The Mexican Revolution — 1


November 2010 sees the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: The first major social re-ordering of the 20th century. Its impact abroad was huge, causing panic among elites and putting a glint in the eye of the workers of the world. Mexico predated the Russian Revolution by 7 years and its successes and failures were pored over by Lenin, Trotsky and others.

Porfirio Diaz

The conflict itself can be (very simplistically) divided into three main stages. The first was the overthrow of the long-standing dictator Porfirio Díaz. Díaz, in power since 1876, was a poster-boy for 19th century Liberalism. He opened up the country to foreign investment, cleared Indians from their land, allowed a wealthy elite to dominate (over 80% of Mexico’s farmland was owned by a mere 840 families). When in the run-up to the 1910 elections Díaz said he would welcome opposition, a lawyer named Francisco Madero took him at his word, standing against him on a popular platform. The dictator promptly had him arrested.

Zapatista soldiers in the exclusive Sanborns coffee house, Mexico City (1911)

Escaping to exile, Madero called for an overthrow of the regime. Emiliano Zapata, a southern peasant leader, answered his call as did the northern bandit, Pancho Villa. Together, they overthrew Díaz the next year. The old dictator went off to Paris and exile. What Mexico did next was tear itself apart.

Madero was too cautious to satisfy his supporters, too radical for his opponents. At heart, Madero was a liberal too, believing that merely through just laws a more equal society could be made. He freed the press, which was controlled by his opponents, and they began to lambast him. Zapata and Villa wanted radical change and land reform. They did not get it. Soon they retreated to their heartlands to defend their gains. Both refused to disarm and submit to the new order.

The second part of the Revolution now begins. In 1913, Madero was overthrown by general Victoriano Huerta, who promised to restore the values of Porfirio Diaz (though not Porfirio himself). Madero was deposed, arrested and murdered in mysterious circumstances. Villa, Zapata and the northern governors Alvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza rise up against the usurper. Huerta is defeated the next year and goes into exile. Villa and Zapata ride into Mexico City at the head of their armies.

Villa and Zapata sitting in the presidential chair (1914)

The triumphant revolutionaries were split into two groups. The more radical, Villa and Zapata, wanted land reform and social justice. Carranza and Obregón were more conservative, in the Madero tradition. The third stage of the Revolution involves the power struggle between these groups.

To begin with, Villa and Zapata are left in charge. Carranza takes his troops and retreats to the port of Veracruz (which controls most of the income from foreign trade), Obregón cuts a deal with the CROM anarchist trade union central. Slowly Carranza and Obregón begin to win ground eventually defeating the forces of Villa and Zapata, which again retreat to their rural strongholds.

The 1917 constitution marks a formal end to the fighting. The constitutional convention of 1916 again saw a split between radicals and moderates. The radicals won most of the key battles: an eight hour working day, minimum wage, the right to be paid in cash rather than tokens or company store vouchers were all gains enshrined in the constitution as were land reform, secular education and the control by the state of all sub-soil deposits (which led to the nationalization of foreign oil companies in 1938) and no re-election. The governments in power were, however, moderate in character. Both Carranza and Obregón served terms as president. Villa and Zapata were both murdered by government forces. Obregón himself was assassinated as he campaigned for a second term in office, something specifically forbidden by the constitution.

Venustiano Carranza

Most Mexicans look back on this period with mixed feelings. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Revolution was betrayed, that all the violence (approximately 1 million people died in the conflict) achieved so very little. All the idealists in this story (Madero, Villa, Zapata, Obregón) died violent deaths well before their time. Only the scumbag dictators, Huerta and Díaz, lived full lives into their dotage. If nothing else, the study of Mexican history teaches you one important lesson: life ain’t fair.

It should also teach you something else; that Zapata lives, that his cry of ‘Land and Freedom’ is still relevant today. That politics is a struggle where you never truly win or lose. There is always a new generation on both sides ready to fight every battle.

So, Feliz aniversario, amigos Mexicanos.

¡Viva México!

¡Viva Zapata!

¡Sufragio Efectivo, No Reelección!

About floppybootstomp

Lecturer, teacher, writer and traveller all perfectly good nouns aren't they? Do they have anything to do with me? Ask the taxman.

Posted on November 22, 2010, in Latin American Stuff, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. It certainly was the revolution with the best hats!

  2. True, although the Russians also do some great furry hats. Maybe hats are the key to the whole thing…

  3. Garak! Interesting link. Will discuss what actually constitutes a revolution (as opposed to a revolt or a rebellion) in a later post. Most definitions suggest that the difference is that a revolution will alter society in a fundamental way — especially power relations (i.e. the ruling class will fall and another, from below, take its place. It could be the aristocracy replaced by the bourgoisie or the capitalist class replaced by the working class). Political theory, eh?

  4. While I don’t agree with all your conclusions and interpretations, an excellent overview of a series of events that did indeed “alter society in a fundamental way”. A success? I think so, if only in that there was a fundamental change in the political-economic “ruling class” and in social structure. Europeans seems to expect practice to follow theory on this side of the Atlantic, where we don’t bother with the theory until after the fact. Pancho Villa famously decided he was a Communist only after John Reed told him he was.

    One small quibble. A million people did not die in the Revolution. The Mexican population fell by a million between 1910 and 1920, for which both emigration and a declining birth rate (not to mention the Spanish Flu) was much more the cause than any military action. Mexico’s 1910 population was about 15 millions; in 1920, about 14 millions. That’s a 6.66 percent decline, which is drastic, but considering the drop in European population over the same period (and recalling that the Battle of the Somme killed a million YOUNG men), the carnage and death here was nothing compared to what happened in Europe.

    Europe’s population fell by close to 20 percent between 1910 and 1939 (best figures I can find). Even Great Britain’s population fell drastically — 8 percent — while Mexico’s had grown to close to 20 millions over the same period.

  5. Richmx2 Thanks. I agree some of the analysis is simplistic. Just wanted a broad overview of the conflict for non-specialists (thats 99.9% of us this side of the pond) to mark the centenary. Also most of my books are in storage at the mo, so I wrote it mostly from memory.

    Your point on the casualty figures is correct, although I imagine the emigration and Spanish flu were very much influenced by the upheaval that the Revolution brought about. Anyway, I bow to your superior knowledge on the subject.

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