The Mexican Revolution, like any historical event, varied with the passage of time and was complex in its organization and development. It arose as a clearly political protest against the Porfirian regime; but those who participated in it left the imprint of their ideas, interests, and aspirations.
In 1910 Porfirio Díaz had himself reelected president of Mexico for the sixth consecutive time. Over thirty years of a power that steadily increased but did little to renew its men and methods had resulted in the paradox of an undeniably strong present and, at the same time, an imminent weakness. Although nothing and no one appeared to be capable of discussing the Porfiriato, still less of replacing it, it was already threatened by its manifest ageing and by the ever closer possibility of the death of the caudillo. At the time of what was to be his last reelection, General Díaz was eighty years old. For all these reasons, since 1904 Mexico had been faced with the problem of who would replace the president. By lengthening his presidential term from four to six years, Díaz put off the problem, but he did not eliminate it.
In 1908 President Díaz gave an interview to the American journalist, James Creelman. He described himself as the last of the indispensable men in the history of Mexico. His long tenure in power and his stern exercise of that power had made it possible—he said—to bring about an essential change in the political and social organization of the country; he had shortened, almost to the point of abolishing, the distance that existed between an advanced constitutional law and a people without political education. Díaz believed that his legitimate successor—the only one possible—would emerge from the organization of Mexicans into true political parties, from a free and open electoral contest. The Mexican people, said Porfirio Díaz, were now ready for democracy.
Many took the words of the president literally, and a climate of true debate, unknown in the country for some time, was produced. Numerous publications and politicians expressed their views. Soon, however, two currents of ideas clearly appeared. On the one hand, were those who possessed social end economic influence without political power and who hoped to be the natural heirs of the Porfiriato; as the step following the personalist government of Porfirio Díaz and previous to a democratic government, they advocated a kind of oligarchy that would be intellectual an—very much in the style of the period—scientific. On the other, were those who stood for an orthodox liberalism based on the belief that all people had an inherent capacity for democratic life; they thought that the Mexican, exercising his electoral right, would bring to power the person who should govern, and deserved to govern, the country.
In this last line of thought was Francisco I. Madero, a man who was keenly interested in and concerned with political questions. In 1908 he had published a book, La sucesión presidencial en 1910 (The Presidential Succession in 1910). More important, Madero and Díaz both thought that Mexico already had a real and numerous middle class capable of assuming political responsibilities. From the perspective of his own social background, Madero inevitably concluded that the Mexican people were ready for democracy. Therefore, he urged them to organize into parties and begin an authentic institutional life. This was the only way to guarantee peace and to safeguard the continuity of government programs because—said Madero—men will perish, but institutions are immortal.
Nevertheless, in a gesture of conciliatory realism and no doubt thinking that a total rupture of the national political system would not be easy, Madero proposed that the immediate election be only for a vice-president. The latter would thus learn how to govern so that, when Díaz disappeared from the political scene, he would naturally and smoothly occupy the place of command. Díaz did not respond to any of these propositions. Furthermore, when from the front ranks of the government Bernardo Reyes took tentative, even fearful, steps toward becoming candidate, he was abruptly forced out of national life.
Faced with these contradictions of what Díaz had said earlier, Madero went on to put his ideas into practice. After organizing an Anti-Reelectionist Party, he began an electoral campaign, something unprecedented in the entire history of Mexico. Accompanied only by his wife and a colleague as fellow speechmakers, Madero visited a large part of the country. The campaign of Madero aroused first ridicule, then alarm, and finally repression in government circles. The tiny figure of the man who dared to challenge Díaz, if only because he had taken that position, grew in stature with popular contact and he came to symbolize the little David so many Mexicans had waited for.
In June 1910 Madero contemplated the electoral process from the prison to which his boldness had taken him. Weeks earlier, the first disturbances in places as far apart as Yucatán and Sinaloa had reflected the mood of Mexico. On October 4, 1910, Congress declared Porfirio Díaz president, and Ramón Corral vice-president, for the next six years. On October 5 Madero, free on bond, crossed the border into the United States. The revolution loomed on the horizon.
