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The Mexican Revolution 1910-1917

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'Better to die on your feet than live on your knees' - Emiliano Zapata
Issue 1705
Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata in the presidential palace in 1914
Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata in the presidential palace in 1914

The capital of Mexico was the scene of one of the most inspiring events in history in the autumn of 1913. The moment is captured in the photograph shown on this page. It shows two peasant leaders, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, occupying the National Palace, which was normally the preserve of the rich elite and their president.

Villa sits in the presidential throne grinning with cigar in hand. Zapata looks worried and uncomfortable. They had led their peasant armies into Mexico City in triumph. Other photographs from the time show a group of peasants waiting to be served in an elegant urban teahouse. The waitresses look startled. They had never seen such people in such places before.

This was the high point of a revolt which shook Mexico from 1910 to 1917. Mexico in 1910 was a society ready to explode. It had become independent from Spanish colonial rule 90 years earlier. But powerful landowners still had power at the expense of the majority of people. A new urban class had grown rich under the longstanding rule of effective dictator Porfirio Diaz.

They grew richer from the economic boom, which lasted for the 30 years up to 1910. The picture for ordinary Mexicans was different. Living standards for most were still below those of 1821. A new working class had emerged in the towns, factories and mines. It had begun to organise and fight, with a growing number of strikes in the years before 1910.

Most Mexicans lived in the countryside and conditions there were terrible. Huge amounts of land were turned over to producing export crops-tobacco, coffee and sugar. Most villages had lost their traditional communal landholdings by 1910. The Diaz dictatorship crushed any resistance the peasants threw up to the land seizures. Intellectuals, small and medium landowners, and businessmen also resented the corrupt dictatorship of Diaz. They hated the way foreign business got the lion’s share of profits through its control of large chunks of the economy.

They wanted a regime which could secure them a bigger slice of the cake. Landowner Francisco Madero, who was exiled in the US, led this group. Madero declared himself president in 1910, entered Mexico, then quickly retreated across the border to the US. But a deeper revolt was already under way.

Peasant armies march

Peasants, led by Emiliano Zapata, had risen up in the southern state of Morelos. Zapata was to become the most radical figure of the revolution. He was the son of a small farmer and had been jailed for leading agitation against land seizures. Zapata’s army of peasants and landless labourers quickly grew, seizing arms from defeated government troops.

Another peasant, Pancho Villa, led a peasant army in the north and took over the state of Chihuahua. The rebel armies defeated government troops in several battles and took key towns. There were demonstrations in the capital against the regime, and Diaz had to resign in May 1911.

Almost every section of Mexican society wanted rid of Diaz, but there was no agreement on what kind of government should follow. The middle classes wanted political and economic change to benefit them. But they were horrified by the peasant leaders’ demands for far-reaching social change. Madero became president and sent troops against Zapata’s rebels. The move was the spark for a new revolt under Zapata’s cry, “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”

Zapata’s Plan of Ayala manifesto declared that the new regime had “left standing most of the governing powers and corrupted elements of oppression of the dictatorial government of Porfirio Diaz”. It called on the rebels to “continue the revolution” and “not lay down arms until we have recovered our lands”. The revolution was to go on until 1917. A million people lost their lives during it. The peasant armies fought heroically but their hopes were largely dashed and almost all their leaders killed.

Seizing the land

Zapata and Villa seized the capital in 1913 but did not know what to do next. They could not see how to unite the struggle of the peasants with the fight of the urban working class into a force which could take over state power and build a new society. So they waited, hesitated and withdrew from the city. That allowed another regime to take power, and it set out to crush Zapata and Villa.

Villa’s army in the north suffered a series of defeats in 1915. Zapata proved a more difficult enemy. His resistance was mass struggle linked to radical political and social change. That was its strength. His forces confiscated landed estates in the Morelos area they controlled and gave them back to the people to be worked collectively. Inside the “Morelos Commune” there was public ownership of sugar mills, an arts and culture ministry, and a credit system to help the poorest peasants. But Zapata was isolated from the workers in the cities, and the Morelos Commune was besieged by the forces of President Carranza, who had taken over from Madero.

Carranza felt forced to give some concessions to workers and, crucially, was able to co-opt the trade union leaders. That made it harder for Zapata to forge an alliance with workers, which he was now beginning to grasp was needed. Zapata sent a message of support and a plea for solidarity to the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. Russian workers, in alliance with peasants, had seized power and established a state which ruled in the interest of the poor.

But in Mexico it was too late. The regime had successfully isolated and encircled Zapata. He fought on, until in 1919 the government tricked him into a meeting where government soldiers ambushed him and shot him dead. The regime consolidated its power in the 1920s and 1930s. It built an independent Mexican capitalism, using the state and a single ruling party, the PRI, to push its aims. The PRI turned revolutionaries like Zapata, who it had murdered, into national icons.

The PRI controlled the presidency of Mexico until two weeks ago and became increasingly corrupt. It lost the election to a former executive of the Coca-Cola company, Vicente Fox. He represents those capitalists who have grown up since the Mexican Revolution but who now want to push free market policies even more ruthlessly than the PRI. But they are not the only forces at work in Mexico. Peasants in the southern state of Chiapas rose in 1993 against free market policies and for justice. They invoked Zapata’s name and called themselves the Zapatistas.

A militant student strike has shut down most of the UNAM university in Mexico City for most of the last year. Independent trade unions are trying to organise Mexico’s working class, which has grown enormously since 1917. These forces have the potential to complete the struggle that Zapata and Villa pointed to.

Books and a video

THERE ARE a number of books on the Mexican Revolution. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack (Random House, £10.99) is one of the best. One of the most thorough is Mexican Revolution by Gilly (Verso). Unfortunately it costs £45. Ask your local library to get a copy. The video Viva Zapata starring Marlon Brando and directed by Elia Kazan is excellent and costs £10 if you cannot rent it through your local video shop.


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