Courtesy Reuters

No Perfect Dictatorship

By Enrique Krauze

I find myself truly dismayed by the article “Mexico's Perfect Dictatorship? A History of Mexican Liberalism” by Jonathan Schlefer (Foreign Affairs, February 4, 2015). 

Let me point out some gross historical errors. Schlefer says that in 1910, a “delegate assembly passed a liberal Mexican Constitution broadly following the U.S. model.” But the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, a year when there were no assemblies of any kind. Schlefer also says that the Revolution of 1910 was the last war of that kind in Mexico. In fact, “the Revolution of 1910” lasted till 1920, and between 1926 and 1929, there was another long and bloody war, fought by the peasant Cristeros against the Mexican state.

Mexico has had several constituent assemblies that led to various constitutions. After winning independence from Spain, in 1824 one such assembly formulated a constitution based mostly on the post-Revolution French constitution and, slightly, on the American. The constitutional discussions were held in 1856–57. This constitution triggered the War of the Reform, between the Liberals and the Conservatives, which in turn led to the French Intervention (1862–67) supporting the Conservatives. The Liberals won the war, and the victory, contrary to what Schlefer affirms, had nothing to do with the United States (although the victory did forestall possible future support from the Confederacy for the Conservative cause).  

Much more important, however, is his mistaken notion that the post-Revolution constitution promulgated in 1917 (certainly not 1910) was liberal. It was certainly not. Indeed, it was anti-liberal, narrowing the liberal provisions of the 1857 constitution, greatly extending the powers of the state. It prepared the ground for the 70-year reign of the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional; Institutional Revolutionary Party], which began in 1929. Again, it had nothing to do with the Constitution of the United States of America.

In the twentieth century, Mexico was corporatist, not liberal. And Schlefer’s references to the important theme of the Thomist roots of the Mexican state are muddled. The Thomist political schema (adopted by the neoscholastic Spanish philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) relates specifically to the State and not the Church. Schlefer confuses the two institutions. He also makes no mention of the most incisive scholar of the neoscholastic roots of the Mexican polity, Richard M. Morse, who wrote the seminal essay on the topic, “Toward a Theory of Spanish American Government,” and later books such as Prospero’s Mirror and New World Soundings.

The errors and omissions in Schlefer’s history of Mexican liberalism undermine the credibility of his opinions. The “perfect dictatorship,” a term coined by Mario Vargas Llosa, described the political system of the PRI, which—although it has ceased to completely dominate the country—lives on as a pervasive culture of corruption.