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Issue 55, April 2001

Mexico: State of Revolution

Villa and Zapata - A Biography of the Mexican Revolution
By Frank McLynn, 2000, Jonathan Cape, £20 hbk
Reviewed by Peter Taaffe

THE MEXICAN revolution of 1910-20, one of the most important events of the 20th century, has exercised endless fascination for successive generations.

In Latin America it stands alongside the Cuban and Bolivian revolutions. In a certain sense, its sweep and scale meant it developed on a higher plane. On a romantic and popular level, some of its main figures have been immortalised by Hollywood in epic films, such as Viva Zapata (with Marlon Brando in the starring role), and endless films about Pancho Villa. Indeed, Villa himself actually appeared in a Hollywood movie about his life and the revolution!

On a more serious level, socialists and Marxists have wrestled with the task of trying to grasp the main springs of the Mexican revolution. Where does it stand in relation to the Russian revolution? What class forces were involved?

Frank McLynn, using the vehicle of a biography of the two main figures of the revolution, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata - and to some extent the other important figures of Alvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza - gives a detailed picture of the events of the revolution. Much of this is very interesting and graphic but the main weakness of the book is the incapacity of the author to clearly understand and, therefore, explain the laws and rhythm of revolution and why this revolution unfolded as it did.


There is no clear explanation of the different stages of the revolution. McLynn, like many recent historians, abhors any attempt to draw general conclusions. But the essence of Marxism is to generalise the experience of the masses at each stage. Such generalisation has nothing in common with empty abstractions but is rooted in understanding and mastering a mass of detailed information.

Socialist or Marxist generalisations are attacked by the author. This means that, despite the mass of detail he furnishes, the fundamental lessons of the revolution are not brought out. Yet, without understanding the inner mechanisms, the Mexican revolution can be easily presented as an example of 'senseless violence'. Indeed, this has been precisely the conclusion of more than one reviewer of this book. Much detail is presented about the characters of Villa and Zapata, not all of it entirely accurate. The leaders of the revolution are presented as a bloodthirsty lot but there is little to explain why mass revolutionary violence was necessary, as in all revolutions, because of the terror which is first employed by the dispossessed ruling class which the revolution has overthrown.

McLynn goes to great lengths to deny any possibility that Marxism could explain the objective basis from which the revolution developed. For instance, in relation to the situation in agriculture, he writes: "Any attempt to classify (this) in terms of the classic Marxian modes of production leads merely to the how-many-angels-on-the-point-of-a-needle quasi-theological debate of the sort beloved of a certain type of academic sociologist". (p14)


The 'hacienda' was the form of organisation which predominated in the agricultural sector. It had been inherited from the Spanish hacienda system. Historically, it had been used as a form of colonisation of the conquered lands of the indigenous peoples. At the same time, it was part of the capitalist form of production which began to grow in Mexico before the revolution. Yet it was also a system which perpetuated the feudal and semi-feudal oppression of the peasantry through peonage, serfdom, service in kind, etc. The peasants saw this system as exploiting and oppressing them.

In the period leading up to revolution, the form of economic organisation differed throughout Mexico. In the north, in arid desert mountainous areas, the dominant form of agricultural organisation was large-scale cattle breeding. This differed from the tropical south in states such as Morelos where the Zapatista movement took shape. Here, such conditions saw the development of sugar and other agricultural products.

But, in general, Mexico had not completed the capitalist-democratic revolution despite its significant development of capitalist forms of production. Alongside the development of industry went the maintenance of semi-feudal and sometimes outright feudal remnants. McLynn himself writes: "Superimposing capitalism on the hacienda mode of production simply did not work: after all, even the mighty United States had been torn apart by a civil war in 1861-65, fought to correct the disequilibrium between an industrial north and a plantation economy in the south. (Mexican dictator) Díaz's attempt to impose capitalism 'from above' was impossible because the power of a landlord and hacendado class, its labour-repressive agricultural methods and in particular the institution of a servile peonage, all worked to impair the efficiency of the market". (p22)


This whole system was crowned by the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. The Mexican revolution evinced powerful movements to overthrow this system but could not find a class capable of carrying it through to a conclusion. McLynn is also wrong in his attempt to explain that there were no objective reasons why the revolution developed in 1910. He himself explains the accumulation of massive problems which developed under Díaz. Moreover, the economic crisis of 1907 exercised a powerful effect in worsening conditions, and lowering incomes and wages in Mexico as in other countries. The country in 1910 was a tinderbox, which needed just one accidentally dropped match for a conflagration to begin which would tear Mexico apart.

Prior to 1910 there were many lightning flashes of the coming storm. In Morelos, Zapata began to come into opposition to the landlords and he echoed the demands of the peasantry for the return of stolen communal lands and the purging of feudal and semi-feudal remnants. Another movement developed around Villa and Orozco in the north. The nominal leader of this growing movement, Francisco Madero, was a scion of the fifth-richest family in Mexico. Like the weak Mexican bourgeoisie he was to demonstrate the incapacity of the 'liberal' bourgeoisie to carry through their own capitalist-democratic revolution. A mighty peasant war, symbolised by Villa and Zapata, shattered Díaz's dictatorship and began to sweep away the feudal and semi-feudal remnants upon which his regime rested.


