Adam David Morton: Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development


(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011; 301 pp: 9789742554894 (hbk) £49.95)


Reviewed by Alf Gunvald Nilsen, University of Bergen, Norway


First published in Capital and Class, October 2011



In Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, Adam Morton has produced a study that is nothing short of seminal. Building a compelling theoretical dialogue between the revolutionary theories of Gramsci and Trotsky, Morton argues that ‘the struggle-driven course of uneven and combined development and modern state formation in Mexico can be best understood as a set of constructed and contested class practices characteristic of a passive revolution, that is, a condition in which capitalist development is either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both a “revolutionary” rupture and a “restoration” of social relations’ (p. 4).


The first part of the book presents a magisterial map of the contested trajectory of Mexican state formation from the revolution of the early 20th century, via developmentalism centred on import substitution industrialisation (isi), to the contemporary regime of neoliberal capitalism.


In a context of long-standing feudal stagnation, the Mexican revolution of 1910 was ‘the first passive revolution of the twentieth century in Latin America’ (p. 47). Popular agency was a central driving force in the revolution, but its trajectory was ultimately defined by a state-directed expansion of capitalist relations of production. With the advent of Cardenismo, the project of national modernisation was expanded through a partial incorporation of peasants’ and workers’ organisations so as to ensure what Morton refers to as ‘a bourgeois minimal hegemony under the single state-party system’ (p. 58). In an effective analysis, the book brings out how the era of isi developmentalism witnessed a continued deepening of capitalist property relations, driven by a state that rapidly became ‘the fulcrum of capital accumulation’ (p. 67). Morton details the spatial unevenness of capitalist development across Mexico’s regions and argues that this period was one in which Mexico witnessed the emergence of a ‘state in capitalist society’ (p. 72) that – despite its limitations as a less than fully-functioning capitalist state – was capable of ‘tying the nurturing and consolidation of a national bourgeoisie to state intervention, within a world context dominated by foreign capital’ (p. 86).


Morton then details the unravelling of isi developmentalism and the onset of neoliberal restructuring – a process which finally brings about ‘a capitalist type of state’ (p. 76) in Mexico. A key feature of the analysis of this transition is the emphasis put on ‘the articulation of capitalism through multiscalar relations’ and the ways in which states come to function as ‘political nodes in the global flow of capital’ (p. 110). Developed through a critical engagement with William Robinson’s theory of the transnational state, Morton’s analysis is arguably at its finest and most significant in deciphering how the neoliberal turn was orchestrated by a Mexican technocratic elite that effectively internalised ‘certain transnational class interests’ and put the state to work in ‘producing the spatial configurations of the neoliberal accumulation process’ (p. 120). Attention is also given to how the ‘minimal hegemony’ of the Mexican state is reconfigured through, on one hand, a turn to more overt uses of coercion against oppositional elements and, on the other hand, anti-poverty programmes like the Programa Nacional de Solidaridad (pronasol), which displaced radical popular agency and modernised populism in a direction that was commensurable with the neoliberal policy regime.


Within the space of these three chapters, Morton has not only produced a rich and sophisticated analysis of the trajectory of state formation in postcolonial Mexico. He has also produced an exemplary approach to the study of development more generally. As Colin Leys (2009: 43) has noted, the study of development has increasingly been reduced to a ‘policy-oriented social science within the parameters of an unquestioned capitalist world order’. By bringing back in perspectives from critical historical sociology, Morton has provided significant resources for those who wish to shift the focus of attention of development research towards the contested political economy of this world order. As such, comparative work across the regions of the Global South, crafted according to the analytical mould that Morton constructs here, will doubtlessly be a highly fecund endeavour for critical students of global development.


The second part of the book presents three chapters that comment on and analyse different aspects of Mexican state formation: the literary work of author and public intellectual Carlos Fuentes; the democratic transition in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s; and, finally, the Zapatista uprising.Drawing on the cultural and literary theory of Gramsci and Trotsky, Morton’s analysis of Carlos Fuentes focuses on how his work initially served a ‘critical social function’ that ‘highlighted how certain class forces thwarted the progressive aspects of the revolution to culminate in the reorganisation of capitalism of Mexico’ (p. 144).


