Trotsky had been expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, and spent the rest of his life trying to find a country which would let him stay. He arrived in Mexico on 9 January 1937. A longstanding Mexican Trotskyist, Manuel Rodríguez, suggested the asylum to his boss, General Francisco Mujica, a member of the Cárdenas cabinet (and his predecessor as governor of Michoacán). For Trotsky it became a life-or-death matter in November 1936, when it looked as though the Norwegian government might hand him over to the USSR.
Thanks to the efforts of other Mexican Trotskyists, such as the muralist Diego Rivera and Octavio Fernández, Cárdenas granted asylum on the condition that Trotsky would not interfere in Mexico’s domestic affairs. Trotsky accepted this condition, in a statement on his arrival, promising “complete and absolute non-intervention in Mexican politics and no less complete abstention from actions that might prejudice the relations between Mexico and other countries”. (Writings 1936-37 p.86)
Trotsky was forced to break with the Mexican “Trotskyist” organisation, the LCI, after six months in the country, when the LCI issued a manifesto calling for “direct action” against the high cost of living, implying that workers should attack shops. Coming at the time of the Moscow trials and the attacks on Trotsky by the Stalinists in Mexico, this was particularly stupid. After Trotsky’s intervention, the LCI dissolved itself for the remainder of 1937.
Trotsky publicly supported Cárdenas’ expropriation of the oil industry. On 23 April 1938 he wrote to the Daily Herald in Britain, pointing to the hypocrisy of the Chamberlain government and defending the move of the grounds of national economic development and independence. He argued that the Labour Party should set up a commission to investigate how much of the “living sap of Mexico” had been “plundered” by British capital. (Writings 1937-38 p.324)
He also criticised some of his Mexican supporters. On 15 April 1938 Trotsky wrote to the US Trotskyist James P Cannon: “Galicia, in the name of the revived League [LCI], published a manifesto in which he attacked Cárdenas for his policy of compensating the expropriated capitalists, and posted this manifesto principally on the walls of the Casa del Pueblo. This is the ‘policy’ of these people.” (Writings 1937-38 p.314)
Trotsky wrote an article on 5 June 1938 in the US Trotskyist weekly Socialist Appeal, linking the Chamberlain government’s policy breaking diplomatic relations and boycotting Mexican oil with the uprising of General Cedillo in May.
He characterised the expropriation as a matter of self-determination. He wrote: “Semi-colonial Mexico is fighting for its national independence, political and economic. This is the basic meaning of the Mexican revolution at this stage… expropriation is the only effective means of safeguarding national independence and the elementary conditions of democracy.” (Writings 1937-38 p.359)
He compared “this courageous and progressive measure of the Mexican government” to the work of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the United States, adding that, “if Mexico should find itself forced to sell liquid gold to fascist countries, the responsibility for this act would fall fully and completely upon the governments of the imperialist ‘democracies’.” (ibid p.360)
He summed up his attitude thus: “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.”
He reiterated his support, without losing sight of the character of the Mexican government: “The international proletariat has no reason to identify its programme with the programme of the Mexican government. Revolutionists have no need of changing colour, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery in the manner of the GPU school of courtiers, who in a moment of danger will sell out and betray the weaker side. Without giving up its own identity, every honest working class organisation of the entire world, and first of all in Great Britain, is duty-bound—to take an irreconcilable position against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press, and their fascist hirelings.” (Writings 1937-38 p.361)
A particularly important article of Trotsky’s, in the light of the current situation, is one on freedom of the press, which he published in the first issue of Clave magazine (October 1938).
In the summer of 1938 Lombardo began a campaign against the reactionary press in Mexico, intent on placing it under “democratic censorship” or banning it altogether. Trotsky was unequivocal in opposing this drive. He wrote: “Both theory and historical experience testify that any restriction of democracy in bourgeois society is, in the final analysis, invariably directed against the proletariat… Consequently, any working class ‘leader’ who arms the bourgeois state with special means for controlling public opinion in general and the press in particular is, precisely, a traitor.” (Writings 1937-38 p.417)
“Even though Mexico is a semi-colonial country, it is also a bourgeois state, and in no way a workers’ state. However, even from the standpoint of the interests of the dictatorship of the proletariat, banning bourgeois newspapers or censoring them does not in the least constitute a ‘programme’, or a ‘principle’ or an ideal set up. Measures of this kind can only be a temporary, unavoidable evil...
