Mexico transformed

March 14, 2013

Héctor A. Rivera reviews a book that introduces readers to the forces behind the Mexican Revolution, and the political questions it raised.

HAYMARKET BOOKS' publication of The Mexican Revolution: A Short History 1910-1920 is a welcome introduction to an important struggle that socialists around the world should know more about.

At a time when the gap between rich and poor in Mexico is at an all-time high, when privatization threatens Mexico's natural resources, and when there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current political regime, it's important to reflect on the Mexican Revolution of 1910--since similar conditions launched Mexico's most defining moment of the 20th century.

The Mexican Revolution is a good introduction on the subject, and it's accessible to students and general readers alike. The book successfully guides the reader through the twists and turns of Mexico's 10-year revolution and touches on the most important political questions raised during each phase of the conflict. Easterling offers us a critical yet sympathetic assessment of the key figures involved and of the intense drama of the revolution.

As we learn from the introduction, then, as now, there existed mass inequality between rich and poor, as landlords and capitalists dispossessed the population of their land and labor. Under the ruthless 30-year regime of Porfirio Díaz--known as the Porfiriato--American and European capital poured into the country and ushered in a period of rapid economic development.

Pancho Villa (front row, second from left) poses with Emiliano Zapata (front row, third from left) in Mexico City
Pancho Villa (front row, second from left) poses with Emiliano Zapata (front row, third from left) in Mexico City

The Northern states are a perfect example of this phenomenon. With the introduction of American railroads and foreign capital, the mining industry, large-scale farming, cattle ranching and industrialization, the North of the country experienced an economic boom. Towns such as Torreón, with a population of less than a thousand in 1877, grew to a thriving town of 23,000 by 1890. In the South, the industrialization of agriculture ushered in a similar economic boom that intensified the exploitation of land and labor.

Of course, the economic boom didn't benefit the majority of the population or the middle class, and even the emerging capitalists and landowners saw their fortunes restricted by the Díaz dictatorship. Especially after the depression of 1907-08, rural and urban workers and the middle class realized their precarious position during economic downturns. What's more, the lack of democracy and widespread corruption throughout the country didn't give these classes an opportunity to channel their dissatisfaction by electoral means.

IN 1908, in an interview to James Creelman for Pearson's Magazine, Díaz said that he would welcome open elections for the presidency. Although he wasn't serious, this statement was taken seriously by Francisco I. Madero, a wealthy democrat. Madero immediately launched an anti-re-election movement, but the regime quickly jailed him along with thousands of his supporters. After escaping prison, Madero regrouped and, with the help of rebel armies, successfully launched an armed rebellion against Díaz.

As the book weaves through the early stages of the revolution, we learn about the conflicting class interests that brought together diverse groups of people under the leadership of Madero to topple the regime in 1911.

Yet Madero couldn't reconcile the conflicting interests of the classes that had united under his banner of democracy--especially the demands of land redistribution coming from the Zapatistas and the interests of the landowners and the military. These conflicts turned fatal for Madero and opened a new phase of the revolution.

With the help of the U.S. Embassy, the old Porfirian general Victoriano Huerta orchestrated a coup d'état and ousted Madero from the presidency in 1913. In reaction, the governor of the northern state of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza, and others declared themselves in rebellion and formed the Constitutional Army.

Once again, the entire country found itself in armed rebellion. The Northern Division fought under the leadership of Pancho Villa and won against the Federal Army. In the South, the Zapatistas held control of the state of Morelos.

Once Huerta was defeated, the question of land redistribution and the divergent class interests of the rebels forced a split in their ranks. In the next phase of the revolution, Villa and Zapata were pitted against the forces of Carranza and the astute army general Alvaro Obregón.

Easterling once again helps the reader maneuver through the tortuous path of the revolution in this decisive phase of the conflict. Without missing a beat, the book successfully picks out the main political questions of each phase and leaves the reader hooked through every cliffhanger of the complicated military and political process of the revolution.

There are a few small additions that I would like to make to Easterling's useful book.

Easterling correctly states that the issues of land, local autonomy and democracy are the most important points of unity against the Díaz regime in the north. Indeed, since the Apache Wars of the mid-1800s, the colonization of land had united hacendados and colonists in the free villages.

Once the common enemy was defeated, these tight-knit relationships fell apart. By the time the revolution came in 1910, dispossession of land, encroachment on fertile soils and access to water resources were old grievances that had been brewing for generations.

When Madero came to power in late 1911, the question of land was as important in the north as the question of local autonomy. Thus, when many Northern rebels saw that the Madero administration was not going to carry out land reforms, they rebelled against Madero and joined with radical agitators to push for the Zapatista's "Plan de Ayala" which called for radical land reform.

I would also like to point out the important contributions by the Flores Magón brothers and their followers in the Partido Liberal Mexicano--known as magonistas--in setting the stage for the revolution against Díaz. Of course, it is difficult to add another plot to an already complicated revolution, but I think that their role and their ideas need to be reassessed and reclaimed.

ASIDE FROM these minor additions, the book touches on some of the most important political questions posed by the revolution and their conclusions can provide important lessons for us today. The question of regional versus national power for example, was a key question that had to be resolved. And it was, but not to the advantage of Villa and Zapata.

So why didn't Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata assume national power after their triumphant occupation of Mexico City in December of 1914? Easterling provides ample evidence and a clear explanation of why this didn't happen and why in fact it couldn't happen.

Furthermore, Easterling touches on another important question: class alliances. Many histories of the Mexican Revolution stress that Villa's charismatic persona and Zapata's principled leadership allowed them to lead large numbers of people during the revolution. While these attributes were important, Easterling correctly points out that it was the clear goals and alliances that allowed these individuals to successfully command their rebel armies.

In the case of Villa, his broad class alliance would prove to be his undoing as the revolution wore on. In contrast, Alvaro Obregón was able to exploit these divisions against his enemies.

It's important to reflect on the fact that it took 10 years for the revolution to sort itself out. It was a long, drawn-out process that involved millions of people as it swept through vast swaths of Mexico from the smallest village to the U.S. border.

We should remember that the volatility created by a revolution throws open all social questions because all classes have to struggle for their interests--a lesson that could be applied today when thinking of the revolutions launched by the Arab Spring.

Most of the social questions opened by the revolution can be studied in detail elsewhere. As the title of the book reveals, this is a short introduction and Easterling offers useful suggestions for further reading, among them Adolfo Gilly's classic The Mexican Revolution, which was republished in 2005. John Reed's Insurgent Mexico is also a classic book on the subject.

The Life and Times of Pancho Villa by Friedrich Katz and Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack extensively cover the lives of Villa and Zapata respectively. For those able to read in Spanish, La División del Norte by Pedro Salmerón is one of the best new releases.

Overall, the book achieves what it sets out to do--introduce readers to Mexico's complex revolution. At a time when revolutions are appearing on the scene of the 21st century, it's a good time to study revolutions and to become a revolutionary. This book is a great place to start for those who wish to do both.

Further Reading

From the archives