A Combined Struggle: Trotsky Explains Why We Need to Fight Imperialism in Mexico and in the U.S.

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On the anniversary of Trotsky’s death, we reexamine his writings from the final period of his life, which he spent in exile in Mexico. His observations about socialist strategy in semi-colonial countries and his conceptualization of the role that workers in imperialist countries play in the fight against imperialism have special relevance to socialists fighting against U.S. imperialism today.

When Leon Trotsky was granted asylum in Mexico in 1936, it was on the condition that he would not attempt to involve himself in Mexican politics. He could agitate for revolution in Spain, he could denounce Stalinist bureaucratization and the degeneration of the revolution in Russia, he could clear his name of the slanders of the Moscow Trials, but he could not weigh in on the political situation in Mexico or try to drive its course one way or another. With no other country willing to take him in, Trotsky readily agreed to this arrangement, promising that he “intended rigidly to abstain from interfering in Mexican politics” (From Trotsky’s Journal).

To be sure, Trotsky had no shortage of other political developments to write about during his exile. In fact, the period he spent in Mexico was one of his most prolific. From the time he arrived in Mexico in 1936 until his assassination in 1940, Trotsky penned some of his most programmatic texts, including “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto” and “The Transitional Program.” From Mexico City he cheered on the workers of the Spanish Revolution and railed against their wavering leaderships, arguing with his Spanish comrades on how best to carry the revolution forward. He wrote about the rise of fascism in Europe, identifying it as a product of imperialism. He analyzed the Stalinist betrayals of the Soviet Union and the reactionary part Stalinism played in the course of the Chinese Revolution. From his home in Coyoacán, he even announced the founding of the Fourth International over the radio, taking up the mantle of internationalism that the Comintern had tossed aside. Trotsky defied his death sentence, exile, and failing health to engage in these events from across the world, continuing the fight for global socialist revolution.

However, despite his promise to then-President of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, Trotsky could not ignore the momentous developments occurring in post-revolutionary Mexico in the 1930s and the potential they presented for a new era of class struggle in the age of imperialism. His observations of Mexico deeply influenced his conceptualization of imperialism after the Russian Revolution in the lead up to World War II.

Trotsky’s writings about neo-colonial Mexico comprise some of his most nuanced and clearest elucidations of imperialist social and economic relations and the centrality of anti-imperialist struggle to the overthrow of capitalism. In particular, his comments on the central role that the working class in imperialist countries plays in dismantling imperialism is of special relevance to socialists in the United States today.

Post-Revolutionary Mexico and the Nationalization of the Oil and Railway Industries

When Trotsky and his family arrived in Mexico in January 1937, they were entering a post-revolutionary, semi-colonial country being pulled apart by contradictory but interrelated forces: pernicious foreign investment and capital on the one hand, and a high degree of class struggle on the other. 

Although Mexico had just carried out a democratic revolution, it was still firmly under the heel of imperialism’s boot, and ravaged by foreign capital. The key mining and oil industries were dominated by private foreign companies like Exxon and Shell, despite the fact that they were run entirely on Mexican labor. As countries like Britain and the U.S. extracted millions of dollars in profits from Mexico’s working class, workers and peasants in Mexico were struggling to survive as the post-revolutionary Mexican ruling class tried to consolidate its power. As Trotsky observed in 1938:

Visit any center of the mining industry: hundreds of millions of dollars, extracted by foreign capital from the earth, have given nothing, nothing whatever, to the culture of the country; neither highways nor buildings nor good development of the cities… Why, indeed, should one spend Mexican oil, Mexican gold, Mexican silver on the needs of faraway and alien Mexico, when with the profits obtained it is possible to build palaces, museums, theaters in London or in Monaco? Such are the civilizers! In the place of historical riches they leave shafts in the Mexican soil and ill health among the Mexican workers. (The Mexican Oil Expropriations)

But the Mexican labor and peasant movements were also experiencing a critical moment of heightened activity and power after the revolution, with the working class rising up against its imperialist oppressors. Before Trotsky arrived in Mexico, in 1935, workers in the petroleum industry had demanded an increase in wages and a reduction in working hours from the foreign oil companies; when their demands were met with pathetic counter-offers, the workers organized a nation-wide strike.

This began a period of intense struggle which culminated in President Cárdenas of Mexico being pressured to expropriate the oil and railway industries, expelling foreign interests and nationalizing these sectors under Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos). Though Cárdenas wrote the expropriation into law, these events were the direct result of the coordinated actions of Mexico’s working class.