“It is essential to wage a relentless struggle against the reactionary press. But workers cannot let the repressive fist of the bourgeois state substitute for the struggle that they must wage through their own organisations and their own press… The most effective way to combat the bourgeois press is to expand the working class press… The Mexican proletariat has to have an honest newspaper to express its needs, defend its interests, broaden its horizon, and prepare the way for the socialist revolution in Mexico.” (ibid pp.418, 419-420)
Trotsky began to write about developments in the unions in mid-1938. Before the Stalinist-organised pan-American trade union congress in Mexico City on 6-8 September 1938, which set up the Confederation of Latin American Workers (CTAL), he wrote (in the name of Diego Rivera) to denounce Toledano’s links with Stalin. He wrote that Lombardo was “a ‘pure’ politician, foreign to the working class, and pursuing his own aims”. His ambition was “to climb to the Mexican presidency on the backs of the workers” and in pursuit if that aim had “closely intertwined his fate with the fate of the Kremlin oligarchy”. (Writings 1937-38 p.426)
He also denounced in public (through Rivera and the US SWP) the apparent visit of PCM leader Hernan Laborde to the USSR, when in fact he had been in New York receiving orders from the CPUSA. Trotsky had in on good authority that Laborde had been briefed to create an atmosphere in Mexico “for the physical liquidation of Trotsky and some of his friends”. (Writings 1937-38 p.441)
His attitude seems to have hardened after the CTAL conference, when Trotskyists such as Mateo Fossa were excluded for their politics. He was also prompted by the increased attacks on him by the Stalinist bureaucrats in the unions. After Lombardo Toledano presented a dossier to the CTM congress on 25 February 1938, it voted “unanimously” for the expulsion of Trotsky from Mexico.
Then the August 1938 issue of the CTM magazine Futuro carried an attack on him by Lombardo, accusing him of organising a general strike against Cárdenas during the oil expropriations.
Trotsky distinguished between leaders and the unions: “Toledano of course will repeat that we are ‘attacking’ the CTM. No reasonable worker will believe this rubbish. The CTM, as a mass organisation, as a mass organisation, has every right to our respect and support. But just as the democratic state is not identical with its minister at any given time, so a trade union organisation is not identical with its secretary.” (Writings 1938-9, p.22)
Other attacks followed. The PCM leader Laborde accused him of having links with General Cedillo. Lombardo also claimed that Trotsky had met with fascists during a summer holiday trip. Trotsky’s response was to offer to participate in a public investigation into Lombardo’s charges.
Trotsky also sought to galvanise an opposition to the Stalinists and the bureaucrats in CTAL, drafting a statement intended for publication. It stated: “[In Mexico] the unions, unfortunately, are directly dependent on the state” and “posts in the union bureaucracy are frequently filled from the ranks of the bourgeois intelligentsia, attorneys, engineers etc”.
He described the way these bureaucrats gave themselves a left cover by becoming “friends of the USSR”. He described how they kept control of the unions: “they ferociously trample on workers’ democracy and stifle any voice of criticism, acting as outright gangsters towards organisations that fight for the revolutionary independence of the proletariat from the bourgeois state and from foreign imperialism.” (Writings 1938-39 p.83)
Trotsky went further in November 1938, arguing that the trade unions in Mexico were “constitutionally statified”. He told his closest collaborators that, “they incorporate the workers, the trade unions, which are already stratified. They incorporate them in the management of the railroad, the oil industry, and so on, in order to transform the trade union leadership into government representatives… In that sense, when we say ‘the control of production by the workers’, it cannot mean control of production by the stratified bureaucrats of the trade unions, but control by the workers of their own bureaucracy and to fight for the independence of the trade unions from the state.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.791)
“In Mexico, more than anywhere, the struggle against the bourgeoisie and the government consists above all in freeing the trade unions from dependence on the government… the class struggle in Mexico must be directed towards winning the independence of the trade unions from the bourgeois state.”
