The Mexican Communist Party:

Founded 100 Years Ago — Gone Since 1981

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El Machete, newspaper of the Mexican Communist Party, in 1937 at the height of the Popular Front.

The Mexican Communist Party, founded on November 24, 1919, would, had it survived, be one hundred years old this year. Its history demonstrates both the early idealistic aspirations and the later tragic failure of the Communist International in Latin America.[1] While many elements of its history are unique, still the PCM’s experience largely typifies the problems that derived from the direction of the Bolshevik Party, the Communist International, and the government of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky and later under Stalin, and their successors. The Communist rank-and-file members often played heroic roles throughout the party’s history as leaders of worker and peasant movements, though the early period’s zigzagging political directions and the later period’s absolute subordination to the Soviet Union and deference to the Mexican state, corrupted the party’s ideals and vitiated its effectiveness. With Latin America in turmoil today, the Communist tradition, especially as exemplified in the Mexican CP, offers little as a model for the future, though by studying its history we might avoid some of its pitfalls of the past.

The Communist International, of which the Mexican Communist Party was an early affiliate, was formed in response the political crisis that resulted form the First World War. The horrors of the Great War, as it was called, with millions killed by machine guns and poison gas or dying from disease in the trenches, led to a revolutionary wave throughout Europe and to reverberations around the world. The Russian Revolution of October 1917, a combination of mutiny in the army and navy, peasant uprisings, and workers’ strikes, together with the Bolshevik Party’s seizure of power on behalf of the workers’ councils (soviets) started a European chain reaction. Revolutionary movements overthrew the governments of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, while socialist revolutionaries took power briefly in Bavaria and Hungary. Around the world leftists and labor movements looked to the example of the Bolsheviks, though as the French-Russian revolutionary Victor Serge noted, no one outside of Russia had any idea what Bolshevism meant.[2]

The Socialist International, made up of the world’s socialist parties, had collapsed in August 1914 with the outbreak of the World War, when most of those parties — breaking their promises of international solidarity — supported their national governments. French socialists went off to fight German socialists in what was then the greatest bloodbath in history. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party, and other socialists met during the war on neutral territory in an attempt to lay the foundation for a new revolutionary socialist international. When the war ended the Bolsheviks, now holding power in Russia, called the founding congress of the Communist International (or Comintern) in March of 1919. Focused on Europe, the Comintern leaders knew next to nothing about Latin America, though the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) had caught their attention.

The Origins of the Mexican Communist Party

The Communist International dispatched its organizers to Europe, Asia, and Latin America to organize national Communist Parties along the lines of the Bolshevik Party. To Latin America the International sent Mikhail Borodin, with a suitcase full of Tsarist jewels to finance his efforts, though the suitcase filched from him in Cuba. Borodin went on to Mexico where he made the acquaintance of the American “slacker,” that is, war resister, Charles Francis Phillips, a Columbia University anti-war activist in exile, and M.N. Roy, an Indian nationalist in Mexico to make contact with the German military in order to get arms for the Indian independence movement.[3]

The three of them worked with Adolfo Santibañez, leader of the tiny Mexican Socialist Party made up a handful of labor activists to found a Mexican Communist Party.[4] Another founder and central figure was José Allen, an agent of U.S. Military Intelligence.[5] There was also briefly a rival Communist Party of Mexico led by the American huckster Linn A.E. Gale, but Borodin, the Communist International’s agent, rejected his organization. Borodin’s chosen group then founded the Mexican Communist Party in November 1919 and sent Phillips and Roy to the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow which lasted from July 19 to August 7, 1920, though upon arrival, M.N. Roy ceased to represent Mexico and became the delegate for India.[6]

Unlike the European Communist Parties, which had been formed one way or another out of their nation’s dominant labor tradition, the old mass Socialist Parties, together with the adhesion of some anarchists and syndicalists as well, the Mexican Communist Party had not been formed out of Mexico’s dominant anarchist tradition but rather grew out of the tiny and largely irrelevant Socialist Party. In truth, the early Communist Party was more an organizing committee than a party.

When Phillips returned to Mexico, he and his collaborators in the fledgling PCM began to establish a base among workers and peasants. Operating, however, during the last days of the violent period of the Mexican Revolution, the Communists were hard pressed to compete with the new Mexican state and its nationalist ideology. In 1921 the Mexican government of Álvaro Obregón, tired of the foreign troublemakers, expelled all of the American slackers and and the alien anarchists.

The Comintern continued to view Mexico, then in the last throes of revolution and sharing a border with the United States, as an important destination for its agents. A decision was made to send Phillips back to Mexico again together with Louis Fraina, a founder of the American Communist Party, and Sen Katayama, the Japanese Communist in exile. Fraina left Mexico not long after arriving and the task of building the party fell to Katayama, who spoke English but no Spanish. They found themselves operating in a world of fervent anarchists and Mexican nationalists and largely rejected by both.

