Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A quick review, of sorts: James Cockcroft's 2010 "Mexico's Revolution Then and Now" Book

John Cockcroft is a veteran activist and academic, who has a long and highly laudable trajectory in defense of workers and human rights within Mexico and the United States. His "Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1913," originally published in 1968 and now just reissued, is a classic study of the Flores Magón and their crucial contribution to the Revolution.

I just finished reading  Cockcroft's  "Mexico's Revolution Then and Now," which came out just last year, and wanted to add a few observations and criticisms of the book. 

Cockcroft is certainly a radical writer, in the sense that most would place him on the far left. I have certainly no problems with strongly ideological writers - we all have, if we define ideology in the looser sense as logically connected ideas of how we want the world to be, our own ideological predispositions, and Cockcroft is merely quite forthright about then. Yet I find his radicalism disturbing, from reasons I want to detail below. 

The book is concise and a quick read. It is essentially Cockcroft's interpretation of the past hundred years of Mexico's political trajectory, and in some ways a condensed presentation of his earlier works.
He ardently and honorable draws attention to many abuses of the social and human rights of Mexicans, both within Mexico and also outside, in the process delivering well-deserved critiques of U.S. policies on immigration and drug policies. One particularly poignant sentence: "Mexican immigrants are not terrorists - they have never destroyed a bridge, a building or a house; on the contrary, they have built them" (p. 109).

Yet the book also has, in my opinion, a range of very serious flaws, which lead me to wholly reject the medium and the message. I admit I diverge from many of Cockcroft's descriptions and analyses: The book is almost an open  festschrift for Andrés Manuel López Obrador and organizations and unions associated with his movement - but he is of course perfectly in his right to offer this interpretation. 

Where I think he is far overstepping his boundaries, is the passing off as facts a range of, to put it mildly, extremely disputed claims, for which absolutely no evidence exist.  I will try to briefly present a few cases in point: 

* On the one hand, Cockcroft claims Calderón's use of the military against the drug gangs is simply an excuse to militarize the country. A contentious claim in its own right; he then goes on to claim that Calderón is backing or favoring, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or el Chapo. He is not alone in doing so. Yet what evidence exists for this? This highly contentious claim to me was at its peak around two years ago, but ever since we have seen many, many of El Chapo's associates captured or killed. By 2010, presenting such a claim with no evidence doesn't have much force to it. And an additional point with regards to the cartels: He attacks Calderón's "self-declared" war, which at best is imprecise: Calderón, in fact, actively avoids using the term, and berates the media for its use of it. Disagree with his actions or not: He never declared a war. (UPDATE: Though see comment below)

* On the topic of the military: "There is always the chance of a military coup in Mexico, and judging from the reception of the coup in Honduras the empire might welcome it" (p. 42).
No, I really don't think the U.S. would welcome a coup in Mexico, and that claim strikes me as really absurd. And empirically, does any evidence exist at all that coup in Mexico by the military is likely?

* There is a claim that in Mexico, "0.07 percent" of Mexicans owns 40 percent (!) of Mexico's wealth, and another that only Haiti has a higher gap between the rich and poor in Latin America. Both are clearly wrong, and should appear as patently absurd at face value - or simply by just by looking up  such data at the ECLAC Web Site, in the ECLAC Statistical Yearbook.

* President Felipe Calderón is referred to continually as the "de facto president." Why? Because AMLO won the election in 2006 with "half a million to two million more votes than Felipe Calderón." Yet how can a serious academic simply present this as a "fact," and be expected to be taken seriously? There is absolutely no evidence that AMLO received more votes than Calderón. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence that a fraud took place in 2006. In all seriousness: Four years have passed, and how long do we have to waste time on this charade? Are all academics, not to mention electoral observers, all rightwing members of the mafia and simply part of a giant conspiracy to cover up AMLO's win? Why, after four years, has absolutely no evidence surfaced?

(Cockcroft at one point refers to the book by José Antonio Crespo,  2006: hablan las actas hablan, which, as Crespo himself accepts, does not prove that a fraud took place, or that AMLO actually got more votes (the book does offer a theoretical probability of a scenario where AMLO could have won, yet doesn't prove in the slightest that AMLO won or that a fraud took place).

