The ghost of Lazaro Cardenas and

the present crisis in Mexico

By Joseph Green, CVO, Detroit

(from Communist Voice #5, Nov. 1995)


What I agree with Oleg on
Where we differ
Oleg's view of Cardenismo
Oleg's main theoretical point--on the impulse to capitalist development
Does it give rise to capitalism only because it's a limited reform?
The Chinese example
Is land reform therefore a useless bourgeois scheme?
Lenin on the proletarian struggle and capitalism
The spread of class differentiation in Chiapas
The struggle of the indigenous women against patriarchalism
The ghost of Lazaro Cardenas

. A political and economic crisis is simmering in Mexico. The long rule of the governing party, the PRI, is being eroded, while the standard of living of the masses falls. As the system reaches a turning point, the proletariat does not have a party that truly represents its interests, and the working people are disorganized. There are many questions facing the radical left. What orientation is needed in the coming period? The Chiapas rebellion inspired millions of people around the world. But this peasant struggle can't proceed in the same way anymore. The EZLN faces the question of what path to choose, and its statements from the Lacandona Jungle reveal that the Zapatistas have been wandering in various directions.

. Meanwhile Oleg's article on the peasant movement, "Does the Chicago Workers' Voice support Cardenismo?", appeared in the latest issue of the CWV Theoretical Journal. (And it's reprinted in this issue of CV. ) Its basic thesis is that anyone who seriously questions the policies of the EZLN leadership, or the policies of petty-bourgeois nationalist groups in the Mexican radical left such as El Machete, or the glorification of these policies by the CWV, must therefore be opposed to the peasant movement. They must only support an immediate socialist revolution, says Oleg. He challenges me to respond to this point, saying "Is he saying that in the countryside the struggle must be straightforward and only for socialism? Joseph should clarify. "

. It's surprising to me that Oleg--a comrade with years of experience--still doesn't realize that the serious differences in the radical left require open discussion if the left is reemerge as a major force. He thinks that these differences can be explained simply as the refusal of some wild-eyed people to support the immediate struggle in defense of the conditions of the masses. Very well, let's answer his question.

What I agree with Oleg on

Where we differ

. But it's not enough to agree on these generalities. How can the left and the working masses rebuild their struggles? It's not enough to say that one supports struggles against the impoverishment of the peasants and workers. Everyone knows that the struggle in Mexico (as in the U.S. ) faces many obstacles, and the activists are divided into many groupings, with different views, that have a hard time cooperating. It's not enough to say "long live Chiapas", and it can give rise to discouragement if activists don't realize why the struggle in Chiapas and other mass outbreaks don't grow and merge as one might have expected from the rhetoric of CWV. And overall, the struggle of the toilers in Mexico may not be as low as it currently is in the United States, but it isn't particularly high, especially given the big crises ravaging Mexico. So activists need to know what hinders the struggle, and what will help build a new struggle. Should we just blame the setbacks in the movement on bad conditions and wait for better times, or are there also obsolete views and practices in the radical left itself that must be fought against and discarded?

. On these particular issues, Oleg and I have many disagreements, some of which are as follows:

. "The transfer of the land to the peasants would not at all do away with the predominance of the capitalist mode of production in Russia; it would, on the contrary, provide a broader base for its development. . . " (CV #2, p. 41, col. 2)


. Overall, Oleg shies away from the fight for Marxism and instead wants to go with the flow in the radical left. He only wants criticism of the open reformists, such as the PRD in Mexico, and not criticism of the radical left.

. True, Oleg does seem to think that there are some problems on the radical left. For example, he has mentioned the influence of the late Lazaro Cardenas, president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, who laid the foundations for the present system of government, which is now rather shaky. He writes that

. "From the PRD out to many sections of the Mexican left, one finds a theme that Mexico should return to the basic policies of Lazaro Cardenas or some improved variation of them, and this would make things a whole lot better. Cardenas senior is praised for nationalizing the oil industry, for carrying out land reform, for protecting the Mexican workers, for social measures generally in protection of the poor and for protecting Mexico against the rapaciousness of U.S. imperialism. If the Mexican government would just take up these policies again, the argument goes, things would be better for the Mexican masses. " (CWVTJ #7, p. 8, col. 2-3)

. But two things stand out.

. In his writings, he hasn't described any current force in the radical left that is influenced by the polices of Cardenas.

. And he has a hard time differentiating his program from that of Cardenas other than by saying that the masses need to force the government to enact such measures, rather than expecting the government to do it by itself.


. First of all, which groups on the Mexican left are influenced by Cardenismo? Oleg says remarkably little. He thinks that perhaps the Mexican Communist Party might have gone this way in the 30s. But as for now, he refers mainly to the PRD (Mexican Revolutionary Democratic Party), which originated as a split from the ruling PRI with Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (the son of Lazaro) as its most dramatic figure.

