Mexico’s Crisis in Context

Against the Current, No. 148, September/October 2010

James D. Cockcroft

IN THIS ARTICLE I offer an historical context for understanding Mexico’s current economic, political, and human crisis triggered by 28 years of neoliberal economic policies. Neoliberal governments have privatized most sectors of the economy and reduced the Mexican state’s role to one of being a repressive apparatus. NAFTA and related neoliberal policies have left the economy without a dynamic internal market for local products and with a socio-economic inequality that is one of the most extreme in the world.(1)

Mexico’s corrupt political architects of neoliberalism — who do not confront the centuries-long low-wage basis of incomplete industrialization but rather try to take advantage of it — have built a castle of sand propped up by the dollars of narco-trafficking and the guns of imperialism.(2) They have mortgaged the country and its huge reserve of inexpensive labor power to foreigners. On an unprecedented scale, Mexico is transferring capital to the United States, not only in natural resources and “value added” by labor at the points of production, but also in the literal transfer of almost a fifth of its labor force to work in the United States (capital as “accumulated labor”).

Foreign domination of Mexico’s economy has long been a key factor in reflecting the general law of historical processes, unevenness. Leon Trotsky called this “the law of uneven and combined development,” the drawing together of different stages of historical process, a combining of separate and disparate steps, “an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.” He saw this law as especially applicable to those parts of the world less fully developed economically than Europe, or unevenly developed in their adaptation of, and subjugation by, capitalist forms of production.(3)

More than a hundred years ago the Mexican anarcho-communist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón understood well the historical process of combined economic forms and the need to internationalize the revolutionary process. Flores Magón understood that the Mexican countryside was not “feudal.” Therefore, a “bourgeois revolution against feudalism” was not needed.(4)

The Magonistas, as members and supporters of Flores Magón’s Mexican Liberal Party (PLM for its initials in Spanish) were known, called for the immediate seizure of the means of production in both the countryside and the cities. That is what they did when they briefly took control of Tijuana and Mexicali and organized “the Commune of Baja California” in 1911. Later, that is what the Zapatistas did when they organized “the Commune of Morelos,” under the PLM slogan of “Land and Liberty!” suggested to Emiliano Zapata by Magonista emissary José Guerra. (Morelos had some of the most modern sugar mills in the world.)

However, an incipient unity between left-wing urban workers and the rural proletariat collapsed in 1915 when future president Álvaro Obregón signed a pact with Mexico City’s Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker) and its 50,000 members, who were suffering food shortages at the time.

The pact created “red battalions” of militant workers to fight and help defeat Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s Northern army of workers, small landholders, and jornaleros (day laborers) and weaken Zapata’s Southern peasant army. It tied the organized labor movement to the emergent “Constitutionalist” state led by Venustiano Carranza and Obregón. And it generated a corrupt labor bureaucracy that usually sided with capitalist bosses and only occasionally benefitted the workers.

The end result would be a poorly paid labor force dependent on an authoritarian and increasingly technocratic corporatist state.(5) There was no social revolution in 1910-1917, only a political one, and even that political revolution was less complete than is customarily assumed.

The immediate results of the revolutionary upheavals were a defeated peasantry, a crippled and dependent labor movement, a wounded but victorious bourgeoisie and, for a divided Mexican people, a paper triumph — the 1917 Constitution that expressed an ideological change for the ongoing economic development of the nation along capitalist lines.(6)

Surely these results were not the causes for which so many workers, peasants and young Mexicans gave their lives and limbs. The true goals of the Revolution were the ones of social justice and democracy proclaimed by the Magonistas and their successors in Mexican history: Zapata and Villa; the oil, railroad, and electrical workers who obligated president Lázaro Cárdenas to act against imperialism in the 1930s; Valentín Campa, Demetrio Vallejo, Rubén Jaramillo;(7) and the political prisoners of the broad-based student movement of 1968 and every decade since who continued the Magonistas’ combative tradition.

