A review of Norman Caulfield, Mexican Workers and the State: From the Porfiriato to NAFTA, Texas Christian University Press, USA, 1998.
Anarchists sleep well at night because they don’t have too many weighty things on their consciences. Not that they never get things wrong or never make some grievous strategic blunders, tactical errors or ethical misjudjements. But mass betrayal of the popular classes usually doesn’t feature in anarchist history, so taking a nap as an anarchist sure is easier than for a Marxist having to try to wriggle out of the nightmares created for the poor and hard-working by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or, hell, even the Shining Path’s Abimael Guzmán. That is, except for the betrayal by the anarcho-syndicalist House of the World Worker (COM) of the Zapatista peasantry in revolutionary Mexico in 1915.
It was a shocking reversal of the ingrained ethics of urban anarchist respect for the insurgent peasantry which, unlike under Marxism, is a central feature of Bakunin’s thought. After all, the Mexican peasantry had taken up arms time and again under anarchist banners during the agonizing three-and-a-half decade-long reign of General Porfirio Díaz – the “Porfiriato” of this book’s title: the mestizo anarchist Chavaz López organised a rural insurrection in 1869 among the indigenous and mestizo peasants in the state of Chalco; and the anarchist Francisco Zalacosta organised a second uprising from 1878 to 1880.
The López movement seized haciendas and redistributed land across Chalco to peasant communities – who were to hold it in common, and farm it under self-management through village structures – before being suppressed by the army. Zalacosta’s uprising in Chalco spread into the states of Morelos, México, Querétaro and Hidalgo, sacked haciendas, non-peasant towns, and redistributed land, and promoted self-management and free peasant “municipalities,” but was crushed after eighteen months.
The anarchist ideas of López and Zalacosta were subsequently incorporated into the agrarian programme of Colonel Alberto Santa Fé, who associated with Zalacosta: Santa Fé’s proposals, the Ley del Pueblo (Law of the People), which inspired a serious rebellion in 1879-1881 in Puebla, Chalco, Morelos and Guerrero, by the radical General Miguel Negrete.
Meanwhile, urban anarchists built the Mexican labour movement in the 1870s, establishing a leading influence: the Workers’ Grand Circle (GCO) was formed in 1870, and had a significant anarchist faction among its 10,000 members, in touch with Bakunin’s movement; by 1878, there were sixty-two active Mexican anarchist groups; by 1882 – when Marx’s tiny 1,000-member rump of the First International was long dead – the main workers’ central, the Mexican Worker’s Grand Circle (GCOM), was distinctly anarcho-syndicalist and boasted 50,000 members.
Facing repeated repression, the anarcho-syndicalists nevertheless kept re-organising and in the wake of the Revolution which overthrew Díaz in 1911 being sparked the December before by an anarchist raid lead by Práxedis Guerrero, they organized the COM in Mexico City in 1912. Known simply as the Casa, the combative confederation was the closest thing to a national labour central and swiftly spread to the oil-fields of Tampico and Veracruz on the Gulf Coast, and to the cities of Guadalajara and Monterrey.
So it beggared belief that in 1915, the Casa turned on its natural allies in the anarchist-influenced peasant movement of Emiliano Zapata and his Industrial Union of North and South America (UIANS). During the Revolution, the UIANS divided up the large haciendas in Morelos into communes and co-operatives, and organised the sugar, cotton, beef and leather industries under their workers, sometimes on a large scale: one sugar refinery was run by 25,000 workers, while a shoe factory was run by 3,000 workers. So the peasant nature of the movement should not be overestimated as it had syndicalist elements too.
Caulfield writes that the decision to form a temporary alliance with Carranza’s Constitutionalist army and betray the Zapatista Liberating Army of the South (ELS) and the northern Villaista peasant army was precipitated in February 1915 by the Casa leader and painter Geraldo “Dr Atl” Murillo who argued against the peasantry’s alleged provincial and backward views. “After three days of heated debate,” Caulfield writes, “the Casa directorate convened a general assembly of the membership and approved the organization’s participation in the armed struggle against the ‘reactionary’ peasant forces.”
This involved the Casa forming seven “Red Battalions” of nearly 9,000 volunteers in the Constitutionalist army, which were provided with arms and supplies. The Casa also had a further 6,000 workers organised in an informal militia, whilst the Red Battalions were supplemented by a women’s brigade – essentially, a nurses' formation – called the Anti-Authoritarians (Acratas). In return for militarising, the Constitutionalist government promised to allow the Casa to set up sections in all conquered areas and to enact labour reforms.
