It is difficult to fully comprehend the significance of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) without understanding how the sociopolitical conflicts which fueled it had their roots in the early 1800s. It is also important to appreciate the ways in which the political ideologies of the Mexican Revolution did and did not harken back to previous 19th-century socialist revolutions. With such an approach, we can more readily see how the outcome of the Revolution represented a break with the past.
Ultimately, what made the Mexican Revolution revolutionary was the way change was channeled through popular struggle: post-revolutionary Mexico was in many respects a continuation of the project of the pre-revolutionary regime of Porfirio Díaz (1884 -1911) – that is, a project to develop and modernize the country through the action of a centralized state. The post-revolutionary elite were state-builders just as Díaz had been. But unlike Díaz, they were forced to build a state apparatus which incorporated the masses. Indeed, the Revolution laid the basis for creating a “mass society” in place of the more socially fragmented, regionalized system which existed before.
It is important to stress that “socialist” ideologies or socialist/communist parties did not play a significant role in organizing the popular movements which ignited the Mexican Revolution. Some of the more radical, non-peasant leaders did make limited appeals to the notion of “socialism,” but they generally meant something very different from socialism as we understand it: the governments of the post-revolutionary period favored capitalist development, not socialism, but they did support “socialist education” – i.e. secularization of the educational system.
Socialist perspectives in Mexico were not particularly significant until Lázaro Cárdenas became president in 1934. This fact surprises many who are tempted to casually (and unreflectively) classify the Mexican Revolution in traditional Marxist categories as either a bourgeois (rulers) or proletarian (commoners) revolution. Harvard professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol is critical of the construction of this revolutionary binary in her book “States and Social Revolutions.” Skocpol argues that the so-called “bourgeois” revolution in France was essentially the same phenomenon as the so-called “proletarian” revolution in Russia, which was also similar to the revolution that brought down the Imperial state in China. All were triggered by a political crisis in a “proto-bureaucratic” state regime rooted in an agrarian economic system, and all were more similar to each other than they were to the earlier so-called “bourgeois” revolution (The Civil War) in England. Skocpol suggests that this may also be true of the Mexican Revolution.
Skocpol’s detractors, however, argue that there is a pronounced Eurocentricity in most general theories of social revolution and that this is particularly true of Skocpol. These detractors believe that what makes the Mexican case so complicated is that Mexico’s social and political structures cannot be fully understood in terms of conventional European categories. Certainly, Mexico was a country formed by a particularly comprehensive form of European colonial penetration: “aboriginal” culture and civilization were more comprehensively assaulted by the imposition of European forms than was the case in, say, most of Asia, but there is still a world of difference between the European social revolutions and what occurred in Mexico. To fully appreciate the Mexican Revolution, one must realize that Mexico fundamentally differed from the structures envisaged by classical European social theory.
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