Beginning in March of 1921, Katayama directed Phillips, who operating clandestinely either made or deepened contacts with miners, railroad workers, oil workers, and recruited some to the party. The International’s organizers recruited one important Mexican labor leftist, Manuel Díaz Ramirez and a few score of other activist, but the mission of establishing a party failed. The Communists did not understand the powerful hold that the Mexican Revolutionary government and nationalist ideology had on the country; nor did they take into account local conditions. In 1921, Katayama left Mexico for Moscow, where, impressed by his experience, he told the Comintern that Mexico was the gateway to Latin America.[7]

The United Front Frustrated

The Communist International’s strategy of the early 1920s was the “united front,” that is, alliances with other socialist and labor organizations. The Mexican Communists therefore worked with the Mexican branch of the Industrial Workers of the World and with the anarchists in the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) until 1921 when Soviet Russia’s suppression of the Russian anarchists made cooperation between Communists and anarchists in Mexico virtually impossible.[8]

The PCM’s members then left the CGT and joined the government-backed Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) where they acted as a left opposition. The Communists formed alliances too with important peasant leaders, notably Úrsulo Galván and Heriberto Jara in Veracruz and Primo Tapia in Michoacán, but the PCM found it hard to compete with the attractions of the Mexican revolutionary government.

The period of 1919 to 1924 was one of great political confusion caused by the PCM’s leaders’ ambitious attempt to comprehend and to adopt the Communist International’s famous twenty-one conditions, adhere to the United Front policy, struggle politically against the anarchists, break with the reformists and centrists, and fight the bourgeoisie. The Mexican Communist Party briefly adopted a position of “transforming the Mexican Revolution into a proletarian revolution,” though that formulation still left vague the question of the Mexican state: Was it or was it not a capitalist state? And at the same time the party, like the anarchists, called upon Mexican workers to avoid participating in political parties as the coming election approached.[9]

In 1923, Bertram Wolfe, another American Communist fleeing persecution in the United States, arrived in Mexico City, began to work with the Communist Party, and soon become its chief intellectual and political leader. He also became a Mexican delegate to the Comintern’s Fifth Congress in July 1924. During this period the party’s influence grew among intellectuals and artists. The PCM attracted a group of radical, young painters, among them Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozo who formed the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. Their union published El Machete, which subsequently became the party’s newspaper.

At first the Mexican Communist Party opposed participation in elections, but by the mid-1920s the Comintern had pressured them to become involved in politics. Under Wolfe’s, the party plunged into politics, supporting the Sonoran Dynasty — Álvaro Obregó, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Adolfo de la Huerta — that now ruled Mexico. When de la Huerta, supported by much of the left, rebelled against Mexican President Álvaro Obregón, Wolfe convinced the party to back Obregón in order to obtain arms for the peasant groups with which it worked.

In the subsequent national election, Obregón chose Calles to be his successor in the presidency. Wolfe pushed the Communist Party to campaign “…actively for Calles, presenting him as a popular figure, a labor candidate, and even a socialist who was supported by the overwhelming majority of workers and peasants.”[10] Despite its support for the ruling clique, the Sonoran Dynasty, as it was called, the government declared the party illegal in 1925.

The Communists did not see the Mexican state as a capitalist, but rather as a revolutionary government that they might influence. By 1926, the party’s strategy, now developed by the Swiss Edgar Woog, the Communist International’s agent, was defined as defending the Mexican revolutionary government against U.S. imperialism, critically supporting Calles as the representative of a “cooperative” republic based on an alliance between the petty bourgeoisie, workers, and peasants, while at the same time working to build the Communist Party.[11]

Several things stand out in the first decade of Mexican Communism from 1918 to 1928. First, the Mexican Communist Party had been grafted on to the small and insignificant Socialist Party, rather than growing from the dominant anarchist labor movement. Consequently, it began as a propaganda sect, though it attempted to behave as a party. Second, the Comintern’s agents played a dominant role in the early PCM, from Borodin, to Katayama, to Wolfe and Woog. In this period, Mexican leaders such as Manuel Díaz and Rafael Carrillo, often did not exert as much influence as the foreigners. Third, the PCM supported the Mexican revolutionary government of Obregón and Calles, arguing that they were anti-imperialist and progressive, even though the state upheld the existing capitalist economy and despite the fact that both presidents worked to crush or incorporate and subordinate rebellious labor and social movements. In particular, the two presidents collaborated with Luis N. Morones, the corrupt leader of the CROM, to destroy the CGT in which both anarchists and Communists had been involved, and to thwart the Communists efforts in the CROM. Fourth, while the party grew a little, it remained quite small. In 1925 it had just 200 members in a nation of 16.5 million inhabitants.

Bolshevization and The Third Period

With the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in 1925, under the direction of Georgi Zinoviev the Comintern began a process called “Bolshevization.” The Comintern’s affiliated parties were to replicate the Russian Communist Party, which had by that time become a top-down, centralized organization. Bolshevization was not only organizational also political, accompanied by attacks on the ideas of Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Given the relative insignificance of Mexico on the International’s agenda compared with Europe and China, as well as the small size and weakness of the Mexican Communist Party, Bolshevization not have much of an immediate impact, but it began to give the PCM an authoritarian character and it paved the way for the Stalinist era that soon followed.

Beginning in 1928 with the Sixth Congress of the Communist International now dominated by Joseph Stalin, policies and posture changed abruptly. The Comintern argued that capitalism was in its final crisis and that Communist parties everywhere must take the lead in organizing revolutionary movements. The slogan of this “Third Period” was now: “Class against class.” The Communist International declared that the Socialist Parties, labor parties, and labor unions were in reality “social fascists” who had to be fought and destroyed. Ultra left and sectarian, now it was the Communists against everyone else.[12]

In Mexico this meant the party had to give up its support of President Calles and abandon its support for various leftwing governors and mayors. The Communists denounced individuals and organizations with which they had formerly worked in the fight for both greater democracy and social justice. The party constantly criticized and repudiated Adelberto Tejeda, governor of Veracruz, one of the most important leftist political leaders in the country. The Mexican Communists walked away from other political parties as well as labor and peasant organizations, and now organized two front groups: a new electoral coalition, the Worker-Peasant Bloc (BOC) and a new labor federation, the Unitary Trade Union Confederation of Mexico (CSUM). The abrupt change in line led to resignations and expulsions of labor union leaders, intellectuals, and politicians.

