Mexican Revolution and Anarchy

From Anarchy In Action

On 1 July 1906, the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM, Mexican Liberal Party) issued a platform. Contrary to what the PLM’s name suggested, the organization held Anarchist politics opposed to the state, capitalism, and other forms of coercive hierarchy. While the PLM’s 1906 platform did not actually call for a radical utopia, it demanded reforms so far-reaching for the context——during Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship——that their implementation arguably required a revolutionary situation. For example, the platform insisted on a maximum eight-hour workday and minimum salary, the restoration of ejidos (communally-held farmlands), and public education for people under fourteen. Four years later, a revolution did occur, and it produced a new Constitution in 1917 guaranteeing all the demands enumerated above. Remarkably, the Constitution fully implemented twenty-three of the PLM’s fifty-two demands, and it partially implemented another twenty-six.[1] In total, then, some forty-nine out of these Anarchists’ fifty-two demands in 1906 made their way, in some shape or form, into Mexico’s 1917 national constitution.

The first social revolution since the emergence of Anarchism as a political movement, the 1910 Mexican Revolution involved significant Anarchist activity, led by the Anarcho-communist PLM, the Anarcho-syndicalist House of the World Worker (COM), and the Anarchist-influenced Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Industrial Union of North and South America (UIANS), and the Liberation Army of the South (ELS). The Revolution began as an uprising led by the liberal Fransisco Madero against the dictator Porfirio Díaz. Díaz resigned and went into exile in 1911, but the revolution continued until at least 1920, by which time it had become a civil war between multiple factions. Mexico's 1917 Constitution was one of the major outcomes of the Mexican Revolution.

Anarchist precursors

Anarchists, rather than Marxists, dominated the anti-capitalist labor movement of Mexico from the 1880s to 1920. As Barry Carr notes, “Historians of twentieth-century Mexico generally agree that Marxism contributed little and late to the Mexican workers' movement […] The dominant ideological strands informing Mexican worker activities in the forty years before the 1910 Revolution were various versions of anarchism, libertarianism, and radical liberalism.”[2] Ángel J. Cappelletti observes that in the 1870s “Mexican anarchists encouraged cooperativism and collectivism, supported a struggle in the workers’ and artisans’ organizations...and promoted the syndicalist struggle through the proletarian press.”[3] During this decade, Mexican Anarchism’s leading spokesperson was José María González, who wrote: “The Social Revolution/ What is the Object of that revolution?/ To abolish the proletariat./ Then, cannot the government pass laws to bring about this goal?/ The government is unable to do anything./ Why?/ Because it is the first enslaver.”[4]

Mexican Liberal Party (PLM)

In 1903, the brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón fled Mexico to the United States due to frequent arrests and police surveillance. They published the paper Regeneracion, and in 1905, they announced the establishment of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). Despite its name, the Party espoused revolutionary Anarchism. In 1905, the PLM's newspaper Regeneracion sold 200,000 copies each edition.[5] At an early age, Ricardo Flores Magón read the Russian Anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin, and he began to openly support Anarchism in 1906. Within the PLM, Ricardo became the organization’s president, and his brother Enrique became the treasurer. “Between 1900 and 1910, Magón and the Liberal party were the only serious challenge to the Díaz regime and they became a symbol of resistance,” John Hart observes.[6]

The Party consisted of decentralized guerrilla units, each with about fifty members on average. Some units, however, had two hundred to three hundred members. Despite this partially decentralized structure, the Party did not avoid the hierarchical trappings of a military organization. Each unit elected a jefe and subjefe, who in turn reported to clandestine delgados. The PLM divided Mexico into five zones, and each zone had a delgado. Finally, the delgados reported to the revolutionary Junta.[7]

The PLM conducted a series of strikes and raids from 1906 to 1908, but their most important was probably in 1911, during the Revolution’s beginning stages, when they established military control of Baja California for six months, “establishing a commune." “[A]n internationalist and multi-racial coalition of PLM units, Anglo members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), ‘committed anarchists’, ‘adventurers’, and African American and indigenous fighters had liberated Tijuana and Mexicali from Porfirian control.”[8] Madero’s forces ultimately crushed the PLM’s campaign, and the PLM’s influence waned afterwards. Still, it was a major episode of temporary regional autonomy that happened within the Revolution’s duration. Perhaps the PLM’s most lasting influence in Mexico, though, was on the Zapatistas and the House of the Global Worker.

