- Politics and ViolenceThe Year in Mexico
There were several new biographies, autobiographies, and testimonial narratives published in Mexico this past year. It would be impossible to discuss all of them in this brief piece, so I have selected a few to consider. Because I am a historian and therefore find certain kinds of stories more attractive, the four books discussed fall into the category of historical biography. However, I have to qualify that none of the books conform totally to the type.
Biographies of politicians are perhaps standard fare for historians. Thus, Daniela Spencer's book on Vicente Lombardo Toledano, En combate: La vida de Lombardo Toledano, comes as no surprise. Lombardo Toledano was a labor leader who rose from a secondary position in a soon to disappear national labor confederation to found, and be elected first general secretariat of, the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM), which dominated Mexican labor from 1936 on to the end of the twentieth century. He was also regarded by many as the most important Marxist in Mexican politics, precisely as the Cold War began. Lombardo Toledano never belonged to the Mexican Communist Party but was recognized by the Third Communist International. He founded the Peoples Party in 1947, later adding the word "Socialist" (Partido Popular Socialista), with the intention of building a center-left united front that would be an alternative to both the Communist Party and the official state party. Because he was pushed out of the labor confederation in 1947 by a new executive committee more fitting with the politics of the Cold War, he focused on leading the party until his death in 1968. A controversial figure, he travelled the road from left to right, becoming in the late fifties an appendage to the increasingly conservative, authoritarian, and repressive government.
Although an intellectual biography of Lombardo Toledano appeared in the 1960s, along with some other texts dealing with different aspects of his political career and his ideology, Spencer's book is a welcome addition because it is the first full biography and because she weaves politics, ideology, and personal life into an agile narrative unfolding out of a well-developed context. Spencer, a historian, thoroughly researched and conveyed a nuanced portrait of the subject. [End Page 92]
Lázaro Cárdenas, a contemporary of Lombardo Toledano, is the subject of Cárdenas por Cárdenas. He became president of Mexico in 1934, two years before the founding of the CTM. In 1914 Cárdenas joined one of the armies that contended for power in the 1910 revolution; because he had some education—in the midst of peasant armies—he soon acquired rank and eventually became a general. He was left of center, and during his presidency he carried out the most extensive land reform since the passing of the agrarian law of 1916. He also instituted a program of socialist education in public schools and favored workers' rights and struggles. Cárdenas brought together several strands of liberalism and the variegated Left, and fashioned a nationalist revolutionary ideology, embodied in the corporatist Mexican Revolutionary Party (PRM), which became the official state party. Lombardo Toledano encouraged Cárdenas, thinking that the new party would answer the call for a united front issued in 1935 by the Third Communist International. The PRM eventually became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a corrupt and authoritarian political machine that ruled Mexico for the rest of the twentieth century. Cárdenas, unlike Lombardo Toledano, became a critic of the regime in the 1960s, while praising the true spirit of the Cuban revolution.
Cárdenas's story has been told many times, by able political scientists and historians. Moreover, his own autobiographical diaries were made public just after he died in 1970. There is not much new to add. This new biography held the promise of new insights, because the author is the subject's son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, an engineer turned politician turned historian, in this last twist of events. And precisely for that reason the book is a disappointment. Where the reader expects to find an intimate narrative written from the perspective of an admiring son, he stumbles upon a distant...