The PCM also changed its position on Latin American struggles, denouncing Augusto Sandino, leader of an armed guerrilla movement resisting the U.S. Marines in Nicaragua whom it had previously supported, calling him a traitor to the fight for national liberation.

The Mexican government falsely accused the Communists of supporting the Escobarista armed revolt of 1929, an uprising against the central government. With this pretext, President Emilio Portes Gill directed the Mexican army and police to crush not only the revolt but also the Communists, and several of the latter were killed while others were sent off to the Isla Marías penal colony in the Pacific. The government suppressed El Machete, arrested and briefly held party leader Rafael Carrillo, and expelled Cuban Communists in Mexico. Mexico also broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which routinely used its embassies to help organize the various Communist Parties.

All of this forced the party to go underground from 1930 to 1934, where despite the attacks it maintained a membership of about 1,400, though with a high rate of turnover. While the party made some gains among agricultural workers in La Laguna and organized among officers and soldiers in the military, it was largely isolated during this period.[13]

The Popular Front

With Adolf Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, the Communist International once again suddenly changed its line to what would be called the “Popular Front.” The Communists now sought alliances not only with socialist and labor parties, but also with petty bourgeois and even capitalist parties in order to resist the rise of the far right and above all to defend the Soviet Union. Fearing that Hitler would invade the Soviet Union, Stalin wanted to make possible international alliances with Great Britain, France, and the United States; he wanted to place himself on the side of the democratic imperial powers against the Fascist-Nazi-Japanese Axis Powers.

The Comintern’s adoption of the Popular Front coincided in Mexico with the inauguration of the left-nationalist Lázaro Cárdenas in December 1934. The Cárdenas years saw the greatest worker and peasant mobilizations in the history of Mexico and of all of Latin America.[14] The Mexican Communist Party played an important role in union organization and the formation of peasant leagues, in strikes and in land seizures.

During the Comintern’s Third Period, the PCM had at first characterized Cárdenas as a “fascist.” But by mid-June 1935 the line had changed and he had become a progressive deserving of Communist support. At the same time, the new president ended the government’s repression of the Communist Party whose prisoners were liberated from the penitentiaries. Communists could now organize openly and they built significant worker and peasant organizations in the midst of a national working class upheaval comparable to those in Spain, France, and the United States in the same period.

The Mexican Communist Party played a key role in the emerging National Union of Petroleum Workers and its clash with Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, a conflict used as the pretext by Cárdenas to buy and to nationalize all of the foreign oil companies in Mexico. The PCM also supported and participated in Cárdenas’ expropriation of hacienda land and its distribution to indigenous and peasant ejidos, state-owned lands leased in perpetuity to those who worked them.

The Popular Front strategy called upon the Communists to become part of a political alliance, such as it had done in France in May of 1936 in forming part of the coalition that elected Léon Blum. In Mexico, however, Cárdenas had reorganized and renamed the ruling, now calling it the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM). The PRM was based on the four pillars of the labor unions, the peasant leagues, the public employees and self-employed, and the army. Unlike France, there was no parliamentary coalition, so the PCM did not fit into this schema.[15]

There was no popular front to join and in any case the Communists had no parliamentary delegates and no way to directly influence the PRM leadership or shape the PRM program. The Communists did run for office though some were elected as member of the Confederation Mexican Workers (CTM), not as Communists. Even then they succeeded in electing just two federal delegates and several local delegates.[16] Nevertheless, the Mexican Communists enthusiastically supported Cárdenas, who rewarded them with secondary government posts in a few government agencies, such as the Education Department.

By 1938, the Communists had nearly 20,000 members, most of them industrial workers, teachers, peasants, students and government employees. The Communists represented a real force in the labor movement, though they sometimes collaborated with and at other times competed with two other groups. One was led by Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a labor intellectual who had become Stalin’s man in Latin America, though he didn’t get along with the Mexican Communists. The other was headed by Fidel Velázquez Sanchez, a former milkman and a conservative business unionist. Out of the unification of these three there came in 1937 the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

But the PCM union leaders and their more militant union members bridled at their subordination to the other two cliques, a rebellion threatened to disrupt the CTM. The Comintern agent Vittorio Codovilla and Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, both intervened and forced the PCM to accept its subordinate role. Lombardo Toledano, then became the head of the CTM. At the Mexican Communist Party Congress that followed, the party adopted the slogan and policy of “Unity at All Cost,” meaning it would subordinate its own politics to those of the Cárdenas government and the CTM labor bureaucracy. Mexican Communist historian Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo argued that “unity at all costs” had “inaugurated the long crisis of the PCM, which weakened its class consciousness and its political independence and introduced into the party practices alien to the revolutionary working class.”[17]

As the period ended the Mexican Communist Party entered into a deep crisis, a result of disappointment in the party’s role under Cárdenas, widespread revulsion at the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed in 1939, and reaction against the authoritarian methods used to purge the party. After the Hitler-Stalin Pact the party’s membership fell from 13,747 to just 1,316.[18] Labor leaders and other activists resigned or drifted away and the party’s membership and influence decreased.[19] Discontent in the party was rife.

