William C. Owen, editor English section of ‘‘Regeneracion,’’ paper of the Magonista Mexican Liberal Party reports on the Zapatista revolt in Mexico.
‘What Mexico’s Struggle Means’ by William C. Owen from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 11. May, 1912.
WHAT the Zapatista knows is that there are privileged beings in society who have too much while he goes hungry.” Or, again: “The whole burden of their song is this: For four hundred years we have borne contumely, hunger and deprivation of our rights. Every time that revolutionists needed us to overthrow some bad government they called on us and then forgot their promises. We now want back the lands that have been taken from us, and we intend to have them, by fair means or foul.” These two quotations— the first from the “Revista de Revistas,” of Mexico City, and the second from “Collier’s”—gives us, as it seems to me, the heart of the Mexican Revolution from the standpoint of the proletariat. It is trying to get back by force what has been taken from it by force, or fraud backed by force.
For the capitalists it may be said that there are probably nearly $2,000,000,000 of foreign money invested in Mexico, which has been looking for large returns and expecting additional opportunities for lucrative investment. For the present all that has gone by the board, and naturally capital will fight with every weapon in its armory to retrieve the situation. Moreover, and this I judge to be even more important, it cannot safely allow so gigantic an act of confiscation to pass unchallenged. The easiest and safest way to retrieve the situation is obviously to hoodwink the masses and, by seductive promises, induce them to abandon action, The most expensive and dangerous way is intervention by force of arms.
Recently one of my friends interviewed some eighteen Mexican prisoners confined in a county jail, most of them on vagrancy charges. He reported that they appeared to be ignorant on the social question as a, whole, but that every one of them said the Mexicans wanted back their lands. My own experience is that if you attempt to discuss politics with the Mexican proletarian he shows no interest, but that the moment you mention the word “land” he becomes alert. From the land, owned communally, his ancestors wrung, for ages, a living that suited well their tastes and habits. Without the land he himself is an outcast, slaving for masters he detests. Why should he not want the land?
Apparently the Mexican proletariat knows exactly what it wants and means, if possible, to get it; and apparently it has convinced its former masters of that important fact. The signing by Madero of the San Luis Potosi plan; the manifestoes issued by Zapata, by Gomez and by all aspirants for office; the long discussions on the agrarian question with which leading Mexican publications abound; the talk of delegations that visit Mexico City; the commissions appointed by the central and state governments; and, above all, the answers given to officials sent to pacify the people, tell one and all, the same story. Many of the leading citizens engaged in such activities undoubtedly would dodge the land question if they could, but it bobs up always and everywhere, for it is the backbone of the revolution.
It is obvious, furthermore, that however much the Mexican masses may want the land they cannot get it if legal titles are to be respected, for a small handful of monopolists has cornered the land supply of Mexico, largely by grants acquired under the long regime of Diaz. On the good ship in which the Mexican nation sails its way across the sea of life all accommodations have been preempted, and the masses can either stand around on sufferance or jump overboard. In the past many took the latter course and swam to the United States. The expedient has not proved satisfactory and the growing disposition is to stand their ground and fight.
What else is there to do? To run Diaz out and put Madero in seemed one way of getting at the trouble, but the economic problem remains unsolved and it is evident that Madero has neither the wish nor the capacity to solve it. Even in his last pronunciamento, dated March 3, 1912, wherein he urges the masses to support his government and join his army, he repeats his previous sermon on industry and frugality as the sovereign cure. Nevertheless he acknowledges in that same document that “unfortunately Gen. Diaz’ government alienated in an immoderate manner nearly all the national lands”; whereupon, having admitted the great central fact, he grapples with it thus:
“For this reason the government has considered the reorganization of the loan bank; an institution that, in accordance with the methods practiced in certain European countries, will acquire great properties and divide them among small proprietors, giving them facilities for payment. Only by these two methods is it possible to solve the agrarian question within the limits of the constitution.”
Madero’s panacea, therefore, is the scheme so dear to our own real estate boomers, who corner land that they may unload it on the public, giving long time and making enormous profits. It will be noticed also that, even in this hour oi peril, he cannot see beyond “the limits of the constitution,” and Vasquez Gomez and the other “constitutional” gentlemen are all in the same boat. They also want the many to have the land, but they insist that the legal titles of the few must be respected. The peasant’s answer is to burn the public records, seize the lands and fight. He has to fight because when he takes and tries to cultivate the land the authorities send their troops to oust him.
Here I have no space for details and can only assure readers that the reports, culled from papers of all descriptions and covering all Mexico, show the Mexican masses as in the full tide of revolution, taking the law into their own individual hands. They are doing what the French peasantry did more than a century ago, and what the Russian peasantry started to do ten years ago. Surely we should not be surprised. The age-long traditions of the people—continued in practice until quite recent times—are those of the self-governing commune, which owned its own lands, gave its members free access there and ran its affairs on the cooperative plan. It may have been a simple life; it may have lacked refinements and artificial pleasures on which we set great store, but it was care-free and secure. Certainly it was a long way ahead of working for strangers, especially under such conditions as those described, for example, in “Barbarous Mexico.” Certainly it was a long way ahead of having to expatriate oneself, without a cent, and scramble in the unskilled-labor market of the United States.
The Chinese and Japanese have proved themselves, anything but the helpless people we imagined, and I submit that we misjudged the Mexican, seeing him only as a stranger in a strange country, with all the odds against him. He has magnificent traditions which embody the great principles of mutual aid and the labor solidarity, and these have become instinctive with him owing to his communal past. As for his fighting capacity, there is now a good deal of evidence before the public, and it should be considered that he inherits from his Indian ancestors those qualities of tenacity, patience and fortitude which, when weapons are at all equal, decide all wars. His agitators have made a splendidly heroic record and it seems to me to have foreshadowed accurately the subsequent action of the masses.
Revolutions cannot possibly move by set rules, for they are essentially periods of abnormally active development, and always the leader of today fails to meet tomorrow’s larger needs. Madero will fall because he has not kept pace with the development, and, in my view, Gomez and Orozco are equally behind the times. The revolution will use them while it can; when they become obstructive it will toss them aside. For, this is an upheaval of the masses, who know that they go hungry while others are surfeited. They know it, not by books or discussion but by experience, and such knowledge translates itself into action and endures.
The Mexican Revolution never presented itself to my mind as a subject on which the various camps of the international revolutionary movement should take sides, and never have I myself felt called on to indorse the particular economic creed of the Magons or other Mexican agitators. From the first I have regarded it as a struggle by many millions of the disinherited to win back their heritage; as a battle for the right to live. In the hope of assisting that battle, if only to an infinitesimal extent, I have written this article.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and loyal to the Socialist Party of America. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v12n11-may-1912-gog-Corn.pdf