In terms of peasant and worker interests, the Mexican Revolution was not aborted or “interrupted.” It was defeated. On the other hand, the lower classes did not lose the war for their liberation. They lost a battle, but the war continued, here peacefully, there violently, in the ensuing decades.

Legacy of Struggle

Formulaic explanations of the Revolution contain elements of truth but do not adequately embrace the complexity and “Mexicaness” of the events before, during and after 1910-1917. That is why the following formulas are erroneous:

• The Revolution was a “bourgeois revolution against feudalism.”

• The peasants and workers lacked “political development.”

• There was no leadership of a “vanguard party.”

• The Revolution continued and was “permanent.”

Without denying the historical and cultural roots of the current class conflicts wracking Mexico, we must recognize that the country has changed considerably since 1910, especially after 1940 when the economy semi-industrialized.

Mexico continued changing after the 1968 massacre of peacefully protesting students and workers who wanted to democratize the country. A new labor militancy emerged, guerrilla fighters appeared, and the government, aided by U.S. imperialism, carried out its “dirty war” of the 1970s — massacres, disappearances, torture.(8)

The nation changed again with the ascent of neoliberalism starting in 1982; the 1985 earthquake and people’s solidarity in the absence of adequate government response; NAFTA and the neo-Zapatista uprising in 1994; the nascent narco-state alliance, narco gangland killings, and the economic collapses of 1982, 1994-95 and 2009-2010.(9)

All these changes were directly related to the complex legacies of the so-called Revolution. One of those legacies was the state’s propaganda that revolutionary changes were unnecessary because “We’ve already had a revolution here.”

This was not how some of the lower and intermediate classes saw matters. Their ongoing struggle for social justice and democracy created problems for Mexico’s bourgeoisie, which contained conflicting factions, torn between the benefits and advantages that accrued from their relations of dependence on foreign capital, on the one hand, and their desire for more independence on the other.

Because of the heated-up class war of the 1930s, the bourgeoisie’s state had to make occasional concessions to “agrarista” elements pushing for agrarian reform; to radical trade unionists in the energy sector; and to anti-imperialist radicals or revolutionaries. The turmoil climaxed with Cárdenas’ giving into the demands of striking oil workers for the nationalization of oil in 1938.(10)

After World War II, Mexico’s ruling economic and political elites trumpeted the “institutionalization of the Revolution” under the one-party state of the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional. However, their self-proclaimed “institutional Revolution in power,” at the helm of a capitalist state organized along corporatist lines, was increasingly exposed as a social counterrevolution and a political dictatorship (since 2000, a two-party one).

In sum, it was not the Revolution but rather the class struggle that continued. The Revolution was neither interrupted nor permanent. Some peasants, workers and elements of the intermediate classes kept fighting for the Revolution’s original goals but experienced state repression, cooptation and clientelism. They made periodic attempts at self-organization through groups independent of the state, that is, an adjustment to the new counterrevolutionary conditions. And they continue trying to do that today — and learn from the lessons of the past.

Lessons for a New Revolution

Four important lessons of the Revolution of 1910-1917 are:

• The danger of handing over weapons prematurely and of trusting peace offers (the Zapatistas in Morelos, 1911).

• The importance of unity, and the trap of permitting the creation of an antagonistic division between the working class and the peasantry (the red battalions of the Casa del Obrero Mundial, 1915).

• The need to recognize and incorporate the demands and special needs of specific groups of the oppressed, such as women, the original peoples, and people of diverse sexual preferences.

• The importance of a genuine internationalism and anti-imperialism.(11)

The realization of Trotsky’s law of uneven and combined development in the 19th and 20th centuries created great wealth for a few but economic difficulties for the majority of Mexicans, including small- and medium-businesspeople despite their occasional moments of advance. The continued low-wage basis of capitalist growth both before and after the Revolution oppressed most Mexicans and, under the impact of the counterrevolution and neoliberalism, deepened Mexico’s economic integration with the United States.

