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About to Burst Free

Geoffrey Fox is the author, most recently, of Hispanic Nation: Culture, Politics, and the Constructing of Identity. He lives in New York and can be reached at gefox [at] or

James D. Cockcroft, Mexico’s Hope: An Encounter with Politics and History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), 320 pp., $18, paperback.

At the outset of this closely argued history of Mexican capitalism, James Cockcroft asks, “How long will the majority of Mexicans put up with being exploited on both sides of the Mexican-U.S. border?”

His answer is, not much longer. The country is “in a state of semi-insurrection. The Mexican state is in full crisis. Large chunks of the nation are occupied by its security forces, which have direct ties with U.S. security forces. Mexico’s economy is being held hostage by the United States and the foreign investment and banking communities. Lurking in the shadowy wings are powerful military forces, domestic and foreign. And still Mexicans hope” (372). The stunning defeat of the governing party in the elections of July 2000, unforeseeable when Cockcroft wrote these lines, nevertheless confirms his main contention: the old system, stable for so many decades, cannot endure unchanged.

Mexico’s hope is that previously excluded groups will be able to demand and receive greater social justice. How the existing system came to be and why it is being challenged is the story of this book.

Cockcroft focuses on structural changes rather than the more dramatic, and more ephemeral, political events that are the stuff of conventional histories. Thus his chapter on the prehistory of Mexican capitalism barely mentions Hernán Cortés and the conquest of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City) in 1521. It concentrates instead on indigenous traditions of forced labor and enslavement and the ways in which the Spanish conquerors used them, along with their own institutions and military might, to subject the conquered people to superexploitation. This means forcing them to work for less than they and their families needed to reproduce their own labor power, so that they had to scratch nutrients from the soil to supplement starvation wages—a practice that has been revived today in Mexico’s depressed rural areas (12). The colonial economy, based on pillage of existing resources rather than investment in new, and prevented by Spanish law from entering the most lucrative markets even for this booty, scarcely developed in the first 250 years. Only in the late eighteenth century, when Spain gave up its attempts to seal off its colonies completely from British, French, Dutch, and (after 1776) U.S. traders and pirates, did elements of modern capitalism emerge.

Cockcroft presents the 1770-1880 period as “a continuous economic process having three disruptive political moments:” the independence wars of 1810-1822, the U.S.-Mexican war of 1846-1848, and the 1854-1867 civil war and war against French intervention (43). Without sacrificing any of the drama of these events, Cockcroft’s approach makes them intelligible by showing how they were caused by, and contributed to, more fundamental developments in Mexican capitalism.

One of these was the timorous rise of a criollo (native-born) commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, too weak to pursue independent policies but reliant instead on the state and more powerful foreign bourgeoisies to protect it. The truly wealthy landowners, or hacendados, meanwhile, were also becoming more bourgeois, as they discovered the greater bottom-line efficiency of “free” labor (which they could fire) over slaves or forced labor and became more savvy about marketing their agrarian products. Also in this period was an expansion of the “intermediate classes”—e.g., small tradesmen and merchants, intellectuals and professionals—between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In politics, then as now, they would side first with one, then with the other “major pole of a bipolar class contradiction,…almost always dividing among themselves” (51).

It was the ranks of the poorest and most numerous Mexicans, peasants and hired laborers, that fed the revolt against the Spanish Crown that broke out in 1810. Cockcroft interprets independence in 1822 as “a kind of counter-revolution sponsored by the criollo elites” to stem the popular revolt.

As Cockcroft points out, a similar fear of the masses, and of the Crown’s inability or unwillingness to control them, drove criollo independence movements throughout the Spanish colonies in this period. However, the outcome in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, for example, was vastly different. There the counterrevolution failed; the black, Indian, and poor white fighters became increasingly more radical and eventually swept away the criollo elites and their values. Why Mexico was different is not explored in this book, but would be an important topic for a comparative history. It may help explain the glaring differences between the political cultures of these countries and that of Mexico, where a president with the anti-elitist, mocking and selfmocking style of a Chávez (Venezuela) or a Bucaram (former president of Ecuador) has been unimaginable—or at least it was until the folksy Vicente Fox Quesada’s election last July.

In Mexico, the elites even established a short-lived monarchy, although its rule was very tenuous. And when, a generation later, the “Yankees” invaded in the Mexican-American War, the elites were more concerned with suppressing their own rebellious masses than with fighting the invaders, and clung to power even despite that massive defeat (66).

The modern state as a national entity constitutionally enshrined above the interests of traditional corporations or privileged oligarchies…and supposedly oriented towards the ‘public good’ rather than toward any special-interest group (or class) was ideologically conceived and juridically consolidated…

during and shortly after the war against the French military occupation (1862-1867), writes Cockcroft (79). More specifically, he sees in Benito Juárez’s “state-expropriation policy…against the Church and uncooperative bourgeois property holders…the forerunner of the strong state interventionism of President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s.”

This is a stretch. Strong state interventionism was all the rage in the 1930s, and if Cárdenas needed an example, he was probably looking to his contemporaries Getulio Vargas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Juárez’s namesake, Benito Mussolini, to name just a few. Not everything in a country’s history needs to be explained by its prior history.

