The Mexican Revolution Research Paper

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Although its causes stretch back into the later nineteenth century—some would say further—the Mexican Revolution began in November 1910 with an armed insurrection against the regime of President Porfirio Dıaz (1876–1911). It is harder to say when (if ever) it ended, hence to define the exact boundaries of the phenomenon. The 1910 revolt inaugurated a decade of intense fighting and political mobilization, which peaked in 1914–15, when Mexico became a mosaic of regional revolutionary forces, loosely allied in shifting coalitions. The coalition led by Venustiano Carranza triumphed on the battlefield in 1915 and, for five years, Carranza’s government struggled to survive; its overthrow in 1920—the last successful violent overthrow of an incumbent government—ended the armed revolutionary cycle. For a further 20 years (1920–40) the new regime, led by veterans of the armed revolution, consolidated itself, rebuilding the economy, achieving political stability under dominant party rule, and undertaking a series of social— particularly labor, agrarian, and educational— reforms which culminated in the radical administration of Lazaro Cardenas (1934–40). Mobilizing workers and peasants, the regime resisted the challenge of dissident army leaders, conservative opponents, foreign companies, and the United States. Since the 1940s the dominant party, the PRI, continued to monopolize political power, but the thrust of its policies became more moderate—or downright conservative. Capital accumulation and industrialization now took priority over social reform and redistribution. Old enemies—the Church, the United States, foreign investors—were conciliated. And a new postrevolutionary generation of civilian politicans, technocrats, and businessmen came to dominate the booming, urbanizing Mexico of the 1950s. In generational terms, the revolution had clearly ended; and the revolutionary project—reformist, populist, and nationalist—had also faded. However, the political system set in place during 1920–40 remained, mutatis mutandis: and revolutionary symbols and policies—for example, the figure of Emiliano Zapata, and the agrarian reform cause which he had championed— survived, not only in official rhetoric, but also in local protests, popular movements, and even outright rebellions, such as the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. By now, the revolution figured not only as a national myth, but also as a source of radical opposition to a regime whose radical claims had worn thin.

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As a historical phenomenon, therefore, the Revolution is best seen as two consecutive phases: the armed revolution of 1910–ca.1920, and the institutional-reformist revolution of ca. 1920–40. Analytically, it can be usefully analyzed under three heads: causes, process, and outcome.

1. Causes of the Revolution

While some historians would seek the causes of the Revolution in the distant legacy of Spanish colonialism (large landed estates, a powerful Church, a tradition of coercive labour and ethnic discrimination), such a view fails to explain either why Mexico alone in Spanish America experienced a major revolution prior to World War II (Bolivia 1952, and Cuba 1959 bear rough comparison), or why Mexico’s revolution occurred a century after independence (1821). A more persuasive interpretation focuses on the regime of Dıaz, a liberal general who, ending 50 years of political instability, civil and international war, and economic stagnation, seized power and constructed a stable, authoritarian regime, which provided a generation of peace and ostensible prosperity. Behind the facade of the liberal 1857 Constitution, and invoking a positivist rationale, Dıaz ran a personal regime, reelecting himself and his cronies to high office; he imposed central control, balanced the budget, wooed foreign investors, and, thanks to the new railway system, promoted a successful project of export-led economic growth. Political stability—by the 1900s, political ossification— contrasted with rapid socioeconomic change; cities grew, and with them a literate, urban middle class; a new industrial proletariat sprang up alongside the more numerous artisanate; peasant communities, especially in the dense heartland of central Mexico, lost their lands to expansionist, commercial haciendas (estates); throughout the country, rural communities, which comprised three-quarters of the population, came under tighter political controls and economic constraints.

Initially popular, Dıaz was, by the 1900s, an aging tyrant, incapable of appreciating, still less controlling, the forces of change he had encouraged. As the memory of nineteenth-century instability faded, and the example of US and European liberalism exerted a growing appeal, protest mounted, perhaps exacerbated by the economic recession of 1907. Two principal forms of protest emerged: first, a loosely urban middle-class liberalism, which sought to make a reality of the 1857 Constitution, making the government—national, state, and local—responsible to the electorate (hence the slogan: ‘effective suffrage, no reelection’); second, a broader, popular, largely peasant, social protest, directed against expansionist landlords and the abusive agents of the state—especially the iefes politicos (local political bosses). Two secondary sources of opposition also developed: elite families who had been excluded from power by Dıaz’s narrow coterie of cronies; and an urban working class which combined an ‘economist’ strategy of incipient unionization with support for liberal democracy. (Although some more radical working-class groups flirted with anarchism, these were a distinct minority). Liberalism—the demand for civil rights and clean elections—offered a broad platform on which these disparate forces could come together; social, nationalist and anticlerical demands were, as yet, marginal. In 1908–10 the urban middle class mounted an electoral opposition to the regime; in 1910–11, when a rigged election again returned Dıaz to power, the more radical elements of the opposition resorted to armed insurrection, at which point the rural communities of northern and central Mexico took the lead.

