The Great Rebellion

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

America’s southern neighbor, Mexico, has come into prominence recently as a major oil-producing nation. Now Ramón Eduardo Ruíz, an American historian of Mexican ancestry, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego, has written a massive history of the upheaval that produced modern Mexico: The Great Rebellion. Although Ruíz’s style is often marred by clumsy syntax and unnecessary commas, his book does give the reader some insight into the causes and consequences of one of the twentieth century’s bloodiest internal convulsions. Some of his conclusions might surprise a nonspecialist reader.

In the very first chapter, Ruíz argues that, despite the tremendous amount of violence and bloodshed that took place in Mexico between 1910 and 1923, there was no real revolution, but only a “rebellion.” There was neither a dramatic transformation of Mexico’s economic system or class structure, nor any real modification of the nature of her economic dependency on the outside world. By contrast, the author argues, the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions were genuine revolutions.

In the conclusion, however, Ruíz contradicts the argument stated so clearly in the first chapter. Pre-1910 Mexico, the author concedes here, shared certain characteristics with “pre-revolutionary England, France, the Thirteen Colonies, and Russia,” characteristics which the American historian Crane Brinton described in his “ground-breaking study of the revolutionary process,” The Anatomy of Revolution. In The Great Rebellion, Ruíz does demonstrate that the socioeconomic changes effected by the Mexican Revolution were less drastic than most Americans have hitherto believed; he does not and cannot prove, however, that the proper definition of the revolutionary process must include the notion of drastic socioeconomic change as well as that of political upheaval.

Ruíz’s approach to the Mexican upheaval is topical rather than strictly chronological. His book is divided into three main sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the Mexican revolutionary process. Unfortunately, the author’s choice of a topical treatment sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow the chronological thread of events. The calendar of events in the front of the book helps only a little in remedying this deficiency.

At the beginning of 1910, Mexico seemed, to most foreign observers, to be progressing peacefully under the firm leadership of the aging dictator Porfirio Díaz, who had ruled the country for nearly four decades. In October of that year, however, Díaz having reneged on an earlier promise not to seek reelection, found himself faced by outbreaks of armed rebellion in various parts of the country. The Army proved incapable of suppressing them; and in May, 1911, the once seemingly all-powerful leader resigned and went into exile. In November of the same year, the youthful and politically inexperienced Francisco Madero, who had begun the war of words against Díaz’s reelection, became President. Yet, Mexico was not entering into a new age of ordered liberty, as Madero seemed to believe; instead, it was about to plunge into a long period of anarchy and chaos, in which he, like many other Mexicans, would die a violent death. Why had the long, peaceful reign of Don Porfirio suddenly come to an end?

In the first section of the book, Ruíz presents one of his principal arguments. The Mexican upheaval of 1910, he contends, was caused not by the catastrophic impoverishment of the nation, but by the sudden halt in a long period of upward economic progress caused by the worldwide Depression of 1907. The title of the first chapter reveals the author’s thesis: it was the “ambivalence of progress,” and not its absence, which brought down the Porfirian regime.

One of the first groups to rebel against Díaz was the new Mexican middle class created by the long years of prosperity. This middle class was, the author makes clear, not the broad middle-income stratum found in the present-day United States; instead, it was a thin layer of the population, whose members strove as best they could to imitate the way of life of the wealthy upper class. Ruíz includes among the middle class such people as merchants, ranch foremen, salesmen, schoolteachers, government clerks, journalists, and impoverished intellectuals; at times, he also appears to regard as middle class those well-to-do hacienda owners (hacendados) who lacked the influence over government decisionmaking necessary for amassing truly great riches. It was the very social ambitions of members of this class which made them far more sensitive to economic retrogression than the poverty-stricken masses, inured through the centuries to hardship. After the long epoch of prosperity, the check to their ambitions delivered by the Depression of 1907, with its consequent constriction of white-collar opportunities in government and in business, caused members of this thin middle layer of society to look with envy and anger at the way the small clique around Díaz had used its influence to enrich itself.