. But what about the influence of Cardenismo in the radical left? Oleg suggests, in effect, that any groups that are fighting the government are immune. If this were so, then Cardenismo wouldn't be much of a problem in the left.

. But doesn't the EZLN's agrarian program, vision of national consensus, and nationalism have much in common with the ideology of Lazaro Cardenas? Isn't the importance of Cardenismo precisely that it has influence among activists who are fighting and sacrificing for the toilers?

. Oleg says no, because Cardenismo is supposedly only a matter of people praising Lazaro as an individual. And after all, he says, the name of the EZLN refers back to Zapata and not Lazaro Cardenas. So Oleg says complacently:

". . . I have not seen any EZLN statement praising Lazaro Cardenas or saying that their program is based on his. The EZLN does trace its program back to Emiliano Zapata as their name suggests. "

. An article by Mark in this issue of Communist Voice discusses the influence of Cardenismo on the EZLN program. Here let's just point out that even by Oleg's narrow criterion, Cardenismo might well be a problem for the EZLN leadership. In its third statement from the Lacandona Jungle, the EZLN leadership asked for the organization of a National Liberation Movement, and said it should be led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Lazaro's son. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was the founder of the PRD, a party which Oleg recognizes as having "a theme that Mexico should return to the basic policies of Lazaro Cardenas or some improved variation of them".

. And there's more. The EZLN leadership pays close attention to Mexican history, as is apparent from their statements from the Lacandona Jungle. So surely it is not just a coincidence that they are calling for the formation of a movement with the same name and similar aims as one associated with Lazaro Cardenas in the 1960s. This movement is described by James Cockcroft, in the book on Mexico cited by Oleg, as follows:

". . . pockets of peasant militants throughout the nation, who since the late 1920s have been known as agraristas, have repeatedly rallied to national movements drawing together progressive elements from diverse social classes. In the early 1960s, many agraristas joined a nationwide but short-lived Movement for National Liberation (MLN). The MLN represented a vigorous attempt to unite Marxists, disenchanted intellectuals and artists, workers, peasants, and prominent politicos like ex-President Lazaro Cardenas into a broad-based movement for revitalization of the Mexican Revolution. It fell apart when Cardenas grew disenchanted with the pro-Fidel Castro leanings of younger militants and the state escalated its dual policy of repression and cooptation. " (Cockcroft, Mexico, Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, and the State, pp. 202-3)

. So the 1960s saw a National Liberation Movement with Lazaro Cardenas, and today EZLN wants one led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Yet Oleg says, in effect, "Cardenismo? Where? Where?"

. Moreover, the CWV is now fervently backing some of the elements who would have been expected to join such a National Liberation Movement, such as El Machete. Indeed Julie of CWV admits that El Machete thinks

"that the EZLN might be correct in proposing Cuauhtemoc Cardenas for the leader of a Movement of National Liberation. "(4)

El Machete would of course be in the wing of the National Liberation Movement that favors Castroism. But by the 1990s Castroism has become just another state-capitalist ideology.

. Yet Oleg thinks that I am simply inventing problems that don't exist.

Oleg's view of Cardenismo

. Oleg not only refrains from saying who is influenced by Cardenismo, but he has a hard time differentiating his program from Cardenismo. It's not that Oleg is a Cardenista. No, he is part of the radical left. The tragedy of the matter, and the reason Cardenismo is so important, is that it is a problem for many activists who sincerely and genuinely want to support the struggle of the Mexican masses.

. Well, how does Oleg try to deal with Cardenismo?

. His original criticism in CWVTJ #7 was that the Cardenista program isn't practical anymore. Earlier in this article, we quoted Oleg listing a series of Cardenista measures, from nationalizing the oil industry to land reform. In CWVTJ #7 he discussed nationalization of the oil and some other measures in a rambling way and was unable to decide whether they were helpful to the Mexican masses. But, he said, the Cardenista program had been "romanticized" and, if tried today, "wouldn't work anyway". (5)

. His second attempt at distinguishing himself from the Cardenista program was in CWVTJ #8. He now has three basic points:

. (a) He says that various of its measures were good, but that you shouldn't rely on politicians like Cardenas to enact them. Instead you must force the politicians to enact them. He writes of articles in CV examining Cardenista-style land reform that:

"Each of these cases show the Mexican government taking measures which temporarily and partially alleviated the plight of impoverished Mexican peasants . . . Pete's articles show that to get any measures from the Mexican government to do something for the peasants requires a class struggle. "(6)

So here the distinction with Cardenismo is how to ensure it will be carried out.

. And indeed, Julie of the CWV has called for "a vigorous working class struggle linked up with the poor peasant revolt" to obtain such measures as

"a planning of large-scale agriculture in such a way that the peasantry is not pauperized, assistance to what is left of the cooperative forms of agriculture . . .  . and assistance to the ejidos in such a way that the peasantry working there can make the transition to large-scale agriculture without being driven off the land. "(7)

These measures are a somewhat idealized description of the Cardenista agrarian program, which also sought to develop ejidos in a way that integrated them into large-scale agriculture, which organized some collective ejidos, and which sought to keep many peasants on the land. Julie, however, says we have to obtain these measures by struggle, as Oleg recommends.