2. The Process of the Revolution

The ensuing process of revolution (1910–20) varied by region and involved a politico-military narrative of bewildering complexity. It can be schematically summarized in terms of four collective actors: (a) the old regime, represented by the Porfirian political elite, the military, the landlord, and business class, and many of the Church hierarchy; (b) the urban middle class, eager for political representation but social stability; (c) the working class, similarly drawn to liberalism, but keen for economic betterment; and (d) the peasantry, concerned to conserve (or recover) lost land, while asserting local autonomy in face of an authoritarian state.

These actors were involved in a drama which comprised five acts (three of them episodes of civil war).

(a) In 1910–11 the initial broad coalition of middleclass reformists and peasant rebels forced Dıaz to resign (May 1911), but failed to dismantle the old regime.

(b) The nominal leader of the opposition, the wellmeaning northern landlord Francisco Madero was elected president and sought—with sincerity and some success—to promote political democracy. But free elections and free expression alarmed the old regime, while failing to satisfy Madero’s insurgent peasant allies, notably Emiliano Zapata. Caught between these two fires, Madero succumbed to a military coup and was murdered in February 1913.

(c) During 1913–14 a more extensive and savage civil war ensued, as Madero’s erstwhile supporters—middle class, peasants, workers—opposed the military government of Victoriano Huerta, who sought to crush the revolution ‘cost what it may’ and to restore the old regime. Phase (c) was, therefore, a more prolonged and decisive re-run of phase (a), Huerta, a naive autocrat, failed. Popular leaders like Zapata and Villa combined with canny northern politicians like Carranza in a powerful coalition which, winning the support of President Woodrow Wilson, defeated Huerta’s army and destroyed much of the old regime. In August 1914 Huerta had fled, his army was disbanded, and the old elite definitively relinquished national power.

(d) The Revolution was, however, too divided to rule. During phase (d), the two major northern leaders—Carranza and Villa—fought for supremacy. Now, in a new twist, rival revolutionary armies clashed in a series of bloody battles, which Carranza won. Some historians see this outcome as the victory of the revolutionary bourgeoisie over the worker-peasant forces of Villa and Zapata. This is unconvincing. Carranza’s broad coalition embraced peasants and workers (indeed, Carranza’s leading general, Obregon, recruited working-class radicals into his ‘Red Batallions’); and Villa’s coalition contained ‘bourgeois’ reformists, provincial elites, and timeserving opportunists (it also enjoyed greater sympathy in the US). Villa’s defeat did not, therefore, save Mexico from socialism. It did, however, bring to power a new political elite, nominally led by Carranza, including a clutch of hardheaded, ‘self-made’ men from the north—notably Obregon and Calles—who would become the architects of the postrevolutionary order. (e) During 1915–20 Carranza clung tenuously to power, governing a country wearied by war, disease, hunger, hyperinflation, and endemic lawlessness. The new Constitution of 1917, which combined democratic political provisions with more radical commitments to land and labor reform, anticlericalism, and economic nationalism, was more a rhetorical statement of intent than a practical blueprint for government. Seeking to rig his own succession—and thus to defy the revolutionary army—Carranza was ousted and killed in 1920: the last case of a successful armed insurrection in Mexican history.

3. Outcome of the Revolution

While the era of major civil war had now ended, the outcome of the revolution remained uncertain. If the old regime had been destroyed, the form of the new revolutionary state was still sketchy and—despite the bold rhetoric of the Constitution—there had as yet been no major structural socioeconomic reform. Given the greater continuity of the post-1920 period, the Revolution’s outcome can be schematically thematically outlined. However, a basic chronological distinction must be made. From 1920 to 1934 Mexico was under the sway of the ‘Sonoran dynasty,’ northwestern leaders who combined military prowess with acute political acumen. During the presidencies of Obregon (1920–24) and Calles (1924–28), and the period of Calles’ informal dominance known as the Maximato (1926–34), the regime consolidated politically, while delivering social and nationalist reform in moderate doses. Despite talk of ‘socialism,’ Mexico remained within the capitalist camp and, indeed, forged closer economic ties with the United States. However, the Depression coincided with a political crisis provoked by the assassination of president-elect Obregon in 1928.

