After the Mexican revolution (1910-1920) ended with the exhaustion of the major combatants, a Bonapartist regime was established. It took the form of a ruling party (called the PRI for most of its history), which integrated trade unions, peasant organisations and business groups within its structures. Leaders of these organisations delivered votes and suppressed struggles.
President Lazaro Cárdenas (1934-40) was instrumental in perfecting this form of political rule. His government also redistributed millions of acres of land to peasants while industrial workers gained higher wages and wider union organisation. Cárdenas pursued a policy of national economic development centred on control of basic industries. Mimicking the USSR, a six-year plan was written and “socialist” education put on the curriculum.
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 18 May 1936 the STFRM rail workers’ union organised a strike in the state owned Mexican National Railroad for payment for a day’s rest a week. Cárdenas rejected the workers’ demands, but floated the idea of handing over the industry to them. In May 1938 the government handed the administration of the railways over to the union.
A strike wave by oil workers, members of the STPRM union began in May 1937 and continued until the end of the year. A government inquiry ruled that foreign oil companies such as Royal Dutch/Shell and Standard Oil could afford pay rises and cut the working week. They refused, so in March 1938, Cárdenas nationalised Mexico’s oil reserves and expropriated the equipment of the companies.
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 barrels to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
Trotsky expressed his views on these developments. He characterised the Cárdenas regime as a Bonapartist government. He wrote: “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.” (Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management, 12 May 1939)
On the oil nationalisation, he argued: “Without succumbing to illusions and without fear of slander, the advanced workers will completely support the Mexican people in their struggle against the imperialists. The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defence.” (Mexico and British Imperialism, 5 June 1938)
However Trotsky was dismissive of the apparent “workers’ administration”. He summed up this attitude clearly in 1940: “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.”
By contrast, he emphasised the need for workers’ organisations to assert their own independent politics.
He warned: “In these conditions, the task of the revolutionary vanguard is to conduct a struggle for the complete independence of the trade unions and for the introduction of actual workers’ control over the present union bureaucracy, which has been turned into the administration of railways, oil enterprises and so on.” (Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, April 1940)
Trotsky’s warnings were entirely prescient. In February 1940 Cárdenas invited STPRM leaders to the National Palace, where he laid down his “fourteen points” 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 Pemex was created and a strike ban imposed. When a strike started in a refinery in September 1940, it was broken by federal troops.