But – and Caulfield fails to adequately delineate this – the betrayal split the Casa down the middle. Also, reading Mexican Revolution expert John M. Hart, it is apparent that at this point, Casa membership nationally had passed the 100,000 mark and was heading close to 150,000, while Caulfield gives a Mexico City membership alone at the time of the crisis of 52,000. Read together, it dawned on me that the Mexico City Casa only accounted for a third of membership – and it had been this minority, isolated by the war and the mountainous geography of central Mexico from the majority, which backed the fatal decision.
Looking closer, while the capital’s Casa streetcar workers all joined the Red Battalions, the unions of electricians, of commercial employees, and of teachers split over the issue; while the other two thirds of Casa membership, in the Tampico and Veracruz oilfields and the cities of Monterrey and Guadalajara, sided with the IWW against the minority reformist Casa leadership.
This in no way absolves the Mexico City Casa sell-outs for their monstrous betrayal, but it does reveal the organization to be an ideologically uneven organization of class, and one that had grown too rapidly for anarcho-syndicalism to take deep root, rather than one of more coherent political tendency, and it takes much of the sting out of the reformists’ treason – though the damage done to the Revolution by dividing its proletarian forces remained fatal.
The relationship, especially in Tampico, between the IWW and the revolutionary Casa, Caulfield does satisfyingly explore, and he shows how the city remained a syndicalist stronghold even past the nationalisation of the oil industry in 1938, with petroleum worker militancy for union autonomy and democracy lasting well into the post-WWII era. He performs a similar duty with the Wobbly strongholds of the northern state’s mines and smelters.
Despite its sub-title, the book actually covers the period from the formation of the Casa in 1912 to the “Great Rebellion” of 1959 when independent unionism on the railroads was finally defeated by charro (cowboy) vigilante unionism in the Jimmy Hoffa vein. The final chapter which runs up to a critique of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – against which the modern Zapatistas took up arms – is really a look at the aftermath and decline of charrismo in the modern era.
Caulfield’s great use to anarchist historians is his location of the anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalist movement at the coal-face of the battle between elite Mexican nationalism and working class Mexican anti-imperialism, and how it continually reinvented itself in facing modernisation, centralisation, mechanisation and co-optation, as well as the ideological challenges of communist, yellow, and reactionary unionism.
He does not discuss the influence on syndicalism of anarchist political organisations such as the “Mexican Liberal Party” (PLM) founded in 1905, the Light (Luz) group founded in 1913, the Anarchist Federation of the Centre (FAC) founded in 1936, the Mexican Anarchist Federation (FAM) founded in 1941 and surviving into the 1970s, or the Anarchist Federation (FA) founded in 1995 – but then organised labour is his focus.
His text is particularly strong in its transnationalism, both in the positive sense of detailing the experiences of Mexican miners north of the border in states such as Arizona, and of Wobblies south of the border in the northern mines and smelters and Gulf oilfields, and in the negative sense of the imperialist meddling of reformist US unions in helping combat revolutionary unionism in the Mexican labour scene, first the business-friendly American Federation of Labor (AFL), then the marginally more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Intriguingly, the book has a picture of CIO chief John L. Lewis at a Mexican Labourers’ Confederation (CTM) congress in Mexico City in 1938 in the company of another leading reformist, Léon Jouhaux of the French reform syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT). Consolidated in 1895 as an anarcho-syndicalist central, the CGT in the pre-WWI era was an inspiration to syndicalist organisers across Latin America but had capitulated to join the French war effort in 1914 and though it had peaked in 1922 with a membership of 2,46-million, most were white-collar – far removed from its blue-collar mining origins – and the revolutionary minority of 488,000 split away that year. Caulfield doesn’t say so, but presumably Jouhaux was there to trade the CGT’s pre-war reputation in an effort to convince Mexican workers to drop their accustomed revolutionary syndicalism and embrace reforms.
And that is the overarching theme of Caulfield’s work: how the inveterately insurgent Mexican industrial working class, deeply impressed by a genuine revolutionary experience, was wrangled to heel over an extensive process lasting from the Casa’s general strike in 1916 until its comprehensive (yet not final) defeat in 1959.
Along the way, workers who believed fervently in the pro-worker gains of the 1917 Mexican Constitution – intended by the state to cap the revolutionary process – were able to exploit the gap between the revered document’s claim of national ownership of Mexico’s resources and the “revolutionary” state’s continual capitulations to foreign capital.
And even after the nationalisation of many foreign industries in 1938, the Constitution’s other key “workerist” claim of the right to organise, to strike and to be treated equally to the gringos continued to play out in the foreign-owned maquiladoras as well as domestic industries of the 1990s. This is why the intransigent Emiliano Zapata remains such a powerful figure, even in a millennial Mexico of space and nuclear tech.