. (b) Oleg points out that Cardenas on occasion attacked the mass organizations of the oppressed, "controlled and contained" the powerful struggles of the workers and peasants", etc. (8) Here once again Oleg doesn't deal with the content of the Cardenista social measures.

Oleg's main theoretical point--on the impulse to capitalist development

. (c) Oleg's main attempt to criticize the measures in Lazaro's agrarian program is when he says that it "gave a big impulse to the development of modern capitalist agriculture. "(9)

. This is the key theoretical point in Oleg's article. It is CWV's idea of how to distinguish what's wrong with the Cardenista program from what we should demand. We should oppose reforms that give an impulse to capitalist agriculture, and support reforms that are a step towards socialism. (What Julie calls "a series of democratic and socialist measures".(10)) Oleg would be careful to say that these measures are not the full liberation of the working class and peasantry, nor can they provide a permanent solution. But he seems to think these measures are not an impulse to capitalism, but a step in the other direction.

. This provides a criterion that, at first sight, may seem more-or-less reasonable and clear. It undoubtedly accords with the way of thinking of a number of activists who haven't quite explicitly formulated it, but sort of lean in this direction. It seems to be comprehensive: it upholds the ultimate goal of socialism as well as supporting reforms in that direction. It has only one problem: it goes against the facts of economic life.

. All land reform--in so far as it actually gives land and resources to the peasants--gives an impulse to capitalist development. This is because it establishes a system of small peasant ownership. (This is either individual ownership or a system where the countryside is divided into many independent co-ops. ) Small-scale peasant agriculture gives rise to class differentiation and capitalist relations. As Lenin said,

"... small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a mass scale. "(11)

There is no way around this.

. Land reform has been an important part of some bourgeois-democratic revolutions. A revolutionary land reform can dispossess a reactionary landlord class. It can lead to fundamental changes in the politics and economics of a country. But these changes don't create a quasi-socialism, but spur on capitalism.

. True, if land reform takes place in the middle of a socialist revolution and is a prelude to agriculture being part of large-scale production run by the working class, then capitalist relations might not develop very much. That's because the original land reform will be immediately followed up by further steps towards the full socialization of production in the countryside. But the land reform we are talking about in Mexico today will not take place in the midst of a socialist revolution, but at most in the midst of a democratization of the capitalist political system.

Does it give rise to capitalism only because it's a limited reform?

. But Oleg implies in his article that Lazaro's land reform gave an impetus to capitalist agriculture only because of its limitations. Cardenas may have trod on the toes of a number of big landlords, but he left a system of large, private farms in place. He didn't fight the state, but helped build it up. He spurred on peasant organization, but only within the bounds of the overall national consensus that he wanted to build. And so on. It seems reasonable to Oleg, and probably to a lot of activists, to suppose that if only Cardenas had swept aside all the large landholdings, if only he had unleashed the full force of the peasant movement, it wouldn't have led to capitalism.

The Chinese example

. But not all plausible ideas are true. Common sense has to be tested and readjusted according to experience and theoretical analysis. And it turns out that this plausible idea--that only half-hearted land reforms give rise to capitalist relations--is false. It goes against the history of revolutionary movements.

. Take the land reform carried out by the Maoists in the Chinese revolution. This was just about the most radical land reform conceivable. It swept aside all the large landlords. It embraced all the poor peasants. It was based on not just fighting, but overthrowing and eliminating the old Kuomintang state and its entire apparatus in the countryside. It did all the things Oleg demands of a land reform. Moreover, after several years, the land reform was followed by the setting up of various sorts of communes. The reform swept aside the old Chinese countryside, changed the class relations, and definitely improved the condition of the peasants.

. The revolutionary sweep of the Chinese land reform made it appear socialist. Nevertheless, it turned out that, over a period of time, it too gave an impetus to capitalist development. Today class differentiation is obvious in the Chinese countryside. There is a growing gap between rich and poor. Large numbers of peasants are flocking to the cities. Some say 100 million Chinese peasants have already crowded into the costal cities, and that with in five years there may be 200 million people former peasants in marginal occupations in the cities--floating from job to job. (12)

. The Chinese revolution had dispossessed the old exploiters in the countryside. But it had not been able to integrate the countryside into large-scale production run by the workers as a whole. The countryside ended up divided into independent units--although they were collective or communal units--whose prosperity and whose technical improvements depended on their own fortunes. The peasants' life improved greatly over the past, but capitalist relations eventually found their way back with a vengeance.

