Mexican Revolution Research Paper

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The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) stemmed from several sources: the alienation of elites who saw their political authority dwindling, the bitterness of peasants and workers who faced economic setbacks and famines, the dictatorial nature of the regime that had promised democracy, and the rise of economic nationalism. Among its successes was the return of more than 25 percent of the nation’s land to the peasantry and rural workers.

During the first years of the twentieth century a wave of political upheavals swept across much of the world. The principal centers of upheaval— Russia and Iran in 1905, China in 1898 and 1911, and Mexico in 1910—were all centers of ancient civilizations undergoing radical transformations from long-standing systems of cooperative industrial and agricultural production to modern capitalism and foreign influences. In Mexico during the years immediately preceding the upheavals, foreign capitalists backed by most of the domestic elite had taken over the communications, transportation, military, mining, timber, and textile industries, while both groups had taken over formerly village-owned agricultural and ranching lands on a massive scale. At the same time the government had repressed popular resistance and greatly increased dictatorial powers at the expense of the popular classes.

The new elite amalgam promoted commercial production at the expense of the rural workers who had enjoyed wide land-use rights for hundreds of years. The amalgam reorganized the peasants and rural workers, moving them from less commercialized village properties and commercial estates, small mines, and artisan-run patios into larger capitalized entities. Foreign-born supervisors (low level management such as foremen) monopolized local authority and enjoyed wage differentials over the workers at an average of twenty-to-one, while managers (those who head an entire plant, mine, or other operation) earned as much as two hundred times their workers’ wages. Foreign skilled workers enjoyed preferential treatment in an apartheid setting of segregated housing, unequal salaries, and discriminatory work assignments.

The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) stemmed from several sources: the alienation of the provincial and local elites who saw their political authority eroded, the dashed hopes of the peasants and workers who faced economic setbacks and even crushing famines instead of the promised well-being, the increasingly dictatorial nature of the regime instead of an expected development of democracy, and the rise of economic nationalism. The revolution began on 20 November 1910, when Francisco Madero, a man of wealth from the northern state of Coahuila, called for all Mexicans to rise up and overthrow the dictatorship. He promised political democracy, equality before the law, and agrarian reform.

Three main groups emerged in the struggle against the dictator Porfirio Diaz. The first group, reflected by Madero and later by Coahuila Governor Venustiano Carranza and the Sonoran oligarchs Alvaro Obregon and Plutarcho Elias Calles, comprised the regional and local elites, who banded together for federalism, local and states’ rights, and a nationalism with a more balanced distribution of power between themselves, the national government, and the foreigners. The second group comprised the leaders of the rural working people: Emiliano Zapata, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and myriad others. The rural masses, which made up 80 percent of the population, had seen their share of land ownership fall from 25 percent to 2 percent under privatization, and their leaders sought the return of the land to the communities. The third group included the heads of organized labor, many of them anarchists. During the revolution they created the 150,000-member Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker) and committed 5,000 soldiers and more than 500 women field nurses, known as acratas (those opposed to all authority) to the struggle. They wanted workers self-management in the factories, land for the peasants, and a reduced role for foreign capitalists. The differences between these three groups and the defenders of the ancient regime led to a complex civil war.

Madero Assumes Power

By the spring of 1911 widespread revolts by rural workers and peasants in support of Madero seized local power and were growing larger. Diaz quickly resigned with an admonition that “Madero has unleashed a tiger—let us see if he can ride it.” Assuming power in late 1911, Madero went to war with rural revolutionaries led by Emiliano Zapata in the sugar plantations of south-central Mexico. Madero refused to return the privatized lands or to restore local governments. Then, in February 1913, the army staged a golpe de estado (coup d’etat) and killed Madero. This killing led to the nationwide civil war. The rebels made Madero a martyr and rallied the public. This uprising spread rapidly and took on special strength in the North, where the rebels could buy arms by selling confiscated cattle to U.S. dealers. Meanwhile, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson provisioned Mexican dictator General Victoriano Huerta with arms until September.