From his refuge in Texas, Francisco I. Madero issued his revolutionary plan in which he denounced the June election as fraudulent, refused to recognize the constituted authorities, proclaimed himself provisional president until new elections, proposed to legally redress the abuses committed during the Porfiriato, and summoned the people to rebellion on November 20. These were the basic points of his Plan of San Luis Potosí, which were summed up in the slogan, “Effective Suffrage and No Reelection.”
When the revolutionary conspiracy was discovered in Puebla on November 18, the movement suffered its first casualties in Aquiles Serdán and his companions. Not only that, but the fear of some revolutionaries, the watchful waiting of others, the insecurity of many, and even early disagreements made the initial days of the movement uncertain. Finally, thanks to the help of one of Mexico’s regional and renowned patriarchal figures—Abraham González, the Chihuahua caudillo—Madero gained the support of Pascual Orozco and Francisco Villa, who would become his first military leaders. The revolution had begun.
The Díaz regime counterattacked and Chihuahua was to be the stage of its great defeats. Ciudad Guerrero, Mal Paso, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, and Ciudad Juárez were the battles that paved the way of the revolution. Emiliano Zapata led an uprising in the south and there were insurrections in other parts of the country. Having failed militarily, Díaz resorted to negotiations while he tried to shore up his political edifice by changing officials. Nothing worked. Echoing the revolutionary victories in the north, there were mutinies against Díaz in the capital itself. The latter finally resigned and fled the country. After six months of struggle, the Madero revolution had triumphed.
The military victor, Madero, negotiated power through the Treaties of Ciudad Juárez by placing some of his men in the interim government. He waited for his mandate to have an unquestionably democratic origin and he was not mistaken. His arrival in Mexico City after his triumph was a spontaneous and authentic plebiscite which was legally formalized in the 1911 elections.
Although the interim presidency of Francisco León de la Barra could not be a restoration, it served to provoke new dissensions among the revolutionaries. Some had been frustrated in their pursuit of power, others thought compromise was betrayal of the revolution, and many succumbed to intrigues plotted by men of the old regime to divide the movement.
In these circumstances, Madero assumed power with a gravely splintered party, as was clearly demonstrated by the uprising of Emiliano Zapata under the Plan of Ayala scarcely twenty days after Madero had taken office. However, the defection of Zapata went far beyond the purely political to new and advanced ideas on what the objectives of the revolutions should be. The slow history of Porfirian Mexico suddenly accelerated. Those who had been so long without land demanded that the lever of power, now in the hands of the revolutionary leaders, be used to satisfy them immediately.
But in addition to the fact that the armed revolt had not affected the social or economic organization of the Porfirian world, Madero had his own convictions on the meaning of the revolution. For him, a newly elected president, the solution to the major national problems should be found within the law, this being the only true road to follow. Everything had hitherto been done by force; now, even the most urgent needs, such as that of land, were to be met by rule of law.
Politically, Madero was to become the victim of his democratic zeal, which prevented him from understanding the need for a unilateral and monolithic government to consolidate his victory. The democratic game was begun too soon. Thus, the Twenty-Sixth Federal Legislature included as many emissaries from the Porfirian past as representatives of the revolutionary present. But whereas the former joined together as never before to defend themselves, each revolutionary was determined to take the movement along the path he judged to be best. Only a few with political vision like Luis Cabrera, Gustavo A. Madero, and Serapio Rendón tried in vain to give the revolution a strong government.
The national situation became more complex by the minute. Those who controlled economic power were deeply worried by the ferment, for their existence and prosperity depended on peace and security. If Madero was incapable of bringing order to the country, forceful action had to be taken against his government. Their alarm grew when the Mexican president dared to correct the illegal situation enjoyed by some foreign investors, thanks to which they were exempt from even such minimal obligations to the country as payment of taxes. Led by representatives of these foreign interests and with the United States Embassy as their headquarters, the Mexicans defeated by the revolution joined with the Porfirian army, which had survived almost intact. Their successful assault on the government ended in the assassination of Madero.