. Indeed, some of the apparently particular features of Mexican agriculture can be seen in China. Take the following problem: After the Cardenas land reform, agricultural production first went up in a balanced fashion, but then there was a turnaround. While the production of certain export crops and cash crops continued to expand, Mexico now has a growing problem with its staple foods. As one professor describes it:

. "By the early 1960s Mexico was exporting basic grains (including wheat) as well as 'luxury' crops (such as avocados and tomatoes). To the degree there was a 'Mexican miracle,' some analysts have said, it may have taken place in the agricultural sector. Within ten years this situation suffered a drastic reversal. By 1975 Mexico was importing 10 per cent of the grain it consumed; by 1979 it was importing 36 percent of its grains, and in 1983 it imported roughly half the grain it needed. "(13)

. China shows the same general pattern. At first, China too developed its basic food crops as well as industrial and other crops. I recall one year in which the Maoist government boasted that the northern regions of China had now become self-sufficient in rice and no longer had to import it from the southern regions. But then there was a turn around with respect to the staple foods. Land is being used to produce the more valuable crops, or is being taken out of agricultural production altogether. It's more profitable to build a factory or a city on the land than to keep on producing rice. Chinese grain production is no longer keeping pace with population; and China is losing its self-sufficiency in rice. And yet the demand for grain is rising faster than population as more meat is eaten and more livestock has to be fed. (14) Some economists think that China may become the world's largest rice importer early in the next century--with drastic effects on the world market. This mirrors the way Mexico shifted over to commercial crops, while having to massively import corn and other staple goods.

. Perhaps someone will say that all these things happened in China because China didn't follow the socialist road. Precisely. Land reform by itself--no matter how radical--is not a socialist step, nor a quasi-socialist step. Only if the overall economy is transformed to socialism, can the countryside avoid the spread of capitalist relations. A revolutionary land reform, if it is part of an attack on private property in general, can help provide the room for the working class to transform the economy. But by itself, even such a land reform has not gone beyond capitalist relations. In China, the revolution developed into revisionist state-capitalism, not socialism. Thus all the capitalist implications of land reform sooner or later began to manifest themselves. The Chinese countryside could not provide a socialist bastion against the market reforms--in which the revisionist "Communist" Party turned towards a free-market economy and against the communes--because the countryside was not socialist, and these reforms unleashed forces that were already building up among the peasantry.

Is land reform therefore a useless bourgeois scheme?

. Oleg doesn't want to look this reality in the face. Neither does Julie. She assumes that if one only adopted better policies, one could avoid class differentiation in the countryside. She thinks you can merge "socialist measures" into a land reform program under capitalism--and Oleg presumably believes that this will be, not full and permanent socialism to be sure, but a partial and temporary step towards socialism.

. All this amounts to closing one's eyes to reality. It hinders activists from adopting revolutionary policies for dealing with the actual class differentiation that is going on--such as organizing the rural proletariat and semi-proletariat, supporting the class struggle in the countryside, etc.

. But Oleg implies that if land reform and other measures will ultimately give an impetus to capitalism, then they're useless. He quotes me saying that "the most radical democratic measures in the countryside, measures that eliminate the marginalization of the indigenous people, provide maximum state aid to the countryside, etc. " would give an impetus to capitalist development. He then indignantly implies that this means I oppose radical democratic measures. He says "Joseph should clarify". (15) But what Oleg's demand shows, is that Oleg does not understand the economic nature of radical democratic measures.

. *** Consider the national liberation movements around the world. Haven't these struggles been vital for overthrowing brutal colonial oppression and allowing whole peoples to begin to rise their heads? Yet who can deny that these movements have dramatically accelerated capitalist development in the newly independent countries? Africa for example has seen as astonishingly rapid development of capitalist economic relations, and it has borne the brunt of all the evils and disasters of capitalism.

. National independence, even if it is achieved by a revolution, gives an impetus to capitalism. This is inevitable unless there is a socialist revolution. And recognition of the bourgeois economic nature of national liberation is important for the proletariat. If the independence struggle was regarded as vaguely socialist--or socialist if it is carried out in a revolutionary way--then the proletariat might simply merge into the radical wing of the general all-class liberation movement. But when the bourgeois-democratic nature of the struggle is understood, it encourages the proletariat--however small or inexperienced--to develop its independent organization even as it takes part in the independence movement.

. *** Consider the abolition of slavery in the United States. This was an absolutely necessary struggle, which only reactionaries would deny. Yet the Civil War unleashed an astonishingly rapid development of capitalist industry throughout the U.S. True, the development of capitalist relations among the freed slaves themselves was held back by the semi-slave conditions they faced: discrimination, racist terror, and the share-cropping system. But this simply verifies my point. Had a radical democratic program been carried out in the south, had the anti-slavery struggle been followed by full democracy for the freed slaves, there can be little doubt that the result would not only have been greatly improved conditions for the black people, but it would have led to much faster development of class differentiation among them. And the result would have been highly favorable for the unity of black and other workers in the struggle against capitalism.

