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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 760-761
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Ein Laboratorium der Revolution: Städtische soziale Bewegungen und radikale Reformpolitik im mexikanischen Bundesstaat Veracruz, 1918-1932. By Benedikt Behrens. Frankfurt: Peter Lang AG, 2002. Photographs. Maps. Tables. 580 pp. Paper.
Recent research on urban social movements in cities such as Mexico City, Monterrey, and Veracruz has deepened our understanding of the Mexican Revolution and, in some cases, even challenged agrarianist interpretations. German historian Benedikt Behrens makes an important contribution to the literature with this exhaustive study of urban movements and radical reform in the state of Veracruz between 1918 and 1932. Originally a University of Hannover dissertation, Behrens's monograph analyzes the rise and fall of radical labor (i.e., port-, rail-, and textile-workers' unions) and the movements of renters and colonos in the port of Veracruz and the textile center of Orizaba. Though aspects of this story are already well documented (most recently in Andrew Wood's fascinating account of the Veracruz renters' strike and Bernardo García's work on Orizaba), the merit in Behrens's study is its wide chronological and geographical scope and massive documentation, especially from national and state Labor Department archives. Behrens considers the rise of a radical urban social movement in Veracruz not merely the result of the political space created by the state's revolutionary avant-garde but also as part of a generalized supraregional "cycle of protest." Behrens's useful theoretical discussion of urban and labor studies argues that Latin Americanists (certainly Mexicanists) have neglected urban movements and overemphasized the centrality of peasants. He also attacks the corporatist-authoritarian thesis prevalent in earlier Mexican labor history, which stressed organized labor's dependence on government and internal authoritarian structures.
Instead, Behrens studies unions and social movements as crucial independent players. The 1917 constitution and Jacobin politicians paved the way for progressive [End Page 760] labor reform and significant workers' participation in Veracruz politics. Thus, the first half of the 1920s saw the rise of a radical and, argues Behrens, essentially independent labor movement. In Orizaba, ten thousand textile workers affiliated with the national labor confederation (CROM), which came to dominate city politics. In Veracruz, anarcho-syndicalist, anarchist, and communist proclivities characterized the unions of longshoremen and sailors. Union representatives gained access to the state and national congresses.
Then, in 1922 a burgeoning anarchist renters' movement demanding rent reduction erupted on the port scene and spread, with less success, to other towns. Behrens's take on the gendered nature of the renters' movement is of interest. He considers the spontaneous and predominantly female participation in direct action a reflection of women's exclusion from the public sphere. He makes comparisons with early modern European food riots, in which women—inspired by a collective "female consciousness" and a moral economy based on their role as guardians of the family—took to the streets to defend their children's right to subsistence. Although this approach may shed some light on women's motivations, it runs the risk of portraying them as prepolitical and thus underestimating their degree of politicization.
At the height of its power, the influence of the Veracruz labor movement reached well beyond state boundaries. Presidents Obregón and Calles both felt compelled to intervene repeatedly in local labor conflicts. The rise of Callismo and the emergence of a CROM union signaled the beginning of the end for labor militancy in the port, where the mayoralty fell under control of nonunion politicos. In Orizaba, institutionalized labor relations replaced militancy, while workers suffered from the 1927-28 textile crisis. Anticommunist campaigns succeeded in purging communists from the union by 1928. Behrens concludes that declining radicalism, increased state intervention, and a marked trend toward the institutionalization of labor relations characterized the second half of the 1920s. The renters' strike was over by 1927, in part due to Calles's military repression but primarily as the result of a similar institutionalization of tenant relations and the rise of a massive squatters' movement that transformed renters...