The regime of Victoriano Huerta always lacked a social base, not only because of the brutal way it had seized power but also because the presence of the opposing interests created by the revolution made a real restoration impossible. The Huerta government was ineffective in its historical moment despite the support of intellectuals and politicians who tried to give it principles and programs to respond to the problems of the time. Bound by origin and necessity to the international policy of the United States, Huerta was rejected when the latter changed course and he thenceforth had to keep himself in power by his own efforts.
After the death of Madero, the revolutionaries instinctively regrouped. With Venustiano Carranza as their caudillo, they set out to restore the constitutional order shattered by the Huerta coup. To the already famous names of Villa and Zapata were added others—Obregón and Pesqueira, Diéguez, Hill and Pablo González, Amaro, Gertrudis Sánchez, and Rómulo Figueroa. All united and with victories like Torreón, Orendain, and Tepic, they soon wore down the resistance of Huerta who, after committing many crimes and involving the country in serious international conflicts, finally relinquished power in 1914.
Carranza, the new chief, was a shrewd politician. Having learned the lessons of the immediate past, he dissolved the military machine inherited from the Porfiriato and devoted himself to consolidating a strong government, which—he said—would eventually make possible the needed social and economic changes. He also maintained that only revolutionary unity could withstand the pressures from abroad on national sovereignty.
For the moment, the Carranza program seemed correct and his success in international relations increased his prestige and power. But the revolution continually uncovered old and new grievances. Agrarian problems in certain parts of the country could not be postponed. The intensity of political debate was partly explained by all the previous years of enforced silence. The ambitions of the new caudillos, conscious of their popular and armed force, appeared to be limitless. Five years after the start of the revolution, the country was shown to be a human mosaic with needs so different and at times so at variance that they defied any possible form of true national organization.
The prolonged and growing power of Carranza was disputed by various groups of revolutionaries. Two conventions—one in Mexico City and another in Aguascalientes—were held in an attempt to resolve the problem of the leadership of the movement without resorting to violence. The results were contrary to expectations; this first confrontation of social and political ideas and positions separated the groups that gathered there more profoundly than ever.
Given the new panorama, Carranza had to govern more firmly and practice a crude politics with emphasis not on the application of general principles but on the ability to resolve even momentarily the most pressing social problems. Some of these problems would be dealt with by force of arms, others in the sphere of ideas, all in the midst of a new period of violence. The old fraternity among the military men and caudillos fell apart. Now Villa was the enemy of Obregón, and Zapata was the enemy of Venustiano Carranza. Now Celaya could mean not only a victory but a defeat for the revolutionaries.
Constitutionalism triumphed. Faithful to his realistic and moderate policy, Venustiano Carranza wanted to adapt the Constitution of 1857 to the new Mexican circumstances. It was a vain attempt. From his own ranks came Jacobins who believed that the revolution required a unity of principles capable of producing a real nation. And this could only be made possible by adding a good dose of economic and social equality to the juridical equality of the old liberalism. Social rights would accompany the now undisputed individual rights; the basic theses of natural law would be revised in the light of a historical idea of man and his liberty, man and his property, and man in his relation to other men; finally, the state would abandon its role of mere supervisor of the social process and would become the chief promoter of its improvement.
The constitutionalists of 1917 did not shrink before the unorthodoxy of their ideas, for they considered them to be nothing more than the simple expression of the great national needs. Carranza accepted the defeat suffered in the Congress of Querétaro and he was to be, when elected president, the first to serve under the new constitutional regime.
The social revolution got underway so slowly that what was considered the supreme achievement of the movement—no reelection—gave rise to new conflicts. How could the government accomplish in four short years the huge task of social transformation which was the obligation of the state? Carranza, convinced that his conduct of the government was correct, conceived the idea of perpetuating it through a stooge. But the same constitutional principle that was an obstacle to Carranza in continuing his work turned out to be the only sure brake, at least for a while, on the political ambitions of the new leaders and groups eager to impose their own ways of governing. As the moment approached for the change in government, Carranza gave all his support to a civilian candidate, claiming that it was necessary to block militarism from the presidency. The revolutionaries again fought among themselves and Carranza was destroyed.
