In May 1990, a group of academics gathered in Guadalajara to pay homage to François Chevalier, whose seminal work, La formation des grands domaines au Mexique (1952), gave new shape and impulse to the study of Mexican rural history. Evocative of the feudal ceremonies described by Chevalier’s mentor, Marc Bloch, this homage was a formal public acknowledgment of dependence, gratitude, and admiration on the part of generations of scholars variously influenced by the writings of a master historian. The meeting’s broad title, El Mundo Rural Mexicano a Través de los Siglos, reflected well the vast scope of the themes and inquiries that can be traced to Chevalier’s fundamental work; in essence, no less than the study of continuity and change in forms of land tenure, social relations, culture, and politics in rural Mexico.
Unfortunately, the resulting festschrift, a collection of 17 interpretive essays and research reports by Mexican and foreign historians and anthropologists, does not deliver on this promise. The subjects are quite diverse, ranging across four centuries. Included are essays by Gisela von Wobeser on hacienda foreclosures; Heriberto Moreno García on rural business companies; Marta Eugenia García Ugarte, David Brading, Luis González, and Friedrich Katz on ranchos and rancheros; Eric Van Young and Carlos Martínez Assad on rebellions and ideology; Romana Falcón and Ricardo Avila Palafox on jefes políticos; Guillermo de la Peña on the structure of rural social movements; and Jean Meyer on agrarian anticlericalism, to name some. Geographically, the Bajío, the west, and the north predominate.
The central problem is that despite the book’s title, many of the papers have no meaningful connection to what is distinctive about Chevalier’s agrarian scholarship and thus seem entirely out of place here, their independent merits notwithstanding. Too often it is easy to forget (and hard to see) that these essays were meant to be inspired by Chevalier’s work. Lacking this anchor, the collection as a whole comes across as incoherent, even random, and it fails to do justice to the rich legacy of Chevalier’s rural studies. Still, a few of the essays are quite good, and those on the rancheros, taken together, hint at what could have been achieved overall.
Part applied revolutionary theory and part historical argument, Dana Markiewicz’ book proposes a sweeping revisionist interpretation of the goals and accomplishments of Mexico’s agrarian reform, from its origins in the Revolution of 1910 to its effective demise at the hands of Miguel Alemán in 1946. Against official and academic versions of its history—which represent it as a determined, if not entirely successful, redistributive drive by governments more or less committed to redressing the social inequities that precipitated the Revolution—Markiewicz contends that “despite its often radical-sounding agrarian reform rhetoric, the post-Porfirian regime never intended to fulfill peasant aspirations” (p. 3). In terms of improving rural well-being, moreover, bourgeois land tenure reform is intrinsically sterile, because by preserving the rights of private property it renders itself powerless to “mitigate the contradictions of capitalist accumulation” (p. 168). In Markiewicz’ view, agrarian reform developed as part of a bourgeois “Bonapartist” strategy, designed initially to buy social peace and end the Revolution but broadened subsequently to secure the allegiance of peasants during military revolts and to help consolidate the new political regime.
These are intriguing and important propositions, difficult to dismiss but even harder to demonstrate. Unfortunately, Markiewicz’ choice of principal, unitary characters—“the peasantry,” “the bourgeoisie,” “the state,” “the regime,” “the workers,” “the capitalists”—robs these issues of their true complexity. In the end, some of the points she makes are more programmatic statements than explanations. Perhaps Marx could escape that fate, but not everyone else can manage to. What Markiewicz does show is that most of the presidents during the years in question were not friends of land reform, but rather opportunists and reluctantly acquiescent participants; that in every administration—including that of Cárdenas—agrarian legislation and policy were prey to all kinds of Machiavellian political considerations; that the institution of the ejido did not and could not bring wholesale social justice to the countryside; and that despite profound changes in the nation’s agrarian structure, in 1946, as in 1910, private agriculture still reigned supreme. Policies and end results do not tell the whole (or even the most revealing) story, however; and it is risky to fashion historical explanations out of them alone. It is strange, for example, that rural entrepreneurs, and businessmen in general, do not figure prominently as actors in Markiewicz’ account, even though she identifies them as the prime beneficiaries of the government’s largesse.
Perhaps this book’s more lasting contribution lies in its insistence that Mexico’s land reform and the ejidos it created be studied in the context of a capitalist economy and not in isolation from it, as has so often been the case. Moreover, despite its shortcomings, this volume is well worth reading because it marks the beginning of what promises to be a long battle over the meaning of la reforma agraria.