Dis-history And The Mexican Revolution, A Critique Of Two Bourgeois Perspectives

“History is a battlefield.”[1]

One might justly argue that history is inherently interpretive, subjective, perhaps even personal. We are all its products, like it or not, and for those of us who have some sort of axe to grind or torch to carry (and that would be all of us), it is that thing which either validates our position or renders it inconsequent. As Orwell noted, whoever controls the past controls the present. Correct or not, at the very least the elite who do control the present are determined to portray the past in a manner consonant with its interests. Caveat emptor.

I wrote a review of Adolfo Gilly’s The Mexican Revolution, and since then some readers have sent me related material. Listening to the audio below, presented by Sharon Bailey Glasco, one might wonder if the two historians were talking about the same event. The former has a socialist perspective, the latter takes a bourgeois view. Which is biased? No doubt both are, but in the end each will be judged by its veracity. I do not claim objectivity: I share Gilly’s point of view. Given that historical analysis is subjective, one should allow for the possibility of honest disagreement before insinuating deceit, but at a few instances in the presentation I was left wondering if Glasco could believe what she was saying. You will judge for yourselves. But my sole aim here is to demonstrate that while Glasco’s analysis might seem the less biased one because it melds nicely with the prevailing climate of opinion promoted by the ruling class, it is in fact sectarian.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/DrBG/the-mexican-revolution-1694203&#8243; title=”The Mexican Revolution” target=”_blank”>The Mexican Revolution</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/DrBG&#8221; target=”_blank”>DrBG</a></strong> </div>

Glasco begins by informing us that she is “trained as a Mexicanist.” I’ve never heard it put quite that way before, but her college webpage says “Dr. Bailey Glasco’s academic training is in Latin American history and World history, with special emphases on Mexican history…Her upper division courses include a mix of classes specific to Mexican history.” She has a Ph.D. in history, with an emphasis in Mexico and Latin America. So I guess she can rightly call herself a Mexicanist.

She begins her lecture by declaring that the Mexican Revolution was a nationalist movement. (Here Glasco uses this term in a most unconventional way.) She states that in Mexico as well as elsewhere in Latin America revolutionaries were challenging US imperialism. Indeed they were, and in Mexico anti-imperialism was a factor. But to state flatly that the revolution was driven by nationalism ignores the class antagonisms which were in great measure more decisive, and which Glasco here and everywhere refuses to acknowledge or at the very least minimizes. The Mexican Revolution, as we shall see, was considerably more than a colonial revolt. It was most certainly not a nationalist movement. Later, as the revolution developed, reactionary leaders like Obregon and Calles fomented parochialism of various kinds, as many bourgeois leaders around the world at that time would, as an antidote to socialist aspirations of their working classes. Here Glasco confuses the revolution with the counterrevolutionary strategy of the new ruling class.

The most unusual aspect of Glasco’s version of the event is her depiction of some of its leading figures, with the worst offense being her portrait of Ricardo Flores Magon. She paints the Magonistas as 20th century liberals, and then goes on to say that 20th century liberalism sought government involvement in the economy, livable wages for workers, an opening up of the political and economic system so working people would have a greater voice, the right to vote for everybody, etc.

Ricardo Flores Magon was a revolutionary socialist of the libertarian kind. In other words, he was an anarchist. He supported the overthrow of state and capital, and saw no alternative to it. He did not seek livable wages but an end to the wage system. He did not favor a greater voice for working people within the system, but for workers and peasants to rise up and destroy the system. He did not believe in reforms, and he did not believe that meaningful change can be gained by voting.

Some allowance for this gross misrepresentation must be made in that Magon did not reveal that he was an anarchist until 1911, long after he had been calling for the overthrow of Diaz in his newspaper Regeneracion. Only the inner circle around him, his fellow anarchists, knew his secret. In his private correspondence he defends this deception by saying that anarchism was too radical for most Mexican peasants, and that he didn’t want to undermine the broader revolutionary movement by introducing controversial ideas. I am a great admirer of his, but this is not Magon’s finest hour. Eventually, however, he came out of the closet and made his views clear. Magon was the most radical of the Mexican revolutionaries, and, in my view, the most astute.

Nevertheless, anyone listening to Glasco’s presentation is getting a very distorted view of this man and his beliefs. As any good trained Mexicanist would know, Magon was no liberal in any sense of the word. This woman has a good deal of training in Mexican history and a degree in Spanish, it is inconceivable that anyone who has read issues of Regeneracion published after 1911, or is familiar with the history of the Baja Commune, or has read Magon’s collected letters or prison notebooks, could give the account she did and not know it would be entirely misleading. Can a trained Mexicanist be unfamiliar with these primary sources on the revolution? It is perhaps instructive that she is unable to tell one Magon brother from another in a photo she presented during the lecture. What kind of training did she get?

She never mentions the word anarchism.

