Workers' Liberty #68


The end of Institutional Revolution

Pablo Velasco reviews the 71 years of rule in Mexico by the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the prospects after the fall of the PRI.

'The traditions of past generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.'

Karl Marx (1852)

The decline and fall of the PRI

Vicente Fox from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won Mexico's presidential election on July 2, ending 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). He won with 42.7% of the vote; the PRI candidate Francisco Labastida received 35.7% and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) got 16.5%. The PAN also swept the Senate, Chamber of Deputies, and two races for governor. The PRI won only around a third of the vote nationally, with a record 65% voter participation. In Mexico City, the PRD won the mayoral race, and the PRI came is a dismal third with 22% of the vote.

Dan La Botz, a leading socialist commentator on Mexico, has argued that, 'Fox's victory was simultaneously and contradictorily an expression of Mexican people's desire for an end to the rule of the PRI and the establishment of a democratic political system, and a final triumph for the neo-liberal counter-revolution that in the last 20 years has destroyed Mexico's nationalist political-economic system and replaced it with a system dominated by foreign multi-national corporations and integrated into the U.S. economy.' (2000c). I think this assessment is basically correct. The tragedy is that in this 'democratic revolution' the working-class socialist left was nowhere in sight.

The PAN, founded as a Catholic party in the 1930s, evolved into a modern conservative party allied with business organisations from the 1960s. Fox, a former Coca Cola executive, adopted the rhetoric of 'compassionate conservatism' during the election, helped by intellectuals such as Jorge Castaneda. However the outcome of these elections can only be explained with a wider historical perspective. Fox's victory was based on the earlier victory of the PRI over the nationalist-populist opposition which came together in the late eighties, which also eclipsed the promising emergence of the socialist left.

The process of political change began during the 1970s when the PRI decided it would legalise a left-wing opposition, after the wave of discontent following the massacre of students at the 1968 Olympics. (The PAN had always been tolerated.) The Communist Party was legalised and later in the 1980s the small but significant Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT), gained legal registration and fielded candidates. The PRI dominated elections with about 70% of the vote, while the PAN won about 20% and the left around 10%.

In 1987 Cuauhtemoc Cardenas led the Democratic Current out of the PRI and created what became the PRD. The Communists and the left nationalist Mexican Workers Party (PMT) joined the PRD, and by the early 1990s even the PRT had fallen in behind this opposition. The PRI candidate Salinas only won the 1988 election by fraud against Cardenas, but the PRD's failure to launch a major struggle to claim its victory, despite the murder of 500 of its members, led ultimately to its eclipse in 1994 and again in 2000. But the fraudulent election in 1988 laid the political basis for the victory of Fox.

The only other left-wing force has been the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which led the Chiapas rebellion, an armed uprising by 2,000 Mayan Indian peasants in January 1994. The EZLN attempted to create a new left in Mexico, a radical populist movement based on the indigenous people, peasants, and the poor, and initially it seemed that a convergence of the EZLN, the PRD and other forces was possible. The Zapatistas created the Zapatista Front of National Liberation (FZLN) as its political arm, but they have not become either a national movement nor a genuine party, and therefore a real political alternative. And the government's response to the rising - the increased militarisation of the country - has also been an important element in creating the conditions for the victory of Fox.

However, the essential explanation for the victory of the PAN is rooted in the political economy of Mexico over the past twenty years. From the 1930s the PRI had pushed 'import-substitution industrialisation'. This strategy relied on keeping wages low and the working class incorporated in and subordinate to the state in order to build an autonomous national industrial base. As the new phase of globalisation, the 'imperialism of free trade', took hold in the 1980s, it was no longer sustainable. The shift to 'neo-liberalism' signified the demise of the old system of government. In 1982 the economic crisis left the country insolvent and forced it to go cap in hand to the U.S. government, the IMF and the World Bank for a bail-out.

