This study is the only published comprehensive survey of labor politics during the crucial 1936-1940 period, when the union structure and government-labor relations became established so firmly that they have survived to the present day. It fits nicely after Marjorie Clark’s Organized Labor in Mexico (Chapel Hill, 1934).
Ashby explains the formation of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM) and its relationship with the government. He covers the “labor theory” of the regime apart from a chapter on leadership and includes chapters on the three major expropriations which grew out of labor controversies: the railroads, the Laguna farm lands, and the oil industry. There is an additional chapter on other labor developments, but unfortunately it precedes the chapter on the major labor controversies. By dividing labor developments into separate aspects, each of which is traced throughout the Cárdenas period, the author obscures the interaction between the labor events and their impact on polities.
The book’s major strength is in its wealth of information on government-labor relations during the growth of the CTM. The roles of the Communist Party and of Vicente Lombardo Toledano, Cárdenas’ labor boss, are somewhat clarified. Ashby gives little evidence for the importance which he attributes to Lombardo Toledano as a theoretician.
The hook’s major weakness is the contradictory way in which the author handles the ideological questions which he poses as crucial to an interpretation of the Cárdenas period. He tries to use his labor focus to clarify the extent to which the Cárdenas government was socialist and to explain why the government and its “Marxist” labor leadership moved away from revolution and socialism. Unfortunately the author cannot reconcile the anti-labor positions taken by the later Cárdenas government with the pro-labor orientation which he imputes to it. For instance, Cárdenas completely rejected labor demands that the government take action against price increases which were eroding real wages. The government took a neutral or antiunion position in the Veracruz textile industry controversies and was hostile to the demands of oil workers after expropriation of the oil industry.
While the author accepts the rhetoric about the socialist intentions of Cárdenas and the intellectuals around him, he is less impressed by simultaneous promises that Mexican “socialism” was not designed to threaten the existence of capitalism. How did a socialist regime build capitalism in Mexico? Ashby does not see that the Cárdenas government was a populist regime using government intervention and an alliance with labor to overcome the obstacles to capitalist development and lay the basis for the expansion of the domestic market and government control of popular movements in the future. Communist support came because Cárdenas sought it and because the regime was nationalist.
Ashby’s explanation for the move away from socialism is the “fascist” threat of Calles’ possible return to power. He asserts that since fascism was the main threat, socialists had to strengthen capitalism as an alternative. However, the main threat to Mexican development was the United States, not fascism. Since Cárdenas was willing to ally with the left against the United States, he might have been expected to move toward socialism. While Lombardo and the Communists used the fascist-threat argument to justify their support of capitalism, it seems a weak excuse today.
The author asks us not to let the government domination of the CTM after 1940 weaken our appreciation of the monumental achievement of the CTM under Cárdenas, but this study clearly demonstrates that even under Cárdenas the government always played the dominant role in its alliance with labor, and that control of unions was the most important aim in building up the CTM. Lombardo facilitated this domination at every step, paving the way for his own expulsion from the CTM after 1940.
In evaluating the socialism of the regime, the author ignores the relevant Marxist literature. He might have compared labor under Cárdenas to labor’s role under Perón, Vargas, Betancourt, Nkrumah, and Sukarno. Viewed in this perspective, many of Cárdenas’ achievements become less exceptional.
There is little information in this study on the internal administration of unions. How did a bureaucratic group maintain control of the union? There is no attempt to explain labor politics as the reflection of the sociological or economic realities faced by Mexican workers. How did the existence of a semi-employed urban labor reserve and the availability of industrial jobs affect the behavior of worker and union leader? How did the employment market change? What happened to workers’ real salaries during the period studied?
Still, Ashby makes very effective use of a vast literature, and his bibliography is admirable, except for the omission of Marxist writings on labor. He apparently did not use interviews. While the book needs editing for repetition and awkwardness, the author’s style has a refreshing immediacy, and he is not afraid to take positions.