He made it clear that revolutionaries would continue to work in the unions, including the teachers’ union (STERM) and the CTM. (Writings 1938-39 p.146)
He reiterated this in his critique of the anarchist CGT leaders, who decided to support the “centrist” candidate from the ruling party in the presidential election. He wrote on 31 December 1938, “The elementary duty of the revolutionary Marxist consists in carrying out systematic work in the mass proletarian organisations and above all in the trade unions. This duty includes the CTM, the CGT, and trade unions in general.” (Writings 1938-39 p.172)
He criticised the second six-year plan in March 1939 for a participation proposal which “threatens to incorporate a bureaucratic hierarchy of the unions etc, without precise delimitation, into the bureaucratic hierarchy of the state”. He went as far as to characterise the unions as “totalitarian”. (Writings 1938-39 p.222, p.227)
This advocacy of intervention in even the most reactionary unions remained in all Trotsky’s articles until the end of his life. For example Clave carried articles in 1940 on the first congress of the STERM teachers’ union and on the 7th national council of the CTM, both characterised by little democracy.
Trotsky made few remarks on the nature of the Mexican regime in the first eighteen months of his asylum, and when he did, these were brief allusions. For example in the article on the freedom of the press in August 1938 he described Mexico’s democracy as “anaemic”.
The first elaboration of his view was set out to his close collaborators Charles Curtiss, Sol Lankin and “Robinson” in a discussion on 4 November 1938.
He argued that “ a semi-democratic, semi-Bonapartist state... now exists in every country in Latin America, with inclinations towards the masses”, adding that, “in these semi-Bonapartistic-democratic governments the state needs the support of the peasants and through the weight of the peasants disciplines the workers. That is more or less the situation in Mexico”. (Writings supplement 1934-40, pp.784-785)
What did Trotsky mean by Bonapartism? He had employed the concept to understand the regime in Germany before Hitler and to describe the situation in France in the mid-1930s. He summed it up succinctly in March 1935: “By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate – in order to preserve its possessions – the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘saviour’. This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions.” (Writings 1934-35 pp.206-07)
In his discussion with comrades in November 1938, he explained: “We see in Mexico and the other Latin American countries that they skipped over most stages of development. It began in Mexico directly by incorporating the trade unions in the state. In Mexico we have a double domination. That is, foreign capital and the national bourgeoisie, or as Diego Rivera formulated it, a ‘sub-bourgeoisie’ – a stratum which is controlled by foreign capital and at the same time opposed to the workers; in Mexico a semi-Bonapartist regime between foreign capital and national capital, foreign capital and the workers... They create a state capitalism which has nothing to do with socialism. It is the purest form of state capitalism.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, pp.790-791)
Discussing the ruling party’s second six year plan in March 1939 (which had been endorsed by the CTM) Trotsky described how “the government defends the vital resources of the country, but at the same time it can grant industrial concessions, above all in the form of mixed corporations, i.e. enterprises in which the government participates (holding 10%, 25%, 51% of the stock, according to the circumstances) and writes into the contracts the option of buying out the rest after a certain period of time”.
Summing up he wrote: “The authors of the programme [i.e. the plan] wish to completely construct state capitalism within a period of six years. But nationalisation of existing enterprises is one thing; creating new ones is another… The country we repeat is poor. Under such conditions it would be almost suicidal to close the doors to foreign capital. To construct state capitalism, capital is necessary.” (Writings 1938-39 pp.226-227)
Trotsky never equivocated on the nature of the ruling party, including the character of the PRM created by Cárdenas in March 1938. In his discussion with comrades in November 1938 he argued: “The Guomindang in China, the PRM in Mexico, and the APRA in Peru are very similar organisations. It is a people’s front in the form of a party… our organisation does not participate in the APRA, Guomindang, or PRM, that it preserves absolute freedom of action and criticism.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.785)
At the beginning of 1939, prospective candidates in the PRM resigned their posts and began to campaign for the presidency, which would take place in July 1940.
At the outset the candidates were Francisco Mujica on the “left”, Manuel Ávila Camacho in the centre and Juan Andreu Almazán on the right. The PCM and Lombardo threw their support behind Ávila Camacho, calling for “unity behind the only candidate that can defeat reaction”.