This process of economic transformation began with de la Madrid (1982-1988), accelerated under Salinas (1988-1994) and reached fruition under Zedillo (1994-2000). Mexico entered GATT - now the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The state sold off its telephone company, railways, and other industries to private investors. Assembly plants (maquiladoras) were developed on the border with the US. The reorganisation of the Mexican economy was accompanied by a wave of union-bashing and strike-breaking (e.g., at Ford Cuautitlan in 1989-90). By 1986, unemployment was 16 per cent, or over 4 million out of an economically active population of 27 million, and inflation over 100%. (La Botz, 1988: 8-9). The 'lost decade' of the 1980s became the lost generation, with over 40% of Mexicans still scraping by on less than $2 a day, and real wages have scarcely recovered to their 1980 level even now, after a huge fall of 35%.

Will Fox's victory lead to a democratic Mexico? La Botz's answer is a sober and realistic one: 'In a very real sense the bureaucracy, the police, and the military are the permanent government of Mexico, and Fox and the PAN have too few political cadres to undertake a wholesale replacement. If Fox represents political democracy, it will be a long, slow and perhaps ultimately futile process to bring about institutional change from above.' (2000c). Without underestimating the watershed that the PRI's defeat represents, the political system is still well described as a 'mask of democracy'.

And Fox is plainly no friend of the working class. In the PAN-governed states of Baja California and Chihuahua, and in Fox's own state of Guanajuato, workers are not permitted to organise independent unions of their own choosing. While the PRI made possible the electoral victory of Fox, it has put every obstacle in the way of workers' voting for independent unions in their factories or on their farms. Fox's victory will mean an end to state-party support for the 'official' labour movement, and perhaps even an end to the very idea of an 'official' labour movement. Most PANists would like to see the dismantling of the old state-party-controlled unions and their replacement by conservative collaborationist unions that would work in 'partnership' with the employers.

The defeat of the PRI also throws up more fundamental questions for socialists. How did Mexico come to be ruled by the PRI for so long, a system of government once shrewdly regarded as the 'perfect dictatorship'? How was it that the fall of the PRI, so long anticipated by the left, took place without even a socialist or working class candidate on the ballot paper, let alone as a viable alternative force ? And what are the prospects for the revival of an independent labour movement after Fox's victory?

The course of the Mexican revolution

The modern Mexican political economy and its form of government arose out of the revolution of 1910-1920. Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, (1876-1910), Mexico developed into a capitalist country whose industry was mainly controlled by foreign investors and whose agriculture was predominantly owned by Mexican landlords. Both mining and oil were in foreign, especially US, hands while the 800 or so landlords controlled 80% of villages. Peasant communal ownership (ejidos) was eliminated.

Around three million were day labourers or peones (farm hands) - representing with their families about 12 million people, or 80% of the population. Peasants and rural proletarians suffered at the hands of both local bosses (caciques), earning less than the average industrial worker. The industrial working class represented less than 15% of the workforce. Textile workers laboured for a 14-hour day, men, women and children, in mills without ventilation. Miners working 12-hour shifts, without even minimal protection for their health and safety. There were over 500 deaths in accidents between 1906 and 1910. Both workers and peasants were perpetually in debt to the company shop.

Under the Porfiriato, as Diaz's rule is known, the glorification of science and technology justified this brutal exploitation, while a force of 40,000 army and police terrorised the population, suppressing strikes, peasant risings and Indian rebellions. In addition, foreign capitalists created their own private 'white guards' to crush dissent. Not surprisingly, there was opposition to Diaz, not only within the elite, but also among the lower classes, notably from the (misnamed) Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) led by Ricardo Flores Magon, which was strongly influenced by anarchism. (La Botz, 1988: 16-17).

The revolution began initially as a struggle for power within the ruling class. In the elections of 1910 a wealthy northern landowner, Francisco Madero, challenged the aging Diaz on a platform of 'universal suffrage and no re-election'. By June, Diaz was 're-elected' and Madero in jail. He escaped, issuing a manifesto which ignited the flame of revolution by calling for land taken arbitrarily and illegally from peasants to be returned. Groups such as the PLM and those led by Pancho Villa in Chihuahua and Emiliano Zapata in Morelos all rose up against the Diaz dictatorship. In a matter of months the autocrat was driven out.

