Printed below is a translation of the lead article from El Antiimperialista No. 1 (May 2023), the new press of our comrades of the Grupo Espartaquista de México. It is an edited version of the main motion voted at the GEM’s Ninth National Conference, which refounded the GEM on the authentic Trotskyist program of permanent revolution.
The main task of communists today is to forge, in opposition to the populists, a revolutionary leadership of the struggle against imperialism that is capable of leading it to victory. This is the essence of permanent revolution in Mexico. To carry out this task, we must show that only by breaking with the bourgeois-nationalist leaderships, particularly Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), will the working class be able to advance the struggle for its national and social aspirations. This requires destroying the lie that the national bourgeoisie—since it is also nationally oppressed—is a vehicle for achieving emancipation from the imperialist yoke and upholding the interests of the workers and peasants. With this deception, the trade-union bureaucracies and their left tails subordinate the workers movement to the bourgeoisie, leading it to one defeat after another.
To destroy this illusion, we have to show that the fundamental contradiction that characterizes AMLO’s populism is that despite the progressive reforms historically carried out by the bourgeoisie, it and its state have remained the main obstacle to social progress and the attainment of national emancipation. The central betrayal of the nationalist bourgeoisie has been to restrain the proletariat, the only force capable of achieving national liberation, in order to maintain its hegemony. What has been lacking throughout Mexican history, and what is lacking today, is a Trotskyist party that acts as a revolutionary pole in counterposition to the populist leaders of the working class. Such a pole can only be built by seeking to organize and push forward the struggle for the national and social emancipation of the country, showing at every step how populism stands as an obstacle to the liberation of the masses. The task of this national conference will be the refounding of the Mexican section with this perspective.
Lessons from the Mexican Revolution
Today’s Mexican society, the workers movement and the divisions between the wings of the bourgeoisie have been shaped to a large extent by the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the subsequent regime of Lázaro Cárdenas. Thus, it is essential to draw the right lessons from these events in order to understand and provide a revolutionary solution to today’s tasks and challenges for the proletarian vanguard.
The Mexican Revolution was a great peasant insurrection, which raised pointblank in a fundamental way the resolution of the agrarian question, as well as national emancipation and other burning democratic tasks. This rebellion of the dispossessed peasants was the result of social discontent accumulated after more than 30 years of the bloody dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. It initially converged with the interests of the powerful northern bourgeoisie—which sought regime change, but also the disappearance of the hacienda that was a brake on the development of capitalism in the countryside—and those of the asphyxiated petty bourgeoisie, linked to an internal market that could not flourish under the economic growth model promoted by Díaz. However, in very short order their interests clashed with those of the insurrectionary peasant masses, who fought for the egalitarian right to the use of and benefit from the land, putting an end to large land ownership in the countryside.
The national bourgeoisie did not have (and does not have) an independent role; it had to perform a balancing act between the imperialists on the one hand and the insurgent peasants and the entire Mexican people on the other. The U.S. imperialists played an important role in the development of the Mexican Revolution, granting significant material resources to different factions between 1910 and 1920 as it suited them. What they sought to prevent was the formation of a strong nationalist government.
The U.S. government initially supported the [Francisco I.] Madero opposition, since Porfirio Díaz had favored British and French corporations over U.S. ones in the last years of his regime. When Madero proved unable to contain the peasant rebellion that threatened imperialist interests in the country, a coup d’état headed by Victoriano Huerta was organized from the U.S. embassy itself, using the intact structure of the Díaz regime. The U.S. imperialists invaded Mexico in 1914 in support of [Venustiano] Carranza (when Huerta leaned toward British imperialism) and again during the 1916 punitive expedition against Francisco Villa.
Although the U.S. recognized the Carranza government in 1915, diplomatic relations gradually deteriorated to a point of total breakdown in the wake of the Constitutionalist Convention of 1917. The imperialists were hostile at every step to the progressive measures taken by the national bourgeoisie, no matter how partial and timid they were. It was not until 1923, during the government of Alvaro Obregón, that relations between the United States and Mexico were normalized, with the signing of the Bucareli Treaty, which guaranteed that the Constitution of 1917 could not be retroactively applied against U.S. interests.
The capture of Mexico City in December 1914 by the Ejército Libertador del Sur [Liberation Army of the South] and the División del Norte [Northern Division] marked the highest point of the peasant struggle but also the beginning of its decline. Due to the intermediate position of the peasants in society—a product of their nature as a class of small landowners whose interests are not independent of those of the two main classes in society—their leaders were unable to form a central power and develop a program for the transformation of society as a whole.
