Cockcroft is a veteran activist and scholar of Mexican history, politics and culture. This short, clear but densely-textured book epitomises the Mexican revolution and its history through to today, argues Dominic Alexander.

James D. Cockcroft, Mexico’s Revolution Then and Now (Monthly Review Press 2010), 176pp.

The first twenty years of the twentieth century were decades of revolution that set the terms of world politics perhaps for the rest of the century. The most familiar events would be the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but others of world importance include the Chinese revolution of 1911, and the German revolution of 1918-19. To these should be added Mexico’s revolution that began in 1910. Like all great revolutions it is difficult to pinpoint its precise end. Did it close with the creation of the progressive constitution in 1917, or with the assassination of Zapata (1919) and the collapse of the insurgent peasant armies? Should it be extended to the suppression of the reactionary Catholic revolts of the late 1920s (shades of the Vend√©e in the French revolution)? Perhaps the stable point was 1929 and the creation of the PRM, later renamed the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), which ruled Mexico continuously until 2000. Finally, perhaps 1940, and the culmination of the Mexican equivalent of the New Deal under President C√°rdenas, marks the point where the social struggles sparked by the revolution were tamed by the ruling class.

Yet for many Mexicans the revolution has never truly ended, as the promise of the 1917 constitution was never realised. This constitution is indeed moribund in today’s Mexico, where, according to Cockcroft, present levels of violence committed, sponsored or just allowed by the state amount to ‘governability by force, against the law – and the majority of the population is aware of that’ (author’s emphasis, p.120). Disgust with the corrupt political system erupted spectacularly in the Mexico City Zocalo protests against the stolen election of 2006 (the left-wing candidate, L√≥pez Obrador, officially lost by a tiny margin), in which demonstrators established a three-month long ‘popular assembly and vigil’. Protests have continued with a ‘takeover’ of Mexico City in 2009 modelled on the 1914 occupation of the city by the forces of revolutionary leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

Cockcroft is a veteran activist and scholar of Mexican history, politics and culture, and this short, clear but densely-textured book epitomises the Mexican revolution and its history through to today. This is of great value since the revolution and its unfolding relevance deserves to be more widely understood. Most will know that Trotsky eventually took refuge in Mexico, but it is less well known that this was the direct result of the recent revolution. If the regime in power by the 1930s was not genuinely revolutionary, the social forces unleashed by the revolution had not been entirely suppressed or contained. It was therefore useful for President C√°rdenas to make an anti-imperialist gesture, such as giving refuge to an internationally-renowned revolutionary.

The memory and tradition of the revolution have continued to have importance, not only in the politics of Mexico or central America but internationally. The key to successful movements against the capitalist order, as Cockcroft insists, is their internationalism. Yet in creative tension with that principle, movements need also to draw strength from the traditions of their own nations or regions, and the Mexican revolutionary tradition is a remarkable one, rich in its particular character.

By the early 1990s neoliberal capitalism was rampant world-wide, and the demise of its main competitor in the form of the Soviet Union had contributed to the perception of a generational retreat for the left and the working class internationally. Even those who did not view the Stalinist regime as in any way a meaningful representative of the Revolution of 1917 faced a barrage of assertion that socialism and the revolutionary idea had been discredited. Very quickly however, Mexico’s revolutionary tradition was able to break the triumphalist complacency of global capitalism with the Zapatistas’ revolt of 1994. That revolt was important for the revival of the idea that there can be an alternative to capitalism, and thus contributing to a new wave of anti-capitalist protest. Without that wave, the global anti-war movement would perhaps not have had the strength that it did. It does not require agreement with the political strategies represented by the Zapatistas, or the autonomist ideas they inspired, to welcome Mexico’s radical contribution to the fight-back in the dark days of the mid-90s. In any case, the importance and relevance of the Mexican Revolution to present struggles should be clear from this example alone.

