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Art and Revolution

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 [1924], ‘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.

Adam David Morton

Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsInternational PoliticsPolitical theoryUncategorized


  1. economy economy

    Mark Cuban will relish and cherish this. Imagine having Lonardo’s hat or robe, or john f. kenndy’s assasination suite.

  2. Nick Henck Nick Henck

    Dear Adam (if I may),

    I have just finished reading your recent book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico. I found it to provide a fresh and compelling theoretical lens through which to view twentieth-century Mexico. I especially enjoyed the sections on Carlos Fuentes, who, despite his eminence, has received insufficient treatment (especially of an analytical nature) in English, and also the one on the significance of spatial relations exhibited in the architecture (revolutionary and otherwise) of Mexico City.

    My own research is primarily concerned with Subcomandante Marcos (see my Subcommander Marcos: the man and the mask, 2007, Duke Univ. Press). Your section on intellectuals and the Mexican state was of particular interest to me since I have recently published two articles on the theme of Subcommander Marcos and intellectuals (one on his discourse on intellectuals, the other on his relationship with certain specific intellectuals).

    I have also recently read your article ‘“La Resurrección del Maíz”: Globalisation, Resistance and the Zapatistas’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 31:1 (2002): 27-54. I found it too very useful in terms of my present research

    I wondered if I could ask you two questions which arise from comparing your journal article with your section on the Zapatistas in your book?

    The first is that, having read your book first and then your earlier piece after that, I “felt” that the section on the Zapatistas that you have in your book “feels” more understated. (I don’t mean to imply your book’s chapter is any less convincing, it isn’t, but it has the feeling of being toned-down, with some of the more explicit links between Gramscian theory and the Zapatistas missing from the book, although they were present in the article.) I was wondering if you shared this perception, and if so, was there any reason for this change?

    Second, and this is something I am extremely interested in these days, I notice that in both your book’s section and in your article you quote Kathleen Bruhn on Gramsci surely not having escaped Marcos . However, you move this quotation to a different part of your text in the book and, it appears to me, drop-in this quotation approvingly but while being careful not to seem to endorse it. Again, I was wondering if I have read your intention correctly, and what the reason behind this?

    I ask as for a long time now I have been looking at Marcos and Gramsci. I perfectly agree with you (and others) that the Zapatistas can (and probably should) be analyzed through a Gramscian lens. However, what has been preoccupying me is the question of whether Marcos was well-acquainted with Gramsci’s work. Not that it at all invalidates (or even has any bearing on) applying a Gramscian approach to the Zapatistas, the evidence (though largely one from silence) would seem to go against Marcos having been influenced, at least directly, by Gramsci – this, despite the assurance of many scholars that Gramsci was preeminent among Latin Americans during the formative years of Marcos’ life.

    I wondered where you stood on this, or whether your subtle introduction (in both works) of Bruhn’s statement, implied that for you the jury is still out on that question? (The jury has been out on that question for me for several years now, although I am beginning to think I should avoid it no longer.)

    Best wishes,

    Nick Henck

  3. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    Dear Nick,

    Great questions and many thanks for the engagement. Your intervention points to issues I was unaware of!

    On the book version of my focus on the EZLN, there is nothing intentional about the tone or link to Gramsci lessening. This is something I am unaware of but I have tried consciously to weave new material into the book which may have inadvertently squeezed other factors and stresses out. Specifically, the focus on agrarian uneven development and then the incorporation of my field research in Chiapas may have left less room for the theoretical link to Gramsci. I do recall almost forgetting to include John Ross’ statement in *Rebellion from the Roots* that to the politilogue the EZLN are much closer to Antonio Gramsci than Karl Marx; but I remembered just at the right moment.

    Yes, I always thought Kathleen Bruhn’s comment was interesting but then chose not to assume a direct link from Marcos to Gramsci, partly because as you indicate the communiques do not evidence that. However, it is clear to me that Marcos must have come to Gramsci at least mediated through Louis Althusser. You make this link yourself in your own book, *Subcommander Macros: The Man and the Mask*; so much more could be developed about the Gramsci-Althusser-Marcos lineage. From *Machiavelli and Us*, as the title of one of Althusser’s works goes, to *Marcos and Us*.

    For me, I always felt that the link may not be direct so I stood back from making such claims, although the communique references to “Old Antonio” are thought provoking. What I do think is that a historical materialist framing of the EZLN movement is essential in understanding the material and symbolic dimensions of the struggle, without separating them. I find arguments that posit the EZLN as a product of an undifferentiated “modernity”, or “governmentality” – with no sense of how variable the conditions of modernity are in relation to specific social property relations – less unconvincing.

    So, Gramsci as a point of contact with a rethinking (but not rejection) of Marxism is a crucial lens through which to read the EZLN both intellectually and strategically.

    I look forward to reading your articles but also find, on Gramsci and Marcos, the following extremely important. In the communique “Nuestro siguiente programa: ¡Oximoron! La derecha intelectual y el fascismo liberal,” [April 2000], there is the EZLN’s pivotal commentary on the social function of intellectuals, opposing the social function of the critical and analytic intellectual against the organic intellectuals of the “neoliberal Prince” under globalisation. The latter’s social function is to act as the “gravediggers for critical analysis and reflection, jugglers with the millstones of neoliberal theology, prompters for governments who forget the ‘script,’ commentators of the obvious, cheerleaders for soldiers and police officers, Gnostic judges who hand out labels of ‘true’ or ‘false’ at their convenience, theoretical bodyguards for the Prince and announcers of the ‘new history’”.

    We can all point to such intellectuals of statecraft! Or what Marx in *The Eighteenth Brumaire* would have called “parliamentary cretinism”. Your work in challenging such a focus and set of assumptions is therefore crucial.

    All the best,

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