Mexico’s Unspent Revolutionary Legacies: An Interview With Historian Alan Knight

Alan Knight, a specialist on the Mexican Revolution, once wrote, “Revolutionary generations die, but the legacy of (especially successful) revolutions is never entirely spent." In this interview, he discusses revolutionary icons, the competing claims to revolutionary legitimacy by contemporary political actors, and official amnesia over tensions within the revolution, among other topics.

March 25, 2009

Alan Knight teaches Latin American history, with a focus on Mexico, at the University of Oxford. The author of five books on Mexican history, including the prizewinning two-volume The Mexican Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Knight has focused his research over the past 35 years on agrarian society, state building, and revolutionary upheavals. In early January, NACLA’s Fred Rosen interviewed Knight on the question of revolutionary legacies in contemporary Mexico.

You have written that “revolutionary generations die, but the legacy of (especially successful) revolutions is never entirely spent.” Where do we look for the unspent legacy of the Mexican Revolution?

Even after the revolutionary generation is gone, there are ideas, symbols, and icons that live on in people’s collective and individual memories that can inspire them, even though times have changed. Journalists sometimes pose the question, “Will there be another Mexican revolution?” Well, probably not, and even if there were it would be an entirely different kind of revolution because Mexico is a very different country from what it was in 1910. But some of the ideological legacies and memories are still important.
For example, if you take the figure of Emiliano Zapata, zapatismo, the struggle for land, peasants’ rights, local autonomy, and self-government, these live on into the present, and so Zapata could be resurrected and used as a powerful icon by the Zapatista movement of the 1990s. Clearly, the resurgence of zapatismo involves a great many other factors—local conflicts in Chiapas, Mexican national politics, NAFTA, and so on—but I think their choosing Zapata to symbolize their revolt was not coincidental.

Can we say that the Zapatistas of Chiapas are legitimate heirs to the original zapatismo?

Yes, it is quite legitimate for a group that tries to speak for the relatively dispossessed to invoke Zapata because Zapata himself, in a different period and in a different way, was also struggling to advance the cause of dispossessed people in the state of Morelos back in 1910. It is certainly more legitimate than the invocations of Zapata that other political leaders have made. In the early 1990s, when the “new” Zapatistas emerged and Subcomandante Marcos was invoking Zapata, Carlos Salinas, then president, also invoked Zapata and, for example, went to Cuautla, Morelos, and made speeches justifying his own version of land reform—which was in fact anti–land reform—and claiming that it was a heritage of Zapata. Now, my view is that the Zapatistas had a better claim to that heritage than Salinas did.

Of course, things have changed, and the state of Chiapas, the contemporary Zapatistas’ focal point, is very different from Morelos in 1910. And their message in the 1990s clearly wasn’t a carbon copy of Zapata’s Plan of Ayala. There was a different quality to it: It involved a much stronger indigenista, Indian element that wasn’t present in the early Zapatista movement of 1910. So it’s a different movement in a different time, but it did quite legitimately draw upon Zapata.

Is there any sense in which the recognition of indigenous cultures was an important part of the revolutionary program, and therefore its legacy?

No, not in any formal sense. The early revolutionary proposals or movements made virtually no specific commitment to elevating or emancipating indigenous people per se. Indeed, those movements in the revolution that were genuinely Indian—that is to say, mostly fought for by Indians, often led by Indians—would be movements like the Yaquis in northwestern Mexico. The Yaqui movement was in many ways directed against the state, first the pre-revolutionary Porfirian state, later the revolutionary state. The latter was actually determined to eliminate such indigenous challenges to its national sovereignty. It was prepared to uplift the Indians in a cultural way, but it certainly wasn’t interested in conceding substantial local autonomy to Indian groups. On the contrary it wanted to assimilate them, sometimes by force, sometimes by education.

Would you say that the image of Zapata, more than any of the other revolutionary leaders, represents a living legacy of the revolution?

Yes. One reason, of course, is that Zapata is readily identifiable, not just because of his image but also because he has a powerful association with a particular cause, mainly land reform. Now, land reform, as such, may not be on the agenda today, and if it were to be on the agenda it would be a different sort of land reform. But nevertheless, the association with the peasantry, with the rural sector, remains very important in Mexico.

Pancho Villa, the other great popular leader of the revolution, has a more diffuse popular appeal based on the memory that he was a successful warlord and a macho, charismatic figure. And, of course, he successfully invaded the United States. The U.S. Army invaded Mexico in an attempt to capture him and failed. So there is a strong patriotic sentiment attached to Villa. The trouble with him is that his program was much less clear than Zapata’s. It’s harder to say that Villa stood for some definable set of principles, or that he had the support of a definite constituency.