Although there was a working class in Mexico, it was dispersed and, more fundamentally, did not play an independent role during the revolutionary struggle, being subordinated either to the radical petty-bourgeois peasant program or that of the constitutionalist bourgeoisie. Some atomized workers fought in the División del Norte, while sugar mill workers were an essential part of the Zapatista base in the state of Morelos, and railroad workers helped transport Villa and Zapata’s forces in their campaigns. However, the small organized labor sector in the capital was subordinated to the bourgeois wing of Carranza/Obregón through their traitorous leaderships and used to suppress the peasant armies.
Contrary to the objectivist perspective held by the entire Mexican left, including the GEM previously, the fate of the Revolution was not predetermined. A revolutionary Marxist nucleus could have radically changed the course of the revolution, mobilizing the proletariat in defense of the land expropriations and calling for the implementation of Zapata’s program at the national level. Accomplishing this task would necessarily have posed the expropriation of the imperialist-owned means of production—as well as those of their local lackeys—and the seizure of power: socialist revolution backed by a peasant war. The struggle, in deeds, for a workers and peasants government would have sealed the alliance between these two classes without which a social revolution was simply impossible. It would have galvanized the peasant armies by presenting them with a way forward, split the constitutionalist army, wrenched the working class from its anarchist leadership and served as a beacon to the more powerful U.S. proletariat.
Although the peasant rebellion was finally crushed in blood and fire and its leaders assassinated, things did not return to the old status quo; the economic regime of the hacienda and the political power of the landlords was broken. Thus, the revolution eliminated some of the obstacles to the modernization of the country, allowing the national bourgeoisie a certain amount of room for maneuver with respect to the imperialists. The 1917 Constitution, promulgated in the aftermath of the defeat of the peasant armies, was perhaps one of the most radical of its time.
Against imperialist interests, it promulgated that the land, water and subsoil were the property of the nation. It also laid the legal basis for significant concessions to peasants and workers, such as agrarian land distribution, public education and labor rights. At the same time, due to its own weakness, growing imperialist pressure and fear of a new radical uprising, the national bourgeoisie found it necessary to resort to a series of bonapartist military caudillos—who claimed the mantle of revolution—to stabilize their regime.
Cardenismo: Obstacle to National Liberation
Despite the achievements of the Mexican Revolution, its fundamental tasks of agrarian revolution and national emancipation were not resolved. The masses of workers and peasants could see that and continued to seethe. The distribution of land and other beneficial measures granted by the populist governments of Obregón and [Plutarco Elías] Calles were not enough to contain the struggles and aspirations of the masses. The interests of the masses clashed with imperialist domination and the national bourgeois regime.
This situation, aggravated by the Great Depression, led to an upsurge of the workers and peasants during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas [1934-40]. He took advantage of this national context to expropriate the oil industry from the hands of the imperialists, in addition to carrying out a massive agrarian land distribution as never seen before in the country’s history. The antagonism between the U.S. and British imperialists, the imminence of World War II and, particularly, the intensification of the class struggle in the U.S. (which led to the formation of the CIO union federation in 1935) gave Cárdenas considerable room for maneuver to implement these measures.
The Mexican bourgeoisie balances precariously between the two decisive elements in the national economy: imperialist finance capital and the proletariat at home. The collision between these two forces determines the actions of the national bourgeoisie. Cárdenas carried out truly progressive measures, while resorting to semi-totalitarian methods to contain and discipline the masses. Trotsky explained:
Because of its intermediate position, the national bourgeoisie must rely on the masses to try to push back the imperialists. The more it tries to keep foreign finance capital at bay, the tighter its control over the masses must be so that they do not threaten its regime. Thus, Cárdenas created a corporatist structure to secure a base of support against the imperialists and reaction, while at the same time regimenting the workers’ and peasants’ organizations, which ended up integrated into the bourgeois Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM). Corporatism brought relative stability to the Mexican bourgeois regime, not only containing the outbreaks of discontent within limits acceptable to the capitalists, but ensuring, above all, that the national bourgeoisie kept in its hands the leadership of the struggle against imperialist capital.
The main lesson of the Cardenista period is precisely the need for a different leadership of this struggle, that is, a communist leadership. While the Mexican bourgeoisie is oppressed by the imperialists, it is tied to them by thousands of threads. Although the nationalizations of the oil and railroads—and other progressive measures—infuriated the imperialists, the bourgeoisie cannot challenge imperialist hegemony without challenging the basis of its own class domination: capitalist property. Its interests in the maintenance of private property make it incapable of completing the tasks of the Mexican Revolution: national emancipation and agrarian revolution.
