Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!

Conclusions

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.


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