Viva Alan Knight

W.G. Runciman

  • The Mexican Revolution. Vol. I: Porfirians, Liberals and Revolutionaries by Alan Knight
    Cambridge, 620 pp, £37.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 521 24475 7
  • The Mexican Revolution. Vol. II: Counter-Revolution and Reconstruction by Alan Knight
    Cambridge, 679 pp, £37.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 521 26651 3
  • Mexico: Inside the Volcano by Alan Riding
    Tauris, 401 pp, £19.50, July 1987, ISBN 1 85043 042 X

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920 defies all stereotypes. It had no vanguard party and no coherent ideology. It owed almost nothing to external influences. It only started because of the gratuitous folly of Porfirio Diaz, whose dictatorial rule had lasted unchallenged since 1876, in failing to make effective arrangements for the succession to himself. Its initial protagonist, Francisco Madero, was as unlikely a revolutionist as it would be possible to conceive – the diminutive, squeaky-voiced theosophist eldest son of a rich landed family whose own grandfather likened his defiance of Diaz to ‘a microbe’s challenge to an elephant’. Its ultimate victors were hardly more sympathetic to the hopes and wishes of those who had borne the brunt of the fighting than Diaz himself. It ended by pitting urban workers in half-hearted alliance with bourgeois constitutionalists against an equally half-hearted alliance of Northern cow-boys and Southern peasants led in the one case by a homicidal, teetotal, illiterate ex-cattle rustler (Pancho Villa) and in the other by a dandified, horse-loving, ex-municipal village president (Emiliano Zapata). It was characterised throughout by a quite astonishing degree of duplicity, cynicism, self-seeking, and uninhibited recourse to violence. Indeed, it so often appears to be no more than a protracted slugging-match between rival caudillos that it can be (and has been) questioned whether it should be called a revolution at all.

Alan Knight, whose masterly two-volume account it would be difficult to overpraise, leaves his readers in no doubt that it should. How likely it is that his account will come to be accepted as definitive is a question which only specialists in Mexican history are qualified to decide. But this reviewer has no hesitation in pronouncing it one of the best books in the entire literature on the sociology of revolution. This is a compliment which may not be welcomed unequivocally by Knight himself, who takes a dim view of sociologists and documents some good reasons for doing so. But for all his awareness of the importance of chance events and the vagaries of individual motivation, he is never disposed to underestimate the deeper reasons for which different groups and categories of Mexicans fought for what, as well as who, they did. Although he has as little indulgence for the pseudo-theoretical nonsense uttered by the intellectuals of the time as he has for latterday historical apriorism, he is emphatic not only that it was a revolution but that it had, as such, a logic of its own.

The passages in which this logic is elucidated are interposed with narrative sequences in which deployment of local detail is never allowed to obstruct the sense of the inexorable large-scale consequences which followed unintentionally from small-scale beginnings, limited perspectives and uncertain aims. As anyone who has travelled at all extensively in Mexico well knows, it is a country of dramatic regional contrasts, and the broad Northern sierras from which Villa’s army and its motley followers were drawn were as different from the densely-populated sugar-cane country surrounding Zapata’s village of Anenecuilco as both were from the steamy jungles of Yucatan where the debt-bonded peons on the sisal plantations were too little organised and too brutally disciplined to play any effective part in the revolution at all. Knight draws to good effect not only on local archives and contemporary newspapers but also on the reports of American and British consuls which are all the more illuminating because of the transparency of their bias. With their help, he skilfully achieves and maintains a sure grasp on an extraordinarily broad and never irrelevant assortment of incidents, places and characters.

And what characters they are! The chosen cast includes not only Zapata of the tight pants and huge sombrero, Villa with his ‘bandit machismo and bandit cunning’, and the ruthless, cirrhotic, short-sighted, half-Indian, ultra-reactionary General Huerta, but a host of outrageously picturesque minor actors who move in and out of Knight’s close-packed pages in kaleidoscopic progression: Herculano de la Rocha, riding down from the hills of Sinaloa with a red bandana over his empty eye-socket and his retinue of ‘dwarves, cranks, wild and beautiful women and brave mountaineers’; Mrs Woodhouse, wife of a pugnacious British planter forced to flee his hacienda, staying on unmolested ‘as, by her charities, she has much endeared herself to the Indians’; the American film crew (‘Mutual Movies Make Time Fly’) accompanying Villa’s Division del Norte as it rolled southwards towards Mexico City; the ultimately victorious Carranza’s chauffeur, who ‘had to join Villa because he stole Carranza’s automobile and all the spare tyres when Carranza left Mexico City’; Jose Vasconcelos, revolutionary intellectual par excellence, who survived his stint in Villa’s entourage to disport himself at the Metropolitan Opera with his beautiful mistress Adriana and to read Plotinus in the New York Public Library; the ten-year-old bugler at the battle of Celaya whose call brought much-needed reinforcements into the breach in the Constitutionalists’ lines and earned him promotion to corporal and personal commendation from Carranza himself; Chavez Garcia, fearsomest of the many revolutionaries-turned-bandit, killing his prisoners to the sound of music after asking each in turn to make a final request; Felix Diaz, nephew of the old dictator, at one moment found shaving when sprung from gaol because he had not been informed of the time and at another crawling across a hotel rooftop in Vera Cruz to the safety of the American Consulate; and many more besides. If there are any prospective readers (and I fear there will be) who are put off by the prospect of 1017 pages of text supported by a total of 6353 footnotes, this sample of many similar and equally readable vignettes may help to persuade them of what they will be missing if they are.