The national bourgeoisie’s leadership of this struggle is, by the same token, fearful and limited, and will ultimately lead to betrayal. Liberating Mexico from imperialist oppression requires the working masses to wage struggle for their own interests, which would drive the national bourgeoisie into the arms of the imperialists. What Trotsky wrote about China in 1927 was and is also relevant to Mexico:
Class collaboration cedes the leadership of the struggle against the imperialists to the national bourgeoisie—a reactionary class. Those who advocate a return to Cardenismo are condemned to repeat the betrayal of the CTM union federation and the Partido Comunista Mexicano, which subordinated the exploited and oppressed masses to the national bourgeoisie, chaining them to the corporatist system and the PRM, in what Trotsky called the popular front in party form.
In contrast, Trotsky fought to forge a Mexican section of the Fourth International capable of competing with the national bourgeoisie for the leadership in the struggle against the imperialists. This meant both fighting to play the leading role in the defense of Mexico against the imperialists and accentuating at every step the clash between the national aspirations of the masses and the interests and role of the bourgeoisie, exposing how the bourgeoisie is an obstacle. To carry forward this perspective, it was vital to fight for the political independence of the proletariat, for revolutionary leaderships in the unions and for its complete independence from the capitalist state. It is by applying the lessons of this struggle by Trotsky to our present reality that we will be able to act as a revolutionary pole.
Populism Paves the Road to Reaction
One of the central lies pushed by the populists is that Mexico’s current devastation is due solely to neoliberal governments. Cárdenas and previous governments had to lean heavily on the masses, containing their struggles at every turn and breaking their momentum. The zigzagging of the national bourgeoisie is determined by the forces acting on it. It relies on the masses to push back the imperialists and put itself at the forefront of popular discontent. It relies on the imperialists to subjugate the masses and attract foreign capital. The alternation between neoliberal and populist governments does not represent a fundamental opposition. In fact, every Mexican government combines populist and neoliberal tendencies. The tendency that dominates in a given government is the one considered most appropriate to maintaining overall stability given the objective forces acting on the Mexican bourgeoisie.
With the capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the U.S. emerged as the undisputed hegemonic world power, allowing it to pursue its interests around the world with little resistance. Even earlier, amid the reactionary climate of the anti-communist Cold War II of the 1980s, after decades of subordination of the working class and provocation of the Mexican debt crisis [that began in 1982], the imperialists pushed for greater incursions and openness to their predation. Thus, the U.S. imperialists imposed “neoliberal reforms” that destroyed unions, privatized most nationalized industry, attacked public education and the public health and pension system and eliminated previous protectionism. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—which came into effect in 1994—meant the unrestricted pillaging of Mexico and brought about the devastation of the countryside and national industry.
The majority of the ruling PRI worked hand in hand with the imperialists and implemented these attacks, undermining the corporatist structure on which the stability of their regime had rested. This paved the way for the election of the right-wing PAN, thus fulfilling what Trotsky predicted regarding oil nationalization: “Military or even purely economic pressure from abroad, together with an unfavorable international relationship of forces for Mexico, that is, defeats and retreats of the world proletariat, may force this country to take a step backward” (“Ignorance Is Not a Revolutionary Instrument” [January 1939]).
Throughout more than three decades, the attacks on the historic conquests of the Mexican masses generated outbursts and mobilizations. The populist bourgeoisie, first under Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (who split from the PRI when it made its neoliberal turn [to found the PRD]) and later under AMLO (who split from the PRD when it abandoned its populism), took the lead in these struggles, making sure that the masses did not challenge the regime and the imperialists. To defeat the attacks, a confrontation to the death with the imperialists and their local lackeys was necessary—for example, occupying the plants and refineries against the privatization of oil—which would have posed pointblank the need for the working class to take the reins of the country. Instead, the populist bourgeoisie channeled the discontent toward “peaceful civil resistance” and voting in the elections as the way forward, for which they counted on the invaluable help of the union bureaucracies.
Once again, the lesson of this period is that the program of the populists paralyzed the struggle against the imperialists and that even to defend the most elementary gains a communist leadership counterposed to the dead end of populism is essential.
The Struggle for Communist Leadership Today
AMLO’s victory in 2018 was, on the one hand, a product of the discontent of the proletariat, the peasantry and all the oppressed after decades of neoliberal attacks, as well as a distorted reflection of their aspirations for social and national emancipation. At the same time, the dominant U.S. position in the world is under pressure, and the U.S. imperialists have for a while had their attention focused on Russia and, primarily, China. In this context, the U.S. has so far avoided a major conflict with the Mexican government. This gives the populists some room to maneuver, and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric comes cheap.
