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Causes of the Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910 amid worldwide political violence that saw major upheavals in China, Iran, and Russia and less far-reaching uprisings in Morocco, the Balkans, and South Africa. As in the other sites of major upheavals, Mexico saw divergent economic, social, cultural, and intellectual currents join together to create revolutionary forces that overwhelmed the political landscape. In Mexico, as in Iran, Russia, and China, self-interested members of the provincial and local elites joined peasants and workers who shared their aspirations to gain better representation in national polity. Each group sought to redress different grievances, and although the groups that joined in the revolution shared nationalist sentiments, these sentiments derived from their particular and widely differing experiences.

The uprising in Mexico stemmed from deepening conflicts between popular forces and more specialized but powerful interests supported by the national government. Specifically, the state-supported the owners of great estates in their continuing land conflicts with the peasantry; supported factory and mine owners in their disputes with industrial workers; and supported the metropolitan elites, foreigners, and provincial strongmen allied closely with the regime Against the growing demands for broader political and economic participation from the increasingly estranged local and regional elites, The peasants, workers, petty bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and local And regional elites shared the belief that the government not only should have done more to serve their interests but that it had become the source of their discontent.

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The economic downturn in the first decade of the twentieth century helped intensify these conflicts. The sugar complex in the state of Morelos, for instance, suffered a drop in output from 115 million pounds (52,230,155 kilograms) in 1908 to under 107 million pounds (48,531,600 kilograms) in 1910. The failure of the Mexican sugar industry to maintain its foreign markets and financial supporters was a major setback, especially in Morelos where it led to the layoffs of thousands of hacienda workers who swamped the town of Cuautla and neighbouring settlements, In the last half of the nineteenth century the agrarian working class of the state had lost its land to the estate owners. Now many of them lost their jobs and soon joined the Zapatista agrarian revolution. But the sugar debacle was only one important part of the wider crisis.

Throughout the country, industrial capacity failed to expand enough to absorb peasants displaced by the changing rural economy. Economic crises combined with famine struck the northern states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, and Tamaulipas, where property also had been reorganized. At La Laguna, the principal center of commercial cotton production in the nation, output fell from 300,000 to 80,000 tons. The public in the north, no longer self-supporting but still living in small towns, required 200,000 tons of low-grade corn imported by the government in order to survive. In Mazatlan, the death rate reached an astronomical 4.4 percent. Unrelieved famine stalked Zacatecas and neighbouring Aguascalientes. Meanwhile, the foreign-owned estates in the north, which covered more than one-third of the surface of Chihuahua and comparable percentages of the other northern states, continued to export cattle and vegetables to the United States. Beyond the emergency imports of corn, the government did little to solve the problem.

Government officials believed development such as new irrigation projects to be the province of private enterprise; hence, they did nothing. Riots broke out in several northern cities. Even if the government had been willing to act, its overextended budget limited its options. It had spent large sums on infrastructure projects such as the port at Veracruz and roads throughout the country to attract foreign capital. The government also had purchased 50 percent of the national railroad system’s stock at inflated prices. By 1910 the debt totalled over 500 million pesos and the government’s income had dropped to only 20 percent of that figure. Mining production also slumped across the north, throwing miners out of work. The International Railroad that ran from Durango across important mining and livestock areas reported double-digit declines in tonnage carried.

In the face of so many economic and social problems, the more sophisticated members of the provincial population joined the intellectuals of the cities in demanding a more responsive and participatory government. President Porfirio Diaz reacted with draconian measures, however, arresting the participants at a political convention in San Luis Potosi, including local luminaries. Francisco I. Madero, a wealthy landowner from Coahuila, capitalized on the public’s anguish by calling for J a more democratic political system. Given the complexity and depth of the processes that brought about the Revolution, the most useful method of explaining them is in terms of the four identifiable social groups that produced revolutionary actors: the peasantry, industrial workers, petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals, and the overlapping local and regional elites of the Provincia.

One must bear in mind, of course. that the majority of the members of these groups remained passive or at least did not participate openly in the armed struggles that swirled around them, Nevertheless, the widespread discontent described above led the majority of people not to support the government The removal of that support made the actions of the revolutionaries viable. The alienation of the petty bourgeoisie and regional elites played a crucial role in the coming of the Mexican Revolution. Between 1821 when Mexico won independence and 1910 elements of these two groups frequently challenged the ruling class of Mexico City. They decried efforts at centralization and advocated federalism in order to bolster their position on the periphery. In the course of these disputes, a political agenda developed around the themes of “no reelection” of the president, the return of political and administrative authority to the states and localities, the opposition to excise taxes in order to stimulate trade, and the protection of a free press and democratic electoral processes. General Porfirio Diaz endorsed all of these ideas during his rise to power between 1869 and 1876, when he was an insurrectionary leader supported by important figures in Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Puebla, Oaxaca, and other outlying states.