Madero became President in June 1911, dropped the land question and tried to disarm the peasants. It appeared as if an orderly succession had occurred. As Gilly noted, 'Had it not been for the Zapatists, the Mexican Revolution would have passed into history as one of many Latin American revolutions - just a few battles in early 1911, followed by the replacement of one bourgeois fraction by another.' (1983: 344).

From 1911 to the beginning of 1913 revolutionary activity was carried on exclusively by Zapata, whose manifesto, the Plan de Ayala, represented the progressive sectors of the peasant movement. It denounced Madero for betraying the revolution, demanded 'land to those who worked it', nationalisation without compensation of the property of capitalists and landowners, and the expropriation of the lands of the Catholic church. It called for the peasants to take their land, guns in hand, as part of a great revolutionary army. Madero sent the full force of the Federal Army against Zapata for 18 months.

The dispute within the ruling class resurfaced in February 1913, when Madero was assassinated in a coup organised directly by the US Ambassador. This brought Victoriano Huerta to power. The forces of Madero, now called the Constitutionalists and led by Venustiano Carranza, allied with Villa in the North and Zapata in the South and successfully defeated the Federal Army at the Battle of Zacatecas in June 1914. The high point of the revolution followed: the peasant forces of Villa and Zapata, together with anarchist workers' leaders met in Aguascalientes in October 1914, and at this great convention, elected an interim president and set up a situation of dual power between themselves, the radical petty bourgeois, and the new bourgeois state of Carranza. A third civil war in four years was in the offing. The revolutionaries occupied Mexico City in December 1914.

Despite their military power, the great peasant armies lacked the national politics and the national party to make them a force capable of ruling Mexico. Neither did the working class, despite its rapid organisation during the revolution, assert itself as an independent force able to lead the peasantry behind it. There was only a glimpse of a worker-peasant alliance, which came in September 1914, when Zapata offered Flores Magon the opportunity to publish his journal Regeneracion on the Zapatist presses in Morelos, with paper produced at a mill that had been expropriated by the Southern Liberation Army. (Gilly, 1983: 348).

The greatest tragedy of the Mexican revolution was the role of the leadership of the House of the World Worker (Casa del Obrero Mundial) at the apex of events in 1914-1915. The Casa had led many strikes under the Porfiriato, for example the great strike of copper miners at Cananea in 1906. It had also worked amongst the peasants, notably south of the capital, where its inflammatory propaganda for land blazed a trail for Zapata's movement. Yet, despite this tradition of struggle, the workers' movement lacked the kind of seasoned, coherent leadership which was to prove so necessary during the Russian revolution of 1917. Instead, the disparate elements of the PLM, and those of the anarchists, who lacked any idea of what to do with state and government, filled the breach.

The Constitutionalists exploited the anarchists' ambivalence on the state, showering the Casa with gifts (buildings, government money etc.) and allowing them to organise, even to the point of controlling a telephone company after a strike in 1915. The Casa, organising 150,000 workers at this time, obliged their mentors with 10,000 troops who formed the so-called 'Red Battalions' of the Constitutionalist Army. They played a leading role in the defeat of Villa in 1915. They also acted as useful propagandists for the bourgeois party, and became an essential prop for the emerging state.

Thus began a tradition of co-option and collaboration between unions and party-state which continues to this day, explaining both the stability of the Mexican state and the prostration of the official workers' movement. It is the most tragic legacy of the Mexican revolution.

The rise of Mexican Bonapartism

If the working class was absent as an independent factor, then neither at this point was the bourgeoisie strong enough to take control of the country. Rather it was still in the process of re-crystallising - fusing the old elements of the Diaz oligarchy with the leaders of the Constitutionalist Armies. However, within the ranks of Carranza's party, one man did understand this situation, and the remaining five years of the revolution are basically the story of his ascent to power. That man was General Alvaro Obregon.

