The history of the left in Mexico shows that embracing nationalism can lead to the lack of a distinct programme and the misreading of opponents as potential allies, writes William A. Booth.
Outside of anti-imperialist struggles, nationalism and leftism have been uncomfortable bedfellows for much of the postwar period. Where they did interact, their encounters were often gauche, contradictory, or insincere. Even particular national characterisations – such as the Nairn-Anderson Theses, according to which British socio-economic structures were subject to the constraints of a sort of zombified ancien regime – generated enormous debate and controversy on the left. Can progressives really engage meaningfully with such characterisations when they inevitably tend towards generalisation and – more problematically – essentialisation?
Yet after a long period in which ever-deepening globalisation seemed the unchallengeable norm, people in many parts of the world now find themselves in a period of nationalist revival. This has placed the left in an awkward position. For those nearer the centre, a cosmopolitan, urbane globalism was key to their modernisation project. For those further to the left, solidarity across borders (or, indeed, against borders) was, and remains, a crucial touchstone.
My own research on Mexico suggests at least two important tensions here. One relates to what the left can distinctly offer if it frames itself as a fundamentally nationalist entity; the other to how it views (or purports to view) other parties, movements or actors. Essentially, by embracing nationalism, leftists create problems of both presentational and relational natures: the former can lead to the lack of a distinct programme; the latter to a misreading of opponents as potential allies. The Mexican left encountered these problems during the early Cold War, leading to a rapid decline in their fortunes.
For those on the left in periods of weakness or retreat, existential questions are bound to arise. As Eric Hobsbawm put it, the key question for the revolutionary left in the post-1917 period has been what to do in the absence of a leftist revolution. Often, where revolutionary lefts were small, they embraced their role as a small cog in the much larger machine of international communism. For the most influential parts of Mexico’s left, though, the solution to political ‘smallness’ during the early Cold War was found in embracing the (decidedly non-Bolshevik) Mexican revolutionary tradition; in particular, in the appropriation of oficialista nationalism and, at key moments such as the 1946 election, enthusiastic support for the ruling party.
A decade earlier, under Lazaro Cárdenas (1934-40), this was a happier, more ideologically coherent alliance; though never without tensions, there was something like a Popular Front in effect. But as the era of common cause against fascism gave way to a Manichean pro- or anti-communist struggle – a process which in Latin America owed as much to homegrown anticommunism as anything imposed from the United States – the Mexican left chose nationalism over internationalism, with very few exceptions.
It was considered too risky, too politically unwise perhaps, to perform anything less than unstinting patriotism. This constraint of political debate was testament to the near-hegemonic position of post-revolutionary nationalism by this point. Though there had been significant contestation, not least during the various Cristiada conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s (between an anticlerical state and militant Catholics, simply put), by the late 1940s the government had made serious progress in its project of turning ‘peasants into patriots’; this had been achieved particularly through Knight’s categories of ‘cultural’, ‘economic’, and ‘nation-building’ nationalism.
Strongly nationalist proclamations often originated from the Marxist left, reflecting not only the ideology of the post-1940 leadership but also a desire to prise support from the ruling party in particular areas. Part of this nationalism entailed a commitment to class collaboration, with the pinning of great hopes on the ‘national bourgeoisie’; by de-emphasising revolutionary internationalism and the class struggle, the Marxist left removed its unique political appeal. As on-off allies to the PRI and with self-consciously similar programmes, both the Communist Party and the Popular Party were structurally weak and politically vague in the post-war period. Membership declined rapidly and neither group posed a serious threat to the PRI, at that time close to its peak in power and influence.
That was another time, and a very different political landscape. Now eyes are turning to 2018, and the next election. Once more, the left in Mexico – as elsewhere – is engaging with nationalism. There are at least two impulses at play: a short-term response to Trump’s threats, of course, but also the desire to tap into discontent with NAFTA and other long-term problems. While there has been a great deal of argument about the extent to which a ‘left behind by globalisation’ narrative pertains in the recent US election, for Mexico there is rather less doubt. Yet Mexico was not a part of the ‘Pink Tide’. Its left may become emblematic in the coming conjuncture, but if there is a hard nationalist turn akin to that of the 1940s, the current flourish could be short-lived.
• The views expressed here are of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Centre or of the LSE
• This article draws on the author’s article “Hegemonic Nationalism, Subordinate Marxism: The Mexican Left, 1945–7” (Journal of Latin American Studies, 2017)
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William A. Booth – LSE International History & St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.
Dr William A. Booth teaches modern history at LSE and St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. His research focuses on the Mexican left, particularly in the early Cold War. His doctoral thesis examined nationalism, authoritarianism and factionalism as endogenous weaknesses of the Mexican left. His current research projects are (i) a broad overview of the various strands comprising the Latin American left between 1945 and 1959, and (ii) writers and politics in post-revolutionary Mexico.