Once in the presidency, however, Diaz concentrated the power of his insurrectionary allies, established further ties with provincial and local elites from Chihuahua and Sonora to Chiapas and Yucatan, and defeated his federalist opponents, the most dangerous of whom challenged him from their strongholds in Zacatecas, Queretaro, and San Luis Potosi. After crushing the last major rebellions led by the provincial elites in the early 1880s, Diaz consolidated his regime and held it for another quarter of a century. However, the early successes of the regime in directing economic growth created an ever more articulate and demanding public.

The intellectuals, using newspapers, books and public speeches played a minor role in discrediting the regime and bringing a large portion of the Mexican public to accept its removal. The most Important newspapers–Regeneration published by the radical Partido Liberal Mexicano, and El Hijo del Ajuizote-denounced the government for corruption, dictatorship, and the betrayal of national interests. A new genre of critical authors also emerged. The most important of the critical books were Francisco l. Madero’s La sucesion presidencial (The Presidential Succession) and Heriberto Frias’s Tomochic. The later work protested the suppression of the efforts of the mestizo and Indian townspeople in the pueblo of Tomochic in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Chihuahua to save their lands and jurisdiction. American railroad interests had sent a surveying team to the site shortly before violence erupted. The townspeople, however, fought for more than just land. Through their remoteness, they had long enjoyed cultural as well as political and economic autonomy.

Tomochic capsulized the national crisis between centralization and the continuing popular desire for local rule. Madero’s book capsulized the political protest. During the 1890s Mexican novels had protested the hardships experienced by the masses under industrialization and the transition to capitalist agriculture; they had urged reforms and more sympathy for the victims of that process. After 1900 the writers became ever more strident, and by 1905 they openly were advocating rebellion and revolution to end the suffering of their protagonists. By 1910 the clamour for self-government once again got out of hand, but this time it was far more profound than the political revolutions of the nineteenth century. The number of challengers advocating regional rights had been enhanced by the country’s economic growth. The percentage of affluent and educated people now excluded from political power and authority was larger than ever before in the nation’s history.

Many of these people also were threatened by the new modernizing economy, which had grown increasingly dependent on a steady flow of foreign investments and imports, especially from the United States. When the economy faltered, this affluent but economically threatened and politically excluded segment of the Mexican public turned to revolutionary politics and sought the support of the long-suppressed rural and industrial working classes. By now, the peasants and workers already were rebelling. The peasantry-which comprised an estimated 80 percent of the Mexican population had a long history of uprisings to redress injustice. The peasantry successfully occupied many disputed areas during the Wars of Independence from 1810 until 1821. However, the Campesinos (peasants) failed to gain representation in the national governments that emerged after Independence. From the 1820s through the early 1850s a series of state and national government measures enabled the wealthy landowners to regain a considerable portion of their lost estates.

Yet, in the early 1859s, the peasantry still held some 25 percent of the nation’s arable land and the Catholic Church retained a considerable portion of its original 48 percent. When the Liberals came to power in the 1850s, they provided the initiative for the land privatization program that again turned the peasants against the government. The liberals began in 185() with the Ley Lerdo and Article 27 of the 1857 Constitution, which provided the legal basis for the reorganization of the nation’s church and pueblo (communal village) properties. The Liberals had a twofold purpose in privatization: first, to increase agricultural output and thereby save the nation’s moribund economy, and second, to take advantage of the land denunciation powers granted by their legislation. Many in the Liberal leadership became owners of great landholdings, initially through the outright purchase of nationalized church properties and more gradually by means of the alienating of pueblo lands.

By 1876, when President Porfirio Diaz came to power, the privatization program already had finished with the church properties. Diaz pushed it forward against the Campesinos and effectively crushed all resistance. The peasantry attempted periodic rebellions during the rest of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, resisting tax increases and losses of land, water rights, and pueblo political autonomies. But without the support of other sectors of society, the Campesinos had no chance of success. By 1910, when Diaz finally lost his grip on power, the peasantry held only 2 percent of the nation’s arable tracts in common. The large amount of commercially productive land held by foreigners and the attacks on Mexico by the U.S. government in 1914 and 1916 caused the agrarian leaders to attack them as they previously had attacked the Mexican hacienda owners and government.