Since the end of the colonial era Mexican employers had become accustomed to drawing on the availability of cheap labor power for their accumulation of capital. Combined with the domination of the economy by foreign investors who had more capital, production inputs and technological knowhow, this reliance on inexpensive labor power contributed to uneven and weak patterns of capital accumulation. There failed to develop a large and dynamic internal market or a vigorous production of capital and intermediate goods.

Consequently, Mexico’s labor-intensive capitalism became characterized by low levels of productivity that to this day have made most of Mexico’s manufactures non-competitive internationally. Even items produced in the foreign-dominated maquila sector of the economy (low-wage assembly plants) have suffered from the recent competition of Chinese goods.

This incapacity to compete has reinforced the Mexican bourgeoisie’s insistence on keeping labor costs down, resulting in a vicious circle. It has also maintained Mexico’s dependence on foreign capital, be it in the period 1880-1940 when capitalist economic development was structurally based on agro-mineral exports or in the post-1940 period when changes in the forces of production and strong state support for expanded capitalist development catering to foreign interests helped convert Mexico into a semi-industrialized country.

Trotsky’s law helps explain Mexico’s historical “misdevelopment” and its economic failures of recent times. These failures include the exhaustion of the models of “industrialization by import substitution” and of “stabilizing development,” followed by today’s tottering neoliberal model that has earned the bitter nickname of “stabilizing stagnation.” From the ongoing class struggles and state and imperialist interventions have come the diverse and sometimes unique characteristics of the “political culture” of contemporary Mexico and the consolidation of a “transnationalized” and “anti-Mexican” (in Spanish, “vendepatria,” or traitorous) bourgeoisie.(12)

Mexico is a key link in U.S. imperialism’s plans to gain control over the world’s energy, biosphere, and water resources. But it is a “weak link,” as events dating from the stolen 1988 presidential election have suggested.

The year of the Centenary of the so-called Revolution and the government’s recent violent repression of labor have generated calls for a Constituent Assembly to found a new republic, re-establish national sovereignty, and create a true democracy. Most of the social movements and independent trade unions have left the political parties behind and become the main force for a radical and even revolutionary change, often citing Ricardo Flores Magón and sometimes repeating the ideas of a libertarian socialism or anarcho-communism like those he championed.(13)

Now is an opportune time to think of resolving social justice issues not at the level of a territorial state but at an international level, as Flores Magón and Trotsky did. In both Mexico and the United States, regressive taxes, salary cuts, job layoffs, slashed budgets for public services, and inflated costs of education and other necessities are hurting the working and intermediate classes. In that sense, their problems are the same.

Politicians and conservatives, abetted by the mass media, are using the consequent anger and desperation of millions of people to fortify an international right-wing offensive. Advancing an alternative internationalism is both possible and necessary.

We in the United States must deepen the nascent anti-imperialist coalition that showed itself in the Mexican immigrants’ mega-march of May Day 2006 and the immigrant marches of 2010 when social, labor, and human rights movements on both sides of the border began to unite. The key words are internationalism and unity.

Los pueblos unidos jamás serán vencidos. (“The people united will never be defeated.”)