Cockcroft does not give a straight summary history of the revolution, nor a theoretically rigorous analysis of its meaning (that can be found elsewhere, not least in Cockcroft’s own major books). Rather, his purpose is to interweave the problems and struggles of the revolutionary era with accounts of the present to show the continuities of Mexican history, and the continuing relevance of and need for a renewal of the revolutionary movement. Given that there is, of course, an ‘official’ version of the revolution, and official commemorations, this book is intended as an antidote to the ruling-class line.

In the course of asserting the radicalism of the revolution against its sterile official version, Cockcroft emphasises the centrality of the ‘Magonistas’, anarcho-syndicalists named after Ricardo Flores Mag√≥n. Mag√≥n’s political ideas were influential within the insurrectionary armies of the revolution, on the brutally-suppressed student movement of 1968, and, as Cockcroft explains, among the Zapatistas of the 1994 uprising. The Magonista uprisings of 1905 to 1908 paved the way for the revolutionary armies of the Zapatistas and Villistas shortly afterwards. Arguably the strength of an anarchist rather than a Bolshevik style tradition was part of the reason why the revolution was ultimately defeated, since despite taking Mexico City, the revolutionaries proved unable to take power. This is not a question that Cockcroft discusses, and it is true that revolutionary strategy itself is not the subject of the book. Moreover, whatever limitations there may have been within Mexican revolutionary praxis, Cockcroft is surely correct that the movement in Mexico will necessarily draw from these existing traditions, even if others are present also (see for example p.126).

The Mexican revolution was not however merely an example of the particular development of revolutionary ideas. It was not a random accident of history that it occurred at a time when so many countries, ‘backward’ in capitalist terms, experienced revolutions of lasting significance from 1905 onwards. To the Russian and Chinese could be added the revolution in Iran, other transformations such as that of the Ottoman Empire by the Young Turks, and events elsewhere such as the Indian independence movement. All of these had very different trajectories, and particularities, but all were dealing with the same problem of the increasingly massive impact of and social disruption caused by the globalised imperialist capitalism of the time. In short the analyses of combined and uneven development, and permanent revolution, are needed for understanding each of these transformations, whether revolutions from below or above, and the extent of their success and failure (see

Cockcroft devotes some space to a concentrated discussion of combined and uneven development in the Mexican context, arguing that Mag√≥n grasped the importance of these issues, and therefore rejected a ‘stagist’ view of the potential of a Mexican revolution: Mag√≥n understood the historical process of combined economic forms and the need to internationalize the revolutionary process. He realised that the Mexican countryside was not “feudal”. Therefore, a “bourgeois revolution against feudalism” was not needed. That’s why the Magonistas called for ‘the immediate seizure of the means of production in the countryside and not just the cities’ (author’s emphasis, p.53). There are those still who would characterise Mexican society in 1900 as somehow feudal in nature, but it is surely correct to recognise that the system of debt peonage which dominated rural labour existed as part of an international capitalist system; ‘Mag√≥n realized that the system resembled feudalism in its barbarity but not in its fundamental arrangement of the means of production’. These issues could be discussed in much greater depth, but Cockcroft briskly communicates the key matters.

For the revolution, land-reform, and the breaking up of the hacienda (estate) system of the great landowners and the Catholic Church were key immediate issues, and the 1917 constitution enshrined their demands in law. However that Constitution has never been truly implemented, and it was a further twenty years or so of continual class struggle, as Cockcroft argues, before the then President C√°rdenas began to implement considerable real land reform, within what amounted to a Mexican New Deal in the 1930s. The underlying point was almost the same as that of Roosevelt in the USA: to preserve the capitalist system in a time of serious social unrest. This C√°rdenas achieved, ultimately stabilising the system in Mexico, and arguably ending the revolutionary period itself, enabling the consolidation of the rule of the PRI, which ruled alone until in 2000 when it lost to (an even more) right-wing coalition.