Obregon forced Carranza to make concessions to both workers and peasants - embodied in the constitution of 1917. Article 27 set the framework for the solution of problems connected with land ownership, the crucial issue at the outbreak of the revolution. Article 123 gave workers the right to organise, strike, a guaranteed minimum wage, an eight-hour day and health and safety regulations. It was undoubtedly the most progressive labour law in the world at that time. However it also providing the structure for the new-style integration of the workers' movement into the state, in particular through the Committee of Conciliation and Arbitration, which ruled on the legality of industrial action. It was a pact whereby the state offered various reforms to the proletariat, on condition that it submitted to juridical regulation. (Gilly, 1983: 356). At the same time Obregon exploited the divisions and vacillations in the ranks of the revolutionaries, defeating the mighty Northern Division of Villa in four battles at the end of 1915. Zapata and Carranza's forces exhausted each other in further bloodshed.

Zapata was cruelly assassinated in April 1919, and Carranza too was executed the next year while attempting to remove himself and the contents of the Mexican treasury to the United States. As Gilly put it, 'Obregon rode into the capital, flanked on one side by Pablo Gonzalez, the butcher of Zapatists, and on the other by Genovevo de la O, the chief surviving leader of the Zapatist army. There could have been no more transparent symbol of the typically Bonapartist equilibrium upon which Obregon's regime would be based.' (Gilly, 1983: 353).

Trotsky, during his exile in Mexico (1937-40), defined the Mexican state as a bourgeois republic and its system of government as 'Bonapartist'. He meant a government which rested on an unstable equilibrium of classes, in which the state appeared to rise above these conflicts, but able to incorporate its leaders under its aegis. The model was Louis Bonaparte's rule in France following the 1848 revolutions.

The new government led by Obregon rested heavily on the new labour bureaucracy which had emerged out of the revolution. The spearhead was Luis Morones, a member of the Casa and an electrician, who became the general secretary of the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) at its founding, government-sponsored conference in 1918. The following year he founded the labour Party (PL) as the CROM's political arm. During the presidencies of Obregon (1920-24) and Calles (1924-28), Morones and his clique dominated the unions, and tied them hand and foot to the state. Morones was rewarded with ministerial posts, enriching himself in the process. The CROM had numerous MPs and dominated the Arbitration Committee, thus ensuring its own disputes were settled favourably whilst its rivals were not.

However, the CROM started to break up in 1928 as a result of a fight over the presidential succession. (La Botz, 1988: 52). The eventual result was the founding of the National Revolution Party (PNR) by Calles in 1929, giving the new elite their own party which was to rule for the next 71 years. Immediately the new party sought an arm in the labour movement, which coalesced around Vicente Lombardo Toledano within the CROM. Lombardo broke from the CROM in 1932 and it was his new organisation which attracted many militants and which was latched onto by the incoming President Cardenas in 1934.

The great depression destabilised the Mexican government and its relationship with workers and peasants. In 1930 Mexico had approximately 400,000 industrial workers in factories, mines and oil refineries, and from this sector came most of the unemployed, leaping from 50,000 to 300,000 by 1934. In the countryside two-thirds of the population were landless. However as the economy revived there was a resurgence of worker confidence, expressed in a strike wave. Official strikes grew from 11 in 1931 to 202 in 1934 and 674 in 1936.

In 1935, Lombardo finalised his strategy of unifying the unions behind Cardenas. He was able to do so all the more easily, in contrast to the 1920s, because the Communist Party (PCM) was full-square behind the policy of class collaboration. The Mexican Communists, under the iron heel of Stalin, were following the 'popular front' policy dictated by Moscow. Lombardo, after his visit to the USSR, emerged as the principal spokesperson for Stalin in Latin America. The treacherous role of Stalinism was essential in bringing the vanguard of the Mexican working class under the control of the state.

When the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) was founded in 1936 it had 600,000 members; within two years it had grown to 946,000; and by 1941 it reached 1.3 million members. (La Botz, 1988: 61). When Cardenas reorganised the PNR in 1938 to form the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PMR), the CTM became the major labour component of the party, where it has been ever since.