. Democratic reforms open the way for a wider and faster economic development. And, until the socialist revolution, such economic development can only be capitalist development.

. *** I have given two examples of profound democratic reforms--national liberation struggles and the abolition of slavery. Not all democratic reforms are like that. We constantly hear agitation for minor reforms--such as an improvement of this or that social program for the peasants. Lenin dealt with this question in the struggle against the mistakes of petty-bourgeois populism, or Narodism (to use the Russian word). At one point revolutionary, the Narodniks evolved to the advocacy of a series of small reforms to aid peasant agriculture, more credit, more government aid, etc. The Marxists showed how these reforms would mainly benefit the stronger peasants and were not of a socialist character, but of a bourgeois character. With respect to these reforms, Lenin said:

. "The fact that one cannot content oneself with the 'petty efforts' of bourgeois progress by no means signifies absolute rejection of partial reforms. Marxists by no means deny that these measures are of some (albeit miserable) benefit, they can result in some (albeit miserable) improvement in the working people's conditions; they speed up the extinction of particularly backward forms of capital, usury, bondage, etc. , they speed up their transformation into the more modern and humane forms of European capitalism. That is why Marxists, if they were asked whether such measures should be adopted, would, of course, answer: they should--but would thereupon explain their attitude in general to the capitalist system that is improved by these measures, would motivate their agreement by their desire to speed up the development of this system, and, consequently its downfall."(16)

. The various measures of government aid to the peasants and better planning of the ejidos which are demanded by CWV seem in large part to consist of such petty reforms. So are the setting up of small workshops in the countryside and other direct aid programs carried out by some non-governmental organizations, church groups, etc. The CWV glorifies its own program by implying that, if it were carried out on a large-enough scale, it would bring prosperity. This doesn't make their program more revolutionary, but actually retards clarity on the class relations that are developing in the countryside and that will be accelerated by such reforms. We ourselves don't reject minor reforms in the countryside (referring of course to those reforms that actually do provide some benefit and that don't simply drive the poor peasants and rural laborers yet deeper into the PRI system of bureaucratic tutelage), but we hold that it is vital to present a true picture of what the peasants are going to face. At the moment, the results of petty reforms are being swamped, in their overall effect on the peasantry, by the major changes taking place in Mexican capitalism. Clarity about this will encourage the development of the large class movements necessary to make a significant effect on the Mexican countryside.

. That is why we put emphasis on the tasks of class organization facing Mexico, and especially on the reorganization of the proletariat. Only this will allow the workers to put their stamp on Mexico, affect the pending democratization, change the living conditions of the masses, and prepare for the overthrow of capitalism itself. But the overall tasks of class organization and class struggle are obscured when it is implied that one can tinker with land reform and other social programs and find the perfect form that would allow--prior to socialist revolution--economic development without capitalist development.

Lenin on the proletarian struggle and capitalism

. Now let's turn to a particularly striking passage where Lenin discussed the relationship of proletarian struggle to capitalist development. With respect to the anti-colonial policy of the proletariat, he wrote to Maxim Gorky on January 3, 1911 as follows:

. "It would be quixotism and whining if Social-Democrats were to tell the workers that there could be salvation somewhere apart from the development of capitalism, not through the development of capitalism. But we do not say this. We say: capital devours you, will devour the Persians, will devour everyone and go on devouring until you overthrow it. That is the truth. And we do not forget to add: except through the growth of capitalism there is no guarantee of victory over it.
. "Marxists do not defend a single reactionary measure, such as banning trusts, restricting trade, etc. But to each his own. Let Khomyakov and Co. build railways across Persia, let them send Lyakhovs [blood-stained military officers], but the job of the Marxists is to expose them to the workers. If it devours, say the Marxists, if it strangles, fight back.
. "Resistance to colonial policy and international plunder by means of organizing the proletariat, by means of defending freedom for the proletarian struggle, does not retard the development of capitalism but accelerates it, forcing it to resort to more civilized, technically higher methods of capitalism. There is capitalism and capitalism. There is Black-Hundred-Octoberist [reactionary, lynch-mob, monarchist--JG. ] capitalism and Narodnik ('realistic, democratic', full of 'activity') capitalism. The more we expose capitalism before the workers for its 'greed and cruelty', the more difficult is it for capitalism of the first order to persist, the more surely is it bound to pass into capitalism of the second order.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
".  .  . The Russian revolution [the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1905] and the revolutions in Asia = the struggle for ousting Octobrist capitalism and replacing it by democratic capitalism. And democratic capitalism = the last of its kind. It has no next stage to go on to. The next stage is its death. "(17)

. I have cited these words of Lenin because they appeared in the first issue of the CWVTJ (see my article "On the debate over imperialism"). Apparently Oleg and the CWV didn't think too deeply about what's appeared in their own CWVTJ. It sufficed that an article criticized people they wanted criticized--they didn't look too closely into what was in this criticism. In this case, they overlooked the question of whether the spread of capitalism is giving rise to the economic and political basis--the development of the proletariat and of its class struggle--that will overthrow capitalism.