Likewise her portrait of Emiliano Zapata is more than a bit disconcerting. In a telling statement she says that at first Zapata didn’t support Madero’s Plan San Luis Potosi’, but he eventually “came around to the ideas of the revolution.” How extraordinary! Apparently for this trained Mexicanist, Madero’s ideas were the real revolutionary ones and Zapata’s were, well, she doesn’t specify but somehow less so. This is an astonishing position in a number of ways, but most importantly it reveals her bourgeois bias. The overthrow of crony capitalism (Diaz) in favor of free-market capitalism with a mercantilist bent (Madero) does not a revolution make. Zapata’s Plan de Ayala, whatever one thinks of it, is considerably more revolutionary than Madero’s plutocratic plan.

She goes on to say that Zapata’s “fight would be connected to or absorbed by the wider revolutionary movement.” This interpretation does not comport with any account with which I am familiar. I’ve read Gilly’s book of course, Womack’s biography of Zapata, and Raat’s Revoltosos, to name a few, and none of them agree with Glasco. According to them Zapata wasn’t behind the revolutionary curve but was rather was a kinetic force driving it onward and to the Left. Zapata wasn’t following Madero or Carranza, nor was he ever subsumed into the “larger revolutionary movement.” If that were so why did they murder him? Assassination, after all, is the most sincere form of flattery. Clearly the “larger revolutionary movement” feared him because he represented the real revolutionary movement, and would not acquiesce to the interests of faux-revolutionary opportunists like Madero, Obregon, Carranza et alia.

She goes on to say that Zapata and Villa didn’t get along, and that they never formed a revolutionary alliance. It is news to me that they didn’t get along. The evidence Glasco adduces–that they were different personalities–is completely unconvincing. Moreover, what difference would it make?

More importantly, they did form a revolutionary alliance. When they took control of Mexico City they participated in the creation of a government called The Convention, modeled after the one of French Revolution fame. Not only did they support it, they agreed that it would need to be held in check and discussed a plan by which they would return if it violated the spirit and goals of the revolution. That’s a revolutionary alliance if ever there was one.

She also claims that Zapata and Villa wanted different things, had different revolutionary goals. In defense of this heterodox view she insists that Zapata and the southerners were fighting for communally owned land and Villa and his Northern Division were fighting for land for individuals. Even if it were true it is hardly important. Villa and Zapata were allies-full stop. They were allied against the Porfiriato, and allied within the revolutionary movement against the Hacendados and others of the ownership stratum. Villa and Zapata represented the interests of their class–the peasantry. Like any bourgeois historian, Glasco is loath to acknowledge the existence of class struggle, let alone place it at the center of a revolutionary war. Her claim that the two men had different motives and goals is hard to understand and impossible to reconcile with the actual course of events.

Another curious view Glasco holds is that the revolution was a regional conflict. There is less support for this calculation than exists for her nationalism theory. This position might have some merit if it were Orozco, Villa, Carranza, Reyes etc. on the one side and Huerta and Zapata on the other, but such was never the case. Prior to Huerta’s flight, there were tenuous affiliations, strange bedfellows as it were, between Carranza and Villa and the like, but they didn’t last long. The true class nature of the conflict became manifest when Huerta was defeated and the respective regions from which the leading figures emerged were of no importance to anyone, save perhaps for the bourgeois Mexicanists of the future desperate to find an explanation other than class war for the uprising.

There are a couple of Glasco’s claims which are demonstrably false. The most instructive is that she says that the US never recognized Obregon’s government because they considered him too radical.[2] Indeed the agreement was reached a few scant days after the assassination of Pancho Villa–a coincidence no doubt. One might think that a trained Mexicanist would be familiar with the treaties signed by Mexico as a result of the revolution. Let’s call it a mistake, but it is a revealing one. Here Glasco confuses the public posturing of both governments with the reality of their purposes. A revolution had just been fought which deposed a leader in part for his cozy relationship with Washington. Any subsequent leader also seen to be too friendly with the empire on its border would be quite unpopular and might cause another insurgency from below–something neither ruling party wanted. Washington and Obregon had to create the appearance of mutual hostility while finding a way to undermine the gains of the revolution, which they did. Washington and Mexico City were not enemies, they were partners, class partners. What genuine strife did pertain, if any, was due to disagreement as to how to divvy up the spoils.

The first duty of the historian is to subject the claims of interested parties to a rigorous examination. Glasco is much too credulous here. Each of Diaz’ immediate successors offered some kind of putative benefit to the working classes while at the same time eliminating their most militant and radical elements. Workers in bourgeois trade unions like the CROM were given the right to strike, meanwhile workers in radical unions were arrested when they went on strike. The Communist Party, as Glasco duly notes, was all but obliterated by Calles but she still asserts that he was “pro-labor.” He was in fact completing the counterrevolutionary process of herding workers into loyalist organizations which had been subverted by capital. All Glasco seems willing to do is parrot the official line. Her analysis of Mexico’s post-war leaders hardly differs from the PRI’s hagiographical rendering.

Glasco: “Except for a brief occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914, the US for the most part stayed out of the process in this period of Mexican politics.”[3]

i veraAstonishing. Now what could make a trained Mexicanist, or anyone for that matter, utter anything as insipid as that! Other than invading, the US was hardly involved? This is a little like saying that aside from all that fraud, Bernie Madoff was a real honest guy. Well it was only a “brief” occupation I guess.

