Reconsidering the Mexican Revolution

Reconsidering the Mexican Revolution

Reconsideraciones sobre la Revolución Mexicana

John Hart

The delegates to the constitutional convention of 1916-1917 and the political leadership of the nation that emerged at the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 represented a broad cross-section of national political values. Their work, which emerged almost immediately after the strategic defeats of the Villistas and Zapatistas, became the basis for the progressive aspects of Mexican polity over the next half century.

The Constituyentes and initial government leaders included regional and local elites, military men, professionals and even former anarcho-syndicalist red battalion commanders. They laid out a framework in the Constitution which they anticipated would satisfy the aspirations of all those who had fought during the revolution. Their agrarian reform program and political outline for the nation provided for Municipios Libres, or free and independent pueblos economically based upon their ownership of local land resources. At that time the overwhelming majority of Mexicans were rural and these constitutional provisions and government programs would immediately pacify most Villistas and Zapatistas, their former

But the programs they initiated went much further than the achievement of short term social stability. Beginning with the Constitution, the victorious allies embarked on an enormous national-building program. This project included schooling, the arts and music. All three dimensions of the effort transmitted a profound pride in being Mexican to the general public, workers, campesinos and indigenous people. Educational theorists such as Moisés Saenz and José Vasconcelos designed the public education curriculum in a manner that complemented the work of American educator John Dewey that was intended to turn the marginalized and poverty- stricken masses into fully participating citizens. They obtained a commitment from the heads of government that finally totaled twenty-three percent of the national budget and remained at that level for the next seventy years.

The arts and music comprised an equally profound force for national unity and participation. The composer and conductor Carlos Chávez brought together pre-Columbian Mesoamerican instrumentation with European and to some degree, even African rhythms. Supported by the Secretariat of Public Education, his lengthy Indiana featured Aztec-era wind and percussion instruments within a Western European symphonic framework and received national and even international acclaim. While Chávez’s music did not appeal so much to the popular ear, it helped legitimize Mesoamerican culture in the consciousness of European critics who were otherwise oblivious to pre-Columbian achievements in astronomy, town planning, hydraulic agriculture and mathematics.

The plastic arts immediately took part with an explosion of creative energy released after centuries of Spanish and Porfirian elite-driven and dictatorial restraint. Beginning most notably with the work of Gerardo Murillo at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, young students, including Diego Rivera, began to flourish. Murillo sent him to Paris to work with Pablo Picasso, and Rivera quickly appreciated the deeper theoretical nature of Picasso’s work. It amounted to an artistic Albert Einstein, breaking down structuralism to see the internal complexities, in what was soon after called post-modernism in the literary world created by Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo.

Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Frida Kahlo brought the masses and women into their work, depicting the struggle of popular culture against the forces of conquest, colonialism, clerical oppression, and elite proto-European hegemonies. The result was a graphic art that amazed the world and reached out to the most oppressed poverty-stricken people in Mexico telling them that, yes, you can regenerate and do so on your own terms. During the following decades enrollment at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was virtually free.

Revolutionary changes in the political economy of Mexico equaled those in the arts, literature and public consciousness. The leaders of the new government followed up on the actions of local citizenries and the Constituyentes, and by 1940, they had seized all of the foreign-held lands on the coasts and borders. Some 80 percent of these strategically important properties had been held by American oligarchic and British Imperial interests. The Lázaro Cárdenas regime enlarged on that program by seizing the communications and transportation industries and created 55—50 partnerships with the foreigners in high-tech mining and timber operations while ending segregated housing and discriminatory salaries that separated Mexican and foreign workers. Agrarian reform and Mexican self-management sent real wages up at the rate of five percent a year between 1936 and 1940, creating an unprecedented level of workers’ well-being.

Simultaneously, the new governments created a more participatory polity, welcoming anyone who was willing to join the official party via unions, local agrarian committees or businessmen’s groups. Using the credo of building revolutionary institutions, the leadership created a bureaucracy numbering in the hundreds of thousands that administered the laws limiting the un challenged power of the Mexican and foreign oligarchies that had dominated the nation under the ancient regime. In sum, the revolutionaries achieved, in a period of two generations, a system in which the general populace assumed a much greater role in virtually all matters.

The failures of the revolutionary elites, however, eventually undid these achievements and constitute a tragedy. After only constraining the nation’s domestic oligarchy, the political leadership began to intermarry with the old rich, creating a more conservative layer of leadership that began to emerge during the 1940s. After 1940, they failed to deal with the runaway population growth that began as a result of their social successes. That runaway growth quickly obliterated the gains in education, real wages, and economic expansion. A new oligarchy began to emerge exercising control over labor unions, production, agricultural exports and political authority.


Today, enormous disparities of income, owned wealth, and education rank Mexico among the most inequitable societies in the world. It is now a nation in which a few enjoy unimaginable wealth in the midst of squalor and misery that defies description. The idea of a predominately rural Mexico where those who worked the land held an inalienable right to it has been marginalized in a nation which is 72 percent urban. Beginning in the 1940s, government programs focused on urban development and human services. That strategy provided a strong economic impetus to the emerging new oligarchy and the free-trade and privatization policy forcefully introduced by the “Juniors” during the administration of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988).

During that sexenio, the president privatized over three-fourths of the nation’s more than 1600 cooperatives. In 2008, only 150 cooperatives remained. Once again artisans, miners, and fishermen, became employees. The weakness of rural working-class support programs in the last half of the twentieth century compelled the majority of campesinos to immigrate to the burgeoning cities. The new oligarchy had established special relationships with much more powerful economic interests in the United States to provide a super exploitable labor force. The coastlines and frontiers have been compromised to foreign interests via 99-year leases. Since 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) largely has destroyed the agrarian reform program by the mass importation of U.S. government-subsidized corn. The petroleum industry is characterized by segregated labor by which American engineers are brought in to perform high-skill jobs and thus enjoy much higher wages. Real wages for the nation’s workers have fallen to 1970s levels.

In the sphere of cultural creativity, Mexico is still thriving. The nations’ long standing commitment to the spirituality of Mesoamerica seen in the work of Rulfo and Rivera and its relationship with modernity as seen in the work of the masters is now complemented by Cristina Rivera Garza and her psychological linkages of past and present. The plastic arts are also diversifying with a more pre-revolutionary art called the Mexican Renaissance emerging alongside the continuing mural and vivid color displays long identified with Rivera and Siqueiros. This mixture of old and new thinking in the arts and literature is perhaps the model that the nation’s political and economic elites should follow.

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