Can Trotsky on Cardenas' Mexico tell us anything about Venezuela and Chávez?

Submitted by Anon on 24 March, 2007 - 9:58

By Paul Hampton

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has nationalised companies in telecom and electricity privatised by previous administrations. Chávez says he wants to form a new Bolivarian socialist party. And he has announced the extension of communal councils and even “workers’ councils” as a means of recasting the state.

These measures and others such as co-management in workplaces deserve to be assessed on their own terms, something we will continue to do in the AWL. However Chávez’s plans are not without precedent and much can be learned from the attitude earlier Marxists took to comparable developments.

The closest analogy is probably with the regime of Lazaro Cárdenas, who was president of Mexico between 1934-40. Like Chávez, Cárdenas undertook radical nationalisations, turned over industries to workers’ administration and redistributed land. Like Chávez, Cárdenas formed a new ruling political party after he had taken power and sought to incorporate trade unions within it. The story of how Cárdenas marginalised and crushed independent working class politics (even with a left face) deserves to be more widely known – as it suggests Chávez may be in the process of doing the same thing.

The final reason for looking at this period is the testimony of Leon Trotsky, who lived in Mexico and observed first-hand the Cárdenas’ government and its relationship to Mexican workers. Trotsky’s analysis is rich with lessons. Looking at his assessment can help anchor our own analysis of Venezuela today.

The Cárdenas period was both a product of and a reaction to the Mexican revolution (1910-1920). The revolution resulted in the defeat of the old landowners and their allies but also in the exhaustion of other contending classes, particularly the bourgeoisie and the working class.

During the 1920s Mexico was ruled by generals, with the backing of a state-sponsored union movement, the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) led by Luis Morones.

Álvaro Obregón was elected president in 1920 with the backing of the CROM. In return the CROM was recognised as the official union federation, as opposed to the independent General Confederation of Workers (CGT), the Industrial Workers’ of the World (IWW) and the revolutionary socialists who formed the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) in 1920.

CROM members took positions in the government. Morones became head of the Department of Military Manufacturing and Provisions. The CROM helped get Obregón’s protégé Elías Plutarcho Calles elected president in 1924. By the mid-1920s the CROM had become the dominant union, using scabs and thugs against its rivals. (Dan La Botz, The Crisis of Mexican Labor, 1988, pp.25-27).

Obregón stood for president again in 1928, having moved away from the CROM. However a Catholic fanatic assassinated Obregón on the eve of the vote and Morones was accused of being the “intellectual author” of the killing. Three men became president in the following five years and they turned on the CROM and promoted its rivals, with Calles the grey eminence in the background.

In March 1929 Calles formed the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) and sought support from the labour movement. The PNR was “an amalgam of local political machines, most of them dominated by the military”. (Edwin Lieuwen, Mexican militarism, 1968, p.123)

The CROM fractured under pressure from the government and from the consequences of economic depression. Out of the disintegration of the CROM, a new organisation was formed which briefly stood outside the patronage of the state. The General Confederation of Workers and Peasants of Mexico (CGOCM), led by a former CROM leader, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, and Fidel Velázquez, was formed in October 1933 and organised strikes during the following year, including cutting off electric power to Mexico City for an hour in July 1934.

The first years of Cárdenas

Lázaro Cárdenas was chosen by Calles as his candidate for the presidency in 1934. Cárdenas had been an acclaimed officer during the revolution and was made a general in 1920 at the age of 25. Between 1928 and 1932 he was governor of his home state of Michoacán and loyal to Calles.

However Cárdenas asserted his independence during the election campaign by touring the country and urging workers and peasants to get organised. Although Lombardo did not support Cárdenas in 1933-34, the CGOCM was the main beneficiary of his calls for organisation.

After a visit to the USSR in 1935, Lombardo returned to Mexico as Stalin’s chief booster. “But most important, he returned convinced of the Stalinist policy of the Popular Front, the [Stalinist] alliance with democratic capitalist parties, and prepared to work to achieve it in Mexico. And, as Lombardo came to understand the Popular Front, that would mean an alliance between the labour movement and the government of Lázaro Cárdenas.” (La Botz p.59).