Politico-economic crisis pushed the regime to the left, and under Cardenas (1934–40) the social demands of the Revolution were belatedly met: Cardenas enacted a sweeping agrarian reform: encouraged labour organization; extended state education (while introducing a ‘socialist’ curriculum); and expropriated the foreign oil companies. The ‘outcome’ of the Revolution thus emerged incrementally over two decades, sometimes in response to critical conjunctures Obregon’s assasination, the Depression). Not everything that happened in Mexican public life post-1920 was the product of ‘the Revolution’ (if by that we mean the armed struggle of 1910–20); however, public life had been altered decisively by that struggle, often in informal ways (by virtue of migration, inflation, the erosion of old hierarchies, and the rise to power of new elites); hence the subsequent two decades of Sonoran state-building and Cardenista social reform can be seen as the continuation of the revolution by other— more peaceful, political and institutional—means.

This process can be summarized under six heads, which are diagnostic of the Mexican revolution; statebuilding; labour and agrarian reform; education; anticlericalism; and nationalism. Of course, these interact: agrarian reform, education, and anticlericalism all served the goals of state and nationbuilding. This does not mean, however, that the story was, as some revisionist historians argue, essentially one of centralized state-building; for these initiatives also welled up ‘from below,’ from a restless civil society. The outcome, therefore, reflected a dialectic involving both the embryonic state and a civil society which, though weary of war, was ready to struggle for popular, often local, goals; land, schools, jobs, and a say in politics.

The Revolution spawned a new state, run by political parvenus (many from the ranks of the revolutionary armies), committed to a ‘populist’ policy of incorporating mass publics into new institutions, notably the sindicatos (trade unions), ejidos (agrarian reform communities), and political parties. During the 1920s the latter proliferated, and the infant state struggled against US opposition, praetorian rebellion, and popular Catholic insurrection (the Cristero War, 1926–29). But following Obregon’s death. President Calles established the dominant official party, the PNR (1929), which loosely united most revolutionary groups and gradually established a monopoly of political power at all levels. Mexico did not become a one-party state (opposition, right and left, was guardedly tolerated), but, down to the 1990s, it was a dominant-party state, invulnerable to military coup, popular revolt, or party competition, hence unique in Latin America. Meanwhile, the powers of the state increased, notably in the late 1930s, when Cardenas implemented social reforms and expanded the state’s role in the economy.

Cardenas’ reforms consummated the revolutionary project of labor and agrarian reform. Trade unions benefited from legal protection, but in return accepted the partial tutelage of the state; the dominant labor confederation (in the 1920s the CROM, in the 1930s the CTM) became a close ally of the state. More radically, the government responded to peasant demands by distributing hacienda land to rural communities—gradually in the 1920s, rapidly in the 1930s. The agrarian reform communities (ejidos) benefited about half Mexico’s peasantry, providing access to (but not individual ownership of) land, while promoting peasant politicization and education. By the 1930s, an extensive network of rural schools served not only to impart literacy, but also to inculcate nationalism, indigenismo (a revalorization of Mexico’s indigenous culture) and, briefly, ‘socialism.’ Education also served the state’s campaign against the Catholic Church, which has depicted—literally in the murals of Diego Rivers—as a reactionary enemy of progress, reform, and national sovereignty. The state weathered the bloody Cristero uprising (1926–29), but by the later 1930s began to mute its anticlericalism, aware that the Catholic Church was a formidable opponent and perhaps, an ill-chosen target.

Hostility to the Church was paralleled by fear of the United States. Both were threats to Mexico’s fragile sovereignty and fledgling revolution. Desperate for recognition, the regime conciliated the US (the Bucareli agreement, 1923); but, as Calles consolidated power, he pursued policies which offended the US: attacking the Church, supporting Sandino and the Nicaraguan liberals, and asserting Mexico’s control of its petroleum deposits. Diplomatic tension (1927) gave way to detente; but, a decade later, the chronic labor problems of the oil industry, aggravated by the oil companies’ quasi-colonial attitudes induced President Cardenas to nationalize the industry (1938). This unprecedented demonstration of Third World economic nationalism, grudgingly tolerated by a US government alarmed by Axis power and unsympathetic to the oil lobby, crowned Cardenas’s radical administration and, by provoking widespread nationalist support in Mexico, illustrated the populist and mobilizing capacity of the revolutionary state.