Ten years after the start of the revolution, Madero, Zapata, and Carranza, the three leading figures of the first stage, no longer existed. The new generation of revolutionary caudillos advanced triumphantly to the forefront of national life. They tried almost feverishly to make up for lost time by inaugurating the stage of national reconstruction.
In 1920 Mexico initiated what promised to be an era of peace. That year, after a brief interim civilian government that acted as a bridge between the latest armed uprising and the new institutional life, Álvaro Obregón occupied the presidency of the Republic. One of the most brilliant and without a doubt the most powerful of the military leaders who had emerged from the revolutionary movement, Obregón was elected after a makeshift campaign waged by barely embryonic political parties, which was more evidence of a series of good intentions than an expression of reality.
When Obregón was elected, most of his power was based on his having been a victorious caudillo. But the new president was shrewd enough to realize that his personal merits had neither won him the office nor would they sustain the entire weight of his administration. His personal success was to some extent that of his revolutionary faction—composed mainly of the middle class—which in turn could be explained by the capacity of such a group to represent, at least formally, all the sectors of the nation.
The success of the middle class was actually due to the fact that it possessed a broader social perspective and a greater ideological unity than the popular groups. The workers were few in number and divided in their doctrines, as had been demonstrated in the disconcerting and fleeting revolutionary episode of the “Red Battalions.” But the confusion of social questions and their apparent quiescence during the first days of the Obregón regime were no assurance that they would not come up at any moment as imperatives.
On the other hand, the victory of the ruling group, still supported chiefly by arms, needed to be transformed into a true social and political triumph, producing a genuinely national state by being more representative and powerful than any of the conflicting interests. To achieve these ends, the constitutional compromise of 1917 had to be implemented by positive acts. Insofar as the government responded to the needs and aspirations of the peasants and the workers, the latter would identify with and support it. Also in this way, the sources of power would be other than military.
National reconstruction really began in 1921. Agrarian reform was put into operation, although slowly and intermittently. The latifundium, now forbidden, began to yield to small property which, according to official policy, was the best form of land exploitation. This was accompanied by restitution and grants of land for ejidos as secondary solution. Thus, in spite of its deficiencies, land redistribution became the basis of a more complex and productive economy, which would be the only guarantee of success in the industrialization of Mexico.
Furthermore, although land distribution was not always carried out as broadly and rapidly as it should have been to meet the needs of the peasants, it did arouse in them expectations that could be channeled politically to establish a close alliance between the nascent state and the rural population. The next step was to organize the peasants into large associations, thereby giving greater unity and effectiveness to their social force.
A similar procedure had to be followed with the workers, but in their case taking into account a particular historical circumstance. From the beginning and in spite of its often anarchist form, the labor movement had been so weak that it had turned to the Mexican State for protection of its interests against frequently foreign employers. In addition, labor leaders had been incorporated into the state apparatus at very high posts, so their solidarity was fully guaranteed.
The state therefore acquired two powerful forces of socio-political action; but the new popular organizations inevitably had to suffer all the ideological fluctuations of the governments born of the revolution. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of these alliances was soon to be seen. In the struggle for power, armed uprisings had to depend almost exclusively on military support and were easily suppressed, to be exposed to the nation as acts of political adventurers who at best advocated a nominal democracy and an electoral contest that was unsuited to the new social democracy proclaimed by the government and demonstrated by its actions.
Such were the cases of Adolfo de la Huerta in 1923 and of Serrano and Gómez in 1927. Each attempt at rebellion, far from strengthening the army, always deprived it of some of its oldest and most powerful generals.
In 1924, with the new bases of political power established, Plutarco Elías Calles took office as president. During most of his government the already accepted directives of social action and political orthodoxy functioned—so much so that Mexico managed to emerge almost unscathed from the resurgence of one of the most deeply rooted problems in its history: the religious. Over the years, the new realities of society and of the economy necessarily produced some degree of skepticism and a desire for spiritual reform. Therefore, when the Church, failing to understand the changes that had taken place in the country, tried to stand in the way of freedom of conscience and broader educational possibilities, it remained almost isolated. Its cause was further weakened by the recent and extraordinary educational experiment of Vasconcelos, representing an integral humanism, which showed that the state could impart an education that did not conflict with any of man’s vocations. Thus, the Cristero War was a painful and bloody episode, but nothing more.
