El General

PBS Premiere: July 20, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Mexico: Past and Present

Hannah Arendt

El General: Hannah ArendtThe aim of revolution was, and always has been, freedom.
— Hannah Arendt

Read this transcript in:
English | Español


Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) was a German Jewish philosopher and theorist whose work centered around the concepts of power, freedom, totalitarianism and revolution. In 1963, she published On Revolution, a study of the American and French Revolutions.


Carmen Boullosa
I don’t dare to think that there was only one revolution in Mexico. I think there have been many revolutions. And the post-revolutionary discourse that encompassed all of them did not have freedom as part of its ideology. When the revolutions became one in our memories, the aim was to create an all-powerful state, extremely stable, a benefactor, and in many ways that asphyxiated many individual initiatives. It was not a state that would defend independence above all else.

There were many revolutions from 1910 to 1922. Dolores Jimenez y Muro’s revolution clearly had women’s rights as part of its agenda, as well as freedom for all Mexicans and the issue of indigenous people. She believed that the land belongs to the person who works it. She believed in respect for the law. But it is very clear to me that for Pancho Villa revolution was about military structure, not freedom. He and others didn’t want freedom. They wanted obedience, the submission of others. So there were many revolutions. Later out of all those revolutions we imagined and constructed one Mexican Revolution, which looks very nice in Diego Rivera’s murals. But even in his murals, if you analyze the revolution that he sells us, freedom is not the goal. No, the Mexican Revolution was about something else. Curiously, given that it was the Mexican Revolution, it was intended to recuperate the memory of indigenous peoples, to recover their sense of identity. It was a return. Yes, it was about the man of the future, science, but all of that was incorporated into a return home, our arrow that does not advance vertically. But I don’t believe it was about freedom. In fact, the major players in the cultural revolution, José Vasconcelos and many musicians, painters and poets, were considered effeminate and anti-revolutionary. They were viewed very negatively by their contemporaries. Though they were obsessed with freedom, there was no room for them in the new ideology, in the construction of the Mexican Revolution, which was misogynist, repressive and stately, but which was also magnificent! It did have an aspect of belief in education for all, health for all, a socialist state. That side of it shouldn’t be disregarded.

Cuauhtémoc Medina
There is a whole range of issues surrounding what we call “liberties.” If Hannah Arendt is referring to the notion of emancipation, then it is likely that one could argue that all revolutions involve the idea of emancipation. But often, and this is also a classic quote, brutal changes are accompanied by an effort to protect some privilege that is understood as liberty. This is the problem of the jirondinos. It is no accident that quite frequently the process of revolution, especially of complex revolution, is set off by an attempt to give value to an old middle class right wing, and that this in turn unleashes a general process that offers no possibility of subjugating to that vision all the other conflicts and demands that emerge, such as the notion of no-reelections.

The beginning of John Womack Jr.’s book on Zapata is frequently cited as part of classic historiography of the Mexican Revolution. He begins by saying that this is the history of some campesinos who created a revolution because they didn’t want change. First, I would posit that a changed view of what is revolutionary begins with the notion that there are revolutions, and that revolutions are created through a very varied and complex process. Certainly many of them include the notion of liberty as one of their formulas, but to return to a concrete example, when Zapata says, “Land and liberty,” he is talking about communal rights over the land. In other words, the restitution of indigenous property to the indigenous campesinos and liberty from the hacendados and the government, the bad government.
It is true that what we call revolutions include this notion in one way or another, but first we have the issue of the liberal notion of liberty — liberty as a negative, meaning not being under a structure of domination. And then there is the affirmative notion of liberty, such as the claiming of autonomous space and ability to make one’s own decisions. It is a fact that the concepts of liberty and commerce can be located in the same term. This is an interesting idea, but there needs to be a way to express the fact that revolutions represent the collapse of a certain hegemony, which eventually produces another one. But in the process a variety of possible hegemonies are erased (much as the sound of an airplane cancels out other noises.) Revolutions are also the collapse of a certain system of domination.

Arendt’s phrase includes the notion of a project’s objective, but on the other hand there is the experience of revolution and its destruction without limits. It is interesting that one of the few honest depictions of that time is a cartoon by José Clemente Orozco published in La Vanguardia, a newspaper organized by Atl in Orizaba in 1916, which shows a woman, a prostitute from la belle époque, with a huge smile, saying “I am the revolution, I am the destroyer.” So, there is a third thing — that very moment of destruction. There is Walter Benjamin’s moment of “divine violence” — destruction without purpose — Georges Bataille’s moment of maximum consumption and destruction. The moment for getting even without having a specific purpose. It is the moment when the disaster that produced a certain system of domination reappears with a vengeance and only destroys.