So, for that reason, of the two great popular leaders of the revolution, Zapata probably has a stronger appeal. Both, of course, died early and violent deaths, which often, to put it bluntly, helps to form a memorably heroic figure. If you survive into middle age and get older and fatter and richer, it doesn’t exactly help your heroic image. I think most of the actual polling data—to be used with great caution—do suggest that of all the revolutionary leaders, Zapata and Villa have the most recognition and popularity, followed, perhaps by Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary general who became president in the 1930s, and Francisco Madero, the leader of the movement that overthrew Porfirio Díaz in 1910 and became the first, short-lived revolutionary president.

Plutarco Calles, another revolutionary general turned president and one of the most important historical figures to come out of the revolution, doesn’t live on as strongly as a widely recognized popular figure, but Zapata clearly does, probably followed by Villa, Cárdenas, and Madero, in roughly that order.

Well, Cárdenas, of course, did go on to live a long life. I’m not sure how fat he got, but he did get relatively comfortable. Is there nevertheless some living legacy we can associate with him?

Absolutely. Cárdenas is an interesting case because, for one thing, the living memory of his legacy embraces quite wide regions and sectors within Mexico. He is still associated, above all, with the nationalization of the oil industry. In addition, cardenismo represents the survival of other important aspects of revolutionary ideology. The cardenista project for Mexico’s Indians, for example, included the recognition of a distinctive Indian culture, while trying to assimilate that culture into the national revolutionary project. He also tried to bring education and development to the countryside through land reform and rural schools. So I think cardenismo reflects the classic project of the revolution: a nationalizing, somewhat homogenizing, reformist project.

He’s also interesting because, as you say, he lived on (though he never got fat). He continued to be an important political figure, but always within the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the authoritarian ruling party that emerged from the revolution. So he took on the role of the grand old statesman on the left of the PRI, which won him the support of many Mexicans, although there were many others—and not just rich landowners and oil company managers—who were indifferent to Cárdenas, or even downright hostile. So he remained a polarizing figure.

Plenty of people were also downright hostile to Villa and Zapata, and as with Cárdenas, not just rich landowners. In fact, in some sense, both died at the hands of the revolution.

That’s true. What probably has happened over time—and again, what has happened with other revolutions in the world—is that some of the hard edges have become rather blurred, and perhaps, in some cases, there’s been a kind of official amnesia, a deliberate forgetting. This becomes clear if you look at the official rhetoric concerning the revolution that was being churned out in the 1950s and 1960s during the heyday of the PRI. If you look at school textbooks—or the way the revolution was commemorated in 1960 on the occasion of its 50th anniversary—you see a somewhat bland, assimilating kind of ideology, which glosses over the awkward fact that, for example, the revolutionary leader and president Venustiano Carranza was killed by Álvaro Obregón, a rival revolutionary leader, and that Villa was in turn killed by Obregón and Calles. So the official ideology of the 1950s and 1960s tended to gloss over such conflicts and tried, with some success, to incorporate all the great heroes into one big common pantheon.

When people talked about the revolution in the 1960s, they did so in rather general and rhetorical terms. This was very different from how it was conceived back in the 1920s and 1930s, when veterans were very conscious of being Cardenistas or Callistas, Villistas or Zapatistas, and there was a much more acute sense of which faction you belonged to. By the 1960s, those sharp factional edges had been blunted and the revolution had been, as they say, reified.

Two of the current mainstream political parties, the centrist PRI, which was once the only party that mattered, and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), both invoke the revolution, at least in their names. Do you think either one has a legitimate claim?

The PRD has a slightly better case, but with regard to the PRI, I think the party distanced itself from its revolutionary origins a long time ago. It did so in a slightly covert way during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s—a period when the party did successfully accomplish a number of things it had set out to do. It achieved a stable economy, a relatively dynamic rate of growth, greater literacy, and higher real wages for a significant number of Mexicans. So by no means was that period of so-called stabilizing development a failure. In fact, compared to the rest of Latin America, or, indeed, to what has happened since, it looks quite positive.

But it wasn’t a revolutionary program, and I think a distinct gap opened up between revolutionary ideology (the harking back to Zapata and land reform, for example) on the one hand, and the reality of Mexico in that era, an increasingly urban, industrial, and unequal Mexico, on the other. So the PRI really steered a different course compared to that of the 1920s and, in particular, the 1930s. Again, the early opinion polls of the 1960s suggest that Mexicans were aware of this. Though Mexicans might have had a degree of identification with the revolution, its goals and aspirations, I don’t think they considered the PRI to be a revolutionary party in any real sense. Of course, with the debt crisis of the 1980s, with Salinas and the neoliberal policies that he spearheaded, things changed even more. At that point, we can see an even more clear-cut and explicit rejection of the revolution’s postulates. Just to mention three: the effective end of land reform, détente with the church hierarchy, and NAFTA, signaling a break with the old economic nationalism of the past. So whatever you may think of those policies—clearly there are arguments for and against—in terms of remaining true to the revolution, it seems to me very hard to argue that the PRI was anything like its faithful servant; this was evident as early as the 1950s and 1960s, and became very clear cut by the 1980s and 1990s.