This, of course, resonates with the wider theme of the blocked dialectic of revolution and restoration that is at the heart of passive revolution, but, as Morton points out, Fuentes has served this function in a contradictory and partial manner. His writing retains an elitist character in which the lifeworld and subjectivities of the masses remain opaque and distant. In other words, Fuentes and his work have, in Morton’s assessment, become ‘fully assimilated into the capitalist project’ (p. 158).


Morton moves on to discuss the end of one-party dominance in Mexico. As Morton makes clear, liberal theories of democratisation are flawed in a number of ways, and not least in terms of their disconnection from the ‘social power relations in which institutions are rooted: the very structures of power, authority, interests, hierarchies and loyalties that make up socioeconomic and cultural life’ (p. 172). As an alternative, Morton draws on William Robinson’s concept of ‘polyarchy’ – a form of low-intensity democracy – well suited for resolving conflicts between dominant groups, whilst avoiding the disruption of mobilisation from below. Calibrating the concept to capture the specificities of the Mexican context, Morton argues that the promotion of polyarchy can be discerned in substantial US funding of governance reforms and civil society organisations, as well as the value attributed to restricted popular participation in politics by some actors in this process. Not least, the internalisation of democratic discourses that can underpin ‘a neoliberal state attuned to establishing a series of mechanisms conducive to resolving disputes within the remit of a polyarchic system’ is highlighted (p. 191-2).


In the final part of the book, Morton turns to the Zapatista uprising. Analyzing ezln resistance in the context of uneven agrarian development, he articulates an important critique of Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of ‘the death of the peasantry’ by focusing on how the upsurge of popular struggle in the Chiapas highlands has to be understood in terms of ‘the constitution and reproduction of peasants through the dynamics of capital accumulation’ (p. 200). A particular virtue of the analysis is the fact that he inserts the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (ezln) into a specific regional context – a welcome change from the bland and disembodied bird’s-eyeview accounts of the Zapatista movement that are all too numerous in the literature on alterglobalisation, for example – in which forms and relations of production have been changing rapidly since the 1970s, and in turn giving rise to new forms of peasant organisation. Morton proceeds to show us the complex set of achievements and limitations of a movement that has activated both national and international civil society, vindicated indigenous peoples’ rights whilst simultanously moving beyond narrow ethnic claims, and campaigned for the deepening of democracy and new spatial forms of governance in Chiapas. In what is easily the most captivating part of the book from the point of view of understanding subaltern praxis, Morton provides an illuminating analysis of the ezln in terms of the workings of ‘the three spaces of its autonomous practice of resistance’ (p. 203) – namely, alternative economic organisation, educational projects, and healthcare provision. This dynamism, he argues, holds the potential to ‘propel new cycles of class struggle’ that may generate ‘new ways out of the structure of passive revolution’ (p. 250).


Yet it is precisely here that one possible criticism of the book emerges. And that is that the analysis would arguably have been further enhanced if it had delved even more deeply into the lifeworlds and struggles of subaltern groups as these have been constituted by and constitutive of the political economy of revolution, state formation and uneven development in modern Mexico. Morton presents a penetrating and valuable analysis of the accumulation strategies and hegemonic projects of dominant social groups, and deftly decodes the ways in which subaltern groups were woven into the ‘unstable equilibria’ (Gramsci 1971: 182) that undergirded these strategies and projects. However, the lived experiences of subalternity in Mexican capitalism – and the lived reality of the collective efforts to overcome this subalternity – remain somewhat muted throughout the book. This, however, is a very minor quibble in the face of what is, without a shadow of a doubt, a work of considerable and substantial merit. Revolution and State in Modern Mexico combines theoretical sophistication and innovation with a thoroughgoing understanding of empirical complexities in an analysis that, when it comes time to construct a canon of Marxist historical sociology, will sit comfortably and appropriately among the classics on whose insights it draws and to whose legacy it contributes.




Gramsci A (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.Leys C (2009)  The Rise and Fall of Development Theory. Bloomington,  in: Indiana University Press.


Author biography


Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen. His work focuses on social movements in the Global South and Marxian approaches to the study of global development. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage (Routledge, 2010) – a comprehensive study of popular resistance to dam-building in the Narmada Valley, India.


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