The Business of Revolution

Alan Knight

  • Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution by John Mason Hart
    California, 478 pp, $35.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 520 05995 6

When it comes to gringo-bashing – berating the US for its imperialist policies in Latin America – no native nationalist can compete with an impassioned gringo. Mexico, which historically has been the chief victim of such policies, has produced plenty of such nationalists: but it is the occasional gringo heretic – like the muckraking journalist John Kenneth Turner who, in 1909, blew the whistle on Mexican neo-slavery, alleging that his compatriots had ‘transformed Mexico into a slave colony of the US’ – who has often made the biggest impact. Such auto-critiques carry special weight; they exude indignant sincerity; and, compared with the native nationalist’s rant, they are less easily deflected by the old one-liner, ‘he would, wouldn’t he?’

John Hart, a University of Houston history professor who has written with distinction on the Mexican labour movement, stands in the Turner tradition. Unlike Turner, he is dealing not with contemporary but with historical Mexico: with the Mexican Revolution of 1910 which toppled the old regime of Porfirio Diaz, which brought a decade of armed upheaval, and which fundamentally changed Mexican politics and society. Unlike Turner, he has amassed a wealth of data from archives in Mexico and the US. But he writes, as Turner does, with radical passion. He is not one of those armchair – or, to use the American vernacular, ‘hot-tub’ – Marxists who deal in ethereal abstractions: instances, interpellations, deconstructions and discourses-of-the-proof. His is a slam-bang, muckraking Marxism, premised on basic certitudes: the pervasive and noxious influence of US economic imperialism in Mexico, the manipulative power of the US Government, the countervailing – and heroic – contestations of workers and peasants. Some may consider the approach theoretically crude (Hart’s classes sometimes behave in pretty mechanistic fashion, and his individual actors carry class labels tacked on to their names, reminding us of their ineluctable destinies), but at least we know where we stand. There is no flummery or mystification.

Four basic propositions are stated concerning the Revolution. First, strong currents of popular protest coursed through pre-revolutionary Mexican history, finally debouching into the maelstrom of 1910-20. This is true. Second, the agents of US economic imperialism-oil, mining and land companies – were major targets of popular insurrection. The Mexican Revolution was, Hart states, a movement of national liberation. Plenty of historians have stressed the Revolution’s nationalist context; few have gone this far. This categorisation is wrong – or, at least, greatly exaggerated. Third, the Revolution bears close comparison with roughly contemporary revolutions in Iran, China and Russia. This is true (and interesting) – if not always for the reasons Hart suggests. Finally, the radical anti-imperialist challenge of the Revolution was countered by US policies of intervention, manipulation and control, which achieved great success: the radical wing of the Revolution was defeated thanks to US action, and the outcome was a no more than moderately reformist regime, pliant to US interests. The jury is still out on this one: in regard to US policy towards the Revolution, I would personally vote for a verdict of careless driving rather than wilful homicide.

Hart’s first proposition – that the Revolution was a genuinely popular insurrection, drawing on historical precedent – is valid and well-made. Unlike some recent, revisionist historians – who have tried, rather like the Cobbanite critics of the ‘social interpretation’ of the French Revolution, to expunge class from the revolution, denying it any ‘social’ character-Hart asserts the crucial role of popular forces, and notes clear continuities stretching through the 19th century (his own original work on peasant rebellion in south-western Mexico is important here). But he works on a big canvas, with bold brushstrokes. He does not involve himself much with the finer nuances of Mexican rural society, which have absorbed the attention of many recent historians (peasant subgroups, regional and local variations, considerations of mentalité); nor does he address relevant theoretical and comparative viewpoints, such as Eric Wolf’s or Jeffrey Paige’s. Hart’s peasants come across as a powerful (correct) but undifferentiated (wrong) insurgent mass. They rampage like Sellars and Yeatman’s Thanet-bound invaders, hurling themselves against their antagonists, ravaging the land with fire and machete.

The peasants were revolting; but why? Here (point two). Hart exaggerates the role of US imperialism, especially US landholding. The questions he raises are important and complex; but his arguments are, I believe, considerably overstated. In arguing for a xenophobic, Boxerish insurrection he relies heavily on US companies’ post-revolutionary claims for damages against the Mexican government. Such insurance claims provide questionable evidence: even if they convey the (approximate) value of US holdings and – perhaps – the extent of US losses, they still do not constitute proof of revolutionary motivation. Many companies, Mexican and foreign, went bust during the Revolution as a result of sheer economic upheaval – not targeted hostility. Many faced demands for cash, arms, supplies – the sinews of revolutionary war – but such demands were an inescapable feature of guerrilla struggle, not necessarily manifestations of an angry popular nationalism. Some Americans, it is true, were targets of popular resentment; but these – known to be harsh taskmasters or engrossing landlords – were relatively few. In the main, these categories of oppressors were filled by Mexicans – or Spaniards. Conversely, many US companies survived during the Revolution, insulating themselves from the surrounding mayhem (the oil companies were the classic example). Their workers – Hart himself notes – received higher wages and showed little disposition to rise up and expel their foreign employers. These workers did not, in other words, behave like nationalist lemmings.

