The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 79 (Winter 2007).

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Mexico: Lessons of 2006

Mexico in 2006 was rocked by an explosion of mass struggles, triggered by decades of capitalist austerity attacks that have devastated the living standards of the country’s workers, peasants and indigenous people.

The upsurge began with a wave of strikes by miners and metal workers in the spring. In July, blatant electoral fraud in the presidential election gave victory to the openly pro-imperialist Felipe Calderón over the populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Massive protests took place in Mexico City: millions marched demanding justice, and a huge tent city was set up in the central square during all of August and half of September. The extraordinary mass movement compelled López Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to convoke a “National Democratic Convention” on September 16, which declared him the legitimate president.

The wave of struggle reached its political peak in the impoverished state of Oaxaca. A strike by tens of thousands of teachers in May and a government counterattack in June triggered a mass uprising that seized control of the city of Oaxaca for months.

However, the movement was not prepared for the repression that hit. The military cracked down on Oaxaca on November 25: six supporters of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) were killed and over 150 arrested. State and federal forces have killed at least 20 people over the course of the struggle, and over 30 more have been “disappeared” – abducted or killed. Six days after the crackdown, Calderón took power December 1, and one of his first acts was to arrest on sedition charges Flavio Sosa, a top APPO leader and former head of the PRD in Oaxaca.

The killings and arrests in Oaxaca, along with the imposition of the Calderón government, are bitter setbacks. Nevertheless, the new government’s weakness was apparent at Calderón’s inauguration. In addition to thousands protesting outside, brawling between PRD legislators and those of Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) forced Calderón himself to sneak in the back door of the Legislative Palace.

Across Mexico, labor struggles by industrial unions such as the miners and the sugar mill workers have continued. So have the struggles of indigenous peoples, such as the Mazahua women who occupied and shut down the plant that supplies water to a quarter of Mexico City in December to demand water, electricity, and roads for their villages. In Oaxaca, APPO has held further mass marches in December, despite the government’s repression.

Another wave of mass struggle is sure to break out in response to the even harsher economic attacks that Calderón is preparing. Calderón’s announcement of 10 percent salary cuts for himself and other top officials is just a cover for the austerity his government plans to implement to satisfy the demands of its imperialist financiers in the United States. Calderón informed a leading group of private capitalists that there will be difficult political and economic times ahead and that he will have to take “measures that can be classified as unpopular.”

Bourgeois Populism vs. Workers’ Revolution

Just as the leaders of the capitalist class and state are preparing to carry out fresh attacks, so the most class-conscious vanguard of the working class must prepare to lead the struggle against them. It is urgently necessary to learn the lessons of 2006. The hated government was so weak in September that outgoing president Vicente Fox did not dare to deliver his State of the Union address or to show his face in Mexico City for Independence Day. How then did it get away with the murderous assault on Oaxaca and the imposition of Calderón by the end of November?

The missing factor was a revolutionary working-class leadership that would fight for a national struggle by workers and peasants across the country. The high point of working-class struggle was achieved in Oaxaca. But when it was threatened by a head-on federal attack, López Obrador – the most powerful national figure who many workers and peasants looked to for leadership – refused to mobilize nationally or even to send contingents from the capital to Oaxaca. He was pushed to call a national convention, but he and the PRD disbanded the protest camp in Mexico City and did not organize any more mass actions even close to the scale of the earlier protests. The Oaxaca militants paid in blood for his treachery.

Why did López Obrador hold back the mass struggle even at the cost of his own chances of coming to power? The answer is that his and the PRD’s claims to represent the interests of the masses are lies. The PRD is not a party of the working class: it is a capitalist party dominated by former elements of the old authoritarian regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who favor granting more concessions to the masses in order to avoid struggles that threaten the system.

López Obrador and the PRD misled the working class with populism – rhetorically championing the poor within the bounds of a nationalist perspective that ties them to the ruling class and guards the fundamental interests of capitalism. This was summed up in his main campaign slogan: “For the good of all, the poor first.” But the interests of the masses cannot be reconciled with those of the capitalists and imperialism; maintaining unity with the ruling class can only come at the expense of the masses’ demands and struggles. Thus López Obrador rallied millions into the streets to fight for his political power, but when those struggles threatened to grow into a confrontation with state power, he preferred to see the struggle disbanded and Calderón take office. In the absence of a revolutionary leadership able to show the way forward, the mass struggle was beaten back.

