In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cárdenas and Cardenismo

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Biographies
  • Novels and Plays
  • Autobiographies and Testimonies
  • International Relations
  • The Oil Industry
  • Labor and Industry
  • Agrarian Reform
  • Indigenismo
  • Environmental Histories
  • Regional Histories
  • Caciques and Caciquismo
  • Governors
  • Women and Gender
  • Teachers and Education
  • Religion and the Catholic Church
  • Anticlericalism
  • Right-Wing Groups
  • Revolutionary Culture and the Public Sphere
  • Health Care and Social Services

Latin American Studies Cárdenas and Cardenismo
Benjamin T. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0058


The presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas was characterized by far-reaching socioeconomic, political, and cultural reforms. In the cities, Cárdenas championed the right to strike and the implementation of a strict interpretation of the 1931 Law of Work. In the countryside, he enforced the tenets of the Agrarian Code of 1934, allowing hacienda workers to apply for government land grants (ejidos) for the first time. In February 1936, he gave his support to the peasants’ armed defense of their territorial gains, announcing that the government should “give them the Mausers with which they made the Revolution . . . so they can defend the ejido and the school” and allowing them to join the official army reserve (Raquel Sosa Elízaga, Los códigos ocultos del cardenismo: Un estudio de la violencia política, el cambio social y la continuidad institucional [Mexico, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Plaza y Valdés Editores, 1996], 109). Finally, he increased the number of land grants exponentially. Between 1930 and 1940, the proportion of cultivated land held as ejidos increased from 15 to 50 percent. At the same time, social reform fed into political restructuring. He supported the creation of a major peasant union (the National Peasant Confederation, or CNC) and a major workers’ confederation (the Confederation of Mexican Workers, or CTM). Although these confederations came into conflict over which organization had the right to control Mexico’s rural masses, by 1937 Cárdenas had disciplined their leaders and delineated their national roles. The following year, he changed the name of the national party (the National Revolutionary Party) to the Party of the Mexican Revolution and permitted members of the CNC and the CTM automatic membership of the organization. At the same time, structural changes paralleled and overlapped with large-scale cultural reforms as Mexican intellectuals and bureaucrats continued their revolutionary campaigns to create “new men” and “new women.” Schools continued to be the linchpins of these crusades. In late 1934, legislators changed Article 3 of the Constitution, introducing “socialist education” and “exclud[ing] all religious doctrine” from school syllabi. Outside the classroom, state administrators and cultural entrepreneurs attempted to instill ideas of anticlericalism, labor, hygiene, nationalism, and gender and race relations through music, radio, cinema, health programs, monuments, and civic festivals. Large-scale changes generated considerable opposition, especially on the right, where shifting, regional alliances of large landowners, ranchers, sharecroppers, Catholics, and industrialists tried to waylay the Cardenista project, through voting, demonstrations, and targeted terror.

General Overviews

Although standalone Biographies of Lázaro Cárdenas are fairly rare, general overviews of the period are plentiful. Over the past fifty years, opinions on Cárdenas and his raft of socioeconomic, political, and cultural initiatives have reflected and stood in for general opinions on the revolutionary regime. Early overviews, especially those of US journalists and political scientists, praised the president’s efforts. However, following the massacre of students in Tlatelolco in 1968, “revisionist” scholars of the 1970s and 1980s were less generous. Historians like Córdova 1974, Hernández Chávez 1979, and Ianni 1977 viewed the mass mobilizations and concomitant reforms of Cárdenas’s presidency as designed to co-opt the popular forces of the Revolution and establish the groundwork for the expansion of the Mexican state and the dominance of the capitalist class. Although the political prominence of Lázaro Cárdenas’s son, Cuauhtemoc, has encouraged a revival of earlier more reverential treatments (Gilly 1994), most recent overviews have sought to balance appreciations of Cardenismo’s major achievements with acknowledgments of its limitations and problems (Hamilton 1982, Knight 1990, Knight 1994, Shulgosky 1981, Sosa Elizaga 1996).

  • Córdova, Arnaldo. La política de masas del cardenismo. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1974.

    The classic revisionist work on Cárdenas’s presidency. Concludes that Cárdenas’s land and labor reforms were designed to co-opt the Mexican poor into the governing party and allow the creation of a powerful “Leviathan” state.

  • Gilly, Adolfo. El cardenismo: Una utopia mexicana. Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1994.

    In this work, the left-wing historian Adolfo Gilly restates his argument that Lázaro Cárdenas was the sole Mexican president to act on the agrarian and labor demands of the Revolution. Written from an overtly political perspective, Gilly concludes that this period of intense mobilization and reform was as close to revolutionary utopia as Mexico had ever achieved.

  • Hamilton, Nora. The Limits of State Autonomy: Post-Revolutionary Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    An interesting, well-researched, and ambivalent reading of Cardenismo and its long-term effects. The author views Cardenismo as part of a broad, progressive alliance, prepared to employ quasisocialist forms of ownership in order to phase out feudal conditions and achieve a degree of justice within the capitalist system. Despite this, the book ends on a pessimistic note, concluding that right-wing opposition eventually curtailed Cárdenas’s plans.

  • Hernández Chávez, Alicia. Historia de la Revolución Mexicana. Vol. 16, Periodo 1934–1940: La mecánica cardenista. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1979.

    Another of the classic revisionist interpretations of Cardenismo. Although the work plays down Cárdenas’s achievements, there are some excellent sections on the relationship between the presidency and regional forces.

  • Ianni, Octavio. El estado capitalista en la epoca de Cárdenas. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1977.

    A critical, Marxist appreciation of the Cardenista regime. Although Ianni restates Córdova’s claims on the expansion of the Mexican state, he also emphasizes how the Cardenista regime, by stimulating an internal market for consumer goods, also encouraged the strengthening of the bourgeoisie.

  • Knight, Alan. “Mexico c. 1930–1946.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 7, 1930 to the Present. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 3–82. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    The best overall interpretation of the Cárdenas’s years. Building on the regional studies of the 1980s, the work offers a broad, polyphonic view of the regime, which balances discussion of top-down policies with a sweeping appreciation for popular responses and local variations.

  • Knight, Alan. “Cardenismo: Juggernaut or Jalopy?” Journal of Latin American Studies 26 (1994): 73–107.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022216X0001885X

    Another excellent work on Cardenismo. Beautifully written and well argued, the article takes apart previous revisionist interpretations, demonstrating both the achievements of the regime and the constraints on the expansion of the state. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Shulgosky, Anatoli. Mexico en la encrucijada de su historia. Mexico City: El Caballito, 1981.

    An interesting, well-researched piece of Marxist history, which contextualizes Cárdenas’s presidency within the broad narrative of postrevolutionary Mexico. He sees Cárdenas’s agrarian and labor reforms as a genuinely radical break with the rhetorically reformist, but broadly ineffective, social engineering of the preceding decade.

  • Sosa Elizaga, Raquel. Los códigos ocultos del Cardenismo: Un estudio de la violencia politica, el cambio social y la continuidad institucional. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1996.

    An interesting alternative view of Cardenismo, which dispenses with deep analysis of state motivations and instead concentrates on the unintended consequences. In doing so, the author portrays the Cardenista state as perpetually waylaid by a series of armed, often right-wing, groups.

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