The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940
- LAST REVIEWED: 30 December 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0033
- LAST REVIEWED: 30 December 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0033
The Mexican Revolution, as an armed movement, began in 1910; though opinions differ, it is safe to conclude that by around 1940 the revolution, as a dynamic historical process and a program of radical reform, was more or less over. The thirty-year span of the revolution can be neatly and usefully divided into the decade of armed revolution (1910–1920), followed by two decades of “institutional” revolution (1920–1940) as the new regime consolidated, introducing political and socioeconomic reforms. At the outset, the rebels overthrew first Díaz (in 1910–1911) and then President Huerta 1913–1914, who had attempted, unsuccessfully, a militarist restoration of the old regime. After 1914 the victorious revolutionaries fought among themselves, with the Carrancistas finally triumphing over the Villistas and Zapatistas, thanks in large part to the military skill of Alvaro Obregón. The last successful insurrection of the revolutionary decade, in 1920, brought Obregón to power and inaugurated the increasingly stable regime of the “Sonoran dynasty”: a group of leaders from the northwestern state of Sonora who, as progressive, populist, businesslike, centralizing, anticlerical state-builders, set their stamp on the new order (Plutarco Elías Calles, president 1924–1928, and “jefe máximo,” 1928–1934, being the chief exemplar). The decade of the 1920s thus possesses a degree of politico-economic unity. In 1930 the impact of the Great Depression prompted a rethink of policy and a lurch to the political left, typified by the radical administration of Lázaro Cárdenas 1934–1940, when socioeconomic reform—land distribution, support for organized labor, and a measure of economic nationalism (notably the expropriation of the Anglo-American oil companies in 1938)—took priority over Sonoran/Callista “jacobinism.” By the late 1930s, however, the revolution was losing its impetus: the remaining revolutionary generation was aging, or shifting to the right; conservative forces were reasserting themselves in Mexican society. And the international context favored détente with the United States, which the Cold War accelerated.
Since the chief historiographical trend for decades has been to disaggregate the Mexican Revolution, especially by place, general histories have been at a discount: hence, the narratives cited here tend to be rather old. The better studies are therefore multiauthored, such as Bethell 1991, and the valuable series Villegas 1977–1984, but they lack a single overarching interpretation of the process. The foundational text is Tannenbaum 1966 (first published in 1933) and its emphasis on the popular and agrarian nature of the revolution. Tannenbaum conducted studies in Mexico and developed a professional friendship with several of the leading revolutionaries, including President Cárdenas. Brenner and Leighton 1943 bolsters Tannenbaum’s interpretation of a peasant revolution with searing imagery of the revolution from over one hundred photographs in a work sympathetic to the popular revolution. The initiation of a long period of political dominance by the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico in the 1940s prompted questions about the true nature of the revolution. In the 1970s historians began revising the Tannenbaum thesis of a popular peasant revolution. Scholarship such as Córdova 1973 argued that elites dominated the revolution and were dedicated to the building of a modern state. A wave of new studies in this vein enriched a growing debate about whether peasants or elites led the revolution. The dominance of the revolution in the historiography of the 20th century is reflected in the synthesis of contemporary Mexican history by Camín and Meyer 1993 and Gonzales 2002. Fresh perspectives on the revolution continue to be added to the historical literature. Certain collections in particular, such as Corrés, et al. 2000, highlight the latest theoretical and methodological approaches to the revolution. Joseph and Henderson 2002 is also an excellent collection of primary source documents and essays from leading historians about the intersection of culture and politics in the history of the revolution.
Bethell, Leslie, ed. Mexico Since Independence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
A collection of chapters taken from the compendious Cambridge History of Latin America, which offers a multiauthored sweep through Mexican history, including four chapters on the 1870s–1940s period. With useful bibliographies.
Brenner, Anita, and George R. Leighton. The Wind that Swept Mexico. New York: Harper, 1943.
History of the revolution that is valuable for its rich visual content.
Camín, Héctor Aguilar, and Lorenzo Meyer. In the Shadow of the Mexican Revolution: Contemporary Mexican History, 1910–1989. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Intelligent and somewhat traditional survey of 20th-century Mexico.
Córdova, Arnaldo. La ideología de la Revolución Mexicana: La formación del nuevo régimen. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1973.
Perceptive and influential study of the ideology of the revolution, from the Porfiriato to the late 1920s. Based largely on secondary sources, this is much better on national/elite trends than local/regional differences. Displays a mildly Leninist disdain for the peasantry as opposed to the urban working class.
Corrés, Jaime Bailón, Carlos Martínez Assad, and Pablo Serrano Alvarez, eds. El siglo de la Revolución Mexicana. 2 vols. Mexico City: INEHRM, 2000.
Rich and diverse compendium of essays on aspects of the revolution by prominent scholars.
Gonzales, Michael J. The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.
A sensible synthetic account, largely “top-down” in approach.
Joseph, Gilbert M., and Timothy J. Henderson, eds. The Mexico Reader: History, Culture and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Useful collection of readings. Parts 4 and 5 deal with the Porfiriato and revolution.
Tannenbaum, Frank. Peace by Revolution: Mexico Since 1910. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
First published in 1933. Influential study by sympathetic leftist and Mexico watcher. Sweeping and assertive and by turns perceptive and misleading. If navigated carefully, this can still be a profitable read.
Villegas, Daniel Cosío. Historia de la Revolución Mexicana. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1977–1984.
A multivolume history of the revolution from its origins to the 1960s, with good illustrations and bibliographies. A valuable work of reference, whose component volumes vary in quality and originality, though all are useful.
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