Revolutionary Marxists oppose populism and fight against the danger of populist illusions among the working class. As long as it is tied to López Obrador, the working class will not be able to fight for its true interests against its capitalist class enemy. That is why the central task of class-conscious workers must be to build their class’s vanguard revolutionary party, dedicated to leading all the masses’ struggles forward to workers’ socialist revolution in Mexico and around the world. Toward this end, revolutionaries must participate actively in all mass actions that mobilize workers in struggle, to fight for the interests of the working class and expose López Obrador and the PRD’s pro-capitalist populist program. The PRD’s grip on leadership holds back the struggle of the masses and must be broken.

Oaxaca and the National Struggle

The events in Oaxaca show the potential for mass struggles to break from the grip of the PRD. The teachers’ union’s pro-PRD leadership saw the strike as part of López Obrador’s electoral campaign. In addition to raising demands to improve teachers’ wages and working conditions, it also called for raising the state’s minimum wage; thus it drew wide popular support. When the state government sent thousands of police to attack the teachers’ occupation of a large part of downtown Oaxaca in June, the masses responded with a fury. The police were driven out and two days later, a march of over 300,000 people – well over half the city’s population – showed the struggle’s overwhelming support.

With the struggle having grown way beyond the teachers’ union, organizations supporting the struggle met the day after the march and launched APPO as a new mass organization. APPO and the teachers’ union then organized control of the city, setting up barricades, occupying government buildings and taking over several radio and television stations. The central demand now became political: the ouster of the repressive state governor, Ulises Ruiz. But APPO’s program did not call for a working-class alternative to the hated governor.

As time dragged on and the struggle failed to spread nationally, a government counterattack became inevitable. It need not have been this way. The leaders of the teachers’ union, as well as the leadership of APPO, played their role in the defeat of the Oaxaca struggle. They attempted to end the struggle with rotten compromises, but were rebuffed by the ranks. The APPO leadership in particular promoted a pacifist approach that left the masses unprepared for the government’s armed assault.

But the fate of Oaxaca was ultimately determined in Mexico City, where the struggle remained under the control of the PRD. The masses mistakenly thought that the PRD represented opposition to the capitalist attacks and saw the electoral fraud as cheating them of their victory. Their democratic right to have their votes counted and the result honored, even though they mistakenly wanted a capitalist candidate, had to be defended. Their illusions in López Obrador and the PRD, and indeed all their illusions that their interests could be secured without overthrowing the capitalist system, had to be exposed in the only way possible – on the basis of the masses’ own experience of struggle, along with explanations and warnings from revolutionaries.

The Need for a National General Strike

Had a genuinely revolutionary communist party existed in Mexico it would have energetically participated in the huge campaign of protests against the electoral fraud, without giving an ounce of support to the bourgeois PRD (just as it would have opposed any support to the PRD in the election itself). It would have joined in the mass opposition to the electoral fraud and the struggle to bring down the Fox government and to prevent Calderón from taking office. It would have fought for the best way to unite the struggle to win its aims by calling for a National General Strike under the key slogans “Down With Fox/ Calderón!” and “Defend Oaxaca!”

The struggle to bring down the Fox government and prevent Calderón from taking office would have obviously raised the question of who would replace them. The masses would have presumed, and desired, López Obrador. Revolutionaries would have argued against giving him and the PRD any support whatever. Instead, it would have been necessary to treat the struggle as open-ended, with the PRD’s ascension to power not a foregone conclusion. Since the PRD would do all it could to avoid coming to power by means of mass action, it could have been exposed in the masses’ eyes in the course of the struggle. On this basis the fight could have advanced beyond support for the PRD, had there been a leadership in place capable of taking it forward.

Revolutionaries would have called for building workers’, peasants’ and indigenous councils to best organize and lead the struggle, arguing for them to become organizations of alternate power, like the soviets of the Russian revolution, vying with the capitalist state to run the country. This was, after all, clearly the dynamic of the struggle in Oaxaca, which went well beyond the limits the PRD wished to contain it within. Thus revolutionaries would have coupled their calls for a national general strike under the slogan “Down With Fox/Calderón!” with the slogan “For Workers’, Peasants’ and Indigenous Peoples’ Power!”

A national general strike was key for mobilizing the working class’s power – to cut off the capitalists’ profits. Revolutionaries would have fought for the general strike to take up the masses’ key economic demands as well, such as “Down with the Abascal Project” (the government’s proposed anti-working class labor law reforms), “Down with NAFTA and the Plan Puebla Panama” (imperialist free-trade agreements), and demands for wage raises, jobs and social services.

Revolutionaries would have fought for every union to join the national general strike. Even though most of Mexico’s unions are PRI-dominated corporatist unions, there was great potential for calls for a general strike to win widespread support in their ranks. Many workers in such unions already hate the PRI. The Fox government’s anti-working class attacks, and the workers’ desire to fight them, have already driven some pro-PRI union leaders, like miners’ union leader Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, to break from their former role as pro-government loyalists and ally with pro-PRD union leaders to oppose the labor law attacks.