Another hotbed of rebellion, the author points out, was the growing, but still relatively small, industrial working class, which had begun to appear as a result of the long years of Porfirian economic growth. Their sense of class consciousness was still in its beginning stages. Although the workers were better off than the agrarian masses, they, like the middle class, reacted strongly against the sudden decline in their standard of living brought about by the Depression. Many workers began to demand higher wages, shorter hours, and the right to organize. One particular sore point for many workers was revealed by the famous Cananea strike of 1907: the privileges enjoyed by foreign workers in general, and by American workers in particular.

The Mexican rebels of 1910 accused Porfirio Díaz of having deliberately sold out his country to American investors. In discussing this accusation, Ruíz tries to be impartial. He argues that the undue American economic influences arose, not because of any special pro-Americanism on the part of Díaz, but as an unintended consequence of the philosophy of his governing clique. The men around Díaz believed that foreign investment, on a massive scale, was essential if Mexico were to progress economically. As it turned out, much of this investment was American.

Whatever Díaz’s responsibility for the situation, there is no doubt that the American economic penetration of Mexico was one of the spurs to rebellion. Ruíz demonstrates conclusively that it was those northern border provinces where American investment had been heaviest that were the main foci of revolt in 1910-1911.

The revolt against Díaz, Ruíz shows, was not simply a class revolt, but also a generational revolt: he cites example after example of youthful revolutionary commanders to prove his point. The rebellion that overthrew Don Porfirio was the rebellion of young men frustrated in their desire for government jobs or lucrative business contracts by the stranglehold on the government exerted by the aging clique of insiders that surrounded Díaz. It was precisely because the Díaz regime had become so sclerotic over the years that it died so quickly. Don Porfirio’s Army, commanded by overage officers and riddled with favoritism, corruption, and incompetence, was no match for even a small force of determined men.

Few of the various stimuli to revolt, Ruíz points out, had very much effect on the most downtrodden elements of the peasantry, especially when these people were Indian by customs and language. Such people were, in the author’s words, “latecomers to the revolutionary game.” The average American’s picture of the Mexican Revolution as a widespread revolt of oppressed Indian peasants against their arrogant and lazy hacienda-owning masters, is, the author implies, a half-truth at best. On this whole question of the role of agrarian unrest in the making of the Mexican Revolution, Ruíz’s demythologizing approach is particularly useful and enlightening.

There did occur in the state of Morelos, the author concedes, an Indian peasant rebellion, led by Emiliano Zapata, which demanded the return to the villages of lands allegedly stolen from them by the hacendados; nowhere else in Mexico, however, did the peasants revolt in this fashion. The state of Oaxaca, with many equally oppressed peasants tilling the land of equally arrogant hacendados, witnessed no agrarian revolt whatsoever. In some cases peasants even helped to defend haciendas against attacks by revolutionary armies. In a country of such widespread agrarian misery as Mexico, many peasants were quite happy to be working on a hacienda: it was better than starvation. Morelos, the author makes clear, was a special case; for here, the large sugar estates had only recently begun to encroach on the Indian peasants’ landholdings.

In the second section, Ruíz gives the reader a portrait gallery of the men who vied for power during Mexico’s tumultuous years of political upheaval. He tries to show that, although these men lived through violent years and sometimes died violent deaths, they were, by and large, not believers in the need for violent social change: they were, in general, reformers rather than revolutionaries. Once again, the author attempts to dispel some of the myths about Mexico’s revolutionary years.

Francisco Madero, the author shows, came not from the oppressed peasantry, but from the privileged class: his father was a wealthy owner of plantations and factories in the northern state of Coahuila. For all his talk of the need for political democracy, Madero was extremely cautious and conservative regarding socioeconomic issues. Although sympathetic with the plight of the workers, he did not believe that the government should regulate wages or hours. He did not desire agrarian reform and recoiled in horror from both the anarchist theories of Ricardo Flores Magón and the violent agrarian movement of Emiliano Zapata.

Yet for all his practical, property-conscious conservatism in economic matters, Madero demonstrated, the author makes clear, a deplorable naïveté about matters of politics. He tried to retain many officials of the Díaz regime, instead...

(The entire section is 4227 words.)