Cárdenas launched his first “six year plan” in 1934, designed to establish a “cooperative economic system tending towards socialism” and included an extensive public works programme, a labour code fixing minimum wages and regulating hours, land distribution, “socialist education” and aid to cooperatives.

He also reinforced his base in the military. Cárdenas cut the career spans of officers, allowed soldiers to work part-time, increased the pay and allowances by 10% and opened schools for the education of children from military families. He provided soldiers with better housing and pensions, showering them with medals. Cárdenas urged soldiers to “serve the people, to sacrifice themselves to collective interests of the nation and to display democratic comradery with civilians”. He also established “agrarian reserve” units.

When Calles sought to organise the overthrow of Cárdenas, Lombardo and PCM leaders Valentin Campa and Hernan Laborde met secretly on 12 June 1935 and agreed to unify the unions behind Cárdenas (This would later be summed up as “unity at all costs”). A conference was called by the electrical workers union SME and attended by unions in the rail, miners, tramway and graphic arts, as well as the CGOCM, the National House of Labour (CNT, remnants from the CROM) and the Stalinist union front the CSUM. The conference agreed to form the National Committee of Proletarian Defence (CNDP). As Arturo Anguiano has written: “The support of the workers grouped together in the CNDP constituted the principal support of the Cardenist regime”. (El Estado y la política obrera del cardenismo, 1975 p.55)

The CNDP organised a demonstration of 200,000 workers on 22 December 1935 in Mexico City and in other cities across the country in support of Cárdenas. In February 1936 Cárdenas intervened in a dispute in Monterrey. Workers at the anti-union La Vidriera company had formed their own union and come out on strike for wage increase. When the state governor recognised the strike, local employers organised a lock-out. The CNDP organised a demonstration of 20,000 workers in Monterrey on 10 February, at the end of which Cárdenas spoke.

He called on workers to unite and on 11 February 1936 issued his 14 points of presidential labour policy, stating: “If the employers are tired of the social struggle, they can turn their industries over to the workers or the government. That would be patriotic; the [employers’] strike is not.” On 18 February Cárdenas decreed that for every six days worked, workers would be paid for one day of rest.

This was immediately followed by a conference on 21-24 February 1936, when the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) was formed. It consisted of the CGOCM, the CSUM, the CNT, the SME, rail union (STFRM) and miners and metal workers (SNTMMSRM), involving 3,000 organisations and 600,000 members. Its slogan was “For a society without classes”. Within two years it would have nearly a million members.

Lombardo, elected general secretary, proclaimed at the closing session that “we are positively free autonomous independents” and pledged that the “proletariat will fight at all costs to maintain its ideological and organisational independence”. In fact they did not fight for independent working class politics at all.

However the relationship between the state and the working class had a certain fluidity, well illustrated by the strikes during the years following the creation of the CTM.

In early 1936, the STFRM rail union began renegotiating its contract with the Mexican Southern Pacific line, a private company. The union picked up Cárdenas’ decree on the “paid seventh day” and threatened a strike. The company settled.

The union then turned to the state-owned Mexican National Railroad with the same demand. When the company refused, Cárdenas also rejected the workers’ demands. However he rather cryptically stated “a drastic solution, such as giving the railroads to the workers, would be better.”

The union went ahead with a strike on 18 May 1936, but it was declared “nonexistent” (illegal) by the arbitration committee. Military planes dropped leaflets telling workers of the government’s decision. With no solidarity action from the CTM, bar a token half-hour national strike on 18 June, the rail union backed off and accepted defeat.

The SME electrical union strike was a different experience. Around 3,000 members, working for the Anglo-Canadian firm Mexican Light voted by over 99% on 17 April 1936 to strike. Workers shut off power for 15 minutes on 18 June and struck on 16 July for a big pay rise. But they supplied power to the government and to emergency services. The union forced private hospitals to provide free care, and milk companies to provide cheap milk, in return for power.

It organised an electrical workers’ demonstration on the second day of the strike. Two days later the CTM organised a solidarity march (though not a general strike, as the SME wanted). The arbitration committee declared the strike legal and after the union leadership met with Cárdenas on 24 July, the strike was settled in two days, with victory to the workers.