The subordination of the unions to the state was well illustrated by the fate of the petroleum workers. After the strike wave in 1935-36, a national union (STPRM) set up with 7,000 members. In May 1937 virtually the entire oil industry came out on strike, and when the companies claimed they were unable to meet the unions' demands, the CTM applied for and got a verdict from the Arbitration Committee against the employers. The case went to the Supreme Court, and against the resistance of British and American companies in 1938, Cardenas nationalised the industry. Following the decree, workers seized the oil fields and refineries to prevent sabotage, setting up 'workers' administration', while British and American imperialism orchestrated a boycott of Mexican oil. However by 1940, the government broke a series of strikes organised by petroleum workers, and intervened directly to assert its control over the industry.

Dan La Botz has succinctly drawn out the lessons of this experience. Workers' administration was only a limited form of worker participation, the industry continued as before and was never under workers' self-management. Cardenas directly intervened in the union, in a manner which anticipated the next fifty years of government policing of the labour movement, including the use of the military against strikers. Finally, 'while the expropriation of the oil industry from the British and US oil companies was a progressive step, the nationalisation of the oil companies by the Bonapartist regime, without worker control, was not progressive. The nationalisation of the oil industry, like the earlier expropriation of the railroads, was part of the creation of a state capitalist sector that would be used to subsidise the developing private sector.' (1988: 79).

Cardenas' contribution to the Mexican bourgeoisie was to create an equilibrium in which the ruling party mediated relations within the labour movement, thereby preventing any solidarity developing between different sectors. When he organised the PMR, Cardenas specifically excluded the CTM from organising peasants. Peasants were part of a separate and larger organisation, the CNC. Government employees were put into a separate federation, the FSTSE. All were brought into the ruling party, with membership of the party mandatory for union members in most cases. The same arrangement continued when the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) was formed in 1946.

Gilly's verdict is damning. '[The CTM] renounced its class independence and the fundamental task required for any further advance of the Mexican revolution: the independent organisation of a mass workers' party; and it submitted politically to the leadership of the national bourgeoisie, under the pretext that it was the latter's anti-imperialist wing which was in government.' (1987: 13).

After 1948, the PRI imposed a completely subservient union leadership, a new kind of labour bureaucracy, known as the charros. The reasons for this policy change were: 'In the global context, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, between the capitalist and Communist blocs, began in the late 1940s. At the same time, the Mexican elite was trying to establish Mexico's place in the post-war capitalist division of labour. Mexico's new industrial development policy, the substitution of imports, was predicated on a compliant workforce and low wages.' (La Botz, 1988: 85-86).

The name 'charro' came from the nickname of the railworkers general secretary who dressed like a cowboy. It meant the direct intervention of the state in union leaderships, pioneered in the rail union (STFRM) in 1947 and applied against oil workers, miners and metal workers later on. The latter, known as the Nueva strike (1950), was the final blow against independent unionism and the consolidation of the power of the CTM over labour in Mexico. Communists and other militants were driven out of the unions, and the period 1952-58 little conflict occurred. In retrospect the charros were the logical result of a process begun in 1936 with the creation of the CTM.

After 1955, GNP grew at between 8-10%, centred on manufacturing industry, and aided by foreign investment, especially from the US. As in Japan and Germany, this spectacular growth was premised on the prostration of the labour movement and the brutal exploitation of the working class. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, despite some episodic victories, such as the teachers and railworkers in 1958, the labour movement suffered a terrible period of defeat and the most savage repression. The relationship between the PRI-government and the trade union bureaucracy was essential to this form of rule, and was personified by Fidel Velasquez, who presided over the whole period of state-controlled trade unionism.

Working-class politics under the PRI regime

Throughout, a minority of activists challenged the incorporation of the unions into the government party. A vigorous debate took place in the Casa during the revolution over whether to join the 'Red Battalions', and the proposal was rejected once before finally being accepted. During the 1920s, the CROM was challenged by the General Confederation of labour (CGT) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). (La Botz, 1988: 34).