Mexico was unquestionably transforming itself into a modern state. At the end of the Calles regime, there were signs of change in many spheres. When public works were constructed to develop the agricultural economy as well as health and education services, a flood of wealth began to create a national class which was both economically strong and with access to the structure of public power. Furthermore, the need for foreign credit for Mexico’s growth had greatly moderated the nationalist attitudes maintained during the armed revolution.
Meanwhile, popular pressures for a more just society did not altogether cease and they were no less valid than the problems they expressed. The years known as the “Maximato” were especially ambiguous and fluctuated between adherence to and abandonment of the revolutionary tenets of 1917. Although the social revolution did not stop, it slowed down, particularly at the beginning of the 1930s.
At that time, Mexican political life underwent a drastic radical change. First Obregón and later Calles—two types of caudillo—were eliminated, paradoxically, by the very instruments of social control that had made them so powerful. After them, political power was institutionalized to the point where it hardly mattered who exercised it. Those who in 1928 assassinated Obregón had not understood that he was simply the visible head of the revolution made government; they thought they had halted or liquidated the revolution.
To the contrary, that same year an official party was created. The functions of this new political organization were many: to automatically confer power on the new men who, by the legal requirements of no-reelection, would take office; to avoid the anarchy of an electoral contest that, bloody or not, decimated or divided the revolutionary ranks; to permit the groups represented in the party itself to alternate or at least share in the power; and to limit or control the real contradictions in Mexican society, which frequently could be reduced to a more ideological dispute.
The effectiveness of the party became evident, just a few months after it had been created, in the presidential campaign of 1929. The opposition candidate was Vasconcelos, who embodied the by-gone era of exceptional political figures. His superior intelligence and a personality that made him known internationally rendered him potentially dangerous. Moreover, his democratic demand had the merit of being a real debt to the revolution. His highly moral criticism pointed out the elements of corruption in the official Mexican world. But his social policy, notably weak, meant little to those who, without being a formal part of the government, had received far greater benefits than those promised by Vasconcelos and who now, within the government and in their new role as participants, hoped to increase these benefits. On the other hand, the official candidate, a minor political figure and an undistinguished personality transfigured by the magic of the party, appeared to be powerful and master of a social and economic program which truly reflected the national problems and offered adequate solutions. So with support skillfully induced from peasants and workers, Ortiz Rubio legalized his victory. But the ambiguity of the socio-political moment did not change and its first victim was the recently elected president, who soon had to resign.
In subsequent years the crisis worsened and although legislation was aimed at social improvement, and government measures actually were of popular benefit, everything was promoted unilaterally from the seat of power which, paradoxically, harshly repressed the freely expressed demands of rural and urban workers. The interim government of Abelardo Rodríguez, facing a situation of severe social tension, drafted a long-term program, the Six-Year Plan, so radical that it seemed unlikely to be implemented under the existing official policy.
With the Six-Year Plan as his platform, Lázaro Cárdenas undertook in December 1933 an electoral campaign of unprecedented geographical and social scope. The machinery of the official party operated with its customary efficiency and its candidate won an overwhelming majority of the popular vote. Lázaro Cárdenas became president of Mexico in 1934.
At the start of the new government, as in all the governments of Mexico, social positions were radicalized in an effort to force the president to define his doctrine as soon as possible. Social pressures rose. Breaking with the political style of the immediate past, Cárdenas sided with the popular movements. Confident of government support, first the workers and then the peasants bypassed their old organizations and leaders. By freeing popular social forces in this way, the government did not mean to relinquish its direction of them but simply to change their objectives.
However, these actions were not to be taken with impunity. The owners of vested interests, both Mexicans and non-Mexicans, long sheltered under the shadow of the “Jefe Máximo,” persuaded the latter to condemn, in the name of the revolution, this dangerous and sterile agitation and to make veiled threats against the man considered responsible for the situation, the president of the Republic. The lines of battle within the power groups were drawn. The Cárdenas government would put to a test the broader and more resistant power base it had built by its concessions to the popular masses. The contest lasted almost three years and its crucial episodes were a violent cabinet crisis; the exiling of Calles, the strongman of Mexico; the neutralizing of the old labor and peasant associations by the creation of parallel ones; and the reorganization of the official party.
