By Stephan Fender
On May 25 1911, long-standing dictator Porfirio Díaz famously conceded defeat to his challenger Francisco I. Madero. This event marked the beginning of a long and bloody national power struggle in Mexico that lasted at least until 1929. Over time, countless revolutionary factions rose up in arms and proposed their vision of national belonging and a modern state, most prominently the Zapatists with their slogan “tierra y libertad,” the División del Norte, led by the notorious Pancho Villa, and the victorious Constitutionalists of Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón. The battles among the revolutionaries and against the forces of the counter-revolution devastated the country, deteriorated the economy, and cost tens-of-thousands of lives.
The capital Mexico City, however, was mostly spared from revolutionary violence and became a safe-haven for more than a hundred thousand refugees. In a country where industrialization had made little headway, ranchero and campesino armies fought over national power in the countryside. Therefore, revolutionary leaders readily neglected the capital, a situation that allowed the urban poor of the metropolis to choose a very different revolutionary path than the rest of the country. More than 30 years of Porfirian “pan y palo” politics (“bread and stick”) had kept the organizations of workers and artisans effectively in check. Now, the power-vacuum left by the fall of Díaz sparked the founding of countless labor organizations and newspapers in the capital.
While the caudillos of the countryside focused almost exclusively on the national framework and contributed to the common interpretation of the revolution as an uprising against foreign exploitation, the workers of Mexico City adopted a very different perspective on the matter. The idea of a global union of working people made its entry in the context of the capital, spread through the labor press and by immigrant activists. In a time when national power, control, and repression were virtually absent, urban labor started an organizational cycle in which Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin were more important players than the leader of the Morelos Commune Emiliano Zapata or the popular, northern “Robin Hood” Francisco “Pancho” Villa. In a time-lapse, the workers picked up on almost a century of proletarian history and discourse.
In a timeframe of just a few years, global discourses and practices spread like wildfire in the city. The Casa introduced the celebration of May Day, the first one being held in 1913 with a participation of 25,000 workers; new forms of labor organization emerged, when the traditional mutualist societies turned into combative syndicates; commemorative festivals for martyrs or historical milestones of the global movement became common practice; and radical ideologies and literature were spread through the press or organizational libraries. Additionally, Mexican labor declared its solidarity with the struggles against war-participation and the draft of the US-American IWW or the Spanish CNT. The pantheon of national heroes, addressed in William Booth’s recent contribution for Age of Revolutions, was suddenly expanded by the Martyrs of the Chicago Haymarket Riot, the Catalan pedagogue Francisco Ferrer Guardia, executed 1909 in Barcelona, and the insurgents of the Paris Commune. Mexican labor rapidly carved out a position for itself in the global framework and used the national revolutionary experience to justify its notion of being an avant-garde movement on a global scale. This understanding implied responsibility for the global development, since the Mexican movement’s position as a role model was further utilized to strengthen mobilization efforts within the country.
The weakness of the state and the breakdown of the urban economy made direct actions against employers promising and successful. Radical labor and its syndicates rallied under the umbrella of the anarchist Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the Worker). The organization even continued to grow when Mexico City came under the control of militarist Victoriano Huerta’s counter-revolution. Huerta had little interest in confronting organized labor, which posed no threat to his national ambitions. More than a 100,000 workers were organized in the Casa during its heyday, when strikes and manifestations became a characteristic feature of the urban economy.
Even when the organization ultimately decided to join the national power struggle on the side of the Constitutionalists in 1915, it did so to put boots on the ground for the cause of global anarchism. This decision strengthened the movement in the short-term, when thousands of armed workers joined the Red Battalions, but also gave way to its eventual demise. The victory of the Constitutionalists over the División del Norte decided the national power struggle, despite the fact that it lingered on for years. The dominant Constitutionalists immediately began to reconstruct state-power and threatened the anarchist hegemony in the capital. In a last stand, the movement confronted the emerging revolutionary state in two succeeding general strikes in the summer of 1916, which were defeated militarily. The Casa was outlawed and its radical ideology slowly replaced by strategies of coercion and cooption.
Adopting the idea of a global labor movement allowed Mexican workers to find reference points outside of the national framework and to address a global audience. Nevertheless, the everyday struggle wasn’t fought by some vague global union, but by the workers in the factories, mines, and workshops, who were inspired by the idea that there was something better than yet another national regime. The case of Mexican labor during the few years in which libertarian enthusiasm flared up in the capital shows how a change in perspective could carve out a niche and alter an entire society, even at a time of increasing nationalism and revolutionary turmoil. The somewhat ironic fact that Mexico’s global revolution was crushed by a newly emerging state in the name of the national revolution, which legitimized power structures for decades to come, demonstrates just how different revolutionary perceptions and experiences could be, and reminds us that revolution does not necessarily equal Revolución.
Stephan Fender is a PhD candidate at Universität Hamburg. He specializes in Global and Labor History with a focus on Latin America and especially Mexico. His dissertation “El Mundo al Revés: A Local Perspective on the Global Entanglement of Urban Labor, Mexico City 1910 – 1929” examines the development of a global consciousness and practice by a subaltern actor from the Global South. You can contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @StephanFender.
Title image: Workers on May Day 1913, Fondo Documental Cemos
Anna Ribera Carbó, La Casa del Obrero Mundial: Anarcosindicalismo y Revolución en México (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2010).
Constance Bantman and Bert Altena, eds., Reassessing the Transnational Turn: Scales of Analysis in Anarchist and Syndicalist Studies (New York: Routledge, 2015).
Gilbert M. Joseph and Jürgen Buchenau, Mexico’s Once and Future Revolution: Social Upheaval and the Challenge of Rule since the Late Nineteenth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
John Lear, Workers, Neighbors, and Citizens: The Revolution in Mexico City (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).
Kirwin Schaffer, “Tropical Libertarians: Anarchist Movements and Networks in the Carribean, Southern United States, and Mexico, 1890s – 1920s,” in Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870 – 1940, eds. Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 273 – 320.
Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays towards a Global Labor History (Leiden: Brill, 2008).