The oil expropriations marked a significant move against the interests of two of the largest imperialist powers in the world. However, Cárdenas, a left but nevertheless bourgeois nationalist politician, was careful not to completely alienate the U.S. and Britain for fear of economic and even military repercussions. He made a concession to Mexican workers by putting the oil and railway industries under state control, but these expropriations were limited in that Cárdenas also paid the foreign companies compensation for their lost property and profits. Mexico was forced to pay for its own stolen land and to keep ties to its imperialist oppressors in the process; Cárdenas and the Mexican state, without a strong national bourgeoisie to fill the vacuum left by foreign capital, became the arbitrator between foreign capitalists and the militant workers’ movement.

Boycotts of Mexican Oil

After the expropriation and nationalization, foreign capitalists, backed by their respective states, responded by instituting boycotts of Mexican oil and other products. U.S. and British companies refused to sell essential equipment to Mexico in an attempt to strangle its fledgling national industry and reinstitute imperialist control over Mexico’s resources and economy. 

Though the United States publicly followed its “Good Neighbor” policy of “non-intervention” in the conflict, refusing to grant federal aid to U.S. companies expelled from Mexico, the U.S. nevertheless played a crucial role in the boycotts and keeping Mexico subject to foreign powers after the expropriation. With FDR’s Democratic Party at the helm, the U.S. government stepped in to protect the interests of its ruling class and stopped buying Mexican silver which accounted for a substantial portion of Mexico’s economy. The U.S. also prohibited the use of Mexican oil in government departments and increased taxes on imports of Mexican oil to dissuade companies from trading with Pemex.

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As a result of the boycotts and media campaigns against Pemex, Mexico’s economy suffered and the value of the peso fell rapidly; however, the national petroleum industry eventually began to grow slowly and would remain under state control until 2014. 

A Democratic Triumph Presents an Opportunity for the Mexican Proletariat

For Trotsky, these events in Mexico were a clear illustration of the connection between anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle. Though the expropriation and nationalization of the oil industry was realized under capitalism and did not represent a socialist demand in and of itself, Trotsky saw nationalization as a crucial first step towards breaking the chains of imperialism that bound Mexico to foreign capital, a step that placed workers in a key position to challenge the bourgeois state. He wrote: 

It would of course be a disastrous error … to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalization by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organizations. But it is not a question of that. The bourgeois government has itself carried through the nationalization and has been compelled to ask participation of the workers in the management of the nationalized industry. For Marxists it is not a question of building socialism with the hands of the bourgeoisie, but of utilizing the situations that present themselves within state capitalism and advancing the revolutionary movement of the workers. (Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management)

Though the task of post-revolutionary Mexico was first and foremost to free itself from the yoke of imperialism, this could not be carried out, before or after the oil expropriation, without the working class taking a central role in the struggle against foreign capital. Concretely, for Trotsky this meant not aligning with the national bourgeoisie against foreign influence, but organizing workers—in unions, in assemblies—to directly confront both foreign capital and their own bourgeois state, which are two sides of the same coin. 

Trotsky also observed, correctly as the 2014 opening of the Mexican oil market eventually proved, that the expropriations were far from permanent. Trotsky realized that any victory for the working class beyond the expropriations could not occur unless it fully severed the ties of imperialist domination, for the democratic tasks of a semi-colonial country “cannot be solved without a simultaneous revolutionary struggle against imperialism” (Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation).

Importantly, he argued that this could not happen without the support, not just of the international proletariat, but specifically the support of workers in the same imperialist countries which pulled the strings of Mexico’s economy. A true extermination of the imperialist violence which marked—and continues to mark—Mexico’s social and political landscape could only be fully realized by a united front of the Mexican and U.S. and British working class against imperialism. 

Anti-Imperialism in Imperialist Countries

During Britain’s boycott of Mexican oil, Trotsky wrote to the British Labour Party, urging the British working class to take up the cause of the Mexican working class, uniting against their common oppressor. In a 1938 letter to the Daily Herald, Trotsky made a direct appeal to the working class of Britain:

The further development of the attempts of British imperialism against the independence of Mexico will to a great degree depend upon the conduct of the British working class…Firm resoluteness is necessary to paralyze the criminal hand of imperialist violence. (The Mexican Oil Expropriations)

He urged them to mobilize against the state’s retaliation against Mexico’s expropriation and to fight in Britain for Mexico’s independence from foreign capital; not solidarity simply as a matter of moral principle, but in accordance with their own class interests, for the imperialist oppressors of one nation are the same capitalist oppressors of another. Imperialism abroad strengthens the bourgeois state, divides workers, and drives down wages for the entire working class, adding to capitalist profits and reinforcing the state’s ability to oppress its own working class and the working class of semi-colonial nations.

Though Trotsky understood that imperialism leaves no part of the working class unscathed, whether workers live in imperialist countries or imperialized ones, he also realized that imperialism does not affect all workers equally; as he saw all too clearly in Mexico in 1938, “Some countries are the carriers of imperialism, others—its victims. This is the main dividing line between modern nations and states” (‘Fight Imperialism to Fight Fascism’). 