But behind all the wealth of character and incident there are two major sociological themes. As Knight portrays it, the Mexican Revolution was a revolution not only because of the ‘new men’ whom it elevated to power but also because it was achieved by recourse to arms on the part of unsophisticated country-men seeking to remedy what they saw as economic and political oppression. It is true that many of them fought more as followers of a local cacique than adherents of a revolutionary cause, that many personal scores were settled under pretence of political loyalties, that the line between criminal and ‘social’ banditry is virtually impossible to draw, and that common resistance to central authority was a stronger bond than membership of a common social class. As Knight convincingly demonstrates, neither the social origin of the various combatants nor the programmes of the various factions to which they belonged can plausibly be fitted to a model derived from their relation to the means of production. Nor can the eventual victory of the Constitutionalists under Carranza and Obregon be interpreted as the replacement of ‘feudal’ land-owners by a rising ‘bourgeoisie’: the difference between the old élite and the new was not of class so much as outlook, education and style. But the twin villains of the Porfirista – the encroaching hacendado and the thuggish jefe politico – were vanquished never to return, and General Huerta’s military counter-revolution was, for all his ruthlessness, an ignominous failure.

The second major theme is the distinction between agrarian and serrano movements – those of the lowlands and those of the sierras. Zapatismo is the paradigm of the first, and Villismo of the second: but they are only one of many of their kind. They differed as much in their personnel as in their aims. Zapata’s villagers, doggedly fighting for the restoration of the communal lands of which they had been deprived by force and fraud, were quite unlike Villa’s ranchers, miners and frontiers-men whose loyalties were vertical rather than horizontal and who shifted their alliances with sometimes dizzying speed as they followed their perceptions of personal advantage. To be sure, as Knight is at pains to stress, agrarian movements could attract their share of free-booters and serrano movements their share of peons. But their aims and priorities were almost totally irrelevant to one another. They shared only a common hatred of central authority, and a common incapacity to replace the Porfirian regime with a viable government of their own. Only Carranza’s nationally, commercially and bureaucratically-minded Constitutionalists were able to do that.

When they did, it was more a consequence of battle-weariness and economic collapse than of successful political persuasion, and the system which they instituted bore a clear and, to some, disturbing resemblance to that of Diaz. As Knight puts it, ‘the Carrancistas’ special genius lay in their ability to harness the revolution – albeit a tired, broken-in revolution – to antithetical, neo-Porfirian ends.’ Capitalist expansion and administrative centralisation became the order of the day, with ‘reconstruction’ the watchword. But what other alternative was possible? Parliamentary liberalism as Madero had envisaged it would have been just as vulnerable all over again to those able and willing to overthrow it by violence. Clientelism and corruption were as pervasive as ever. Socialism was as alien in doctrine as in practice to groups whose interest was not in the abolition of private property but in its redistribution (or restoration) in their favour. Besides, the military now called the tune, and demilitarisation was feasible only on their terms. The choice was between a return to authoritarianism and a return to chaos.

In any case, the differences between the new authoritarianism and the old were no less striking than the resemblances. It was not only that the old rural landlords and bosses had been displaced or even that the regime was now actively and militantly anti-clerical – a policy which was to provoke passionate and violent opposition in its turn. It was also that a limited but genuine element of civic participation had been introduced. Obregon, who succeeded Carranza in the Presidency in 1920, was a gifted populist whose tireless campaigning and charismatic appeal cemented a winning electoral coalition; and Carranza’s assassination at the hands of rebels loyal to Felix Diaz made it possible to come to terms with Villa, who retired to lead the life of a grand hacendado on an 80,000-hectare estate which the Government had bought for him until his own assassination in 1923. Land reform, limited as it was, remained on the political agenda, and Mexican agriculture evolved into a distinctive two-tier system of intensive capitalist farming and communal subsistence farming side by side. Gradually, local caciques and potential rebels were coerced, cajoled and bureaucratised into the apparatus of the central state. In Knight’s words, ‘the “many Mexicos” of the Sonoran dynasty were different from those of the Porfiriato,’ and although ‘change came willy-nilly, unplanned and unforeseen,’ change – and lasting change – it still was.

The subsequent history of the regime, and its attendant paradoxes, are usefully summarised in Alan Riding’s well-informed and wide-ranging journalistic study. ‘Nothing,’ as he says, ‘has proved more wrong than predicting the demise of Mexico’s political system ... Despite widespread disenchantment with the corruption, inequities and inefficiencies that characterise the system, no viable alternative has appeared.’ Enough wealth has been generated not only to satisfy the rich but to subsidise the poor. Interest groups are played off against one another by a powerful executive legitimised by a single ruling party which, although elected by popular vote, tolerates only token opposition. The official ideology of agrarian reform and economic nationalism is never allowed to stand in the way of the deployment of both domestic and foreign capital. Despite awesome problems of population growth, economic mismanagement, urban poverty and official and unofficial violence, the opponents of the regime have more to gain from exploiting it as it is than from breaking it apart. Knight’s verdict on the victors of 1920 can stand as an epigraph for the whole period from then until now: ‘The Sonorans sought to establish a strong, stable government; to promote economic development along conventional, capitalist lines; and to achieve a degree of social equilibrium, based on limited, guided political participation and pragmatic, even opportunistic, social reforms, which implied no grand restructuring of society. Within these, and their own terms of reference, they were strikingly successful – and faithful to their basic philosophy. Talk of “betrayal” is normative nonsense.’