After 1938, however, the momentum of the revolution ebbed. A new political generation—civilian, technocratic and business-friendly—came to power: detente with both the Church and the US accelerated; land and labour reform stalled. The institutions of the regime—the dominant party, the CTM, the ejido— survived, underpinning a generation of political stability and economic growth (c. 1950–80), but they now pursued more conservative goals and increasingly became instruments of top-down control rather than bottom-up representation.

4. Interpretations and Conclusions

Like any major revolution, that of Mexico has provoked rival interpretations some of which respond to political ends. The regime itself projected a foundational myth of a popular, progressive, patriotic revolution which toppled the tyrant Dıaz, confronted clerical, landlord, and foreign enemies, and brought peace and social reform to a grateful people. Though ‘socialism’ was trumpeted—especially in the 1930s— this was a suj generis socialism, independent of Moscow, rooted in Mexican soil. It offered social reform and national redemption but did not promise the abolition of the market or the creation of a planned economy. Critics on the far left (neither numerous nor powerful) veered between outright opposition to and constructive engagement with this regime (e.g., during the years of Popular Frontism, 1935–9). Liberal critics—some veterans of the Madero revolution of 1910—castigated the regime for its authoritarianism; but their demands for political pluralism, though recurrent, went unheeded, at least until the 1980s. More powerful opposition stemmed from the right, especially the Catholic right, which attempted insurrection in the 1920s and mass mobilization (Sinarquismo) in the 1930s. Each of these currents—the ‘official,’ leftist, liberal, and Catholic—produced distinct interpretations of the Revolution.

From the 1950s, as the historical events receded and scholarly historians (especially in the United States) deived into the Revolution, interpretations again diverged. Mainstream opinion—which recognized the revolution as a genuine social movement, responding to popular grievances—yielded to revisionist critiques. Historians rightly rejected the notion of a monolithic national revolution, positing instead a multifaceted revolution, which assumed different forms in different times and places: ‘many Mexicos’ produced ‘many revolutions.’ Some historians, influenced by revisionist critiques of other revolutions, especially the French, questioned the very notion of ‘revolution,’ arguing (wrongly) that Mexico experienced no more than a ‘great rebellion,’ a chaotic blend of social protest, aimless violence, and Machiavellian careerism. Similarly, the antistatist reaction of the 1980s, evident on both the neoliberal-right and the loosely postmodern left, fueled criticism of the revolutionary state.

The right, excoriating the revolutionary state’s corruption, demagogy and rent-seeking, sought to rehabilitate Dıaz and justify the neoliberal stateshrinking project of the 1980s: while the new left, flirting with Foucault, denounced the state’s pervasive power and applauded its historic opponents—for example, the Cristero rebels whom the state had dismissed as clerical reactionaries. The revisionist tide, therefore, contained several contradictory currents (some of them quite old) and, while it usefully swept away the complacent myth of a benign, progressive, homogenous, revolution, it carried the risk—as revisionist tides do—of simply inverting the old Manichaean certainties. If the Revolution was bad, its victims and opponents must have been good; revolutionary claims were mere demagogic cant; essentially, the Revolution conned the people and constructed an authoritarian Leviathan state.

Since these interpretations embody politicophilosophical assumptions, they cannot be easily adjudicated by recourse to empirical evidence; especially since, with the expansion of archives, research, and publications, evidence can be found pointing in all directions. It is the balance of this vast evidential universe which counts. My initial overview of the Revolution suggests (contra extreme revisionism) that the Revolution was a genuine revolution, embodying popular grievances and mobilization: and that the regime which ensued, despite its undoubted authoritarian and demagogic tendencies, did not—and could not—ride roughshod over a victimized or inert people. Social reform responded to state-building goals and favored the centralization of power; but it also responded to demands and initiatives from below, without which unions would not have been formed, land would not have been distributed, and schools would not have been built. State and civil society interacted in many—and contrasting—forms, throughout a large and heterogeneous country. Mexico’s ‘many revolutions,’ therefore, varied, as regional historians have expertly shown. In aggregate, this complex dialectical process, unique within Latin America at the time, did not destroy capitalism and install socialism; indeed, it served more to remove (‘feudal’?) brakes on market activity (latifundios, coerced labour, peasant indigence), thus contributing to a more dynamic capitalism. At the same time, it enhanced national integration and, for a generation (1910–40), made possible the grassroots popular empowerment which is the hallmark of any genuine revolutionary episode.


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