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  • Pistoleros and Popular Movements: The Politics of State Formation in Postrevolutionary Oaxaca
  • Paul Gillingham
Pistoleros and Popular Movements: The Politics of State Formation in Postrevolutionary Oaxaca. By Benjamin T. Smith (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2009) 578 pp. $35.00

Mexico’s great popular revolution has long exerted a magnetic attraction for scholars, drawing historians toward a neat narrative arc, whereby revolutionary reform in the 1930s established a stable contract between rulers and ruled thereafter. Historiography could then come to an end. Smith’s regional case study is one of the first to test that arc consciously. It straddles the two periods in question, namely, the “revolution made reality” of the 1930s and the authoritarian transition of the 1940s. Thanks to his publisher, who assumes that attention spans will survive Twitter, Smith has the space to delve into a complex problem in detail.

Detail duly ensues. This book is rich in socioeconomic minutiae, ranging from the workings of Oaxaca’s tropical crop sector to the Huerta brothers’ nefarious egg monopoly and in details of culture, from community resistance strategies to the muckraking regional press. With regard to high politics, Smith closely dissects the clientelist groups that sustained governors and caciques (subregional bosses). His cross-referencing of intelligence records and numerous interviews with market women brings out the fine texture of popular mobilization and the social networks that sustained leaders like the vendor “Chata la Ferrera” (María Henríquez) or the knife grinder Austreberto Aragon. These uncommonly broad research interests underpin Smith’s examination of three themes—the reforming presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas and its legacy, the centrality of ethnic relations to nation-building, and the role of popular inputs in shaping the state formation that actually occurred during the 1930s and 1940s.

Smith’s conclusions regarding Cardenismo follow those of Knight and Fallaw: The stability that allowed limited reform was bought by state-deforming pacts with caciques, not by raising any corporatist rechtstaat.1 His conclusions regarding the postrevolutionary period are less anticipated. In Oaxaca, Smith finds the years of supposedly growing authoritarian grasp marked instead by new urban popular movements, which brought together workers, students, and market vendors, who achieved a new level of political input, vetoing disliked governors by simply toppling them. Facing such pressures, politicians remained reliant on political violence. This interpretation challenges those historians of the revolution who propose a hegemonic stability and those who believe in linear state expansion, as well as the political scientists who conceive Mexico as an authoritarian, corporatist success story.

The creative destruction that Smith undertakes is driven by hyperempiricism, copious interdisciplinary borrowings (anthropologists and [End Page 490] sociologists are particularly targeted, unless they are French), and sustained attempts to deconstruct large-scale social and political processes down to local components. Rightly wary of overgeneralizing models of state formation, Smith’s analysis is characterized by the meticulous triangulation of evidence and the social contextualization of political and cultural phenomena. Yet it also constitutes a rebuttal of the misconception that empirical history is too much about what and not enough about why.

This is no exercise in hierarchical reductionism; Smith’s case study achieves more than the “anti-model” promised at outset. In following an interpretive line stretching back to Wolf, Smith focuses mainly on the relationships between the different levels of power, combining detailed subregional studies with far broader systemic analysis.2 There are few better portraits of the strange synergies between early state builders and caciques, or of the feedback loops by which popular inputs swayed a supposedly autonomous elite. Smith’s book enters a new field, a history of state/society relations in post-1940 Mexico, with methodological and interpretive panache. This big book, dealing with big processes, should exert a big influence on scholars of both its thematic and its geographical concerns.

Paul Gillingham
University of North Carolina, Wilmington


1. Alan Knight, “Cardenismo: Juggernaut or Jalopy?” Journal of Latin American Studies, XXVI (1994), 73–107; Ben Fallaw, Cárdenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatán (Durham, N.C., 2001).

2. Eric R. Wolf, “Aspects of Group Relations in a Complex Society: Mexico,” in idem, Pathways of Power: Building an...


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