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The Mexican Revolution Is Not Dead

The Mexican Revolution erupted 110 years ago today, as ordinary Mexicans rebelled against despotism and inequality. Before it was over, the country’s agrarian oligarchy had been destroyed.

A photo from the Mexican Revolution, circa 1915, featuring Pancho Villa (third from right). (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mexican Revolution began 110 years ago, in response to a formal invitation. It then slowly unfurled into an uncontrollable mess. Its leader, the gentlemanly Francisco Madero, issued the summons in his Plan de San Luis: “On November 20, from 6 p.m. on, all citizens of the Republic shall take up arms to overthrow the authorities that currently govern us.”

“Mr and Mrs Madero kindly request your distinguished presence for the initiation of the Mexican Revolution; please RSVP at your local Anti-Reelection Committee,” it may well have read.

Except that rather than summoning a much-hoped-for, oh-so-civil civil society, Madero’s call was answered by a cast of characters that has contributed to making Hollywood a more diverse kind of place: bandit heroes like Pancho Villa; a villanous coup-plotting gringo ambassador; and Francisco Madero himself, who received his marching orders at séances, from the spirit of his long-departed little brother, Raúl. And then there was also the arch-traitor, alcoholic and second Indian president of Mexico, General Victoriano Huerta, who had his boss, the mild-mannered Madero, killed; and the ancient patriarch general Porfirio Díaz, who had the folly of seeking reelection for the eigth time (when is enough enough?). The list still goes on and on . . . peasant leaders like Emiliano Zapata; wily schemers like Venustiano Carranza . . . All locked in a fight to survive, or to kill one another off — for, like Chronos, the Mexican Revolution devoured all of its children.

The Revolution put Mexico’s contradictions on display, for all the world to see. It was a modern war, but unlike the First World War, with which it was contemporaneous, the Mexican Revolution’s modernity sometimes let off a cheap, secondhand aroma. Its most prized gun was not the Krupp’s astonishing “Big Bertha,” but rather the “carabina .30-30” of lore. These guns were purchased from the US Army’s stock of leftovers from the Spanish-American War of 1898. Still, knockoffs and all, the Mexican Revolution was a modern war, yet it served to upend the painstakingly cultivated image of modernity that had been nursed during thirty years of dictatorship (the “Porfiriato”). The positivist dream of Mexican evolution was shattered by crowds of sombreroed peasants, and soldadera women, wrapped in their rebozos atop the transport trains, slapping tortillas, and sleeping or fighting with the soldiers. From a symbolic point of view, the Mexican Revolution was the world’s biggest jacquerie.

And yet there were also Jacobins in the mix. The Revolution was indeed a revolution, and not a mere riot. No jacquerie lasts for decades, and no spontaneous uprising is as long in the making as Mexico’s Revolution was. Indeed, long before the mild-mannered Francisco Madero issued his invitation to revolt, in 1892, a Mexico City student movement against Porfirio Díaz’s fourth reelection was already teeming with young revolutionary wannabes. Reminiscing about those early days in which his politics were born, anarchist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón painted a scene that evokes Marx’s famous comment on history repeating itself: “The Marseillaise,” he recalled, “was being sung in student boarding rooms, while on the streets and squares, you could guess from plain sight who styled himself a Marat, who a Robespierre, and who a Saint Just.” Twenty years later, many of those erstwhile Marats joined the ranks of the revolution. Part jacquerie, part vanguardist, the Mexican Revolution churned ideology and immediacy into an avalanche that was fittingly referred to as “la bola.”

Was the Revolution worth it, though?

Too many of the people who died because of the Revolution were involuntary victims, and they cannot rightfully be called “martyrs” for that reason. It is impossible to calculate how many died. Demographers calculate population loss during the decade between 1910 and 1920 at over 2 million, but this includes the dead from the wars, famines and diseases, as well as the streams of refugees who fled to the United States, and the resulting decline in fertility rates. An enormous loss in a country of roughly 10 million. Not being all that much of a Jacobin myself, I find it unacceptable to justify such massive involuntary suffering with any such post hoc rationalization.

And then there is the question of the not-so-very attractive political party that emerged out of the revolutionary process, whose very name is an example of Orwellian doublespeak: the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI), an authoritarian organization that did not do an especially brilliant job of diminishing economic inequlity.

On the other hand, thanks to widespread agrarian reform, the Mexican Revolution successfully destroyed Mexico’s agrarian oligarchy, and it was the first country to nationalize its oil industry. The Revolution also destroyed the old Federal Army, and so Mexico became one of the rare Latin American countries not to have military coups in the twentieth century. These and other major accomplishments have generated hesitations regarding what history’s veredict on the twentieth century’s first social revolution should be.

Even so, by the 1960s, many intellectuals were saying that the revolution was dead. It seemed to be dead, in any case, but then the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s brought it back to life. Privatization, democratic reform, and state shrinkage allowed the revolution to migrate from the state to the opposition, a process that culminated in 1988, with the annnointment of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of Lázaro Cárdenas, and former PRI governor as its candidate for the presidency. Along with Cárdenas, Zapata, Villa, and the rest of the revolutionary pantheon migrated to one opposition or another. Thus, in 1994, an indigenous rebellion rocked the southern state of Chiapas, and it took up Zapata’s name and cause. The Zapatistas also revived the symbolic topography of the revolution and made it their own.

More recently, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Movimiento de Renovación Nacional (“MORENA,” which is now a political party) named its newspaper Regeneración, after Flores Magón’s famous journal, while AMLO has been at pains to identify neoliberalism with the Porfiriato, and himself with Franciso Madero.

The Mexican Revolution, then, is not dead. But is it alive? That’s harder to say, because it has died and been revived several times, often lingering as a ghost. Maybe this is because, despite its many sinister and farcical elements, the Mexican Revolution was, in the end, tragic — a concatenation of events that was bigger even than its heroes and villains. For this reason, it still occasionally offers models for contestation and self-fashioning, much as the French Revolution once did.