The PLM's 1 July 1906 platform influenced the central demands by the country's urban and rural labor movements. The PLM's platform issued various fifty-two demands, including a minimum wage, a reduced work-day, and redistribution of rural lands. As James Cockroft writes, the labor section of the PLM platform “would be adopted in great part by the major labor movement of the Mexican Revolution”. The Zapatistas' Plan of Ayala “contained some fairly obvious allusions to earlier PLM rhetoric,” including an ending—“Liberty, justice, and law”—that resembled the PLM slogan “Reform, Justice, and Law”.[9] In 1917, the government of President Venustiano Carranza issued a new Constitution of Mexico, which fully met twenty-three of the PLM platform's demands and partially met an additional twenty-six.[10]


The Zapatistas, a movement of rural small farmers that began in the state of Morelos under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata, exhibited many anarchistic qualities and drew direct inspiration from Mexican Anarchists. John Womack writes that the Zapatistas were “ignorant of theory but nevertheless compelled, towards the construction of an agrarian anarcho-communism.”[11] Actually, the Zapatistas were not ignorant of theory but rather developed their theory in conversation with Anarchism. Zapata adopted the Anarchist motto “Tierra y libertad” (land and freedom), and José Muñoz Cota reported that Ricardo Flores Magón himself suggested that slogan, through a messenger, to Zapata. The secretary of Zapata’s army, Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, was an Anarchist who supported Flores Magón’s ideas and who had previously been in the PLM.[12] What is certain is that the Plan de Ayala adopted a number of ideas from the PLM and “incorporated phrases” directly from the PLM’s newspaper Regeneración.[13] Some Anarchist members of House of the World Worker went on to join the Zapatista movement, including Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama who served as the Zapatistas' secretary, Rafael Perez Taylor, Luis Mendez, Miguel Mendoza Lopez Schwerdtfeger, and Octavio Jahn.[14]

On 28 November 1911, Zapata proclaimed the Plan of Ayala, a framework for land redistribution and local political autonomy. Ángel Cappelletti speculates that Soto y Gama may have authored Zapata’s 11 November 1911 Plan de Ayala, a sweeping agrarian reform platform that called for the restoration of ejidos.[15] The historian John Hart argues that the Plan of Ayala had roots in a long agrarian radical tradition largely shaped by Anarchist organizers. For instance, Hart mentions Jose Maria Gonzalez, an early organizer and spokesperson of agrarian Anarchism in Mexico. At one point Gonzalez wrote, using quite explicitly anti-statist language: “The Social Revolution. What is the Object of that revolution? To abolish the proletariat. Then cannot the government pass laws to bring about this goal. The government is unable to do anything.”[16] Alan Knight asserts that “Zapatismo approached the Proudhonian ideal, a society marked not by the total dissolution of order and structure, but by the resurgence of small, local social units (families, clans, villages) enjoying self-government and linked in a loose, voluntary formation.”[17] According to Adolfo Gilly, the Plan of Ayala, while not consciously socialist, “[if implemented] would have effectively smashed the living roots of capitalism. For it would have involved nationalization of all the property of the exploiting classes.”[18]

The Zapatistas had two main organizations: a military called the Liberation Army of the South, with 70,000 militants in 1915, and a civilian organization called the Industrial Union of North and South America.[19] John Womack's Zapata and the Mexican Revolution demonstrates that the Zapatistas organized themselves in a decentralized manner with a minimal amount of coercive hierarchies among the men (the region was also historically a site of patriarchal local and Catholic traditions). Womack explains the way that Emiliano Zapata's leadership rested on popular consensus rather than authoritarianism: “Zapata is most prominent in these pages not because he himself begged attention but because the villagers of Morelos put him in charge and persistently looked to him for guidance, and because other villagers around the Republic took him for their champion.”[20] Within their territories, the Zapatistas minimized the use of centralized force, preferring to settle conflicts at the community level. Womack writes that “Zapata never organized a state police: law enforcement, such as it was, remained the province of village councils.”[21]

Jason Wehling describes the military structure as “agrarian communalist”, referring to the significant degree of autonomy that each locally-based unit enjoyed. He explains, citing Womack and Friedrich Katz: “While Zapata was responsible for specifying operations, the overall structure of command was relatively decentralized. This worked very well […] The entire military organization was tied, intimately, with the local communities. The actual guerrilla units were fairly small, usually composed of only 200 to 300 men each. But this was the result of where the base originated: the villages.” Wehling describes the Zapatistas' social structure as “libertarian municipalist,” referring to the philosophy developed by Murray Bookchin, a Vermont-based green Anarchist. Wehling claims, “the Libertarian-Municipalism that was instituted in the villages under Zapatista control was very close to the Anarchist ideal.” Specifically, towns were liberated from most aspects of state and federal authority. The territories' General Law mandated a one-year term-limit for political office-holder, to prevent the development of a class of professional politicians.[22]

House of the World Worker (COM)

House of the World Worker (COM) was a large urban-based union founded in 1912 with strong Anarcho-syndicalist leanings. COM became “the omnipotent labor organization in Mexico” by early 1913, according to Hart. They led many strikes across the country, including a strike at Mexico City's Cafe Ingles, which forced management to concede to workers' demands. COM also organized an Escuela Racionalista and other community schools that taught workers literacy and spread revolutionary propaganda.[23] At first, the union’s name was simply La Casa del Obrero, but they added Mundial in 1913 after hearing a rousing speech by Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama. COM took many forms of direct action: “tailors organized a boycott of the Palacio de Hierro, and textile workers called strikes in factories in Colmena Miraflores, and other places,” for example.[24]