. Perhaps someone will say: if capitalism can only be overthrown through its own growth, then we should get MBA's (degrees in business administration), invest in corporations, plan struggles according to how they affect the stock market, etc. But Lenin clarifies that we leave such things for the bourgeoisie. The only way the communist activist contributes to capitalist growth is through organizing the proletariat for struggle, exposing each and every crime of capitalism, developing the class struggle, and in general preparing for the overthrow of capitalism.

. The fact that radical reforms actually accelerate capitalism in the long run, does not mean one should support the capitalists, but it points the way to developing the class organization needed to fight the capitalists. For example, it's not land reform in itself that will undermine capitalism; so the communist agrarian program must have more than that. This is why Lenin, referring to a radical land reform, said:

"The conversion of the wretched, downtrodden muzhik [Russian peasant] into a free, energetic European farmer will be a tremendous democratic gain; but we socialists shall not forget for a moment that this gain will be of no real use to the cause of mankind's complete emancipation from all oppression unless and insofar as the farmer is confronted by a class-conscious, free, and organized rural proletariat. "(18)

The spread of class differentiation in Chiapas

. But let us return to Chiapas. Careful observers have noted the class differentiation among the peasantry here. For example, the reformist Institute for Food and Development Policy published the book "BASTA! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas" by George Collier and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello. They studied the conditions in several villages of indigenous peasants in the area. (19) They report how when the peasants got jobs during the local oil and hydroelectric boom, the result was that peasant agriculture was irreversibly changed and the peasant population began to split into rich and poor.

. Concerning what happened in one village after the construction boom ended, the authors write:

. "Many Zinacantecos did indeed return to farming, but did not give up off-farm vocations. . . .
. "Zinacantecos began to transform their farming by using fertilizer and herbicides to intensify their cultivation in the highlands. By using fertilizers, they could farm plots year after year without fallowing. . . . The herbicides substantially reduced the work of weeding the milpa [corn field], reducing or eliminating the need to hire workers to help, and freeing up family labor to do things in the off-farm economy.
. "These changes contributed to the gap that had begun to distinguish well-off from poor Zinacantecos during the development boom. Those who had established themselves as independent contractors, truckers, or successful wholesale-retail market vendors had money in their pockets from such off-farm work to pay for the chemical inputs being used in farming. Often they farmed at the expense of poor Zinacantecos who didn't have financial resources to pay for fertilizer and weed sprays, even if they held land to farm. Many poorer Zinacantecos began to rent their ejido plots to their wealthier neighbors who could afford the chemical inputs. " (pp. 101-3)

. Zinacantecos actually were in a better position than many other peasants, due to off-farm work being still somewhat available to them when the energy boom died down. In another village, peasants simply found themselves in a desperate condition because the agricultural situation had changed and there wasn't much field work left. This was partially because the landowners

"had reallocated their production during the energy-led boom. Much of the land once rented to peasants--in effect for sharecropping--had been converted to grasslands for cattle. " (p. 104)

But it was also because it was much harder to hire themselves out to "milpa-farming peasants like the Zinacantecos, for whom Chamulas had also labored"; it seems that the Zinacantecos needed far few hired hands now that they were using chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

. This change in the countryside came about because the peasants had money to spend on their fields. It seems to me that the only thing that could hold back the resultant split between rich and poor was if the villages of the entire area were so poor that no one had the money to buy fertilizers and herbicides or otherwise improve their agricultural technique. Anything that provided the peasants with a bit of money--from outside employment to financial aid--would probably have the same result. Unless Oleg's remedy of "government financial assistance" to the peasants or Julie's "democratic and socialist measures" were so hedged with rules and regulations that the peasants had little initiative--in short, unless Julie and Oleg's program imitated and outdid the PRI bureaucracy that grew up on the basis of the reforms of Lazaro Cardenas--it too would probably have the same result fairly quickly. It was solely the mass misery and utter marginalization of the indigenous peasants that slowed down this process in large parts of Chiapas.