  1. Neoliberalism’s gradual economic genocide has caused countless premature deaths and generated humiliating poverty for three-fourths of the population; downward mobility for most of the intermediate classes; last-ditch fightbacks from the dwindling ranks of unionized labor (less than 15% of the workforce); and waves of internal and external migration. It has also resulted in a rising tide of social movements and, in 1988 and 2006, electoral swings toward the left when fraudulent vote tabulations robbed left-of-center presidential candidates of their victories. The 1988 ballots were burned, and top electoral officials later acknowledged the fraud. In 2006, evidence showed that Andrés Manuel López Obrador received between half a million to two million more votes than Felipe Calderón, the “official” winner by an announced margin of 0.58 percent. “Intermediate classes” is a more accurate term than “the middle class,” as explained in James D. Cockcroft, Mexico’s Hope (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), 50-54, passim.
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  2. See James D. Cockcroft, “Mexico: ‘Failed States’, New Wars, Resistance,” Monthly Review, November 2010.
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  3. Trotsky concluded that the Russian Revolution, based upon a worker-peasant alliance, would combine stages of earlier human history, passing in a very brief time from industrial and preindustrial, bourgeois and pre-bourgeois forms of social organization, to socialist ones. This, he said, was even more likely to the degree that other nations joined the international revolutionary process that he theorized as “the permanent revolution,” that is, “the impossibility of socialism in only one country.”
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  4. The vast majority of Mexicans in 1910 constituted what Porfirio Díaz’s development minister and general director of agriculture both called “a rural proletariat”— landless peasants — working for what the two officials called “capitalist agriculture.” López Obrador has called Flores Magón “the most integral and educated social fighter in our country’s history” — see Andrés Manuel López Obrador, La mafia que se adueñó de México… y el 2012 (México, Grijalbo, 2010), 156.
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  5. Three years after the signing of the pact, the CROM (Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana), a predecessor of today’s “official” state-recognized unions, was founded. Its 90,000 members were led by Luis Morones, a signer of the pact who became famous for his ostentatious displays of wealth. Thus began the tradition of charrismo — corrupt trade union bossism that uses violence to guarantee “labor peace” and converts labor bureaucrats into capitalists. Ninety percent of union contracts today are “protection contracts” that union members often have not even seen, arranged between the charros and the employers. On Mexico’s corporatist state, see Cockcroft, Mexico’s Hope, 123-138.
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  6. At the time it was the most progressive constitution in the world. Historians agree that its radical clauses derived from the strong Magonista ideological influence.
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  7. Valentín Campa and Demetrio Vallejo led the railroad strike of 1958-59, broken by federal troops; they were imprisoned for more than a decade. Rubén Jaramillo, a veteran of Zapata’s guerrilla army, was simultaneously an ordained Methodist minister and a member of the Mexican Communist Party. He led a peasant revolt in Morelos and was assassinated by federal troops in 1962.
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  8. That war never fully ended and has been intensified during the current government’s militarization of the country in the name of an unwinnable “drug war” sponsored by U.S. imperialism. See footnote 2.
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  9. For details, see footnote 2 and Cockcroft, Mexico’s Hope.
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  10. President Cárdenas (1934-1940) was very popular among the masses, who affectionately called him “Tata.” His agrarian reform and oil nationalization helped stabilize the class war, while his organizing the national political party into corporatist sectors of separate constituencies (labor, peasantry, intermediate classes, etc.) helped provide the political stability needed for the low-wage industrialization policies that followed his regime. See Cockcroft, Mexico’s Hope, 111-138.
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  11. This interpretation of the Mexican Revolution is presented with more detail in Mexico’s Hope. For other interpretations, see Héctor Aguilar Camín, comp., Interpretaciones de la revolución mexicana (México, Nueva Imagen, 1979). In the last several years there has appeared a vast literature on the revolution that has expanded, refined, or supplemented earlier analyses.
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  12. Political scientist Gilberto López y Rivas uses the concept “transnationalized bourgeoisie” in his commentary in “Plan 2030: ocupación integral de México,” Contralínea, 176 (4 abril 2010), Plan 2030 is a product of workshops convoked in October 2006 by today’s de facto president Calderón after his fraudulent election. Fourteen documents of the plan were declassified by the Mexican government in 2010. According to López y Rivas, they call for the completion of the privatization of Mexico’s energy sector, biosphere reserves, education, social security and other public services and guarantee the future “integral occupation” of Mexico by the United States.
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  13. Article 39 of the Constitution grants the people national sovereignty and “the inalienable right to change or modify the form of their government.” With a Constituent Assembly, anything is possible, as we have seen in Bolivia and Ecuador. All major political parties have become neoliberal and corrupt. The independent unions include electrical workers, miners, university students and workers, and a breakaway union of schoolteachers. All of them are currently resisting fascistic repression and the right-wing offensive. For more on the repression of the labor unions, see the web site of civil society’s International Tribunal on Trade Union Freedom, on which I serve,, and For details on the resistance, see footnote 2.
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ATC 148, September-October 2010