Struggles by other unions also held the potential to break from the corporatist stranglehold of the PRI. In particular, 45,000 sugar mill workers (a huge industry in Mexico) launched a nationwide strike on November 16 for wage and pension demands, only to have their strike suspended eight days later by the pro-PRI bureaucracy – which promised to start the strike again on January 20 (conveniently after Calderón’s inauguration) if their demands were not met by then.

Marxists understand that the organized industrial working class is strategically central to the struggle against capitalism. But the pro-capitalist bureaucrats at the head of the industrial unions – whether they have corporatist ties to the institutions of the state, political ties to the PRD, or are formally independent – are all loyal servants of the capitalist class. It is an absolute crime against the working class that, at the same time that Oaxaca was under military attack in November, the bureaucratic leaders of the unions did nothing to link their struggles to the defense of Oaxaca. A national general strike would have overcome the isolation and division of struggles which weakens all workers’ struggles. Fighting within the industrial unions for a national general strike would also have necessarily meant fighting for revolutionary leadership of the unions to replace the treacherous existing leadership.

As for the PRD, the protest marches and tent camp it promoted were designed precisely to avoid massive action and to end the struggle if it went too far. Revolutionaries would have demanded support for a national strike from all the masses’ popular leaders, including López Obrador and the PRD. But we would have openly warned that these bourgeois leaders would rather not take power than risk mobilizing the masses in a way that would threaten capitalist state power.

Importantly, the example of Oaxaca and countless other struggles in Mexico confirms the threat of violent counterattacks by the capitalist state in the face of mass struggles. Indeed the entire history of the class struggle teaches the fundamental lesson that the working class must arm itself to defend against the armed repression of the class enemy. Thus revolutionaries will spread the call for every popular organization to form self-defense squads. In the course of a national general strike, such defense squads would need to link up and become coordinated as a nationwide workers’ militia. Such an armed force would hold the potential to become the backbone of a future workers’ state.

Opportunism and Sectarianism

There are many Mexican organizations that label themselves revolutionary socialist. Unfortunately, most of them express a cynical lack of confidence in the working class’s power and its ability to learn in the course of its struggles; thus the only possible outcome they could see was to place the PRD in power. Many “Trotskyist” groups have adopted a policy of class-collaborationist opportunism that would send the great Russian revolutionary Trotsky spinning in his grave.

For example, El Militante (The Militant), the Mexican section of the International Marxist Tendency and one of the largest organizations in Mexico calling itself Trotskyist, not only called for the election of the bourgeois candidate López Obrador; they constitute a tendency inside the PRD itself.

Overt capitulation to the bourgeois PRD is the most obvious problem in the Mexican left. But the most advanced workers’ search for working-class independence and revolution is not helped by groups that proclaim class independence but indirectly capitulate to the political dominance of the PRD through a sectarian methodology toward the struggle. A case in point is the Grupo Internacionalista (GI), affiliated with the Internationalist Group (IG) in New York. Under the guise of avoiding political support for the PRD, the GI completely opposed the mass protests of millions against the election fraud, saying that the mass strike and uprising in Oaxaca and the mass protests in Mexico City were “counterposed quantities,” the latter being nothing more than “political rallies” for the electoral campaign of López Obrador and the PRD. (See the Oct. 7 article, “GEM: Caboose of the Mexican Popular Front” and the Nov. 10 article, “Oaxaca Is Burning: Showdown in Mexico,” on the IG’s website for these and subsequent quotations.)

The GI/IG is wrong on all counts. The mass strike and uprising in Oaxaca and the mass protests in Mexico City are both expressions of the masses’ desire to fight against the decades of capitalist austerity attacks the Mexican government has inflicted. The main difference was the PRD’s success in controlling the anti-electoral fraud protests. President Fox did not make the extraordinary retreats of cancelling the State of the Union address and the Independence Day ceremony because of López Obrador’s bourgeois electoral campaign – he did so because the anti-fraud protests represented mass outrage throughout Mexico and the threat of a broader social explosion.

To say that the mass protests in Mexico City were nothing more than political rallies for López Obrador is a one-sided and therefore false description. There is a constant tension within the mass movement between the electoralism of the bourgeois populist leaders and the demand for mass action from the movement’s base. López Obrador understood this – that’s why he closed down the mass protest on his behalf.