But back to the 1870s: the modern state, as governed by war hero Porfirio Díaz from 1876 to 1911, guaranteed sufficient stability to permit the growth of railroads and other industries, financed mainly by U.S. and other foreign capital. Along with these industries, the industrial proletariat was growing and organizing, mounting ever more threatening protests against the foreign interests and their criollo allies. Here Cockcroft highlights the organizing activities of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), a radical proletarian movement whose history he has earlier written in his classic monograph, Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1913. The militancy of miners, railroad, and other workers encouraged campesinos, dissatisfied sectors of the bourgeoisie, and the ever-wavering “intermediate classes” to join what began as a political movement against Díaz in 1910 and grew into the ten-year civil war known as the Mexican Revolution.

Sadly for groups like the PLM, the results were “a defeated peasantry; a crippled labor movement dependent on state favors; a wounded, divided, but victorious set of elites led by industrialists, hacendados, and enterprising entrepreneurs [sic] and regional caudillos; and a paper triumph, the 1917 Constitution, a very progressive document for its time” (82).

The point is important enough to repeat: “In terms of the key interests of peasants and workers, the Revolution did not succeed; nor was it aborted or ‘interrupted.’ It was defeated.” (108)

This is a harsh and polemical judgment, but if we take the key interests to be the aspirations of groups like the PLM and leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, it is undeniably valid, despite the rhetorical claims of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) to be continuing the Revolution. But, as Cockcroft adds, it was not a final defeat. The urban and rural proletariat “lost a battle, but the war continued, here peacefully, there violently, in the decades ahead.”

A major reason for their defeat, in Cockcroft’s view, was that in 1915 the peasants and workers split: the fifty-thousand-strong Casa del Obrero Mundial accepting inducements from General Alvaro Obregón to abandon its alliance with campesinos and help him defeat the armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Dividing working people’s organizations has been a persistent strategy of the Mexican state ever since.

After Obregón (assassinated in 1928) came the stridently anticlerical General Plutarco Elías Calles, and after Calles, yet another general, Lázaro Cárdenas (president from 1934-1940), whom Calles hoped to control. Cárdenas’ legacy is complex. He outmaneuvered Calles by creating his own base of support in worker and peasant federations and by so doing won the adoration of the masses. He also preserved Mexico’s version of capitalism, and kept his mass organizations from becoming powerful enough to demand greater reforms by insisting, like Obregón before him, that the peasant and workers confederations remain separate. He created yet another federation for those most dangerous intellectual workers, the schoolteachers.

After Cárdenas, a series of more cautious and less imaginative (and in many cases, more corrupt) Mexican presidents continued to use these institutions to mete out privileges and wealth to a select few—including the hierarchies of the peasant and labor confederations—and to maintain themselves in power. Their fear and contempt toward those they were supposed to represent became painfully clear in 1968, when the army opened fire on a demonstration of students and other civilians in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City. There have followed several other badly handled crises, including the 1985 earthquake and then, in the wake of the official enthusiasm for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its supposed benefits in the 1990s, the drastic devaluation of the currency which devastated the whole economy. In all of these, the top-heavy, self-absorbed institutions have failed to respond effectively to the demands of their own members and still less to other constituencies. In the neighborhoods and local branches of the organizations, their representatives are the political bosses, caciques whose main function is to keep the masses demobilized. But with the economic crisis, the caciques have fewer rewards to offer and must rely increasingly, and with decreasing effect, on repression to ward off challenges to their authority.

The challenges are coming from newly mobilized constituencies within the society and from outside. The main challengers internally include Indians—most dramatically, those in the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas, but also other groups throughout the country—and women. Rural Indians, dependent on wages as farmhands, have been repeasantized by superexploitation in Mexico’s most recent and continuing economic crisis, and driven to protest this and other grievances. Women have repeatedly taken the lead in social protests, from the popular risings or tumultos of the colony, through the miners’ strikes early in the twentieth century, to the mass mobilization of Purépecha indigenous women in defense of their environment in the early 1980s. Physical and economic abuses in the maquiladoras and other low-wage jobs and the increasing difficulties of defending their families in Mexico’s present economic crisis are keeping them, and the Indians, “in the forefront of all Mexico’s social movements for political and economic change” (382).

Other challenges come from the larger world beyond Mexico. These include information technology (which tends to accelerate mobilization of the most diverse groups, facilitates global coalitions of “indigenous” peoples or of environmentalists, and undermines attempts at official control of information); the internationalization of the Mexican population, with an increasingly large percentage living in the United States (and exposed to different ideas and economic expectations); NAFTA, and pressure from various U.S. groups (including trade unions) to improve environmental conditions, labor conditions, and security of the press.

Cockcroft believes that the two-centuries-old system, in which a strong central state balances the demands of competing elites at the expense of all other sectors, has broken down so completely that it cannot be put together again—at least, not in the same way and not with all the same elements. Whatever new system emerges will inevitably have broader participation from wider social sectors and will be forced to address their demands. This is why Mexico has grounds for hope, a hope which has now been deposited in President-elect Vicente Fox Quesada.

This social history is an impressive literary as well as scholarly work. James Cockcroft, author of many important books on Mexico and Latin America, has managed here to organize complex and seemingly unconnected events stretching over six centuries into an especially compelling narrative of the still unresolved struggle for control of the country’s wealth and destiny.