The revolutionaries in Morelos labelled the sugar estate hacendados “Spaniards,” while the Chihuahuenses expelled the Latter Day Saints from theirs. farming communities called them “Yanquis” and “Gringos.” Where these developments in the agricultural sector undercut the peasants economically, the enclosure of communal lands circumscribed their political rights. This political marginalization was occurring at the very moment that the peasantry-the nation’s largest demographic group-was claiming the right to participate more directly in local, state, and national affairs. The industrial working class also had grown increasingly alienated in the late 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century. The heirs of a militant organized labour movement in the 1870s, with a strong anarchist presence, the industrial workers shared the growing sense of citizens’ rights expressed by the peasantry. Beginning in 1899 they undertook a series of strikes. In that year they resisted layoffs and wage reductions by shutting down a number of the textile factories in the state of Puebla.

Other strikes and unrest followed and grew in seriousness, protesting such issues as abominable working and living conditions and caste-like discrimination. In 1906 the strikers and their opponents resorted [0 the use of firearms at the Cananea silver mines in Sonora near the Arizona border. The workers complained that the American management discriminated against workers who were not U.S. citizens-paying them lower salaries, forcing them in segregated housing, and abusing and overcharging them in the company store. The government blundered when it allowed American vigilantes to cross the border. enter the town, and take part in the intimidation of the workers. The vigilantes arrived after the gun battles had subsided, but they turned a serious incident into a major political crisis for the regime. The resulting nationalist outcry did not cease until the government was unseated.

In early 1907, the crisis between the industrial working class and the regime deepened. The textile workers at three mills in the Rio Blanco area on the border between the states of Veracruz and Puebla staged a virtual rebellion over such issues as complaints about the French factory owners and the Spanish operator of the company store. The government used the army to repress the workers, who already had forcibly seized the town of Rio Blanco. The soldiers killed almost 200 workers and wounded countless others in a day-long battle that included the use of machine guns. President Diaz’s actions scandalized the nation. His critics portrayed the event as a massacre undertaken on behalf of foreign owners. Between 1907 and 1910 worker unrest escalated, encouraged by the articulate and popular opposition to the regime manifested by the PLM. Recurring layoffs and wage reductions in the mining, textile, and sugar industries combined with income stagnation to heighten the crisis. The cost of living continued to rise while the value of the peso declined.

Nationalism played no small role in the workers’ and the peasants’ unrest. The strikers at Cananea complained of discrimination against them by the American management. At Rio Blanco, they identified Spaniards and Frenchmen as their principal antagonists. Their feelings had been shaped by repeated national humiliations over the preceding 65 years. Struggles against the foreign armies of Spain, France, and the United States in the nineteenth century were followed by the overwhelming and seemingly unbearable presence of foreign capital in Mexican industry in the early twentieth century. By 1910 foreign investors, including some of the leading companies of the United States and Europe, controlled 130 of Mexico’s 70 largest business concerns, of which the Mexican National Railways was the largest. After 1900 an influx of land development companies (many of them directly or indirectly associated with the railroads) led to the purchase of approximately 130,000.000 acres of the nation’s 485,000,000-acre surface. In many cases, embittered local citizens accepted jobs from the foreign owners of what once had been their lands.

This history created a deep and enduring sense of Mexican nationalism, which by 1910 had become revolutionary. Working-class nationalism would continue to be a critical element in Mexican polity for the remainder of the twentieth century. As the economic crisis deepened between 1900 and 1910, important sectors of the Mexican public increasingly demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the alliance of government, Mexico City elites, and large foreign companies that dominated them. The ruling alliance included banking, industry, and a major share of ranching and agriculture, especially in the sugar-producing areas of the south and the timber stands and cattle ranges of the north. Groups of workers and peasants joined highly variable leaderships, often comprised of local figures, and at other times taken from the petty bourgeoisie, intelligentsia, and provincial elites of the nation, to sweep away the government by the spring of 1911 and launch a civil war that lasted 10 years.

Select Bibliography

  • Hart, John Mason, Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
  • Katz, Friedrich, The Secret War in Mexico. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1981.
  • Knight, Alan, The Mexican Revolution. 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Tutino, John, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750-1940. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

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