One of the most pernicious illusions is that AMLO represents a step in the right direction. But what has his role really been? While López Obrador has been very effective in controlling discontent and the social outbursts are not like those faced by Cárdenas, this bourgeois government similarly relies on the proletarian and oppressed masses to increase the degree of autonomy of the Mexican bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the imperialists. Thus, it has carried out measures in favor of the modernization of the country and in defiance of imperialist subordination, such as the nationalization of lithium, the construction of the Dos Bocas refinery, the purchase of Deer Park [refinery in Texas], etc., and the granting of support to the peasants, students, the elderly and other sectors.
However, the López Obrador regime does not pose a fundamental challenge to the imperialists, as can be clearly seen with its support for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). At the same time, the regime has politically subordinated the workers movement, exploiting illusions in a populist alternative, and has sought to regiment it in various ways: strengthening state control over the unions with labor reform, advancing the militarization of the country and taking advantage of the pandemic to further subordinate the masses to the interests of the bourgeoisie.
What is needed is a revolutionary leadership capable of taking the struggle against imperialism beyond the limits imposed by the populists. A concrete example of how to fight for this leadership is presented by the electrical reform proposed by López Obrador. This sought to give Mexico an advantage in electricity generation and marketing over the imperialists, drawing furious opposition from the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys in Mexico. A year ago, the reform was defeated in [the Mexican] Congress; now the Mexican government seeks to implement it through a “plan B,” by buying thirteen power plants from Iberdrola, which would give the CFE [Federal Electricity Commission] a majority of the output.
If this purchase is carried out, it would be a de facto nationalization with compensation of these plants. In response, the imperialists have issued an ultimatum for Mexico to open its energy market and accept greater oversight, in accordance with the USMCA, or else they will impose millions in tariffs, threatening to reverse the purchase. Leaving this fight in the hands of the populists calls the nationalization into question and leaves it to their vacillations.
We Trotskyists must fight to mobilize the working class to implement AMLO’s reform and to defend it against the imperialists, while preserving our political independence and agitating to carry it out through revolutionary methods of class struggle. This reform is minimal and clearly not our program, but it is beneficial to the national sovereignty of Mexico. The masses see in López Obrador and the Morena party the force that can carry out this type of measure. The union leaderships (SUTERM [electrical workers], SNTE [education workers], etc.) support AMLO politically, making sure that workers do not overstep the limits imposed by him, and mobilize them under his leadership.
Because of their role in holding back the working class, the populists are an obstacle to fighting even for this limited measure of national emancipation. At the same time that we fight for this reform, we must warn that AMLO will sabotage the struggle for national emancipation at every turn, just as he did a year and a half ago when he kowtowed to the imperialists and their lackeys in Congress. Besides, AMLO wants to make the workers and peasants pay these thieves. We say: Nationalization without compensation! Not a single peso to Iberdrola!
Against the imperialist threats, this reform must be secured: the working class must take over the plants until this happens! If AMLO gives in to the U.S. campaign, it will clearly show the bankruptcy of populism. If carried out, the question is raised: Why accept USMCA’s imperialist supervision? In either case, populism is exposed as an obstacle and the need for communist leadership in the struggle against imperialism is posed: To hell with the dispute resolution panels! Mexico out of USMCA! Abolish the debt! For the expropriation of the entire energy sector under workers control!
The fight against the imperialist oppressors demands an internationalist program that jointly mobilizes the working class and oppressed in Mexico—and those in the rest of Latin America—with their class brothers and sisters in the U.S. against their common enemy: U.S. imperialism. The oppressed peoples can achieve their emancipation only through the revolutionary overthrow of imperialism; this task requires an alliance between the world proletariat and the neocolonial peoples. The anti-Yankee nationalism of the populists is an obstacle to this perspective. While this nationalism has a progressive character insofar as it is directed against the imperialists, it also serves to pit the Mexican masses against all Americans, depriving workers and the oppressed of a crucial lever in their struggle against U.S. domination: the powerful working class north of the Río Bravo/Rio Grande.
Unity of the oppressed Latin American peoples with the proletariat of the imperialist centers is impossible under the leadership of AMLO and the other representatives of the Latin American national bourgeoisies, who are agents of foreign capital. This unity is only possible under the banner of a reforged Fourth International. As Trotsky explained:
Reforge a Mexican section of the ICL that Trotsky would recognize as his own! For the victory of the anti-imperialist struggle through a workers and peasants government!