Mexico’s shared revolution

Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside
Tore C Olsson
2017, Princeton University Press
277 pages, plates, hardback

THE influence of the Mexican Revolution upon the United States is rarely acknowledged, but as Tore Olsson demonstrates in this brilliant reassessment of agrarian relations between the two countries, it had a profound effect upon the American countryside.

The most ambitious phase of agrarian reform under the Mexican titan Lázaro Cárdenas after 1934 coincided with the promise by Franklin D Roosevelt of a New Deal following the Great Depression, which led to an unprecedented campaign against rural poverty.

As Olsson points out, the rural New Deal ultimately challenged the status quo to an extent surprisingly comparable to its Mexican counterpart, which would radicalize the US rural vision comprehensively in ways rarely discussed by historians.

As the name suggests, Agrarian Crossings is about the exchange, in both directions, of agrarian ideas and policies, and how this exchange shaped both countries but also ultimately the entire world.

It challenges established thinking about US–Mexican relations in this period and also the self-contained vision of nationalism that informed policies in both countries. Olsson notes how agrarian historians have been slow to discover the transnational exchanges of this era and, where accounts of the rural New Deal have acknowledged external influences, these have invariably been from the Soviet Union and Europe.

As the author writes: “Roosevelt’s New Deal and Cárdenas’s Plan Sexenal did indeed turn inward to stress domestic problems, but they never lost sight of the global connections that linked activist governments in an era of economic crisis. Internationalist nationalisms may seem an oxymoron to some, but such a concept made sense to actors of the time … Where Mexico had previously served the United States predominantly as a supplier of low-cost labour and raw materials (as it would function again later), the 1930s represented a significant departure. In those years, the flow of political strategies, rather than farmhands and tomatoes, marked the south–north transfer between the two neighbours.” [p 41]

Olsson shows that US rural reformers’ interest in Mexican agrarismo – the revolutionary movement to break up and redistribute haciendas – was manifested most dramatically in the rural New Deal’s priority plantation belt of the South.

Exchanges were given initial momentum by a cadre of leftwing US reforms led by the academic Frank Tannenbaum who attempted to translate the blueprint of Mexican agrarian reform into political action in the US South, ultimately resulting in the creation of the most aggressively redistributionist agency of the New Deal, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). This pioneered the US government’s only land reform programme of the 20th century in a policymaking landscape that was otherwise stubbornly conservative.

Alongside Tannenbaum, a host of other influential rural reformers headed south of the border to listen and learn, including the radical multiracial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) but also more staid federal policymakers such as leading figures in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The links and discussions that these exchanges generated help to explain a subsequent – and perhaps globally far more important – phase in this story of rural policymaking: the green revolution.

Olsson traces the research undertaken in Mexico by US agronomists on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1941 that led to a programme two years later seeking to unlock agricultural productivity, initially focused on Mexico but ultimately consequential for all of us.

Mexico became the springboard for globalizing a campaign that would soon extend to Colombia, India, the Philippines, Pakistan and Vietnam, and would remake the environment and social fabric of the planet.

The impact of this emphasis on the promotion of monocultural production that prevailed thereafter cannot be understated: by triggering rural out-migration, spurring urbanization and hence industrialization, and shaping society and politics, the “green revolution” transformed the landscape and population of the entire world. By launching an assault on ecological diversity, it also set the scene for the subsequent development of some of the key debates within environmentalism.

However, by the time this revolution was given its familiar name, it had become a US weapon in Cold War geopolitics, aiming to neutralize peasant radicalism and communism in the countryside and far from the programme’s original philanthropic intentions.

This is an important moment in history, because subsequent social science has treated the green revolution almost solely in terms of US Cold War strategy by which “a cadre of hubristic internationalists, concerned with Soviet expansionism and intoxicated by recent advances in agronomy, sought to transplant an idealized US agriculture on a hungry Third World.” [p 100]

This assumption, insists Olsson, “dangerously distorts the origins of the green revolution”, which in fact was born in the domestic laboratory of the US South of entirely philanthropic origins while also being a product of that transformative US–Mexican agrarian dialogue of the 1930s.