Trotsky’s final assessment of Mexico under Cárdenas
Trotsky’s evaluation of developments in Mexico went through a series of stages and modifications, as the battle between the state and the working class was played out. In the last eighteen months of his life, in discussions with Mexican socialists, he further clarified his views on the nature of the regime and the ruling party, its relationship to the unions and on workers’ administration.
The first collaboration of note was with Francisco Zamora, a member of the editorial board of Clave who had also sat on the Dewey Commission. He was a professor of economics at the National University of Mexico and a member of the first committee of the CTM. Between October 1938 and May 1939 Zamora published a series of articles in the magazine Hoy, which contain some ideas influenced by Trotsky.
Zamora criticised the CTM and CGT leaders and pointed to how their bourgeois politics had accommodated with the Mexican state. He argued that the Mexican revolution, particularly in its agrarian relations, was unfinished. However he predicted that Ávila Camacho would not continue work of Cárdenas, but rather destroy it. (4 March 1939, Gall 1991 pp.256-57, p.261)
Zamora also discussed the way the state represented the interests of the dominant class, although during periods of stalemate allowed the state “a certain momentary independence” – alluding to the idea of Bonapartism. (6 May 1939, Gall 1991 p.389-390)
Around the same time Trotsky held discussions with the Trotskyist Octavio Fernández on the nature of the Mexican revolution. Between February and April 1939, Fernández published three articles in Clave with a wealth of statistical material dealing concretely with the Mexican social formation and in particular with the peasantry and the working class.
Fernández distinguished between the military-police form of Bonapartism of the Calles period and the “petty-bourgeois-democratic Bonapartism” of Cárdenas. He also argued that the expropriation of the oil industry was made possible by the international crisis of between the imperialist powers and believed that further expropriations were unlikely as long as a bourgeois government was in power in Mexico. He nevertheless urged workers to push the nationalisations as far as possible, to press the government not to pay compensation, to set up control committees in factories and for price control committees. (León Trotsky, Escritos Latinamericanos 1999 pp.233-234)
In a later article in Clave, Qué ha sido y adónde va la revolución mexicana (November-December 1939), Fernández warned that in Mexico, everyone was a “revolutionary” and for “the revolution”. This was because the Mexican revolution (1910-20) was “aborted”, in the sense of an unfinished bourgeois revolution – but in a country where the working class was increasingly becoming an independent factor. Escritos Latinamericanos, CEIP online)
Probably Trotsky’s most important discussion took place with Rodrigo García Treviño, an official at the CTM. Following the exchange, Trotsky wrote a paper on whether should revolutionaries should participate in the workers’ administration established in the nationalised rail and oil industries. However he also characterised the Mexican regime with great clarity:
“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character sui generis of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by manoeuvring with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it and thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom toward the foreign capitalists. The present policy [of the Mexican government] is in the second stage; its greatest conquests are the expropriations of the railroads and the oil industries. These measures are entirely within the domain of state capitalism.” (Nationalised industry and workers’ management, Writings 1938-39 p.326)
He warned that, “it would of course be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organisations.” (ibid p.326)
However this was not the issue. Rather, “for Marxists it is not a question of building socialism with the hands of the bourgeoisie, but of utilising the situations that present themselves within state capitalism and advancing the revolutionary movement of the workers.”
According to García Treviño, initially Trotsky was hostile to the idea of workers’ administration of industry. However following their discussions, Trotsky came round to support the idea. He compared participation to representation in local councils rather than joining a bourgeois government (what he dubbed “ministerialism”).
Trotsky warned that, “it would be light minded to close one’s eye to the dangers that flow from a situation where the trade unions play a leading role in nationalised industry. The basis of the danger is the connection of the top trade union leaders with the apparatus of state capitalism, the transformation of mandated representatives of the proletariat into hostages of the bourgeois state. But however great this danger may be, it constitutes only a part of a general danger” — more exactly, of a general sickness. That is to say, the bourgeois degeneration of the trade union apparatuses in the imperialist epoch, not only in the old metropolitan centres, but also in the colonial countries.” (ibid p.328)
Revolutionaries would have to fight for working class independence in the administrations of nationalised industries as they did in the unions, by the formation of “firm revolutionary nuclei”. Trotsky highlighted the dangers from the banking system and from international capital, but also the possibilities to win wider influence among the workers in the industry:
“To sum up, one can say that this new field of work includes within it both the greatest opportunities and the greatest dangers. The dangers consist in the fact that, through the intermediary of controlled trade unions, state capitalism can hold the workers in check, exploit them cruelly, and paralyse their resistance. The revolutionary possibilities consist of the fact that, basing themselves upon their positions in the exceptionally important branches of industry, the workers can lead the attack against all the forces of capital and against the bourgeois state. Which of these possibilities will win out? And in what period of time? It is naturally impossible to predict. That depends entirely on the struggle of the different tendencies within the working class, on the experience of the workers themselves, on the world situation. In any case, to use this new form of activity in the interests of the working class, and not of the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, only one condition is needed: the existence of a revolutionary Marxist party that carefully studies every form of working class activity, criticises every deviation, educates and organises the workers, wins influence in the trade unions, and assures a revolutionary workers’ representation in nationalised industry.” (ibid p.329)
Although first published in 1946, much of the content of the document was aired in Mexico at the time. García Treviño published an article in the Revista de Economía (January-April 1939) and the article reprinted in Clave in June 1939.
