Revolutions do not inevitably lead to the ultimate frustration of the popular interest in taking power and governing in its own name. The failure of the Mexican Revolution to triumph as a popular revolution was rooted in particular disadvantages. Its principal charismatic leader, Emiliano Zapata, lacked the experiential foundation for the formulation of a national program that could unify the various popular sectors. Moreover, the working class struggle was developing in a manner separate from the peasant revolution, making difficult the forging of a peasant-worker alliance from below. In addition, the revolutionary sector of the petit bourgeoisie was not sufficiently advanced to lead a peasant-worker alliance from below. The current most prepared to do so was led by Ricardo Flores Magón, who was isolated and in exile at the time of the triumph of the revolutionary army in 1914. At the same time, the ascending petit bourgeoisie was able to offer a coherent national project. All of these factors contributed to the inability of the revolution to maintain popular direction at the critical moment of its triumph.
As we have seen, in the October Revolution, when armed militias took control of the capital city, Lenin immediately convoked the establishment of new political power, which immediately issued decrees that responded to popular demands, including the demands of the peasantry (“The Russian Revolution (October)” 1/23/2014). In future posts, we will see that, similarly, in the cases of Vietnam and Cuba, when popular armies took control of capital cities, the leaders of the people in arms took immediate steps toward the implementation of popular programs, thus establishing that the revolutions would triumph as popular revolutions. In both cases, the revolutionary movements were led by a leadership cadre that was overwhelmingly petit bourgeois in composition. In the two cases, charismatic leaders emerged who were nourished and formed by both petty bourgeois Third World nationalism and Marxism-Leninism, and they forged a synthesis of these two currents of thought, providing a solid ideological foundation for the consolidation of the revolution as a popular revolution.
Classical Marxism taught that the proletariat is at the vanguard of the revolution. But the unfolding of revolutions in the twentieth century teaches us a different lesson. Popular revolutions are characterized by the active participation of peasants and the petit bourgeoisie as well as workers. And in the second half of the twentieth century, other popular sectors would emerge to identify themselves as actors independent of their class: Afro-descendants, women, and indigenous peoples.
In this mixture of popular classes in movement, we can see that the role played by the petit bourgeoisie is critical. When revolutions failed to be consolidated as popular revolutions, one finds a petit bourgeoisie in which confusion, division and opportunism prevails. On the other hand, when popular revolutions are able to sustain themselves, one sees the emergence of a petit bourgeoisie that conducts itself in an informed and dignified manner and in accordance with universal human values, led by a charismatic leader who is lifted up by the people, and who leads the people to the consolidation of the popular revolution. Examples of the former include the Mexican Revolution and the US Revolution of 1968 (which we will discuss in future posts). Examples of the latter include the October Revolution, the Vietnamese Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution.
Revolutions, whether or not they are able to sustain themselves as popular revolutions, are exceptional moments that call persons to action and self-sacrifice, and therefore they produce heroes and martyrs. The Mexican Revolution produced three of universal significance: Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Ricardo Flores Magón. All three dedicated their lives to the better world that they envisioned, and all three were killed by the forces that correctly perceived them as a threat to the established order. We today have the duty to remember them in a form that recognizes their limitations but that also appreciates their exceptional qualities. We must do this not only because they deserve it, but also because we must overcome the cynicism, rooted in a consumer society, that seeks to induce us to believe that there are no heroes.
All popular revolutions have their imperfections, even those that have been able to sustain themselves as political and cultural projects dedicated to the protection of the interests and needs of the people. We must seek to understand why this is so, and we should be aware that those who seek to preserve privileges for the few will exploit these imperfections to induce us to think that revolution is not possible. There are various factors in each national case that contribute to limitations and contradictions in the revolutionary project. The single factor that pertains to all national cases is the fact that, in the context of a political economic world-system that has global structures, revolutionary transformation in a single country is not possible, and any effort to do so will necessarily have its limitations.
Thus let us understand the Mexican Revolution as a particular heroic moment in a global process of revolutionary transformation, a transformation that continues to unfold, and that ultimately will triumph, because of the unsustainability of the world-system itself, and because of the demonstrated heroism of those who seek a better world.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Mexican Revolution