices reflected a desire for a more genuine and profound democracy based on collective ownership. The new state pursued Zapata and finally murdered him in 1919.

In 1964 a group of Mexican soldiers murdered a peasant leader called Ruben Jaramillo together with his family. His organisation carried Zapata’s name and it was rumoured that he was the possessor of some of Zapata’s private documents. He had grown up in Morelos too and there were always rumours that Zapata still rode in the hills.

Sadly, there is little doubt that he was murdered. Within a few years those who had administered the state that killed him claimed to be his inheritors. They spent $1 million on a filmed version of his life. But they continue to repress and murder those who draw the most important message from Zapata’s life – that only struggle from below and a very different society can answer the yearning for justice and for socialist democracy.

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Last updated: 25 February 2017