The PRD, on the other hand, is different because it has its historic link to Cárdenas and cardenismo—including economic nationalism and the drive to build an inclusive, secular society. But it would be hard to say that the party’s program or conduct today strongly reflects what the original Mexican Revolution stood for.

Some PRDistas argue that one of the betrayals of the revolution that took place under the leadership of the PRI was the dissolution of the social reciprocity sometimes called the “social compact.” Only the PRD, the argument goes, can restore the compact that was undermined by neoliberalism, free trade, the ending of support for the ejidos (collectively owned farmlands), and so on. Do you think there’s some justification for that position?

Well, I can see the argument. The PRD has within it a very large chunk of dissatisfied PRIistas who split off in 1987 to create the movement that became the PRD. So, in that sense, they are harking back not just to the original revolution of 1910, but also to the postwar period of PRIista corporatism. You could argue that a kind of social compact underpinned the partial social peace of the 1950s and 1960s, under the aegis of a strong, centralized corporate party, and perhaps that’s the model that some of the PRDistas are actually looking back to. Now, whether that’s revolutionary or not depends on whether you think that the model of the PRI in its heyday was revolutionary, and I have already expressed my doubts about that. Clearly there are some PRDistas who have stronger revolutionary, or at least reformist, claims: those who came out of the independent left, or the so-called new social movements, or the old Communist Party. But the problem is how you implement a new social compact in the context in which Mexico now finds itself, along with much of the rest of the world, in which the state is weaker and the economy is experiencing serious upheaval and deterioration.

Speaking of the rest of the world, there have been some revolutions that left a legacy that went beyond their national borders. The French and the Russian are obvious examples. Can we make that claim for the Mexican Revolution?

It was never overtly exported in the way that, say, the French Revolution was when, after 1789, the French Republic and later Napoleon actually set out to spread revolutionary ideas, often at the point of a gun. The Mexican Revolution never had that kind of goal, so any external influence it had, I think, was by way of example. There’s some evidence of the example of the revolution being picked up in Latin America by groups like APRA in Peru and by Sandino in Nicaragua. [Editor’s note: Sinclair Thomson notes in his article for this issue that the intellectuals of the Bolivian National Revolution fashioned their own hegemonic pretensions in the 1950s after those of the PRI.] Central American countries were affected not only by the example of the revolution but also, and more directly, by the qualified support that some leftist groups received, mainly from the Calles government in the 1920s. So I wouldn’t say that the external influence of the revolution was nil, but I would say it was quite limited. And I think the Mexicans probably wanted it that way, in part because of Mexico’s geopolitical position. They knew that if they had begun to export revolution in the way that the Cubans later tried to do, they would incur serious U.S. displeasure. In the 1920s, the United States was hostile to Calles, in part because of his support, however tepid, for Sandino. So the Mexicans felt that it was a risky business to try to export their revolution, and the prevailing notion, therefore, was that this was a Mexican nationalist revolution, which was not suitable for export.

How about the idea of revolution itself? Leaving aside the substantive content of the Mexican Revolution, is there any sense in which the historical memory of revolution itself conditioned the politics of what came after?

According to an argument that has some weight, when a country experiences a major revolution like the Mexican, it somewhat inoculates people against having another for a long time, because they remember just how horrific it can be. Indeed, recent demographic research has confirmed that the Mexican Revolution was extremely bloody and costly—much more so than, say, the revolutions in Cuba or Bolivia in the 1950s. So, while Mexicans certainly remembered the benefits, including greater popular empowerment, better education, and land reform, those who survived the experience tended to regard revolution a last resort, not an easy option.

Historically, I would say, most people don’t want to have to get involved in revolutions. It usually takes a great deal of official provocation for revolutionary situations to emerge. Normally you need a pretty abusive government or regime or set of social relations to provoke a revolution in the first place. And I think that for many years after the decade of revolutionary violence, there was a kind of bias—not a quiescence, but a bias—toward trying to settle disputes in ways that did not involve serious violent upheaval. And the record of Mexico, compared to, say, Argentina or Peru in the post-war period probably had something to do with that collective memory of the revolution’s costs and an aversion to any repetition.

That said, people will still protest and mobilize, of course, and Mexico has a rich history of protest and mobilization over the course of the 20th century. But it’s not surprising that there has been no other major revolution since 1910. Then again, major revolutions are quite rare events in history, wherever you look.

Fred Rosen is NACLA’s senior analyst.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.