In 1939 the Mexican artist Jesús Escobedo produced a work simply entitled ‘Las clases’ that captured in a single composition the history and imagery of the outcome of the Mexican Revolution. The artist was part of the Liga Pro-Cultura Alemana (whose membership included Hannes Meyer) that was engaged in incorporating the emerging geopolitical conflict of the period into a local context, aiming to combat the spread of fascism in Mexico and facilitate the dissemination of anti-Nazi propaganda.
Escobedo’s ‘Las clases’ was soon incorporated into the political poster ‘Como combatir el fascismo’, advertising the labour leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano as a guest speaker at one of its conferences, with the aim of projecting to the public the unity of the various factions of the Mexican Revolution in the 1930s against reactionary threats. This specific example of socially committed artwork contains four figures standing equally side-by-side and arm-in-arm: the bourgeois, the soldier, the proletarian, and the campesino. The ordering in terms of importance and priority is, perhaps, significant. Equally, the inclusion of neither a female character, nor an indigenous member, in the group, is revealing in terms of assessing ‘Las clases’ as a representative image of Mexico’s post-revolutionary state and society. The significance of this artwork, however, as a window on the historical sociology of modern state formation in Mexico should not be underestimated.
Concurrent with Leon Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution , ‘the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch’. In microcosm, then, Jesús Escobedo’s depiction of the post-revolutionary Mexican state captures what can be called the paradox of revolution: how conditions of social revolution and popular mobilisation, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), eventuated into new forms of authoritarian rule.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recognised similar situations as instances of what he termed passive revolution meaning processes of revolutionary rupture that become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist processes. Such social conditions, however, are not literally passive but are often violent transformations.
Is this process of revolution in Mexico, then, that paradoxical, especially for post-colonial states that might generally emerge within the context of geopolitical pressures and the uneven and combined expansion of capitalist development? For states in Latin America, commonly confronted with an impasse between contending social forces, or a lack of any established class hegemony, how are the social relations of capitalist development commonly set in train?
My new book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) starts of with this puzzle posed by the artwork of the poster to consider the historical and contemporary construction of the revolution and the modern state in Mexico. It provides a fresh analysis of the Mexican Revolution, the era of import substitution industrialisation, and neoliberal restructuring as well as exploring key processes in the contestation of the modern state, specifically through studies of ideology, democratisation, and spaces of resistance.
As a result, my book aims to show how the historical sociology of modern state formation in Mexico can be understood best as a form of passive revolution, referring to the ongoing class strategies that have shaped relations between state and civil society, within the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development. As such, my book aims to make an important interdisciplinary contribution to understanding processes of revolution within historical sociology by situating debates on state formation and Latin American studies within wider Marxist currents. In so doing, my contribution is to convincingly contend that passive revolution can become an empirical tool for radical political economy and historical sociological analysis. Significantly, the book also casts out an original argument useful to approaching passive revolutions elsewhere in alternative situations of state formation. Combining insights from across Marxist state debate and historical sociology, I develop an interpretive method in order to facilitate analysis of interrelated instances of passive revolution within world-historical processes, where the particulars of state formation are realised within the general features of capitalist modernity. The book therefore makes an appeal to wider concerns in Marxist historical sociology beyond its own detailed focus on modern state formation in Mexico.
In graphic form, Jesús Escobedo’s ‘Las clases’ captures the amalgam of rupture and continuity stemming from the Mexican Revolution, those contradictions at the heart of the condition of passive revolution that unsurprisingly found expression in the art, literature, and architecture of modern Mexico. As the backbone of my book attests, new rounds of contemporary resistance have contested, and are continuing to contest, state power in Mexico. Ways out of the condition of passive revolution, by conceiving and putting into practice new spaces of class struggle, will be central to the course of future development and state formation in Mexico.