In 1940, the Mexican Communist Party, now thoroughly Stalinized, expelled two of its outstanding leaders: Hernán Laborde y Valentín Campa, among several others. These and other dissidents who were expelled or resigned went on in 1950 to found United Socialist Action (ASU) and later the Mexican Worker and Peasant Party (POCM), ironically still committed to both “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism” and to support for the Soviet Union. The dissident Communists sought unity of action with the PCM, though that proved difficult to achieve. The PCM labeled the POCM “Trotskyist” and refused to cooperate with it.

The result of the Popular Front was the subordination of the Communist Party to both President Cárdenas’ Party of the Mexican Revolution and in the labor movement to Lombardo Toledano and Fidel Velázquez of the CTM. The CP’s role in the Cárdenas government, where it was given jobs in the Secretary of Education, also led to corruption and to careerism, which in turn ultimately caused the demoralization of many of the party’s activists. When the 1940 election came along, the Communists declined to support the radical Francisco Múgica, a friend and advisor to Cárdenas, labeling Múgica a Trotskyist. Ultimately the PCM backed the choice of the PRM leadership, the conservative Manuel Ávila Camacho. And six years later the party would also support Miguel Alemán the candidate of the state-party now renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PCM had become a left buttress of the ruling state-party.

As Barry Carr has written, Lázaro Cárdenas’ six-years in office transformed the economy in such a way that it ultimately “smoothed the path for capital accumulation.”[20] Cárdenas also revamped the ruling state-party in such a way that it became more powerful and better able to dominate the restive working class and peasantry. He incorporated the labor unions, peasant leagues, and public employees into the party and brought them under its control. Cárdenas had strengthened both the capitalist state and the capitalist economy and the Mexican Communist Party had played a major role in his success. So in the following period, the Communists would find themselves confronting the very party and system that they had helped to create. The PCM would for the most part face the Mexican government with the same Popular Front strategy that — with the exception of the brief Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 until June 1941 — they pursued until the party’s extinction in 1981.

While the PCM pursued the Popular Front strategy, it also became drawn into the Stalin’s plan to assassinate Leon Trotsky. At the urging of painter Diego Rivera, Lázaro Cárdenas, assisted by Francisco Múgica, had given Trotsky asylum in Mexico, despite protests from the PCM, which following the Soviet line accused Trotsky of being a Nazi. Stalin’s secret police organization, the GPU, working with Spanish, South American, and Mexican Communists made two attempts on the life of Trotsky. The first led by David Alfaro Siqueiros involved a group of armed men who broke into the Trotsky house and fired scores of rounds, but failed to kill the dissident Communist. The second involved Ramón Mercader, a Spanish Communist who had been raised in France and trained in Soviet Russia, who succeeded in August of 1940 in murdering Trotsky.[21]

The Mexican Communists in the Cold War

During World War II, Mexico joined with the Allied Powers — the United States, Great Britain, the Free French, China, and the Soviet Union — in the war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Mexico contributed resources and troops to the war effort, which was enthusiastically supported by the Mexican Communists because of Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June of 1941. With the end of the war, the United States, now the dominant power of world capitalism, confronted the Soviet Union, which had become the center of a vast world Communist movement that now extended from East Germany to China. By 1947, the Cold War between the two rival powers dominated the world’s politics and had a significant impact in Mexico.

The U.S. State Department exerted its influence to bring Mexico and the rest of Latin America into line with its anti-Communist policies, and the Mexican ruling party went along without resistance. The Mexican government purged Communists and lombaridstas from their positions in the Education Department and other offices. The party lost its registration in 1946 because it couldn’t prove that it had 30,000 members, though it is unclear whether that was because it didn’t have that many members or didn’t want to turn over its membership lists to the government for fear of repression. PCM records indicate it had 8,249 members, though less than 5,000 had a voter’s credential.[22]

Lombardo Toledano, Stalin’s man in Latin America, though not a member of the PCM, resigned his office as head of the CTM in 1941 and was succeeded by Fidel Velázquez, whose faction expelled Lombardo from the federation in 1948. Lombardo, now outside of the CTM and therefor also excluded from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), founded his own political party first called the Socialist League and then the Popular Party and later the Popular Socialist Party. In effect, this gave Mexico three Stalinist Communist Parties, the PCM, the POCM, and the PP, all — though divided against each other — fundamentally committed to the Popular Front approach, which meant critical support for the Mexican government, in its opposition to imperialism and its progressive social programs. The Communists believed that they would eventually be able to elect delegates to the Chamber of Deputies and with growing labor union power be able to peacefully change the Mexican political system.

The PCM and the PP (the lombardistas) in July 1951 established the National Democratic and Anti-Imperialist Front (FNDA) to support Lombardo Toledano for president. But the situation became complicated when Miguel Hernández Henriquez, a general in the revolution, friend of former president Lázaro Cárdenas, and a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) decided to run for president. He created the Federation of the Mexican People’s Parties, which incorporated such leftwing forces as Francisco’s Múgica’s followers. Henriquez[23] and his Federation had no interest, however, in any alliance with the PCM and the PP, which they considered to be weak and whose political program was not theirs. With that development, Lombardo and the PP began to lean toward the PRI’s conservative candidate Adolfo Ruíz Cortines. So the coalition turned out to be a fiasco, and in any case the PRI won overwhelmingly, by fair means or foul, and a number of Henriquez’ followers were killed.[24]

In the mid-1950s events in Soviet Union roiled the global Communist movement, including Mexico. While Stalin had dissolved the Communist International in 1943 in order to assuage concerns of his British, French, and American allies, in fact the Soviet Union’s Communist Party continued to dictate policy to the national Communist Parties around the world. Latin American Communists, Mexicans among them, continued to follow the line set in the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought Nikita Khrushchev to power. In February of 1956, Khrushchev made his “secret speech” titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” in which he made the then shocking revelation of Joseph Stalin’s widespread use of terror against Communists and others in the Soviet Union. Obtained by the Western press, the speech was leaked and published around the world; the revelations led to discussions in the national Communist Parties and in Mexico in 1957. Everywhere there were mass resignations by disillusioned Communists.

