Steven Sanderson’s study of the important topic of Mexican agrarian populism is written on three levels. Analytically, he contends that in the history of Mexico, agrarian reform (and other populist reforms) constantly pull against the need for the development of capital. Given the weakness of the Mexican bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mexican state itself has stepped in to take charge of capitalist development and has become the arbiter between these two contradictory goals, particularly since the Revolution of 1910-20. Further, in the words of the author, “To the extent that the postrevolutionary Mexican state has effected a multi-class coalition for development, it has guaranteed its own authority (legitimacy) by limiting the dimensions of class conflict in civil society” (p. 6).

A second level involves the development of agrarian policy at the national level from the Liberal period of the nineteenth century to the present. This description is woven into the third major concern of the book, a case study of agrarian politics in the northwest state of Sonora. Sonora is particularly appropriate for this sort of consideration, as it was the environment in which the crucial revolutionary and institutionalizing figure, Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, formulated and matured their policies, which had enormous effect on subsequent government action. Further, Sonora has been a major area of agrarian unrest as recently as the later years of the presidency of Luis Echeverría. Not surprisingly, the discussions of the Obregón-Calles and the Echeverría periods are the strongest in the book.

Unfortunately, the three levels are not always effectively interwoven and occasionally the arguments connecting the theoretical with the historical seem tenuous. For example, one might well question the author’s contention that “the conflict over land reform, agrarian populism, and economic growth is really a historic battle to determine the legitimate boundaries of public responsibility and authority” (p. 6). To this reader, the issue, particularly in the Mexican case, is one of power over resources, whether or not this power is considered legitimate. To set up an analytical framework that attempts to separate the legitimate functions of the state from those of civil society, when indeed they are constantly congruent, intertwined, and overlapping, obscures rather than illuminates the Mexican reality. Nevertheless, the author makes an extremely important point in regard to agrarian reform: that it has been a vehicle for postrevolutionary regimes to maintain both legitimacy and strength through the mobilization and demobilization of campesinos in defense of the “Revolution.”

If the history of this public-policy issue remains confusing, perhaps it is because the policy has never been clear-cut, because its application has been different in different regions, and because it is always subject to change in light of new political or economic exigencies. This book is a step forward in our understanding of land reform in a specific area and its continuing importance in the Mexican context, as well as a significant attempt to organize our knowledge of agrarian policy.