Talk of Boxerism invites global comparison. Hart devotes Chapter Seven to an interesting analysis of revolutions in Iran (1905), China (1911), and Russia (1905 – but not 1917). Like Eric Wolf, he sees these revolutions as common responses to capitalist and imperialist penetration. So far so good. But how did such penetration generate revolution? In particular, were the peasant masses similarly afflicted in the four countries, and similarly prone to nationalist resentment? The Iranian revolution – Hart notes – was a limited affair, largely urban, and lacking a mass base. The Chinese and Russian revolutions involved peasant mobilisation, but the peasants were rarely paragons of revolutionary nationalism (even, we may add, after the Japanese invasion of north China in 1937). In the Russian case, nationalism was a secondary issue (Hart relies heavily on McKay’s contentious study of foreign economic penetration of the Tsarist economy). Also, ‘peasants’ varied a good deal between and within countries. Mexico’s villagers mounted a desperate defensive resistance to land-grabbing commercial landlords. In pre-revolutionary Russia, a contrastingly feeble landlord class was losing its land to a numerous, swelling peasantry, some of whom-Stolypin’s ‘strong and sober’ – were constituting themselves as prosperous smallholders (the internal differentiation of the peasantry is a key factor in each case, which Hart neglects). And in China, rack-renting and usury – rather than outright landlessness – were the chief grievances of the peasants, especially in the revolutionary North. In each case, too, population growth compounded peasant problems, as did the capricious demands – for money and manpower – of an authoritarian state. Motives thus varied; the image of an undifferentiated peasant mass, ground under, landless and nationalist, is too simple. Broad-brush treatment can be powerful, but occasionally even would-be muralists must aim for some nuanced detail.

Hart’s final – and, perhaps, most original – thesis concerns the hegemonic role of the US within the Revolution. Plenty of historians have argued on these lines; but Hart – ransacking US archives with the predatory enthusiasm of one of his own popular insurgents – offers a particularly detailed and challenging version of this thesis. He presents a minute analysis of interlocking business and political networks in the US (especially in Texas), linking these to US policy and arguing that that policy aimed at the defeat of the radical popular forces in Mexico – Villa’s and Zapata’s – and at the victory of the conservative Carranza. In particular, the American occupation of the port of Veracruz afforded a means to channel arms to Carranza. Hart comes close to suggesting that US military advice – as well as military hardware – tipped the balance in the crucial battles of the Bajio, where, in 1915, Carranza’s army crushed Villa’s.

This is contentious stuff. It promotes the US to prime mover in the Revolution – a proposition which some historians (myself included) would dispute. It also parts company with those – like Friedrich Katz – who would accord the US considerable influence, but who would question the notion of systematic US support for Carranza (a prickly nationalist who – on the face of it – offended the US at every turn). Hart’s thesis that Villa, standing for popular radicalism, incurred American hostility, is equally open to question on both counts (his evidence here is, in fact, uncharacteristically weak and repetitive). But the existence of tons of weapons stacked in the warehouses of Veracruz cannot be denied: were these material proof of deliberate US commitment to Carranza, and of successful international conspiracy? Or just another proof of gringo ham-fistedness – and of the cock-up theory of history?

Whatever else it does. Hart’s analysis will force others to reassess this crucial episode in US-Mexican relations, and in Mexico’s own revolutionary trajectory. Indeed, the book as a whole offers a distinctive interpretation of the Mexican Revolution – its ‘coming and process’ – which students of Mexico, of Latin America, and of ‘revolution’, will have to take seriously. Its archival basis is solid, its arguments are bold and provocative. It offers a synthesis of the Revolution to set along-side other recent syntheses by François-Xavier Guerra, Hans-Werner Tobler, and myself: syntheses which disagree, sometimes radically. For, as the research piles up, and the monographs feed into the syntheses, the outcome is not bland consensus, but better-informed debate and disagreement. Hot from the press, syntheses become theses, contested by new antitheses. It’s a tribute to the complexity and inscrutability of the Mexican Revolution. And it’s all good for business.