The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 47 (Summer 1994).

The Chiapas Uprising
and the Mexican Revolution

On January 1 the United States imperialists and their Mexican junior partners were celebrating the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The capitalists proclaimed the global triumph of the “free market” over the working-class struggle to defend itself against their assaults of privatization, growing unemployment, wage cuts and violence. Now, the imperialists and their local client bourgeoisies figured, we can beat up on the workers and peasants unopposed.

That same New Year’s Day saw the imperialists self-congratulatory smugness explode in their faces. With careful timing and preparation, thousands of Indian peasants rose up and took over the main cities of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state. Under the banner of the then little-known Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), they held the cities for several days, armed with a few old rifles and pistols, knives and clubs – against the tanks, artillery and bomber airplanes of the Mexican Army. The whole world saw their valiant struggle against poverty and oppression.

The link between NAFTA and the Chiapas uprising was no accident. The sole public EZLN leader, “Subcomandante Marcos,” declared that “The free-trade agreement is a death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico....” The Chiapas rebellion was a reminder that the real meaning of NAFTA was to dismantle the few remaining gains of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.

As we noted in PR 42, NAFTA’s chief purpose was to permanently undo Mexico’s traditional nationalist protectionism. From the point of view of Mexican capital, both indigenous and U.S.-owned, it aimed to extend the cheap-labor, tariff-free, border-industry maquiladora program to all of Mexico. NAFTA is also meant to guarantee that future Mexican regimes will continue the “liberal” pro-imperialist program of President Salinas. It represents a sharp attack on the living standards of Mexican workers by subordinating them more directly to imperialist capital.

Mexican and Russian Revolutions

In contrast to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that created the Soviet workers’ state, the Mexican Revolution was a negative proof of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Like its Russian counterpart, the Mexican bourgeoisie was a weak class unable to carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution and develop Mexican capitalism. Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s economy was completely dominated by foreign imperialists.

As a result, the leading role in the Revolution was played by the workers and peasants who rose up in rebellion against foreign domination and centuries of oppression. Because of the heroic mass struggle, the Revolution led to a number of gains, including the distribution of land to the peasants and the reduction of imperialist economic domination.

However, in the absence of a revolutionary party of the working class that could carry out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic struggle through the socialist revolution, Mexico failed to overcome its backward capitalist legacy and complete the break with imperialist domination.

Since the Revolution, the Mexican bourgeoisie has sought to free itself from its weak position towards both the U.S. and its own workers and peasants. During the 1930’s, Lazaro Cárdenas carried out a series of reforms and re-organized the ruling party to incorporate the trade unions and peasant organizations into the party and state apparatus.

Gains like trade union rights came with a high price, the loss of working-class independence from the capitalist state. For example, under new labor laws workers were allowed to form unions and strike, but the government retained the right to decide whether to declare strikes legal or illegal. Such laws allowed Cárdenas to play a Bonapartist role, acting as power broker of the class struggle.

During the early period of his rule, Cárdenas permitted strikes and attempted to coopt the mass struggles to use as a stick to discipline local caudillos and landowners in order to concentrate power in the hands of the state. Given the weakness of the Mexican bourgeoisie, state intervention in the economy was necessary for Mexican capitalism to develop without direct foreign domination.

However, by the late 1930’s, with the ruling party firmly entrenched in power and the Revolution “institutionalized,” Cárdenas began putting the brakes on the strike movement and peasant struggles.

Cárdenas used the pressure of the masses as a weapon against the imperialists – in order to carry out his strategy of strengthening the Mexican bourgeoisie through economic nationalism and protectionism. When massive worker and peasant mobilizations threatened to seize the imperialist-run oil industry, Cárdenas made a preemptive strike, nationalizing foreign oil holdings. While this was a victory over imperialism, the gains that resulted from the mass mobilizations were turned against the masses. Workers were told that since the nationalized industries belonged to the Mexican people, they must sacrifice for the good of the nation.

Since the 1940’s, the ruling PRI has relied on nationalism and its tight control of the mass organizations of workers and peasants to maintain its one-party regime. Nevertheless, Mexico continues to be a fragile capitalism dependent on U.S. imperialism. Unable to develop Mexico’s productive forces, the capitalists have led the nation into an abyss of poverty and debt. Each day starving peasants flee the countryside only to find cities without jobs or hope. Without the safety valve of migration to the U.S., Mexico would have exploded long ago.

Faced with a huge foreign debt, the bourgeoisie has returned to the pre-revolutionary period’s open embrace of imperialism. Mexico is one big fire sale, with foreign capitalists invited in to take over the economy. Under IMF-dictated terms, Mexico began selling off state-owned industries, breaking up the collective ejido farms, changing laws to permit more foreign investment and eliminating social programs.

Despite these efforts, the ruling class has been unable to escape the legacy of the Revolution. The Chiapas rebellion is a warning that the workers and peasants will fight to defend the remaining gains of their past struggles, limted though they are.