The Revolution definitely created a new regime. And a new regime meant a new political game and new social tensions. The land was repartitioned, and that meant that a certain model of agricultural capitalism disappeared. Also, Mexico is the only place in Latin America where an independence movement inherited a military staffed by white creoles. With the exception of Haiti, nearly all independence movements have involved a colonial military that has transformed into a patrician military, but in Mexico this didn’t happen. This means that in Mexico since 1920 the military has been made up of campesinos and has not had any aristocrats. This resulted in a military that has not started a military coup since the 1920s. It is also obvious that a new identity was produced, and that in turn produced a new kind of exchange between intellectuals, artists, the state and society. We might lament this today, but at the time it was extremely original, and since then it has served as a global point of reference for the 20th century. There was also a reordering of the racial structures underlying mestizo ideology. White hegemony didn’t disappear, but room was created for new operations and new discussions. One of these new notions was the issue of the indigenous. That notion can be criticized for many reasons, but without the new structure it wouldn’t ever have existed. Another thing that has had a big impact is the process of shaping a society after it had been determined that Mexico was not a Catholic county like the other countries colonized by Spain. It was determined that there would be space for debate and discourse, and that is very significant. And I do think that there was a limited but very important transformation of the social order and class structure. My grandfather, for example, went from being a campesino without land to being an employee of the state with an important role in reconstruction. Class structure was modified. Obviously, a new bourgeoisie that was different from the previous aristocracy was also created. Certain elements of construction of the corporate state left some of the demands of the working class and campesinos unheard.

Sometimes the Mexican Revolution is seen as a failed revolution, or one that was interrupted or shut down, but I think this is based on an idealized Soviet model that wasn’t implemented even in the Soviet Union. Once the revolution in the Soviet Union began to be understood, it became clear that it did have a very significant effect.

It is probably untrue that there were 1 million deaths, but the fatality rate was definitely that of a war that destroyed the state for a significant period of time. The state disappeared as a general entity. The powers were pulverized. We are talking about a situation in which probably 5 percent to 25 percent of the population died or emigrated. And the Revolution also produced a series of ideas and legal concepts that articulated possibilities for political action and social demands in the 20th century and up to the present in new ways.

Jean Meyer
The goal of revolution is liberty, of course. And liberty can be understood politically, economically or socially. A revolution in India would require the caste system radically and finally to disappear, something that has not happened yet. But revolution always begins with politics. And even Hannah Arendt, with a heavy dose of pessimism, says that revolutions fail to establish liberty. The only exception — and only when considered in comparison to revolutions in other countries — is the American Revolution, which achieved the liberty of a collective mass, meaning that the 13 colonies became the United States of America. Liberty from London. What we call independence has nothing to do with personal liberties or the rights of men. Slavery was not abolished. Slavery isn’t even mentioned in the constitution of the United States. But Arendt goes further and says that many times revolutions that are fought in the name of liberty end up putting in power dictatorships that are much worse than the previous regimes. And certainly looking back at history, you can find an arsenal of cases that can be used to argue that revolutions are totally counterproductive or that the extent of collateral damage stops the goal of liberty from being achieved.

In 1958 Vasconcelos said, “The PRI, which is in power in our system at this time, collectivized Porfirisimo.” In place of Porfirio Díaz, who could be assassinated, which was attempted, or could be overthrown, now we have a much worse dictatorship. It is a dictatorship like the Porfiriato; it has its way with the constitution, which it always works around, and violates the spirit of the constitution. And that was in 1958. In 1991, Mario Vargas Llosa said it was “ the perfect dictatorship because it is invisible,” and then he left Mexico that same afternoon.

After the Mexican Revolution, people had fewer liberties then than during the Porfiriato. That lasted until the democratic transition began with the first electoral reform, which I believe was in 1977 with Jesús Reyes Heroles. Luckily, in contrast to the Communist party in the Soviet Union, the PRI always showed a great ability to adapt. Rafael Segovia said that the PRI is like a rubber ball that bounces. It falls and it bounces back up again. And it is capable of adapting.

When Carlos Salinas de Gortari was president and therefore could have made a deal with any party — with the PAN (National Action Party) or with the devil — never, never did he want to destroy the system. When it turned out that his election had been fraudulent and there was a crisis in the fall of 1988, his friend, I think the only man who spoke to Salinas informally, Hector Aguilar Camín said to him, “President, you are going to be the last PRI president, or the last consecutive one. And it is going to be your historical mission, your moment of glory, to hand over the presidency to an opposition party.” And Salinas answered him, “Hector, you are very mistaken. I would never do that.”

Well, at the end of the day, history is more astute than men, and in 2000, in part thanks to Ernesto Zedillo, seen by the PRI as an abominable traitor, the opposition took the presidency. But if you consider that the Revolution began in 1910 fighting for effective suffrage and no re-election, and that we had to wait until the year 2000 for it actually to be achieved, well, you can understand Hannah Arendt’s discourse completely. The goal of revolution is liberty, but not only does it fail to achieve it — it makes the obstacles to achieving it even harder to overcome.