Trotsky condemned the support for Ávila Camacho offered by the CGT, and wrote: “At the present time there is no workers party, no trade union that is in the process of developing independent class politics and that is able to launch an independent candidate. Under these conditions, our only possible course of action is to limit ourselves to Marxist propaganda and to the preparation of a future independent party of the Mexican proletariat.” (Writings 1938-39 p.176)
Later he registered his attitude toward Diego Rivera, who had broken with the Fourth International and briefly supported Mujica. Trotsky wrote: “You can imagine how astonished I was when Van accidentally met the painter [Rivera], in company with Hidalgo, leaving the building of the Pro-Mujica Committee carrying bundles of pro-Mujica leaflets which they were loading into the painter’s station wagon. I believe that was the first we learned of the new turn, or the passing of the painter from ‘third period anarchism’ to ‘people’s front politics’. The poor Casa del Pueblo followed him on all these steps.” (Writings 1938-39 p.293).
Despite Mexico’s relative economic backwardness in the 1930s, Trotsky did not rule out the possibility that its workers might seize power – even before their counterparts in the US. (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.785) However he was concerned about a mechanical interpretation of permanent revolution as applied to Mexico by some of the LCI.
“The Fourth International will defend... [Mexico] against imperialist intervention… But as the Mexican section of the Fourth International, it is not our state and we must be independent of the state. In this sense we are not opposed to state capitalism in Mexico; but the first thing we demand is our own representation of workers before this state. We cannot permit the leaders of the trade unions to become functionaries of the state. To attempt to conquer the state in this way is absolute idiocy. It is not possible in this manner peacefully to conquer power. It is a petty bourgeois dream...
“I believe we must fight with the greatest energy this idea that the state can be seized by stealing bits of the power. It is the history of the Guomindang. In Mexico the power is in the hands of the national bourgeoisie, and we can conquer power only by conquering the majority of the workers and a great part of the peasantry, and then overthrowing the bourgeoisie. There is no other possibility.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.792, p.793).
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 the work of Cárdenas, but rather destroy it.
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.
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 relations between the imperialist powers. He 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.
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 revolutionaries should participate in the workers’ administration established in the nationalised rail and oil industries (reprinted here).
García Treviño wrote an article quoting (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.
Trotsky was unable to add much over the next year. The world was sucked into another global war and as hostilities began, a huge faction fight took place in the Trotskyist organisation in the United States, the SWP. 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. 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.
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.
Accused of slandering the Stalinists, Trotsky offered to take the matter to court. He identified the role of the GPU, which had begun making plans to kill him from April 1939. These plans were stepped up by Vittorio Cordovilla, a Stalinist agent who arrived in Mexico in late 1939 and 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.
On Trotsky’s 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. Entitled Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, it once more characterised the Cárdenas regime as Bonapartist.
Trotsky also distinguished between different forms of Bonapartism, with some leaning “in a democratic direction, seeking support among workers and peasants”, while others “install a form close to military-police dictatorship”.
He criticised the nationalisation of the railways and oil fields as aimed simultaneously at foreign capital and the workers – and registered that these industries were run by the union bureaucracy for the bourgeois state.
Trotsky also repeated his assessment that the Mexican trade unions had been transformed into semi-state institutions – but maintained that Marxists still had the possibility of working inside them. But he emphasised the need for workers’ organisations to assert their own independent politics, from the state and the labour bureaucracy, and to fight for trade union democracy.
One thing is clear from comparing Mexico in the late 1930s with the situation today (especially in Venezuela), and that is that Mexico’s history anticipated present political issues of strategy and tactics in almost every case — the nationalisations, workers’ participation, coup attempts, union splits, the press, the creation of a ruling party etc, — as part of the creation of a Bonapartist regime. And in almost every case, Trotsky set out a clear position for how Marxists would navigate in these circumstances.
Of course, we cannot read off mechanically from the past what to say and do in the present. For one thing, Venezuela and Mexico today are much more industrially developed than in Trotsky’s time, and the form of domination by the US is different today than it was in the 1930s. And the Venezuelan UNT trade union federation is not today incorporated in the state but is an independent movement with some militant and longstanding rank and file forces.
But our tradition is an anchor – it demands a critical stance. Other Marxists, including Trotskyists in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, have used Trotsky’s comments to develop their analysis of the Mexican regime in terms of Bonapartism – and applied to to other cases, such as Peron in Argentina and Velasco in Peru. Events in Venezuela under Chávez should be assessed on their own terms. However much can be learned from the attitude other Marxists took to comparable developments.