At the same time, the Chiapas uprising has global significance, given the internationalization of the debt crisis. As capitalism attacks the working class in country after country to resolve its debt crisis at the expense of the masses, its vulnerability to mass explosions grows ever greater.

Mexico’s Elections

The Chiapas events sent Mexico into a serious political crisis. In response to the brutal repression of the insurgent peasants, including the bombing of cities, towns, and villages and the summary execution of captured rebels, massive demonstrations of workers and students rocked Mexico City. Two months after Chiapas, PRI presidential candidate Donaldo Colosio was assassinated under circumstances hinting at a conspiracy involving police officials.

As Mexico’s workers and peasants turn on the ruling PRI, the bourgeoisie calls in the reserve troops of Mexican capital, the pro-capitalist left. The latter comes already assembled in different regiments – radical Catholic, Stalinist, even the “Trotskyists” of the Workers Revolutionary Party (PRT; there are now three organizations using that name) – the better to mislead and disarm the masses. They all employ the same basic ideological weaponry: constant artillery barrages about “democracy” with little or no mention of socialism. And they are all forming ranks behind one general, Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, presidential candidate of the openly bourgeois Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), which split from the PRI before the outrageously fraudulent elections of 1988.

Cárdenas, the son of Lazaro Cárdenas, comes nowhere near the radicalism even of his father. Until six years ago he was part of the anti-working class PRI leadership, and his program represents the section of the Mexican bourgeoisie who want to return to PRI’s old policies of economic nationalism. In order to win some mass support to counter imperialist pressure, bourgeois nationalists offer to throw a few welfare state sops to the workers and peasants.

However, when the masses rise up and threaten capitalist property and the state, Cárdenas and the PRD run for cover behind the army. Though he mumbled some words of sympathy with the EZLN, at the time of the uprising he condemned “violence, wherever it comes from” and attacked the EZLN for killing soldiers. PRD legislators signed a joint declaration with PRI and the conservative bourgeois National Action Party (PAN) members against the breaking of “the legal order in the state of Chiapas.”

For anyone who claims to stand for the working class’s interests to give any support whatever to the bourgeois PRD is shameful and treasonous. But Mexico’s left is not alone in this regard. In El Salvador, South Africa, and Brazil, the “far left” pursues similiar electoralist strategies. In each case, phony socialists argue that the struggle for socialism is not on the agenda, so the masses should support the reformist bourgeois nationalists. The disastrous lessons of this approach were taught in blood in Chile twenty years ago.

Those who delay the fight for socialism in order first to get democracy will get neither. Capitalism can hardly afford democracy, especially in the neo-colonial countries. Only a working-class-led socialist revolution offers any solution to the crisis of Mexican and international capitalism.

Revolutionaries defend the struggle of the peasants in the EZLN against Mexican capitalism. But the EZLN fighters are following radical middle-class, not revolutionary working-class, leadership. As a peasant movement they cannot overthrow the capitalist order. Only the urban working class has the cohesion and power over the means of production to seize power and reconstruct society on a socialist basis. A classic example of the need for revolutionary proletarian leadership was the Mexican Revolution: then the peasant based armies of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa captured political power and then handed it back. Mexican workers fought in the Revolution but lacked a party with an independent class program to fight for leadership.

The EZLN has a distorted understanding of this. They wisely hold on to their arms and military organization but they have the dangerous illusion that they can successfully pressure the PRI and the bourgeois state for significant concessions. They point to the failed revolutions in Latin America as evidence that their aim ought not be the revolutionary seizure of power. They want “socialism like the Cubans have, only better.”

Indeed, the revolutions in Latin America failed to bring prosperity to the masses and to build economies independent of imperialism. The peasants and workers of Mexico do need better than Cuba, for Cuba is not and never was socialist. As we explained in Cuba Faces U.S. Threat: “Socialism in One Country” No Answer (PR 39), the workers never took state power. Pressured by the masses to deliver concessions and by the U.S. imperialists to keep letting them loot the country, the middle-class guerrilla rulers carried out far-reaching nationalizations. They attempted to maximize production in state industry and agriculture and retain profits in the hands of the state bureaucracy. This was Stalinist statified capitalism.

The attempt to duck the world market while building “socialism” in isolation failed: modern production is worldwide, and any attempt to cut a country off from the world market sooner or later leads to breakdown, with increased privation and misery for the masses. Today, the Castroite rulers invite the imperialists back in with the promise of all kinds of concessions paid for by exploitation and oppression of the Cuban masses.

Chiapas signals the coming Mexican socialist revolution. There is no return to the welfare state and economic nationalist Mexico of the past. The attempts by Cárdenas and the phony left to derail the mass struggles into the hopeless avenues of reformism will spell doom, as capitalism sinks into further crisis. In saluting the revolutionary heroism of the Chiapas Indian peasants, we must rededicate ourselves to the historical task of the revolutionary working class: the building of the workers’ international to lead all the exploited and oppressed in the fight to create a new world.