The tragedy of the Mexican revolution was, however, that there was no class in the cities capable of leading the peasantry and completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Only the working class, as the Russian revolution demonstrated, was capable of providing such a leadership. Unfortunately, the Mexican workers possessed neither a mass party nor a leadership capable of stepping into the vacuum and giving a coherent direction to the mass peasant war which overthrew Díaz.

Madero was the inheritor of the mighty exertions of the peasantry in establishing a new regime. But, as McLynn points out: "Madero never grasped that he was merely the Mirabeau in an unstoppable process, and that after him would have to come the Robespierres, the men of Thermidor and the Bonapartes". (p99) Villa had illusions in Madero, whereas Zapata suspected him from the beginning, warning that Madero represented the bourgeoisie who wished to derail the revolution.

Zapata was the man the oligarchs most hated and feared. The Zapata movement inevitably came into collision with Madero, as did Villa later on, as no serious land reform was carried through. As a consequence Zapata came forward with the Plan of Ayala in 1911 in which he denounced Madero for betraying the revolution. More than anything else in the Mexican revolution, the plan proposed shattering the basis of the landowners and the capitalists by giving the land to the peasants. McLynn goes to great lengths to demonstrate that this plan was neither 'communist' nor 'socialist'.


No serious historian would make such a claim given the social character of Zapatismo and the Mexican revolution, which was basically a mass peasant war. Nevertheless, as another commentator, Adolfo Gilly, pointed out, 'It displayed an objective anti-capitalist content'. The plan proposed to shatter the hacienda system. It was also stated that all those who opposed this action, directly or indirectly, would have their 'property nationalised'.

At the same time, the Zapata movement demonstrated enormous basic democracy and mass involvement. Indeed, Zapatismo posed a challenge not just to the landlords, but represented a fundamental challenge to the bourgeoisie. This was the reason why Madero instigated a war against Zapata in the south. However, the Madero regime was a weak conciliatory regime, which inevitably laid the basis for a coup organised by Victoriano Huerta in 1913. This in turn set the scene for a mass peasant war which engulfed the whole country.

Prior to this, the working class had begun to organise in the major cities and, notwithstanding what McLynn says about the 'weak proletariat', had quite a long tradition of struggle. The development of industry and particularly the railways in the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century led to the growth of the working class. However, it did not have a revolutionary leadership or party. The peasantry, on the other hand, was heterogeneous and was incapable of providing a national solution, as events were to demonstrate. In this situation the leadership of the revolution fell inevitably into the hands of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois forces which meant a distorted outcome to the Mexican revolution.


Before that, however, the revolution was to reach a high tide in the triumph of Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, and the occupation of the capital, Mexico City, in 1914. Throughout the Mexican revolution dual power existed in different states and reached a national scale in 1914. In effect, power was exercised by the peasant armies and militias, but they failed to establish their own national power because of the intrinsic incapacity of the peasantry to do this, as the whole of history has attested to. This was demonstrated when Zapata met Villa in Mexico City in December 1914. Villa expressed the incapacity of the peasantry to exercise national power when he said: "This place is too big for us; it's better out of there", referring to the presidential palace. He further declared: "We ignorant men make the war... the cultured people have to make use of it".

This accurately reflected the process of the Mexican revolution. Mass peasant plebeian methods had eliminated from Mexican society much of the feudal rubbish of the past and established the framework for the development of Mexican capitalism. However, the revolution was not completed in the sense that the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only have been carried through to a conclusion with the proletariat coming to power. Contrary to the arguments of McLynn, the Mexican working class did play an important role (despite the absence of a leadership and a party) either as combatants and supporters of the peasant army or, unfortunately, supporting Obregón, who ended the revolution as the Bonapartist figure of the new Mexican bourgeoisie.


With power concentrated in the hands of a 'strong' presidency, with the fig leaf of parliament and democracy, this new state developed in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution, with its main features largely intact right up to the recent elections in Mexico. This was a reflection not of the strength of the Mexican bourgeoisie but of its weakness in the face of the forces unleashed by the revolution which have put its stamp on Mexican society for ever.

Zapata was not a conscious socialist, let alone a Marxist. But he was the greatest symbol of the Mexican revolution and occupies a position fundamentally similar to the radical plebeian forces which have developed in every bourgeois revolution in history. This is shown by the examples of the Levellers in the 17th century English revolution and by the sans-culottes and Babeufist movement in the French revolution in the 18th century. It is not an accident than when the peasants rose in Chiapas in the mid-1990s it was the name of Zapata which was invoked. Despite his limitations, he is also a figure for the Mexican working class and his revolutionary example will be turned to by the Mexican workers in the period we are entering.

This book provides some very useful detail but it does not explain the processes of the Mexican revolution and how that revolution is linked to the movement of the working class today.

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