This last event confirmed the ability of the Cárdenas regime to assimilate and to evolve. To the workers and the peasants, the party added a large sector of the middle class, product of the revolution itself and chiefly embedded in the bureaucracy, as well as the army composed of a new generation with a new mentality, especially in its lower ranks. On the same bases of popular support, duly reinforced with a good measure of defensive nationalism, the government could deal with the powerful foreign investors. Through a series of agricultural expropriations, improvements for workers, and the recovery of railways and oil, it confirmed national sovereignty and established the real beginnings of economic independence.
Certainly, the regime of Lázaro Cárdenas occasionally adopted the language of socialism as its own. Nevertheless, in practice it followed the doctrine clearly formulated since 1906 by the Liberal Party and maintained more or less faithfully throughout the revolutionary process: the creation and development of a capitalist economy, but liberated from the social injustices it produces. However, the gravity of Mexico’s problems precipitated many of its measures of social and economic policy, which in turn weakened their implementation. The counterattacks of those affected by the measures and even the danger of seeing its policy frustrated by an uncontrolled radicalization of the worker and peasant organizations forced the regime to adopt a more moderate tone, further emphasized at the legally inevitable moment of presidential change in 1940.
The political contest between Ávila Camacho and Almazán was particularly active and even violent to the point that civil war was feared. The rival forces clearly defined their positions. During the campaign the opposition drew on all its resources—the possibility of a foreign invasion to eliminate the threat of communism in Mexico, an attempted revolt, as well as the organization of real political parties. The official party made its considerable strength felt and Manuel Ávila Camacho became president.
The setting of the Second World War justified the new policy, proclaimed as one of national unity, although in fact it silenced social demands and favored the resurgence of the factors of power that had been weakened in the previous six-year period. The agrarian reform, once flourishing, now withered, as did labor movements. Foreign capital, tied more than ever for reasons of security and international strategy to national capital, became increasingly powerful and unrestrained. Still, the ideology of the Revolution was not entirely ignored by the Ávila Camacho regime, which adopted and carried out its objective of a capitalist economy, albeit at the expense of social justice.
After 1946, under the government of Miguel Alemán, the period initiated in the previous regime was consolidated. Historically and ideologically, the Alemán regime reappraised the Mexican revolutionary process and found it absurd. By distributing an uncertain, almost nonexistent wealth, previous regimes had created an illusion of progress. This misguided policy had to be discarded and a new direction inaugurated. Wealth had to be created before it could be distributed. Only in this way could Mexico leave its mistaken past behind and go beyond its revolution.
At that time the country experienced one of its great spurts of growth, which carried it to the verge of economic “take-off” and fulfillment of its long held and legitimate desire to be fully modern. So at first, the Alemán regime seemed to be right. The accumulation of capital furnished by the war and by a policy of indiscriminate acceptance of foreign investment generated a spectacular expansion of the Mexican economy. But to sustain and especially to increase the rate of growth of a dependent country required that someone within its boundaries pay for the progress. Those whom the Revolution had always claimed to be the beneficiaries of national wealth were supposed to dedicate themselves first to creating it. The agrarian reform was slowed down and the legal instruments guaranteeing it were modified. Worker movements were brutally suppressed and many of their leaders bought off in a systematic policy of corruption. The official party was reorganized to eliminate from its program any dangerous elements of social reform.
The Alemán government, by weakening the bases of popular support created by its predecessors, tilted precariously toward other points of support. The Mexican State ran the risk of losing its capacity to direct national life and of becoming a prisoner of powerful economic interests.
By Eduardo Blanquel
Cossío Villegas, Daniel et al. A Compact History of Mexico. Foreword by Robert A. Potash; translated by Marjory Mattingly Urquidi. 3a. ed. Mexico. El Colegio de México, 2006, 1995. (6th repr., 2008). 159 p.
[pp. 129 - 136]