. The book Basta! goes on to describe how these developments in the countryside wash away community spirit or the remnants of communalism (actually, apparently it was something of a patriarchal form of community spirit) among the peasants. They write that the evolution of the countryside

"also undermined the social organization of many peasant hamlets by removing a certain safety net of mutual dependence that kept young and poor people who needed food bound to their older and wealthier neighbors who, when weeding and cultivating had been done by hand, needed people to help them. . . . the poor found themselves utterly marginalized; their labor in the fields was no longer required and they lacked any way of earning the money necessary to buy food. " (p. 109)

. I won't go into the rest of their description of what happened to the Zinacantecos, as interesting and relevant as it is. But Collier and Quaratiello, who are no Marxists and don't claim to be, inadvertently describe the Chiapas countryside developing according to the picture drawn by Marx and Lenin. For example, they point to the internal political divisions in the villages that result from the growing gap between rich and poor. And they show capitalism developing in the countryside not just from rich ranchers and landlords, but also from within the peasantry as well. As they point out at one point, talking of the "colonists" (the peasants who come to Chiapas to find a bit of land to farm),

"When one considers that wealthier colonists attained economies of scale from collective herding and commercial marketing, the distinction between them and private ranchers began to blur. " (p. 45)

Their book really deserves an article in itself, but I will restrict myself to one more statement from the book, this time from the introduction:

"Journalists tended to paint an image of the poor, honest peasants on one side and the greedy ranchers and corrupt politicians on the others.
. "This idealization of the peasants is inaccurate, however, because some of the inequalities in the countryside are the result of stratification within peasant communities, not merely the result of injustices heaped upon them from outside. Understanding indigenous politics in this way necessarily complicates the sympathies one might hold toward peasants, but I view this as salutary. I think we misrepresent peasants if we allow ourselves to view them in simplistic terms--as either the passive victims of the state or as 'noble savages' who can reinvigorate modern society with egalitarian and collective values. By acknowledging tensions and differences in peasant communities, we face up to both the virtue and the vice inherent in peasants' exercise of power over one another, and we integrate individual agency into our understanding of peasant communities. We also arrive at an appreciation of why not all peasant and indigenous groups welcomed the Zapatistas. " (p. 9)

The struggle of the indigenous women against patriarchalism

. And finally, let me add one more touch to the picture of Chiapas. One of the inspiring things among the Chiapas rebellion is the role of women. EZLN accounts of the countryside bring out the patriarchal oppression which bound women down in the indigenous villages, so that the women suffered even worse than the men. One EZLN activist described the situation of women as follows:

"Many women got up at two or three in the morning to cook and by dawn they left with the man, who rode a horse while the women ran behind, carrying a child.
. "When they arrived at work they shared the chores equally with the man, whether it was cutting coffee or working the cornfield. When they got back home once again they did other work, preparing food. "(20)

. But women took an active part in the rebellion, and the EZLN consulted with women to develop a list of their demands as part of the overall EZLN demands. While the EZLN may perhaps be waffling on abortion rights, in general the active role of women in the insurgency is changing their status in the countryside.

. So it's interesting to see what the indigenous women and EZLN women activists are demanding. Some of the demands on the government are perhaps what one would expect: education, child care centers, health clinics with gynecological services, food for children, etc. And they demand from their own communities and the EZLN: participation in decisions, freedom from abuse, free choice of a marriage partner, etc. (21)

. But along with these demands, there are a number of demands for small enterprises. Matilde Perez and Laura Castellanos put it as follows:

. "They also sought to create and establish small businesses with technical assistance such as farms for raising chickens, rabbits, pigs and sheep. Prime materials and machinery for the installation of bakeries and craft workshops were requested as was transportation and access to the market for the fair sale of their products. "(22)

. The same thing appears in the list of demands that the EZLN put forward in a communiqué on March 1, 1994. Point 29 dealt with the demands of indigenous women and included, among other demands:

"f) That we get livestock projects of chickens, rabbits, lambs, pigs, etc.. . .
"g) We also ask for bakery projects with ovens and supplies.
"h) We want to build artisan workshops with machinery and raw materials.
"I) For our craftwork, we seek markets where we can obtain fair prices. "(23)

. As far as I can see, the indigenous women are not simply demanding assistance in raising livestock for their own food, but in raising livestock as a business, as the artisan workshops and craftwork will also be. The women don't just look back to the remnants of the old communal past, but are anxious to be wage-workers, or artisans, or have some source of outside income. Thus Collier and Quaratiello, for their part, refer to the "the Zapatista women who want the chance to become truck drivers"(24) (which, by the way, may mean driving a truck for wages but may perhaps also refer to buying a truck and setting up a small trucking business, which is one of the ways some small peasants in Chiapas become small entrepreneurs). The women are integrating themselves into the money economy. And while individual artisans are not capitalists, the inevitable result of a mass of small businesses is that some grow large and others fail.

. Here again we see that the mass impulse forward in Chiapas is leading to a further growth of capitalist relations. The women aren't misguided in seeing a source of income as necessary in modern-day life; they are seeking to have a equal voice in modern-day life. But what economic effect will this have? It would be putting on blinders to pretend that their small enterprises will not help create a more capitalist countryside. It would however be reactionary sentimentalism to oppose their movement and thus favor the old patriarchalism with its double and triple exploitation of women. The communist stand is to vigorously support the women's struggle while taking full account of the inevitable class differentiation. This requires calling for class organization and class consciousness among the women in the countryside as well as the men; and this is what the EZLN program lacks.