Khrushchev called for reforms, but while Stalin was removed from his place in the Communist Pantheon, second only to Lenin, Stalinism as a social system remained. That is, the bureaucratic collectivist system of one-party rule over a nationalized economy, with no right to freedom of speech or press, no right to either social protest or the organization of any other political party or independent labor union, remained in place. And while the worst elements of Stalin’s terror finally ended, the existence of the authoritarian police state did not. The Mexican Communist Party accepted the Khrushchev revelations and “the thaw” that accompanied it, and like its Soviet model, the PCM remained a top-down party where the leaders handed down the line to the members.[25]

The Mexican left was put to a test in 1959 with the outbreak of a national strike of the Railroad Workers Union (STFRM) with its 100,000 members led by Demetrio Vallejo and Valentín Campa of the POCM but also supported by railroad worker leaders from the Communist Party and from Lombardo’s Popular Party. While there was for a while a liaison committee to coordinate their efforts, it broke down even before the strike began. The Mexican government and the U.S. State Department both interpreted the strike as tantamount to a national insurrection portending a revolution. Mexican President López Mateos sent the army to break the strike: as many as 50,000 railroad workers were arrested, 800 were held in jail, 150 were accused of being Communist agitators and sent to prison for anywhere from several months to Valentín Campa’s sentence of 11 years. Over 9,000 workers were fired and 15,000 lost their job classification or their seniority.[26]

The crushing of the 1959 railroad strike forced Communists to consider whether their historic critical support for the Mexican state made sense. Only at its Thirteenth Party Congress in 1960 would the PCM adopt a more critical outlook for the first time since its founding calling for a new revolution — not a socialist revolution, but a “democratic revolution” accompanied by “national liberation.”[27] Still, that formula did not represent a fundamental break with the Popular Front, and soon the Mexican Communist Party would once again find itself in a Popular Front with Lázaro Cárdenas.

At the same time, the Mexican Communists were challenged by a new development on the left, the Cuban Revolution of 1959. In Cuba, Fidel Castro and his July 26 Movement, a small guerrilla organization, succeeded in overthrowing the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban Revolution represented a fundamental challenge to the Soviet Union’s position of “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism and to the Communist Parties’ Popular Front approach to the political struggle for power through peaceful parliamentary means. Castro and the M-26–7 guerrillas had organized the violent overthrow and destruction of the old Cuban state and then began the nationalization of industry and agriculture. Mexican Communists and others on the left in Latin America and throughout the world now asked themselves, “Could we do the same?” Castro’s comrade Ernesto “Che” Guevara took on the role of advocate for guerrilla warfare throughout the Third World to overthrow the imperial powers and capitalism.

Within a couple of years, Castro had proclaimed himself a socialist and aligned himself with the Soviet camp. As Cuba nationalized U.S. investors’ property in Cuba, the United States imposed an embargo in 1960. Then in 1961 the United States organized an attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow the Cuban government with an invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Mexican youth, thrilled by the Cuban Revolution, began to form new revolutionary groups whose model was not the Soviet Union, but revolutionary Cuba. The Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party government took upon itself the role of advocate and defender of Cuba and as mediator with the United States. In exchange, the Cuban government refrained from training and supplying Cuban-inspired guerrilla groups in Mexico as it did for pro-Cuba groups from other countries.

In response to the Cuban Revolution and to the new ferment in Mexico, former president Lázaro Cárdenas came out of retirement and began to work politically to support Cuba and to change Mexico. Cárdenas, had gone to celebrate the inauguration of the Cuban Revolution with Castro, and then had come back to Mexico praise the revolution before enormous crowds. Cárdenas wanted to take advantage of the new wave of radicalism to try to move Mexico back in the direction of his government of the late 1930s. On August 5, 1961, Cárdenas, joined by the Mexican Communist Party and other leftists groups and individuals, founded the National Liberation Movement (MLN). The MLN, while calling for solidarity with Cuba, also spoke up for workers and peasants, and criticized the Mexican government. These developments worried both the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department. As one authority writes:

Faced with the increasing radicalism of one of Mexico’s living heroes, President Adolfo López Mateos had to find a way to contain Cárdenas and the MLN without betraying the PRI’s revolutionary roots. He did so through a calculated policy of coaxing, co-opting and brutally suppressing the left, while skillfully avoiding damage to the fragile political equilibrium on which the party depended to maintain power.[28]

The MLN, including the Communist Party, put up candidates for state and local elections. When Cárdenas came out in support of the PRI’s presidential candidate Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, to its credit the Communist Party broke with Cárdenas.[29] The Mexican left proved unable to either force the PRI to put up a leftist candidate or to mount an independent left campaign, and consequently Díaz Ordaz of the ruling PRI won the election with 88.8 percent of the vote, while the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) received the rest. The MLN virtually disappeared after by 1965.