The Oaxaca teachers’ union leaders and the APPO leaders, who are mostly PRD supporters (as the GI itself has pointed out), also began the Oaxaca strike movement with the aim of supporting López Obrador’s election campaign. The difference was that in Oaxaca the mass base broke through the limits their populist leaders tried to put on the struggle, whereas in Mexico City the populist leaders stayed in control. It was the duty of revolutionaries to participate and intervene politically in the anti-fraud movement to fight for its mass base to break through the limits imposed by the leaders, just as the mass base of APPO and the teachers’ union did in Oaxaca.

Indeed, the GI takes sectarian abstention to dizzying heights. They oppose work in the PRI-dominated unions in general because of their state links, and apparently refused in particular to even attend the millions-strong anti-electoral fraud protests to distribute their own literature and argue for their perspective. This has no place in the Bolshevik tradition. In Russia, when the Tsar used the secret police to set up workers’ organizations to hold back workers’ growing militancy, Lenin advocated revolutionary work inside them to promote struggle against the capitalists and the Tsarist government. When this movement, under the leadership of police agent and priest Father Gapon, culminated in a peaceful march of 200,000 workers carrying religious icons and begging the Tsar to support them, Bolsheviks participated – under their own banner, with their own program. The Tsar’s “Bloody Sunday” attack on the march triggered the 1905 revolution, and Lenin’s only complaint was that the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg were not more involved from the beginning!

How To Combat the PRD, and How Not To

The IG/GI also raised the slogan, “Down with the PRI, PAN and PRD!” Compare this to the slogans we propose: “Down With Fox/Calderón!” and “No Political Support to López Obrador or the PRD!” The point is that even though the PRI, PAN and PRD are all bourgeois parties and the working class must oppose and break from all of them, it is outrageously wrong to equate the PAN and PRI with the PRD – to equate the murderous leaders of the repressive government with the bourgeois misleaders of the mass opposition to the government. The same method would lead to equating the Chilean butcher Pinochet with the mass misleader Allende whom he ousted and had killed in 1973.

The GI admits that the repressive PAN and PRI leaders are hated by the masses in a way that the PRD leaders are obviously not. But the GI argues, for example, that the PRD should be held “co-responsible” for the repression in Oaxaca, because PRD state legislators in Oaxaca joined the PRI and PAN in calling for federal police. True, but the GI doesn’t mention that PRD leaders were compelled to demand the expulsion of those PRD legislators from the party. The legislators’ actions threatened to undermine workers’ illusions in the PRD, so the leaders condemned their own legislators to preserve workers’ illusions in the PRD as a whole.

Just telling workers about the crimes of the PRD is not enough to change their consciousness. Revolutionary Marxists must combine such propaganda with active participation and intervention in mass struggle, raising demands on López Obrador and the PRD to expose them in practice. (The GI’s method of avoiding the mass struggle because it is tainted with bourgeois politics is parallel to the IG’s rationalist method of teaching consciousness from outside, analyzed in depth in our article “In Defense of Bolshevik Military Policy” in PR 78.) Revolutionary consciousness doesn’t descend from on high. It has to be fought for in the class struggle by the advanced layer of workers, in direct counterposition to the pro-capitalist misleaders.

The Lessons of Oaxaca

The experience of Oaxaca shows how the masses learn radical political lessons in the course of struggle. Even though the teachers’ union leaders wanted the strike to support López Obrador’s presidential campaign, the strike’s demand to raise the minimum wage for all of Oaxaca mobilized so much mass support, in particular from indigenous people, that the struggle got out of the control of the union leaders. The mobilization of broader layers of workers, peasants and indigenous people made it possible to repel the police attack, take over the city and create the new mass organization APPO. The ranks of the teachers’ union and APPO then had the power to reject a series of unacceptable compromises in September and October that the leaders accepted. After the federal police invasion of Oaxaca, the union and APPO leaders advocated a pacifist response, but their masses of supporters resisted as militantly as possible.

The Oaxaca struggle also carries a vital lesson for the most class-conscious vanguard layer of the Mexican working class. It is important to note that the APPO leaders have held back and misled the struggle almost as much as the teachers’ union leaders did. The mass ranks of the union and of APPO had the consciousness to reject the compromises but did not see an alternative leadership they had learned to trust. That allowed the leaders to continue to maneuver and compromise the struggle – above all, it allowed the teachers’ union leaders to manipulate the union voting process and force through a vote in favor of ending the strike just days before the invasion. Although large numbers of teachers did not return to work, the vote to end the strike divided and weakened the struggle.

It is not enough for the ranks to put pressure on their leaders, reject their proposals and oppose their decisions, although this is often a necessary experience. The vanguard workers must present a real alternative. That means making the top priority the building of a revolutionary working-class party, whose cadre are dedicated to fighting in the unions and in mass organizations like APPO to win fellow workers to its banner.