Cárdenas veers left

Cárdenas enhanced his reputation as a leftist with an aggressive agrarian policy. During his presidency around 50 million acres (18 millions hectares) of land were distributed to peasants, mainly in the form of collective ejidos – double the entire amount of land redistributed since the revolution. Around half of all cultivated land was under the control of ejidos by 1940. With two-thirds of the population still living in the countryside, this gave Cárdenas a wide base of support.

Cárdenas’ social programmes also extended to education. He spent over 10 million pesos on education, earmarking twice as much than ever before for rural areas. As a result, literacy improved from 33% to 42% of the population. Life expectancy rose between 1930 and 1940 by nearly four years for men and by ten years for women.

The most important event of the Cárdenas period was the oil workers’ strike in 1937, which led to the nationalisation of the petroleum industry in 1938.

The relationship between Cárdenas and the oil workers predated his presidency. In early 1934, during his election campaign, Cárdenas encouraged oil workers to unite their fragmented organisation. In May 1934 a strike by the Union of Oil Workers of Minatitlan won a paid day off a week, a shorter working week, holidays and pensions. Other oil workers also took strike action, over the next year and a half, including one six-month long dispute. In August 1935, with further encouragement from Cárdenas, a national oil workers’ union, STPRM was formed with 7,000 members. It joined the CTM in 1936.

A strike wave across almost the entire oil industry began in May 1937 and lasted for 13 days. It was declared legal and supported by the CTM. Workers agreed to return to work on 9 June after the government agreed to set up an inquiry to study the industry and what the union claimed was a “conflict of economic order”. The panel ruled that foreign oil companies such as Royal Dutch/Shell and Standard Oil could afford pay rises and a cut in the working week. They refused, so on 18 March 1938, Cárdenas nationalised Mexico's oil reserves and expropriated the equipment of the companies.

The announcement inspired a huge demonstration in Mexico City. Oil workers occupied the oil fields and refineries to prevent sabotage. The STPRM pushed for “worker administration” of the industry — but Cárdenas only agreed to a council with four government and three union representatives. Mexican oil immediately faced a boycott by the US and Britain, and was forced to sell to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

The ruling party

Cárdenas created the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) on 30 March 1938. The PCM called for “the unification of popular sectors inside the new party”, describing it as “the special form of the People’s Front in Mexico”. It became “more cardenista than Cárdenas”, in the words of José Revueltas. (Anguiano pp.117, 167)

The PRM slogan was “For a workers’ democracy” and the CTM, together with the remnants of the CROM and the CGT became the labour sector of the new party. The new party had a corporative structure with four sectors represented: the labour movement, the peasants, the popular sector (of small holders and small businesses) and the army (until December 1940). The incorporation of the army allowed Cárdenas to reduce the power of the old revolutionary generals.

In May 1938 the government handed the administration of the railways over to the STFRM rail union. Cárdenas also passed a law on cooperatives, allowing workers to take over factories — though these tended to be bankrupt or small factories with aging machinery. On May Day a 100,000-strong uniformed workers’ militia paraded through the capital.

Cárdenas did not allow the CTM to hegemonise all workers. In August 1938 he created the National Confederation of Peasants (CNC) to include agricultural workers, coops and small property holders. He also forbade the organisation of government workers in the CTM, instead creating a separate federation, the FSTSE, in December 1938. The CNC and FSTSE were also incorporated in the PRM ruling party.

As Dan La Botz explained, “In most cases membership in the party was mandatory for union members, and upon being hired one automatically became a member of both the union and the party. In some cases union dues and party dues were deducted from a worker’s pay cheque.”

In February 1940 Cárdenas invited STPRM leaders to the National Palace, where he laid down his position on labour questions in the oil industry, including layoffs, pay cuts and management freedom to move workers. In July 1940 the government declared a “conflict of economic order” and its arbitration committee agreed. A new state-owned company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) was created and a strike ban imposed. When a strike started in a refinery in September 1940, it was broken up by federal troops.