Cardenas faced a militant and independent-minded working class during the 1930s, even though it was under state tutelage. The 1936 railworkers' strike was only defeated because, faced with government interference and the threat of repression, the Communist Party persuaded the workers to run down their protest. In the same year the Electrical Workers Union (SME) shut off the power in Mexico City for 15 minutes and the following month re-established the right to strike in Mexico. The strikers showed remarkable tactical flexibility, arguing that power to private hospitals would only be restored if they gave free care to those in need, and for the milk companies if they distributed milk at cost. The union eschewed arbitration and relied on the activity of its members rather than on the government. The oil workers union (STPRM) continued to defend itself after the industry was nationalised, only beaten down by state repression.

During the terrible repression of miners and metal workers in 1950, tremendous solidarity work was done in Mexico and internationally. Of particular note were the activities of a group of women, the Coahuila Socialist Feminine Alliance, who combined support work with direct action, confronting the occupying military in Nueva Rosita. Later in the 1950s, teachers and railworkers rebelled in the most adverse conditions, but it was not until the 1960s that more serious challenges to the PRI would emerge, reflecting the economic slow-down and the more explosive international political situation.

The most important independent union to emerge outside of the PRI was the Authentic labour Front (FAT), which originated within the Catholic church. Beginning with the shoe industry in Leon, the FAT was radicalised during 1968-76, developing into a syndicalist organisation sceptical of the PRI and other political parties. The FAT made a particular impact in the auto (car) industry, and gained national prominence leading the Spicer strike in 1975. During this struggle, the employer, the government and the official unions conspired to ensure the defeat of the FAT because of its independence and militancy. (La Botz, 1988: 132).

Another challenge, on the basis of revolutionary nationalism, came from the Democratic Tendency (TD) and the related Electrical Workers' Union (STERM), led by Rafael Galvan. During 1975-76 Galvan led a series of protests, including demonstrations of over 100,000 people, including electricians, nuclear workers, university lecturers, peasants and slum dwellers. Again the movement was heavily repressed. It had tried to distinguish between the rotten charros who ruled the unions (and which they militantly opposed), and the state, which they erroneously believed was 'revolutionary'.

During the 1970s, a movement of telephone workers arose within their official union, the STRM, under the leadership of a former Maoist, Francisco Hernandez Juarez. Although remaining within the limits of official unionism, in 1976 these workers voted to remove the clause in their contract which required that as union members they belong to the PRI. Hernandez Juarez was subsequently integrated into the trade union bureaucracy, presiding over the privatisation of TELMEX, but retained a limited autonomy.

In 1979 a democratic teachers' movement emerged within the official SNTE in Chiapas and Oaxaca, developing into a caucus known as the CNTE. The CNTE has led great strikes and demonstrations. In 1989 it ousted the bureaucrat Jonguitud Barrios from the leadership of the SNTE, only to find the union led by another PRI favourite, Elba Esther Gordillo.

There are several lessons to be learned from these experiences. Firstly, the PRI-government and the state was no friend of the working class: they protected the capitalists, both Mexican and foreign, who continued to exploit the Mexican workers. Secondly, although the government-sponsored unions, such as the CROM and the CTM, might use radical rhetoric and lead strikes, they existed to fight other unions and to bring workers into the labour organisations loyal to the PRI. Thirdly, the left, divided into several different organisations, was unable to provide the Mexican working class with the leadership it needed to defend itself against employers and the government. (La Botz, 1988: 46).

It was not only on the economic front of class struggle that the Mexican working class showed its independence. Politically, the founding of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) in 1919 as a revolutionary socialist organisation was an event of major significance. Although never the dominant force in the labour movement, or even on the left, where anarchism still held sway, it nevertheless led numerous strikes and blazed the trail of communist propaganda before it was consumed by Stalinism in the late twenties. Of particular note was its paper, El Machete, illustrated with the drawings of some of the great Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera, who were attracted to its ranks. However, as the Mexican writer Jose Revueltas explained in 1961, in his 'Essay about a Proletariat without a Head', a party of the vanguard of the working class, a truly independent party of the proletariat, did not exist for a whole period after the twenties.