During 1913 and 1914 the Villistas, an armed movement centered on the states of Chihuahua and Durango, formed under the leadership of town elites, cowboys, miners, and lumberjacks in favor of agrarian reform and political freedom and against debt peonage (form of bondage in which the laborer is held in place through the employer’s control of his debt accounts which are not paid off) and segregation. Meanwhile, the state elites of Coahuila, Sonora, and Sinaloa who had supported Madero rallied behind Venustiano Carranza, the former governor of Coahuila. Carranza, like Madero, favored political liberalism. During 1913 and early 1914 Villa’s forces marched southward until they controlled most of the North. Then, in April 1914, U.S. armed forces occupied Veracruz with heavy civilian casualties. During the summer the military government collapsed, but in November the U.S. military decided to support Carranza, and a new civil war began. The middle- and working-class-led Zapatistas and Villistas faced the forces headed by Carranza and the northern elites.

In a monumental step Alvaro Obregon, the military commander of Carranza’s forces, gained the support of the Casa del Obrero Mundial by promising that the Mexican Revolution would be the first step toward worldwide proletarian revolution. Disorganized and poorly armed, Carranza’s forces fled to the state of Veracruz. There, on 23 November 1914, U.S. general Frederick Funston supplied them with ammunition and arms. By the end of 1914 Obregon commanded more than twenty thousand troops calling themselves “Constitutionalists” because they planned to reinstate the liberal constitution of 1857. As Obregon’s troops defeated the Villistas and Zapatistas, Obregon allowed the Casa del Obrero Mundial activists to organize the workers in each city that his forces captured.

The Tide Turns

In January 1915 the fight between the Constitutionalist and Villista armies at El Ebano turned the tide in favor of the Constitutionalists. Using several thousand “red battalion” troopers from the Casa del Obrero Mundial, Obregon crushed the Villistas by using the modern artillery and machine guns provided by the United States. Meanwhile, Carranza announced an agrarian reform program designed to undercut support for the Villistas and Zapatistas. In the spring of 1915 the Villistas and Constitutionalists fought the largest battles of the revolution at Celaya and Leon. The indirect fire of Obregon’s artillery and machine guns inflicted decisive defeats on the Villistas. The Villista army dissolved into guerrilla bands, and many soldiers returned to their lives in the small towns and countryside of the North. Reduced to guerrilla warfare, Villa remained a political force, mandating agrarian reform laws, the confiscation of the great estates, and labor laws regulating the northern mining and timber industries.

During 1916 Carranza consolidated his power. He demobilized the Casa del Obrero Mundial and its 350,000 members and red battalions, which totaled more than 4,000 troops. Carrying red and black flags in public demonstrations the Casa del Obrero Mundial proclaimed the goal of workers’ control of production, and during the spring of 1916 it paralyzed Mexico City with a general strike. During the summer, however, the army crushed the Casa del Obrero Mundial during a second strike. In the North Villa began executing U.S. citizens, and in March he raided Columbus, New Mexico, to lure President Wilson into an invasion and expose Carranza as a traitor. U.S. general John “Blackjack” Pershing failed to catch Villa, but Carranza and Obregon had a more sophisticated agenda.

In February 1917 delegates from every sector of society promulgated a new constitution that satisfied most aspirations. It stipulated national ownership of natural resources, frontiers, and coastlines; universal male suffrage; land reform and municipal autonomy for the rural working class; and social justice for industrial workers as fundamental objectives for the new government. The revolution defeated the caste system that still characterizes much of Latin America; returned more than 25 percent of the nation’s surface, including much of the best land, to the peasantry and rural workers; initiated schooling for the indigenous population; and created a system of civilian government in contrast to the military dictatorships in support of oligarchy (government by the few) that still plague much of the Western Hemisphere.


  1. Cumberland, C. C. (1974). Mexican Revolution: Genesis under Madero. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  2. Cumberland, C. C. (1974). Mexican Revolution: The constitutionalist years. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  3. Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican working class, 1860–1931. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  4. Hart, J. M. (1987). Revolutionary Mexico: The coming and process of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Hart, J. M. (2002). Empire and revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  6. Katz, F. (1981). The secret war in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Katz, F. (Ed.). (1988). Riot, rebellion, and revolution: Rural social conflict in Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Katz, F. (1998). The life and times of Pancho Villa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  9. Womack, J. (1970). Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Vintage.

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