This book is presented by the publisher as a “basic one-volume history,” with an emphasis on economic, social, and cultural themes. Such a book is much needed, but difficult to write. Cumberland only partially overcomes the difficulties.
The strength of the book lies in its descriptive passages, some of them hard to equal elsewhere. For example, there are lively and colorful accounts of mining in different epochs and a vivid view of the hard and chaotic conditions in everyday life, especially after the great political upheavals of 1810, 1857, and 1910. Other effective passages are those discussing the railroad ventures in the Díaz period, the Constitution of 1917, and the oil dispute during the 1930s.
It is difficult to write a book of this sort, for although political sources abound, there are precious few on socioeconomic matters, especially for the nineteenth century. Thus Cumberland has been forced to adopt a basically political organization, with the turning points at 1519, 1810, 1821, 1867, and 1910. Within each political period he treats a variety of socioeconomic themes, often scrupulously avoiding discussion of political institutions or events. In doing so, he is frequently inconsistent, and the treatment of similar themes emerges disjointed from one era to the next. His discussion of the Independence movement is in large part political narrative; yet he avoids such narrative for the Revolution after 1910. He devotes considerable space to the Church-state conflict in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but very little to the Church as a colonial institution. While there is a full treatment of the late nineteenth-century hacienda, there is only one page of generalized remarks on the colonial hacienda.
With so few good sources available, there are some surprising omissions in Cumberland’s bibliographical essay—for example, François Chevalier’s magnum opus on the hacienda. Robert A. Potash’s study on the Banco de Avío is also omitted, as is Nelson Reed’s work on the Caste War of Yucatán. (In fact, this significant social upheaval is not mentioned in the text.) Such omissions are jarring, especially since all the important (and some unimportant) political works appear in the bibliography. For example, numerous hooks on the Texas Revolution and the war of 1846-1848 are listed, although neither episode is discussed in the text. The omission of articles from the bibliography is also regrettable, for much significant socioeconomic study has appeared in articles, such as those by Chevalier, Howard F. Cline, and Lyle N. McAlister.
These omissions and inconsistencies point to the major weakness of the book, namely that it lacks an overall conceptual framework. Cumberland’s principal theme, frequently restated, appears to be the struggle of the Mexican “people” for justice and a better life. The book is basically a success story, a chronicle of socioeconomic progress toward a goal now in part reached. Thus the final chapter is entitled “At Last.” But the author falls short in his purported “attempt to clarify and to explain the social and economic issues which gave the Mexican Revolution such a distinctive stamp” (p. v). For example, he presents no analysis of social classes or of the social dynamics of twentieth-century Mexico. He skirts the major problem of defining the Revolution, though he apparently sees it ending at the unconventional date of 1924. He makes little effort to untangle the complicated question of whether the aims of agrarian and industrial revolutions were complementary or in conflict. In fact, he relegates industrialization to a scant few pages at the end of the book. Also he generally ignores the cultural and intellectual dimensions of modern Mexico.
This book will be useful for its many excellent descriptive passages, but less so as a coherent and critical socioeconomic treatment of Mexican history.