Revueltas threw down a challenge for subsequent generations of Marxists to create such a party. The only attempt to do so subsequently was the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT), between 1976 and 1992. The PRT emerged out of small groups such as the LOM (1961-67) and the GCI (1968-75) which were linked to the USFI tradition of Trotskyism led by Ernest Mandel. Allowed to register as part of the government 'opening', it supported Rosario Ibarra for president in 1982 and in 1988. Between 1985-88 it had six senators, and claimed a membership of over 3000, managing to regroup other socialist currents within one organisation. The PRT played a leading role in protests after the 1985 earthquake, in the Ford Cuautitlan strike in 1989-90, and in organising land invasions as part of the OGOCP (workers' and peasants' union).

However in 1988 the party failed for a third time to reach the crucial 1.5% threshold of the vote (undoubtedly due to fraud) and thus lost its civil registration, a major source of revenue and profile. Although it competed in the 1991 election as the Socialist Electoral Front (FES), it had already lost ground to the PRD and a year later it split. In 1988 a group known as the MAS around Adolfo Gilly, the celebrated historian of the Mexican revolution, broke from the PRT to join the PRD. According to leading figures in the PRT, even some of its own members voted for Cardenas in 1988. Clearly the rise of neo-Cardenism, with the son adopting the 'revolutionary nationalist' cloak of his father, disorientated the PRT. Before 1991 it correctly characterised the PRD as 'bourgeois-democratic party', neither independent of the capitalist class nor the state, and certainly not a working class party. The PRT was nevertheless taken by surprise by the development of the PRD, having for years expected (quite rationally) that opposition to the PRI would emerge first from the trade union bureaucracy. For a time it took refuge in its peasant work, yet sections of the party, led by Margarita Montes went over to the government.

Any explanation for the collapse of the PRT in the 1990s has to include the international political situation, in particular the collapse of Stalinism. The USFI had characterised the USSR and other Stalinist states as 'workers' states', however deformed, and certainly 'post-capitalist' and therefore somehow progressive. This certainly coloured their hemispheric views on Cuba and on Nicaragua, which itself suffered a setback in 1990. The USFI was therefore left apparently celebrating the end of Stalinism with a theory that told them it was a defeat.

On the other side, in line with its mangled version of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, the USFI continued to characterise most of the world as 'semi-colonies' in which the bourgeois revolution had never been (or could be) completed. It insisted that at best countries like Mexico had had only 'semi-industrial' development. Hence a certain softness towards 'revolutionary nationalism'. Yet already by 1960, 50% of Mexico was urbanised (with more than 20% of the population living in the capital alone). The figure reached 75% by the 1990s. Mexico was industrialised - although at great human cost - and could not be taken forward to a better form of industrialisation by adopting variants of the statist, autarkic, nationalist policies of Stalinism. Fundamental weaknesses, in the analysis of Stalinism and of the post-war development of capitalism, lay at the root of the disorientation of the PRT.


Today the official unions are in great crisis. A decade ago, the Congress of Labour (CT) claimed to represent 11 million workers. Today government figures put its membership at 1.5 million. The CTM, which once claimed 5.5 million members, today has officially 493,700 members, while unionised public employees amount to 1.7 million. The independent National Union of Workers (UNT) has officially 300,000 members (although it claims to represent over one million). Adding these figures together means that Mexico has 3.5 million organised workers out of a total of 39.5 million in the economically active population, i.e. less than 10% union density. (La Botz, 2000b).

Nevertheless there are some promising developments. The Electrical Workers' Union (SME) won a tremendous victory against privatisation in 1999. The SME have put themselves forward as the centre of a new alliance of unions and social movements, and represent the most hopeful sign on the political horizon. Also, the growth of the National Union of Workers (UNT) as an independent trade union centre is very encouraging, particularly as it ceases to be a satellite of the larger, official federations.

The UNT was politically divided during the election: the leader of its biggest union, the National Union of Social Security Workers (SNTSS) with 350,000 members supported the PRI, whereas the leader of the UNAM lecturers' union (STUNAM) supported the PRD. Yet just months before the national election campaign began, Hernandez Juarez and other UNT leaders created a parallel political organisation, the Social Movement of Workers (MST). According to Dan La Botz, 'at the time it was founded, it appeared that the MST might become a sort of labour party. But in fact the MST has played little or no role in the election process.' (2000b). Nevertheless, the demand to strike out independently on the political as well as the economic front would represent a qualitative step forward for the working class, and is certainly a demand around which Mexican socialists can organise.