Despite the long authoritarian rule of the PRI, its very own ideology, declaring the ‘institutionality’ of the revolution, reveals the bourgeois state’s inability to shut out permanently the real radical potential of the events of 1910-17. Cockcroft devotes at least as much space to the period after 1917 through to 2000 as he does to the revolutionary period proper. The purpose of this is clear: to show that the forces behind the revolution had not disappeared, and the institutions established after 1917 did so in a context of what can indeed be seen as a period of ‘permanent revolution’. A merely bourgeois revolution could not answer Mexico’s problems even to the extent of establishing a real liberal democratic state. Implicit in Cockcroft’s account is the argument that it was not that Mexico was ‘not ready’ for liberal democracy, but that genuine bourgeois democracy was no longer a viable form of capitalist rule.

During the period between the 1930s and the present, the ‘PRI’s state used a “revolutionary” ideology to institutionalize a counterrevolution’ (p.74). The PRI, for all its occasional rhetorical nods towards anti-imperialism, did not extricate Mexico from the grip of American imperialism. The character of the Mexican bourgeoisie as a comprador class, continually selling out Mexico’s interest in favour of American corporations, has only strengthened over time. The neoliberal era since the 1980s has served to remove any vestiges of effective nationalism on the part of the Mexican ruling class, and all those aspects of the social settlement which gave the state some legitimacy in the eyes of many Mexicans. The longer term decay of the PRI’s rule in the post-war decades led to a crisis which has only gathered pace since the ‘neo-Zapatista’ revolt of 1994.

While internationalism is crucial to the Magonista tradition in Cockcroft’s view, it is at the same time a nationalist tradition, for the very reason that the particular barbarities of Mexican capitalism are the result of imperialist relations. Only a perspective which understands Mexican society, in 1910 as much as 2010, within the terms of imperialist relations of production and exploitation can capture the dialectics of a revolution like the Mexican, and the full import of ‘combined and uneven development’. Mexico in 1900 was not a backward feudal society, rather it was one whose social forms had developed in the course of a dependent relationship on capitalist and imperialist powers. The Catholic Church may have been a great landowner, but this was no sign of medievalism; American corporations also owned huge estates. Similarly the present huge expansion of small-scale, sweated domestic industry is a consequence of, not a throwback from, modern neoliberal capitalism, and thus ‘they cannot be viewed as pre-capitalist modes of production destined to disappear’ (p.86).

Cockcroft talks of four ‘intended’ conquests of Mexico, (‘the second of which was the US invasion of 1846-8’, the third France’s occupation in 1862-7), the last being in the present (p.112). The US has intervened repeatedly in Mexico, not least against the army of Pancho Villa during the revolution. Yet the brutally racist character of current measures against immigration, and the ‘war on drugs’, is at least as vicious as anything that has gone before. The neoliberal era which replaced the relatively stable post-war development model is now better described as ‘narco-neoliberalism’ (p.71), in which the US is deeply implicated (p.88). Neo-liberalism, and the free-trade area (NAFTA), far from benefiting Mexico, has destroyed its internal markets, and fuelled its dependency on the drug trade as a source of national income. The exploitation of Mexico by American imperialism is a question of natural resources, profit from production in Mexico, and also the transfer of ‘almost a fifth of its labor force’ over the border (p.136). It is American capitalism which benefits from all this, even as its ruling class hones a victim-blaming ideology which stokes racism in its attacks on Mexican immigrant labour. The Mexican ‘architects of neoliberalism… have built a castle of sand propped up by the dollars of narco-trafficking and the guns of imperialism’ (p.136).

The horrors of neoliberal imperialism are laid out clearly here, and the recently-coined terms ‘feminicide’ and ‘youthicide’ convey some of the flavour of it. However while the atrocities of the drug cartels have been made reasonably familiar internationally, what is not heard anywhere so clearly is the Mexican resistance to this regime. Here Cockcroft gives a hopeful but not idealised account, even noting the signs of solidarity beginning to come out of the labour movement in the USA. He observes that the Mexican state is a key link in America’s imperial system, but also that the disintegration of the regime makes it an increasingly weak link. To this observation one can only say: Long Live the Mexican Revolution!

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).