In fact the US invaded twice. The second was called the Punitive Expedition. It was contemporaneous with the “revolutionary” government’s attempt to crush Zapata and the Morelos Commune. (Another one of those coincidences. I touch on this in the review of Gilly’s book.) The stated purpose, which Glasco, it goes without saying, accepts uncritically, was to avenge a raid into New Mexico by Pancho Villa’s men. (It is not known whether he participated or even had foreknowledge.) The US army remained in Mexico until Pablo Gonzalez, leader of the expedition against Morelos, had occupied Cuernavaca and driven Zapata into the hills. Thereupon Persching evacuated without the revenge for which they nominally invaded.

And American involvement in the Mexican Revolution didn’t end there. The US was providing arms to Villa for a time, as documented by DoS documents reproduced by Gilly and Raat in their books. Has our trained Mexicanist not read them? Or has she forgotten? The US also allowed Mexican soldiers to cross into American territory and travel by rail to outflank the opposing army upon reentering Mexico, all the while keeping Ricardo Flores Magon in and out of jail for violating the Neutrality Act.

The US was deeply involved in the war in Mexico, anyone suggesting otherwise is a fool or a liar. The evidence is copious and conclusive, despite its having eluded our favorite trained Mexicanist.

Is Glasco a propagandist? An apologist? Or just a garden variety fool? I don’t know, but her account of the Mexican Revolution is, frankly, awful. I will send her a link to this article and will post her response in this space if any is forthcoming.

In the past when I have called out “experts” for this sort of thing often the first line of defense is that they didn’t have enough time to cover everything. Here is a synopsis half as long as Glasco’s and immeasurably better:

 

 

Ray Acosta’s lecture is much better, but it too is viewed from bourgeois frame of reference. He is a “Libertarian,” that is in its modern, anarcho-capitalist meaning. And anyone in denial about the existence and stubborn intransigence of class antagonism will not be able to to come to an accurate understanding of this or any other revolution. He even describes Madero as “an apostle of democracy.”

Acosta admits that he knew very little about Magon but had read his name in books on the subject. This would be no basis for criticism save that he had written a book, or a “chronology,” on the Mexican Revolution.

I don’t wish to be too critical, Acosta is personable, and his presentation here is biased but pretty well researched, and his book may be a useful resource for students. Nevertheless, a reader of said book could not be blamed for assuming Acosta was more familiar with the topic than he is.

Aside from his not knowing much about the Mexican Revolution’s greatest advocate and theorist, he also has trouble with Spanish. He misaccents “San Luis Potosi'”; pronounces Cananea (CAH-nuh-NAY-uh) as canela; and refers to the Sarabia brothers as “Saraba.” It’s clear that he can’t speak Spanish, which means he is not able to read primary source material in the original. One would think that a knowledge of Spanish would come in handy for anyone writing a book on the Mexican Revolution. Again this is not to suggest that his chronology is flawed, but when one reads a book on Mexican history one expects the author can read the relevant material. Acosta is getting his information second-hand.

He also seems to suffer from the same wooden, slack-jaw gullibility that afflicts our old friend the trained Mexicanist. He says that a Mexican official “just happened to be in St. Louis on vacation” when Magon was there and filed charges against him.

He’s got to be kidding? Is that where Mexicans go on vacation, St. Louis? Must be that arch that gets them all excited. The greatest voice of the Mexican Revolution, forced to flee his country, sets up shop in St. Louis and begins republishing his newspaper there. In it he calls for the violent overthrow of the Mexican government and an agent of that government shows up “on vacation” and files charges against the revolutionary, forcing him to flee to Canada. Just another coincidence?

Acosta says that in 1906 Magon was not an anarchist. Again he must be afforded some slack as Magon had not yet gone public, but, alas, Acosta is mistaken. What this means is that in all his research on Magon, he didn’t read the latter’s prison notebooks or his collected letters, which have been available in English for some time. This is a striking oversight on his part. He’s gathered information about his subject from many sources, and in a laudably thorough way, yet he didn’t bother to learn what Magon himself had to say.

I’ll end here. Glasco does history the way the ruling class wants it done: lots of talk of regionalism and muralism and nationalism, and very little about the hacienda system, the ejidos (communal lands tilled and managed collectively), or the betrayal of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union (COM, Casa del Obrero Mundial) by the Bonapartist Carranza, whom Glasco seems to think was a real revolutionary. The Mexican Revolution had distinct socialist features; in the demands made by Zapata, Villa, and the Magonistas, and in the way capital reacted to them. And that is precisely what is missing from her account. As I said at the beginning, reading Gilly and listening to Glasco one might think they were talking about different events.

I hope I have convinced you that you cannot judge a book by its author. Glasco is as qualified to lecture on the topic of the Mexican Revolution as anyone, yet her account is hopelessly misaligned with the facts and shamelessly tendentious. Her anodyne, capital-friendly sketches of historical events will serve her well in her career in academia, it’s only her students who will suffer.

And so shall it ever be as long as education remains the prisoner of capital.

 

[1] Unfortunately, I do not know who said this. If you do please send me an e-mail.

[2] Here and here and here

[3] Other photos of the “brief” occupation can be found here.

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