Anarchists' Collusion with Carranza

The COM became hugely influential especially in Mexico City, and some scholars speculate that if they had allied with the Zapatistas, the alliance could have shifted the Revolution in a more (libertarian) socialist direction. Smolski et al argue, “[T]he failure of the proletarians [especially the COM] and peasants [especially the Zapatistas] to unite in Mexico led to the establishment of a caudillo order.”[25] Stuart Easterling also notes that such an alliance between proletarians and peasants would have “at the minimum” weakened the Constitutionalists’ ability to consolidate the state along highly capitalist and authoritarian lines: “[W]hat if workers and their unions had cemented an alliance with the other side, with Villa and Zapata? It would have dealt a serious blow to Obregón’s efforts, and he knew this. At minimum, it might have been difficult for him to maintain his military rear guard and his supply lines while he challenged Villa. But even more important, Obregón’s plans for national control would have proved a difficult proposition if he had faced the active (if not armed) opposition of the working class of the capital.”[26]

However, the COM did not align with Zapata but instead aligned with the Constitutionalists. They even organized “Red Battalions” that help the government fight the Zapatistas. Easterling points out tactical reasons COM might have made this choice. The Constitutionalists had consistently showed some interest in urban labor issues, and the rural Zapatistas had not. The Constitutionalists seemed to be interested in nation-wide issues, whereas the Zapatistas were much more provincially focused. Less significant of a factor (according to Easterling), COM’s strongly anti-clerical outlook prejudiced the organization against the highly religious campesinos.[27] Hart argues that the COM's reason for siding against the Zapatistas had to do with cultural factors. COM members prided themselves on their urban identity and saw themselves as more culturally advanced than the rural Zapatista farmers. Furthermore, the COM had a purist rejection of religion and thus frowned on the Zapatistas' Catholicism. Finally, the COM was unimpressed by Zapata and Villa's 1914 invasion of Mexico City: “[T]he Casa directors witnessed what they considered a pitiful spectacle as the Zapatista troops humbly begged tortillas on the doorsteps of 'bourgeois homes',” writes Hart based on interviews.[28]

At the time, Ricardo Flores Magón denounced in the strongest possible terms COM’s alliance with the Constitutionalists: “By taking arms against the workers of the fields, you have taken arms against your own interests, because the interests of the exploited are the same whether they use the plough or the hammer. You have shot down your class brothers, the Zapatistas and the anarchists of the Mexican Liberal Party, with impunity, but in this way you have strengthened the enemy, the bourgeoisie, who today are paying for your services with misery, and when you protest, death!”[29] From this point of view, the COM’s own missteps may have helped seal the ultimately conservative direction of the Revolution (not to mention the government’s ultimate repression of the COM themselves).

In 1919, a contingent of Constitutionalists set up a meeting with Zapata, falsely claiming a desire to defect to the Zapatistas. At the meeting, they assassinated Zapata. The government ended up outlawing the COM, and the Anarchist movement deteriorated after 1920.

  1. “Program of the Liberal Party (PLM), 1906” in James D. Cockcroft, Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1913 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976).
  2. Barry Carr, “Marxism and Anarchism in the Formation of the Mexican Communist Party, 1910-19,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 63 (1983), 278-279.
  3. Ángel J. Cappelletti, Anarchism in Latin America, trans. Gabriel Palmer-Fernández (Oakland: AK Press, 2018), 300.
  4. John Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class 1860-1931 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978), ch. 5.
  5. Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class.
  6. Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class, 89, 182.
  7. Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class.
  8. Andrew Smolski, Javier Sethness Castro and Alexander Reid Ross, “Lessons from exits foreclosed: An exilic interpretation of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, 1910-1924,” Capital & Class (2008), 15, DOI: 10.1177/0309816818759229.
  9. Jason Wehling, “Anarchist Influences on the Mexican Revolution,”
  10. “Program of the Liberal Party (PLM), 1906."
  11. John Womack, “The Mexican Revolution” in The Cambridge History of Latin America, ed. Leslie Bethell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 109, doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521245173.003.152.
  12. Cappelletti, Anarchism in Latin America, 327-328.
  13. Colin M. MacLachlan, Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class: The Political Trials of Ricardo Flores Magón in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 55.
  14. Wehling, "“Anarchist Influences."
  15. Cappelletti, Anarchism in Latin America, 327-328.
  16. Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class.
  17. Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, Volume 1: Porfirians, Liberals and Peasants (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986) 312-313.
  18. Adolfo Gilly, The Mexican Revolution, trans. Patrick Camiller (Theford: Thetford Press, 1983), 77-78.
  19. Schmidt, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism, 58.
  20. John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), x.
  21. Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, 227.
  22. Wehling, "“Anarchist Influences."
  23. Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class.
  24. Cappelletti, Anarchism in Latin America, 333.
  25. Solski, Sethness Castro, and Reid Ross, “Lessons from Exits Foreclosed,” 20.
  26. Stuart Easterling, The Mexican Revolution: A Short History, 1910-1920 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012). ch. 3.
  27. Easterling, The Mexican Revolution, ch. 3.
  28. Hart, Anarchism & the Mexican Working Class.
  29. Ricardo Flores Magon and David Poole, Land and Liberty: Anarchist Influences in the Mexican Revolution (Orkney: Black Rose Books, 1977), 27.