At about the same time as Castro and Che were roiling Latin America with Cuban inspired and assisted guerrilla groups, yet another Communist tendency developed. When Khrushchev denounced the crimes of Stalin in 1956, Mao Tse-tung continued to defend Stalin as a great leader. Then in 1960 Mao publicly denounced the Soviet concept of peaceful coexistence, calling for worldwide revolution based on “protracted war.” Finally, in the spring of 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in reality a violent struggle for power among Chinese elites, but in theory the country’s underdogs unleashed in a fight against the top dogs. Maoism became a global phenomenon and by the mid-1960s former pro-Soviet Communists left their parties to form Maoist parties based on “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism-Mao Tse-tung Thought.”[30] So too in Mexico, Maoist groups arose and began to go to the people, into peasant villages, industrial factories, and urban neighborhoods to organize a revolution.

So by the late 1960s, Mexico had several different Communist tendencies — pro-Soviet, Fidelista, and Maoist — though young radicals often mixed elements of all three together with indigenous radical traditions and created dozens of leftwing groups with eclectic politics that became involved in both legal and illegal activities. The more moderate PCM with about 50,000 members was the largest, but not necessarily the most active. Some of these young radicals began to engage in violent terrorist activity, while others organized in the miners union or rallied peasants to fight for land, water, and electricity in city slums. By the mid-1960s, Mexico seethed with radical currents and youth discontent.

The Mexican Communist Party responded to the experiences of the railroad workers’ defeat in 1958–59, the failure of the MLN, and the student and popular uprising of 1968 by beginning to change its attitude toward the Mexican state. The PCM now characterized the Mexican state as capitalist and dominated by the big bourgeoisie organized in monopolies and linked to high finance and to foreign capital. The Communists also identified a national bourgeoisie involved in the national market, as well as a petty-bourgeoisie conducting local business.[31] The PCM, as we have note, spoke about the need for “a new revolution,” though not a socialist revolution. The Mexican Communists advocated, “a popular-democratic, anti-imperialist revolution.”[32] All of this was to take place through a peaceful, democratic process. So, while the party now talked of “revolution,” clearly the PCM was looking for a new way to form an alliance with “popular-democratic” forces, that is to say, a new version of the Popular Front that it still saw as its strategic outlook.

During this period, the author José Revueltas, who had been a member of the Communist Party from 1928 to 1943, published in 1962 his book An Essay on the Headless Proletariat in which he argued that not only was the Mexican Communist Party not a working class party, but that it had an obstacle to the creation of an independent party of the working class. Revueltas criticized both its subservience to the Stalinist Soviet Union and Communist International, but also its subordination to the Mexican state-party. As he wrote, “the constitution of an independent working class [is] the key point, essential in contemporary Mexico’s class relations.”[33] Ignored by the Communists, Revueltas work would find an audience among the young Trotskyists who went on to found the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) a decade later.

The Years of Reform: 1968–1988

The 1960s saw both a population boom and a profound social change as the children and grandchildren of the Mexican revolution began to move to larger cities and to enter the universities and workplaces of Mexico. In late 1968, what was initially a student movement for democracy grew into a broader social movement supported by workers, peasants, housewives and, and Mexicans from all walks of life. Taking advantage of the world focus on Mexico because of the Olympic games being held there, the students and their supporters organized mass protests from August through October in solidarity with Cuba and calling for greater democracy in Mexico.

On October 6, 1968 as almost ten thousand people gathered at Tlatelolco, also known as the Plaza of the Three Cultures, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered the police to open fire on the protestors; they killed hundreds. The government’s repression continued a few years later when police colluded with a paramilitary organization to carry out the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971, where 120 mostly student protestors were murdered.

During this period, when the Soviet Union and four other countries of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring movement for democracy, the Mexican Communist Party to its credit criticized the USSR and the Warsaw nations for trying to crush a movement to reform and to democratize socialism.[34] The Mexican Communists’ break with the Soviet Union on this issue was significant, though it should also be seen as part of the turn to Eurocommunism and the transformation of the PCM into a social democratic party

Throughout the 1970s the ruling PRI continued to face a restive population with labor insurgency in the mid 1970s, continued peasant protests, and also some leftwing terrorist groups. Threatened by the terrorists, the Mexican government launched the “dirty war,” engaging in extralegal persecution, kidnapping and killing of hundreds of leftwing activists. At the same time, in an attempt to bring the left into institutional structures, in 1977 the government introduced an electoral reform that made it possible for leftwing parties to participate in national elections. The PCM ran Valentín Campa as its unofficial candidate in the 1976 election when neither the party nor Campa appeared on the ballot. After the 1977 election reform the PCM began to bring other leftist parties around in a Coalition of the Left, which a few years later became a new Communist Party.

In 1981 all of the Communist groups out of the old pro-Soviet tradition (and a few from other traditions of the far left) came together in the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM), which adopted a Eurocommunist outlook. Eurocommunism, which had developed first in the Italian and Spanish Communist parties, had several elements. First, it constituted a break from the domination of the Soviet Union over the Communist Parties of Europe and elsewhere. Second, it represented the transformation of the old Communist parties into Social Democratic parties that were prepared to enter or form governments to run capitalist states. Third, it meant that those parties accepted things such as their government’s participation in NATO and other organizations dominated by the United States.