* More on AMLO. I find the parallels the author draws between AMLO and Ricardo Flores Magón to be weak, to put it mildly. Yes, the author is one of the greatest living authorities on Flores Magón, who was indeed a visionary, an internationalist who only saw Mexico's struggle as part of a world context, and actively sought ties with organizations in the United States and elsewhere as part of this international struggle. AMLO could not care two bits about what happens outside of Mexico: He has absolutely no interest in foreign affairs, and is moreover a highly personalistic, top-down plebiscitarian - "the movement is me," as he once told Senator Carlos Navarrete - a far cry from the democratic party Flores Magón sought to build. Yes, AMLO's magazine has taken the name of that famous publication of the El Partido Liberal Mexicano, but AMLO is no Flores Magón. In his dealings with his own party, he has consistently been authoritarian minded, with no respect for the PRD's decisions.

* There is a presentation of the SME, the Mexican electricians union, as an ardent and just defender of workers right." Yet there is no mention of the fact that another state-owned company took over the SME's operation of the Luz y Fuerza company, whose level of service was absolutely abysmal, or that SME cadres have been engaging in outright violence and thuggery against their fellow workers. This also goes for the miners union of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia,

* He calls for a "new nationalization" of PEMEX, the Mexican state oil company. I don't even know what that really means, but will note this: PEMEX is in desperate need today of foreign technology and expertise. Look to Norway, and look to Brazil: Their Statoil and Petrobras companies are among the most dynamic in the world, majority-owned by their states, yet thanks to private investment and know-how have become extremely dynamic companies whose revenue has been crucial in the funding of social programs in the respective countries.

* When it comes to PEMEX, I find AMLO's posture setentista, echeverrista, and thus ultimately conservative and even reactionary, but that is not my main point here: Cockcroft claims that AMLO's Adelitas, or a loose organization of women loyal to his movement, stopped a privatization drive by the PRI and PAN. This is just ludicrous. At the time of this debate, in early to late 2008, a vast majority of both congressional houses, including the PRD, voted for a reform of PEMEX that did not seek to privatize it. Indeed, all but a handful of the most ultra-loyal AMLO senators voted in favor. AMLO, however, though he has no seat in either house, wanted to force in - with emphasis on force in - some additional 20 or so words in the final legislation, and warned that unless this took place, the mafia would privatize PEMEX. In a pathetic exercise of plebescitariamism, he "asked" his followers, all gathered for the "defense" of petroleum, if they still wanted to take action against the legislators, even though the final text obviously had nothing to do with privatization. His followers "voted" yes, and subsequently tried to storm the Senate, trying with brute physical force and violence to short-circuit the democratic legislative process. The PEMEX reform passed, without AMLO's additional sentence inserted. And now, more than two years later, was PEMEX privatized? Did AMLO "save" it from privatization? Of course he did not. PEMEX remained 100% monopolized by the state, both in upstream and downstream operations. Not, as I've argued elsewhere, that this is a good thing.

There is more, but out of fear of boring the reader I will limit myself to these comments. In sum: Too many times, Cockcroft's radical - for they are radical - claims are thrown out with no supporting evidence; often his interpretations equally fly in the face of empirical reality. Yet its deepest flaw comes in its final page, which I believe will serve to reject many readers otherwise sympathetic to Cockcroft's message. He tells us that the young ask him, '''Isn't an armed popular struggle needed?" to which he answers:
"I always tell these young activists that in my opinion this does not appear to be the appropriate moment to promote an armed rebellion in the way the Magonistas did in 1909-1911, the circumstances are different, above all the inequality of military power between the citizenry and the armed forces of Mexico and the United States" (p. 139).
If all that is keeping you from endorsing an armed rebellion against Mexico's young, hard-fought and fragile democracy today, is simply that the opponent is too physically strong, as opposed to a principled rejection of the violent overthrowal of democratic regimes, you have utterly lost me.


  1. I've been a reader since the beginning and very much appreciate the work that you do on this blog. Without taking any issue whatsoever with the larger point you're making here, I think it might be worth noting that Calderon's self-reporting on his supposed non-use of the word "war" has not been entirely accurate. Using the presidential website, Carlos Bravo R. compiled a list of all of the times that Calderon has used the word "guerra" to describe the current situation in Mexico and published it at Nexos.

    What is true is that the way that he uses the word has changed over time, and _now_ Calderon doesn't use it except to refer to a "war" between rival gangs.

    The compilation is here:
    and the analysis is here:


  2. Dear Patrick,
    Many thanks for kind words, and I thoroughly appreciate your input and material. This is great stuff. I am still not sure whether we can fully call out Calderón on the "war" issue, but it certainly makes him appear less than forthright.

    All the best,