Workers in imperialist countries like the U.S. live better than those in semi-colonial countries like Mexico, and a certain sector of the working class in imperialist nations lives much better than the workers in other countries and even those in their own. For example, in Mexico, the average minimum wage is $5 USD a day while in the U.S. the minimum wage is, on average,around $50 a day; yet the average daily wage for all workers in the U.S. is about $176 USD

In practice, this difference means that organizing the working class of imperialist countries against its bourgeoisie presents unique challenges. But these conditions also place the working class in imperialist countries in a key position to fight against the violent, oppressive interventions of their governments in other countries. 

As an illustration of this point, Trotsky observed that Mexico would not have been able to move against foreign capital by nationalizing its oil industry “if not for the profound crisis of North American capitalism and the growth of radical tendencies in the working class” (Clarity or Confusion?). Though the workers in the U.S. were not explicitly taking up the struggle for Mexican oil expropriation, the active and militant labor movement of the 1930s (the same one that pressured FDR to pass the reforms of the New Deal) prevented the U.S. state from responding with full force to the Mexican oil expropriation, despite its deleterious effect on capitalist interests. 

As Trotsky explains, “the intensification of the class struggle in the United States has extraordinarily facilitated the expropriation of the petroleum enterprises by the Mexican government” (Clarity or Confusion?). Not only was the state preoccupied by intensified class struggle at home, but it worried that a move against Mexican national industry would inflame this class struggle to a further degree. In other words, just the threat of a united struggle of U.S. and Mexican workers was enough for the U.S. to reconsider openly intervening against the Mexican oil expropriation. 

Anti-Imperialist Struggle Then and Now

Considering the neo-colonial relationship between the U.S. and Mexico today, Trotsky’s analysis of the Mexican oil expropriation and western imperialism’s retaliation against it are instructive. When Trump wanted Mexico to help with his xenophobic project of closing the U.S. border, he threatened to increase the tariffs between the two countries, just as Britain and the U.S. boycotted Mexican products in 1938 in response to the expropriations. Just the threat of a rise in tariffs was enough to pressure President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), despite his progressive veneer, to cave to Trump’s demands, deporting immigrants, building detention centers, and creating a National Guard to act as the Mexican arm of U.S. border patrol. Today, when Mexico acts against U.S. interests, the U.S. need only tighten its stranglehold on Mexico’s economy to further its own interests, manifested most clearly in Mexico’s national foreign debt of over $480 billion.

The difference today is that the U.S. imperialist state is stronger and years of neoliberal foreign policy—from NAFTA to the war against drug trafficking—has effectively re-colonized Mexico to such a degree that its economy is entirely tied to the economy and politics of the United States, perhaps more so than in the 1930s. Moreover, unlike the militant labor movement in both Mexico and the U.S. in the early half of the 20th century, workers’ and social movements in both countries are only now beginning to gain momentum after the setbacks of the neoliberal offensive of the last several decades. Furthermore, the Trump administration is adding new fuel to the fire of U.S. imperialism with its xenophobic, racist, and increasingly violent attacks on immigrants. These conditions have given a new sense of urgency to the need for Mexico—and all countries—to shatter the system of imperialist and capitalist domination.

What remains the same, however, is that the working class and social movements in the U.S. have a crucial part to play in Mexico’s struggle to break free from these imperialist chains. Without uncompromising, independent anti-imperialist struggle in imperialist countries, there can be no end to imperialist exploitation and in the long-term, no meaningful movement to overthrow capitalism in its entirety. This means taking up the fight, in tandem with the labor and social movements in Mexico, against the concentration camps, against the foreign debt, and demanding open borders. It means denouncing and mobilizing against the violent imperialist policies of both bourgeois parties that lead to mass immigration and economic decline in Latin America. It means a united front of the working class in both Mexico and the U.S.—one that recognizes that the attacks on the working class and oppressed on one side of the border are attacks on the working class and oppressed on the other.

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In Mexico and in the U.S., we fight the same imperialists and the same capitalists. This is not just a slogan: corporations like GM and Ford who lay off thousands of workers in the U.S. are the same corporations who refuse to pay a living wage to maquiladora workers in Mexico working under horrific conditions; the state apparatus that enables the murder and disappearances of workers and students in Mexico is part of the same apparatus that murders Black and Brown people with impunity in the United States. Workers in the U.S. and Mexico are fighting a parallel fight against the full range of capitalist exploitation, but these fights must be combined.

Writing in 1939, Trotsky articulated this strategic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico: 

[T]he very fact that a parallel struggle goes on will signify that an objective alliance exists between them; perhaps not a formal alliance, but, indeed, a very active one. The sooner the American proletarian vanguard in North, Central, and South America understands the necessity for a closer revolutionary collaboration in the struggle against the common enemy, the more tangible and fruitful that alliance will be. (Clarity or Confusion?)

About author

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.