The PSUM, however, still competed politically with others groups on the Mexican left. In 1975, Heberto Castillo, a long time leftist and labor activist formed the Mexican Workers Party (PMT),[35] though it didn’t receive its registration and so could not participate in elections until 1984. In 1978, the PSUM received a conditional registration and in the 1979 election it received 705,000 or 5.5 percent of the total vote and won its permanent registration. At the same time several small Trotskyist groups merged in 1976 to form the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), which in 1982 ran human rights activist Rosario Ibarra de Piedra as the first woman candidate for president. While PSUM was the largest party on the left, it won only a few seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Altogether in 1982 all parties of the left — PSUM, PMT, and PRT — received only about 10 percent of the vote, compared to 75 percent for the PRI, and 15 percent for the rightwing National Action Party (PAN). (Many of the Maoist groups largely stayed out of electoral politics and built labor and social movements.)

Mexico’s economic and political system began to go into crisis 1980s as it faced enormous foreign debts; in reaction a neoliberal or open market wing developed within the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The so-called “technocrats,” led by economist Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, several of them trained at the Harvard Business School, began to call for a break with the nationalist economic model established by President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s and developed by his successors over four decades. The “technocrats” would be better named the neoliberals.

Under the old nationalist model, based on a mixed economy of nationalized and privately owned industry, the PRI-government had used quotas and tariffs to protect national industry and agriculture, and had established barriers to foreign majority ownership. In addition the PRI government protected (even as it repressed) its party-controlled labor unions and created an extensive social welfare system. The technocrats, who adopted the “Washington Consensus,” that is the outlook of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, wanted to do away with all of that. The press called those who opposed these neoliberal economic reforms “the dinosaurs.”

As the technocrats gained dominance, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son Lázaro Cárdenas, and a group of other PRI leaders who wanted to defend the nationalist model formed the Democratic Current within the PRI, but were soon expelled.[36] Then founded National Democratic Front (FDN) in 1987 and proposed Cárdenas for president in the 1988 election. Miguel de la Madrid ordered the rigging of the election, giving he victory to Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the technocratic, that is, the neoliberal wing of the PRI.[37]

During this period, the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM) had merged with the Mexican Workers Party (PT) to form the Mexican Socialist Party (PMS), the latest avatar of the old Communist Party. Following their merger in 1987, they proposed Heberto Castillo for president in 1988, but he declined the nomination in favor of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and in that way the Communists finally — after fifty years — could become part of a Popular Front. When, following the 1988 election Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his associates formed the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the PMS — the last of the Mexican Communists — dissolved into the PRD. So, a little less than seventy years after its founding, the Mexican Communist Party disappeared.

Conclusion

The Communist Party that the Mexicans and foreigners living in Mexico had formed in 1918 had been an idealistic organization, though from the beginning it had little autonomy. Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed that they had the model that every party everywhere must adopt and they sent their agents to impose that model. The Communist International’s knowledge of Latin America in general and of Mexico in particular was quite limited, but they were nonetheless confident in the universality of their approach. The Communists also believed that the strategies and tactics they had developed in post-World War I Europe should be taken up by their followers around the world — even though they themselves failed in several places and most importantly in Germany in 1923.

Zinoviev’s Bolshevization of the Communist International and its parties led to an even more authoritarian model, later adopted and intensified by Stalin. Stalin’s strategies — ultra left from 1928–1935, Popular Front From 1935 to 1939, Hitler-Stalin Pact from 1939 to 1941, Popular Front again in 1941 — whipsawed the Communist Parties, leading to confusion and disillusionment among many. After the death of Stalin and the Khrushchev revelations, Stalinism still remained, though gradually several of the Communist parties, adopted the Eurocommunist perspective that evolved in Europe and in Mexico and turned the Communists into social democratic parties in all but name.[38] By the twenty-first century, many of the old Communist Parties had disappeared, become insignificant, or morphed into something else altogether.

Could some other Mexican left have developed in the twentieth century? Before the rise of Communism, Mexican anarchism had already succumbed to the Mexican Revolution, a significant part of the anarchist movement rallying to the capitalist state builders — Venustiano Carranza and Ávaro Obregón — while those who opposed the new regime and formed the CGT were crushed by 1924. The course of the Russian Revolution, above all the rise of Joseph Stalin, largely determined the future of the Communist International and with it the Mexican Communist Party. The PCM, the PP, and the POCM all proved incapable of breaking with the Stalinist model — even if they did so nominally — or of developing a new revolutionary strategy and program. In general, the Communist International in its idealistic phase was too weak, and in its Stalinist phase too corrupt to provide a revolutionary alternative for the working class..

Later developments on the left also proved incapable to providing a model for revolutionary socialism in Mexico. Certainly neither Fidelismo with its emphasis on the macho leader and the guerrilla band, nor Maoism with its authoritarianism disguised by a false populism was the answer. The Trotskyist PRT in the early 1980s, offered a potential alternative, but it could not survive the general political crisis of the Mexican system that developed in the 1980s and 1990s. Other models, such as the Zapatistas with their origins in guerrilla organization, their anarchism and sectarianism, also proved incapable of developing a new revolutionary project.[39]

Today Mexican radicals, like the rest of us, face the challenge of developing a new revolutionary movement based on a different theory and strategy than that bequeathed by the Communist International or its later rivals. A new revolutionary theory will have to put democracy and the independent self-activity of working people at the center of the project, not only in Mexico, but everywhere.

*Dan La Botz is a Brooklyn based writer and the author of several books on Mexican labor, social movements, and politics.

[1] See my article: Dan La Botz, “The Communist International, the Soviet Union ,and their impact on the Latin America Workers’ Movement,” Tensões Mundiais, v. 13, n. 24, pp. 67–106, (Fortaleza, 2017), at: https://revistas.uece.br/index.php/tensoesmundiais/article/view/360/279

[2] Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1984), 104.