García Treviño quoted (anonymously) passages from Trotsky’s document – including on Bonapartism sui generis and the concluding emphasis on the need for a revolutionary party. He praised the workers’ administration as just as efficient as under the previous management – for example by centralising production – and rejecting the hostility of the Stalinists towards it.
But he pointed out that in the rail industry, workers’ had also been saddled with the old debts of the company. He criticised the form of control because it could not break out of the laws of the bourgeois economy, the firm was bankrupt and because compensation was paid. He said that although workers had a bigger say in the industries, the state remained in control and pointed out that cooperatives could be a “cruel and merciless” form of exploitation of the working class. (In León Trotsky, Escritos Latinamericanos, 1999 p.240, p.244, p.248)
Trotsky was unable to add much over the next year. In the circumstances, this is not surprising. The world was sucked into another global war and as hostilities began, a huge faction fight took place in the SWP in the United States. On top of that, the Stalinists in Mexico stepped up their attacks on Trotsky’s asylum and prepared the ground for the GPU assassins to do their work.
For example PCM leader Laborde accused Trotsky of involvement in a rail crash in its paper La Voz de Mexico in April 1939 (Writings 1938-39 p.316) Lombardo’s press, including Futuro magazine and the daily paper El Popular slandered him during the early months on 1940. Trotsky again proposed a public commission of investigation of the charges. (Writings 1939-40 p.182)
On 24 May 1940 a serious attempt was made to murder Trotsky, with the Stalinist painter David Siqueiros leading an armed assault on his house at night. Not for nothing did he write that, “Stalin seeks my death”. He catalogued the conspiracy against him in Stalin’s Gangsters (1977) and in The Comintern and the GPU. He also appeared before the investigation into the Siqueiros attack in July 1940.
Accused of slandering the Stalinists, Trotsky offered to take the matter to court. He rightly identified the role of GPU, which had begun making plans to kill him from April 1939. These plans were stepped by Vittorio Cordovilla, a Stalinist agent who arrived in Mexico in late 1939, organised a purge of the party (including its leaders Laborde and Campa) for not prosecuting the anti-Trotsky campaign hard enough. Within months of this intervention, Trotsky’s life was ended by a Stalinist ice axe to the head.
However on his desk at the time of his death was an unfinished manuscript from April 1940 on the trade unions, with a valuable assessment of the relationship between the state and the working class in Mexico and similar countries.
Once more he characterised the regime in uncompromising terms: “Inasmuch as imperialist capitalism creates both in colonies and semi-colonies a stratum of labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, the latter requires the support of colonial and semi-colonial governments, as protectors, patrons and, sometimes, as arbitrators. This constitutes the most important social basis for the Bonapartist and semi-Bonapartist character of governments in the colonies and in backward countries generally. This likewise constitutes the basis for the dependence of reformist unions upon the state.”
Trotsky also distinguished between different forms of Bonapartism: “The governments of backward, i.e., colonial and semi-colonial countries, by and large assume a Bonapartist or semi-Bonapartist character; and differ from one another in this, that some try to orient in a democratic direction, seeking support among workers and peasants, while others install a form close to military-police dictatorship. This likewise determines the fate of the trade unions.” (Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, 1990 p.48, p.52)
He also repeated his assessment of the incorporation of the trade unions: “In Mexico the trade unions have been transformed by law into semi-state institutions and have, in the nature of things, assumed a semi-totalitarian character. The statisation of the trade unions was, according to the conception of the legislators, introduced in the interests of the workers in order to assure them an influence upon the governmental and economic life.”
Despite this, he argued that Marxists still had to work in the unions in Mexico. Even in the worst circumstances, he pointed out that “we cannot… renounce the struggle within the compulsory labour organisations created by fascism”. (ibid 1990 p.49)
Again, he drew a critical balance sheet on the experience of nationalisation and workers’ administration:
“The nationalisation of railways and oil fields in Mexico has of course nothing in common with socialism. It is a measure of state capitalism in a backward country which in this way seeks to defend itself on the one hand against foreign imperialism and on the other against its own proletariat. The management of railways, oil fields, etc, through labour organisations has nothing in common with workers’ control over industry, for in the essence of the matter the management is effected through the labour bureaucracy which is independent of the workers, but in return, completely dependent on the bourgeois state. This measure on the part of the ruling class pursues the aim of disciplining the working class, making it more industrious in the service of the common interests of the state, which appear on the surface to merge with the interests of the working class itself.”
Trotsky emphasised the need for workers’ organisations to assert their own independent politics. He wrote: “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labour aristocracy. The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realisation the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state.” (ibid 1990 p.50)