Mexico Under Siege Review

If you don’t have existing material why not start with what you already have? Below is a review I wrote for a class. The book, “Mexico Under Siege,” is a sort of unfolding of the left after the 1910 revolution and is what moved me to pick up Mexican and Latin American history and left movements for about two years.

-Adam W. 

Between Revolution and Perfect Dictatorship:Hodges and Gandy’s Narrative of the Mexican Left and Social Movements

 

Donald Hodges and Ross Gandy,  Mexico Under Siege, Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism. New York: Zed Books, 2002. 

 “What happened at this finca now was exactly the same as occurred later throughout the whole Republic: the peons, accustomed for years to masters, tyrants, oppressors, and dictators, were not in truth liberated… They remained slaves, with the single difference that their masters had changed, that mounted revolutionary leaders were now the wealthy.” 

-B. Traven, General from the Jungle (1939)

The Mexican Revolution brought forth one of the most powerful and far reaching social revolutions in the twentieth century. But after only two decades, the era quickly came to an close as the nationalist-populist social pact between worker movements and the state dissolved, paving the way for one of the longest periods of single party rule in twentieth century.  Marking this point is the consolidation of power by the conservative wing of the PRI (then the PNR or National Revolutionary Party) with the installation of the Camacho Presidency in 1940. Beginning at this period of juncture is Donald Hodges and Ross Gandy’s narrative of the major players and important themes of the popular resistance movements that followed in their work Mexico Under Siege, Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism.

Hodges and Gandy open their work through the life of Mexican anarchist novelist and German émigré, B. Traven who arrived in Mexico in 1924. His classic work, Rebellion of the Hanged, not only foreshadowed the Zapatista movement three quarters of a century later, but one of the first, though if veiled, criticism of the growing Neo-Porfiriato of the populist regime of the PRI mid 1920’s.

The goal of the authors throughout the work is to provide a broad overview of the major movements and figures of the resistance, to give analysis of thematic concepts across these movements and finally to examine the failure of the resistance movements to dislodge the authoritarian rule of the Mexican state dominated by the PRI; also called the, “perfect dictatorship.”[1] The work is divided into an introductionary opening, followed by thirteen chronological-thematic chapters each discussing a movement or particular period and closes with analysis of the left parties and a discussion of the authors analysis of the reasons of failure for the resistance movement.

 

 The overarching themes Hodges and Gandy attempt to draw together are seeing the resistance movement as a continuation of the 1910 revolution and looking at the interplay and continuity of the movements themselves. They classify the resistance as “broadly populist – a mixture of revolutionary nationalism and democratic socialism dissociated from Marxism … [but] beneath this loose popular ideology a hard revolutionary core.”[2] The authors present an excellent overview of such within the work’s short 268 pages, concluding, “If the resistance failed, it was because the popular forces were too weak and divided to impose their own programs on the divided nation.”[3] 

To bring understanding to the narrative the authors helpfully layout a number of useful concepts, some unique to the Mexican left, including caudilloism (or leaderism),  charros (corrupt union officials), lombardismo (akin to Browderism in CP-USA and a predecessor to Eurocommunism) and others.

An exceptional point of analysis raised in this work (along with many of their previous collaborations) is the rise of the so-called, “fourth governing class.” Borrowing from Russian anarchist Bakunin, the iconoclastic contemporary of Marx, the authors assert that the Revolution was usurped not by the bourgeoisie, but first by a revolutionary bureaucratic political class which came to control the state and later, with the opening created by the ousting of the PRI, a bureaucratic class of professionals, experts, technocrats, which they call “bureaupreneurs.” [4]

An important and unanswered question raised when approaching the work is found in the eminent history of the Mexican communist movement, Marxism and Communism in Twenty-first Century Mexico by Bary Carr. As a key source cited several times throughout the work, it relates to a running assertions of the PCM’s (Mexican Communist Party) role as an incubator of many of the key resistance leaders. Hodges and Gandy though do not address adequately two important themes of Carr; which are that largely, the Marxist parties of Mexico made themselves willing and eager appendages of the ruling party and their embrace of a technocratic obsession with the development of the economy, which Carr calls the ‘Frensi of Development.’[5] According to Carr’s account these themes debilitated the PCM, and many of the other parties on the left consequently, ability to function independently in action and analysis. Often in practice, shows Carr, the parties functioned as a loyal opposition for the PRI and their technocratic policies.  

Hodges and Gandy discuss this in chapter 15 on the Core Parties of the Resistance, though they do not work to draw links to these discussions of positions and ideology on the left to the social movements and figures previously discussed. While many important social movement leaders acted independently of the PCM (often as former or expelled members such as the case of Vallentin Campa, or in maverick fashion inside the PCM), if the authors assertion on the role of the PCM is to be taken seriously, it raises more questions than answers. While Hodges and Gandy personally interviewed several of these key figures as part of their research for the work, speaking to likely a richer analysis than Carr’s detailed, yet detached archival study approach, it still leaves one to wonder about the interplay between Carr’s themes and Hodges and Gandy’s narrative. In their larger discussion around ‘why the resistance failed?’ it leaves much to be desired.

As a sequel to their previous Mexico 1910-1982: Reform or Revolution? (London: Zed Press, 1983), which was written with decent analysis though with much the feel of a Marxist polemical tract with all the appropriate homage to the bearded man himself, readers will find this work a far easier and more enjoyable read. The general reader will receive a concise survey of the Mexican left leading up to the present, though may be intimidated if not familiar with studies of social movement and the left generally. The more specialized reader may take issue with their analysis at different points, but should enjoy the extensive use of Spanish language sources, including the use of leftist documents and publications gathered through their five years of field work. Especially unique to their piece are numerous interviews conducted with several important figures discussed throughout the text.

Mexico Under Siege is an rewarding and concise overview for any reader interested in the Mexican left and without parallel by any other work. I would side with criticisms that the overall focus on the leadership of the resistance with little examination of the formation, character and consciousness of the popular classes lends itself to the “tendency to diminish the political subjectivity of the very people the opposition claims to represent,”[6] and that the work leaves questions unanswered around Carr’s discussed themes. But overall Hodges and Gandy’s work is an important narrative laced with insightful analysis by two authors well versed in the topic which I would recommend to all interested students of Mexican left and revolutionary politics.   

[1] William Canak and Laura Swanson, Modern Mexico (New York: McGraw Hill, 1998), p. 23. Mario Vargas Llosa made this comment at a televised conference in Mexico City in September, 1990. 

[2] Donald Hodges and Ross Gandy Mexico Under Siege, Resistance to Presidential Despotism (New York: Zed Books, 2002), p. xxi.

[3] Ibdid, p. 1.

[4] Ibid, p. 242.

[5] Barry Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp. 47 and 142.

[6] Chuck Morse, “Mexico Insurgent” review of Mexico Under Siege, Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism by Donald Hodges and Ross Gandy, and Homage to Chiapas: The New Struggles in Mexico by Bill Weinberg. New Formulations, Vol. 2, No. 1 (February 2003), p. 5.


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