[3] Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Los Bolshevikis: Historia narrative de los orígenes del comunismo en México (1919–1925), pp. 1–77.

[4] Dan La Botz, “American ‘Slackers’ in the Mexican Revolution: International Proletarian Politics in the Midst of a National Revolution,” Americas, Volume 62, Issue 4, April 2006 , pp. 563–590.

[5] Barry Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp. 20–21.

[6] Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Los Bolshevikis: Historia narrative de los Orígenes del Comunismo en México, 1919–1925 (Mexico: Martín Mortiz, 1986), pp. 7–76.

[7] Daniela Spencer, Stumbling Its Way Through Mexico: The Early Years of the Communist International (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011 [2009]), pp. 91–141.

[8] Carr, Marxism and Communism, pp. 29–32.

[9] Manuel Márques Fuentes and Octavior Rodriguez Araujo, El Partido Comunista Mexicano: en el periodo de la Internacional Comunista, 1919–1943 (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones “El Caballito,” 1973), p. 95.

[10] Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico, 41.

[11] Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico, ppp. 42–43.

[12] Gerardo Peláez, “Los Años de Clandestinidad,” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México (Mexico: Grijalbo, 1983), p. 130. A Communist historian, he puts the onus for the PCM’s sectarian left turn on Mexican government repression, but the same policy was pursued in every country.

[13] Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico, pp. 43–46.

[14] Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico, pp. 47–48.

[15] J. Encarnación Pérez, “En el sexenio de Cárdenas,” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, p. 179.

[16] Gerardo Peláez, “Partido comunista Mexicano: su historia electoral,” La Haine, at: https://www.lahaine.org/b2-img11/pelaez_elect.pdf

[17] J. Encarnación Pérez, “En el sexenio de Cárdenas,” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, p. 178.

[18] Manuel Márques Fuentes and Octavior Rodriguez Araujo, El Partido Comunista Mexicano: en el periodo de la Internacional Comunista, 1919–1943 (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones “El Caballito,” 1973), p. 298, table.

[19] J. Encarnación Pérez, “En el sexenio de Cárdenas,” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, p. 188.

[20] Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico, p. 61.

[21] Olivia Gall, Trotsky en México (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1991), passim. Hers is the most complete discussion.

[22] Gerardo Peláez, “Partido comunista Mexicano: su historia electoral,” La Haine, at: https://www.lahaine.org/b2-img11/pelaez_elect.pdf

[23] While the usual usage would refer to the candidate by his patronymic as Hernández Henríquez or simply Hernández, this candidate is always referred to by his matronymic. The movement or experience is called henriquismo.

[24] Gerardo Peláez, “Partido comunista Mexicano: su historia electoral,” La Haine, at: https://www.lahaine.org/b2-img11/pelaez_elect.pdf

[25] Alejo Méndez, “Por la renovación del Partido,” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, pp. 239–271. Méndez makes it quite clear that it was very difficult to change the party’s character, though he thinks there was a genuine attempt.

[26] Dan La Botz, The Crisis of Mexican Labor (New York: Praeger, 1988), pp. 108–119.

[27] Fabio Barbosa Cano, “Acción y búsqueda programática” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, pp. 273–319.

[28] Kate Doyle, “After the Revolution Lázaro Cárdenas and the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book №124 (May 31, 2004) at: https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB124/index.htm

U.S. State Department documents can be found on this site.

[29] Fabio Barbosa Cano, “Acción y búsqueda programática” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, pp. 294–95.

[30] Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2019), passim.

[31] Paulina Fernández Christlieb, El espartaquismo en México, Segunda edición (Mexico, D.F., “Ediciones El Caballito,” 1978), pp. 17–21.

[32] Fernández Christlieb, El espartaquismo en México, p. 33.

[33] José Revueltas, Ensayo sobre un proletariado sin cabeza (Mexico: Edciones Era, 1982 [1962), p. 187–88.

[34] Juan Luis Conchero B., “En la lucha por la democracia y la unidad de la izquierda” in: Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, Historia del communism en México, pp. 331–32.

[35] Javier Santiago, PMT: la difícil historia (Mexico: Editorial Posada, 1987).

[36] The process is described in Jorge Laso de la Vega, La Corriente Democrática: Hablan los protagonists (Mexico: Editorial Posada, 1987) and Jis Javier Garrido, La rupture: La Corriente Democrática del PRI (Mexico: Grijalbo, 1993).

[37] Ginger Thompson, “ Ex-President in Mexico Casts New Light on Rigged 1988 Election,” New York Times, March 9, 2004, at https://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/09/world/ex-president-in-mexico-casts-new-light-on-rigged-1988-election.html

[38] See my article: Dan La Botz, “The Communist International, the Soviet Union ,and their impact on the Latin America Workers’ Movement,” Tensões Mundiais, v. 13, n. 24, pp. 67–106, (Fortaleza, 2017), at: https://revistas.uece.br/index.php/tensoesmundiais/article/view/360/279

[39] Dan La Botz,Twenty Years Since the Chiapas Rebellion: The Zapatistas, Their Politics, and Their Impact,” New Politics, January 13, 2014, at: https://newpol.org/twenty-years-chiapas-rebellion-zapatistas-their-politics-and-their-impact/

Dan La Botz is a writer. His most recent book is Trotsky in Tijuana at trotskyintijuana.com

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