Fox's election also creates a certain urgency which might well unite the official and the independent unions. Both fear that Fox and the PAN will put forward legislation to destroy labour unions, demolish the social safety net, and make the working class pay for Mexico's economic problems. (La Botz, 2000d). The UNT has already called for a united front to defend the interests of Mexican workers, despite Fox's promise not to privatise the petroleum and electrical industries.

Among the revolutionary socialists, there is still a long way to go to connect up with the workers' movement. Nevertheless the founding the Liga de las Unidad Socialista (LUS) in 1996, by elements of the old PRT, and the publication of its paper Umbral (Dawn), represent an important step. The group faces a long, hard struggle to evaluate the lessons of the last century, and in particular the role of the left in shaping its own defeat. Socialists internationally have much to learn from the Mexican experience, and should stand ready to help our Mexican comrades in their own work.

The crucial lessons from the history of twentieth century Mexico are the centrality of the ideological front of the class struggle in determining all else, and the necessity of independent working class politics. Confusion over nationalism, Stalinism, permanent revolution and Cardenism has prostrated the heroic struggles of countless millions of workers and peasants. The mis-leadership of the 'revolutionaries' has been instrumental in this. The answer for socialists in the present is to cleanse their own programme of the 'muck of ages', and rearm themselves politically and ideologically. As Dan La Botz has pointed out, 'if the labour left is to be successful in freeing the Mexican labour movement from the state, it will also have to free itself from the ideology of revolutionary nationalism and from the myth of Lazaro Cardenas.' (1988: 11).

It also lies in a persistent orientation to the working class, a concern with day to day struggles to build up the unions, to wage the class struggle on the economic front, as well as in independent electoral interventions and solidarity campaigns. Since the 1950s the left has been largely separate from the working class, and had a mainly middle-class complexion. Connecting the socialist project with the class movement is no easy business, but it is an absolute necessity.


By far the best source on contemporary Mexico is Mexico Labor News and Analysis, which can be contacted at:; and on the web at:

I have also drawn extensively on La Botz's books and articles on Mexico.

Bartra, Roger (1993), Agrarian Structure and Political Power in Mexico, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gellert, Peter (2000),'Ruling Party's Historic Defeat in Mexico Vote Changes Political Panorama', Mexico Labor News and Analysis, Vol 5, No 4 (July).

Gilly, Adolfo (1983), The Mexican Revolution, London: Verso.

Gilly, Adolfo (1987), 'Obregonism and Cardenism in Mexico 1920-1940', in Lowy (ed), Populism in Latin America, Amsterdam: IIRE.

La Botz, Dan (1988), The Crisis of Mexican Labor, New York: Praeger.

La Botz, Dan (1992), Mask of Democracy, Montreal: Black Rose Books.

La Botz, Dan (1995), Democracy in Mexico, Boston: South end Press.

La Botz, Dan (1996), 'Mexico: Insurrection and Disintegration', Against the Current 65, November/December.

La Botz, Dan (2000a), 'The Mexican labour year in Review: 1999', Mexico Labor News and Analysis, Vol 5, No 1 (January).

La Botz, Dan (2000b), 'How the mighty have Fallen: CT and CTM: Official Federations in Decline', Mexico Labor News and Analysis, Vol 5, No 3 (March)

La Botz, Dan (2000c), 'Vicente Fox Wins Mexican Presidency: Victory for Democracy or Neo-liberalism?', Mexico Labor News and Analysis, Vol 5, No 4 (July).

La Botz, Dan (2000d), 'Vicente With Fox's Election, Mexican labour Faces Greatest Crisis in 65 Years', Mexico Labor News and Analysis, Vol 5, No 5 (August).

Revueltas, Jose (1980), 'Ensayo sobre un proletariado sin cabeza', Obras completas 17, Editiones Era.

Velasco, Pablo (1994), 'The Tragedy of the Mexican Revolution', Socialist Organiser No. 589, 17 February 1994.

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