The ghost of Lazaro Cardenas

. If you look at the demands set forward by Oleg and Julie of the CWV for the Mexican countryside, they leave aside the question of the class differences among the peasantry. Julie calls for "democratic and social measures" that seem to be aimed at preventing this class differentiation, which however is already a fact. Oleg seems to think that land reform and government assistance to the peasantry only gives an "impulse" to capitalist relations if these measures aren't radical enough. It is this search for perfect measures, that will allegedly avoid the bourgeois-democratic nature of agrarian reform, that make it hard for the CWV to distinguish itself from the general framework of a glorified and purified Cardenista agrarian program.

. Marxism has a totally different approach. It bases itself on a realistic picture of what is happening in the countryside. It doesn't recoil before or gloss over the growing class differentiation in the countryside, but firmly takes its stand on the side of the proletariat and semi-proletariat. A major pillar of its agrarian program is spreading the clearest consciousness among the masses of what is happening to them, of how the gap between rich and poor is growing in the villages, and of the relationship of the poor peasants to the overall working class, as part of developing the class struggle. To do this, the revolutionary activist must also criticize the ghosts of the past that still dwell in the radical left, and build up an independent trend of anti-revisionist communism. <>


(1) MIM would probably support strikes in Mexico or other third world strikes, but opposes the Detroit newspaper strike. This is discussed in Mark's article "Reformist left kneels before the trade union bureaucrats" in the last issue of Communist Voice (CV #4, pp. 13-14). (Text)

(2) This is Oleg's description of the demands that he accuses me of not supporting in his article "Does the CWV support Cardenismo?" It occurs right after his challenge to me to say if I support anything but immediate revolution in the countryside. (Text)

(3) "Crisis in Mexico," CWVTJ #7, p. 11, col. 3. (Text)

(4) Julie, "El Machete and the Mexican Left", CWVTJ #7, p. 18, col. 2 -- also reprinted in CV #3, p. 43, col. 1. (Text)

(5) "Crisis in Mexico," CWVTJ #7, p. 8, col. 3. (Text)

(6) "Does the CWV support Cardenismo?", CWVTJ #8, p. 14, col. 2. (Text)

(7) CWVTJ #7, p. 15, col. 3, or CV #3, p. 40, col. 2. (Text)

(8) Oleg, "Lazaro Cardenas, What does he really stand for?", CWVTJ #8, p. 18, col. 2. (Text)

(9) CWVTJ #7, p. 14, col. 2. (Text)

(10) CWVTJ #7, p. 15, col. 3. (Text)

(11) "Left-Wing" Communism, An Infantile Disorder, 2nd paragraph of chapter 2. (Text)

(12) Bruce Nelan, Time magazine, Nov. 6, 1995, "Risky Change in a Dynasty/Amid profound economic dislocation, Deng fades away, and his heir apparent faces a power struggle", p. 46. However this rather superficial article overlooks the class differentiation in the countryside, which is noted by more serious reportage, and ascribes the whole flow of peasants simply to the lure of the good life in the cities. (Text)

(13) "Mexico since 1946: Dynamics of an authoritarian regime" by Peter H. Smith, which is chapter six of the composite work "Mexico since Independence", edited by Leslie Bethell. See p. 328. (Text)

(14) China's lost of farm land and stagnating production of grain is referred to in Joseph Kahn's article "Feeding the masses/China's Industrial Surge Squeezes Grain Farms, Spurs Needs for Imports/A Meat Diet Increases Usage Just as Land is Being Lost to Surging Development/Collectives Make a Comeback" in the March 10 issue of the Wall Street Journal, and in Patrick E. Tyler's article "Jijaying Journal/On the farms, China sows trouble" in the April 10 issue of the New York Times (p. A4). (Text)

(15) CWVTJ #8, p. 14, col. 2. (Text)

(16) Collected Works, Vol. 1, "The Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve's Book (The Reflection of Marxism in Bourgeois Literature)", Ch. 1, p. 370. (Text)

(17) Collected Works, Vol. 34, pp. 438-9. (Text)

(18) "The agrarian program of the liberals", Collected Works, vol. 8, pp. 320. (Text)

(19) By the way, the term "indigenous peasants" is used in this article to refer to the peasants from Mayan and other Indian backgrounds. The indigenous peasants suffer discrimination and worse oppression than the other peasants, and their plight in Chiapas was truly shocking. The indigenous peasants--and their struggle against marginalization--were at the heart of the Chiapas rebellion. (Text)

(20) Voice of Fire, Communiqués and Interviews from the Zapatista National Liberation Army, edited by Ben Clarke and Clifton Ross, 91. (Text)

(21) Ibid. , pp. 85, 93. (Text)

(22) Ibid. , p. 93. (Text)

(23) Ibid. , p. 85. (Text)

(24) BASTA!, p. 90. (Text)

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