The Way of Mexican Liberalism

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A few months ago, Liberty Fund published an anthology on Mexican liberalism. The book, edited by José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, gathers 19 authors and 64 texts covering from the beginning of the history of Mexico as an independent nation (1821) to an acceptance speech by Octavio Paz of a prize he received in 1989. That is, in this book we have almost 170 years of the history of Mexico from the perspective of its most well-known and recognized liberales. Liberty in MexicoThis book is an abridged version and translation of a book that Aguilar Rivera published in 2011 in Mexico with the title La espada y la pluma (Libertad y liberalismo en México, 1821-2005). The Spanish edition, however, was much larger: 37 authors, 121 texts, 1086 pages. This new edition should be welcomed by English-speaking scholars and general public alike: finally, in a manageable and very well-edited book they have at their disposal more than sixty documents that can be considered a road-map of a very rich and very ignored (by foreigners) political ideology and political tradition: Mexican liberalism. It should be added that Janet M. Burke and Ted Humphrey, the translators, did an excellent job.

For this new edition Aguilar Rivera not only made a selection of the previous selection, but also wrote a new introduction; besides, he added brief introductory notices to each author and also included several down-page notes that non-Mexican readers will appreciate. Before commenting on some aspects of the Introduction that deal with historical processes that I know relatively well (first Spanish liberalism and the Spanish American independence movements), two things should be mentioned regarding Liberty in Mexico. The first is that as far as I know there are no precedents of a book of this kind (either in its Spanish or English version). The second is that its editor, José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, is a recognized Mexican academic and well-known public intellectual that has written about liberalism’s history and that has participated in political debates related with liberal issues for the last fifteen years.

In the Introduction, the editor puts Mexican liberalism in context. This context of liberalism includes not only the Spanish and Spanish American traditions but vis-à-vis the Western liberal tradition in general. Aguilar Rivera stresses a point that is very important: during the first three decades of the nineteenth century there was no other region in the world that tried to put into practice so many constitutional procedures as Spanish America. This was a liberal experiment that for a long time did not receive the attention it deserved in Western academia. This situation started changing in the Spanish-speaking world at the end of the 1990’s, however, in the English-speaking world only a handful of academics refuse to see this period of Latin American political and intellectual history as something else than an utter failure.

It is true that the results were very far from what the protagonists expected, but that should not imply ignoring some of its achievements; among them, the editor stresses the constitutional experiment in itself and the level of electoral participation. He could have added that this participation was achieved in societies that did not have any experience whatsoever with modern political representation before they created and put in place around a dozen new republics by the year 1830. This element should be taken into consideration whenever we hear the oft-repeated “charge” about the endemic political instability of the region during the first half of the nineteenth century. Political instability, of course, was also a part of the political life of other countries of the Western world during that era (France to begin with).

There are some aspects of Aguilar Rivera’s perspective on this period of Spanish American history that appear to me as debatable. I do not think that during the constitutional experiment just mentioned “the sway of liberal ideas was, for the most part, uncontested” (p. xvi). If we are talking about general principles (popular sovereignty, division of powers, political liberties) that may be the case, but once we “descend” into the real world of politics and political debate, I see conservative politicians and conservative attitudes all over the region. We need only think about some of the most well-known leaders of the Spanish American independence movements (Miranda, Bolívar, San Martín, Nariño, Monteagudo and Iturbide) and it is easy to see that their relationship with certain core liberal values is complex, to say the least. I also disagree with Aguilar Rivera when he writes that there was a continuity between absolutist reform and liberal revolution in the sense that there was “a confidence in the power of reason to order society.” (p. xvi).

I do not think there was a significant continuity between the economic and administrative reforms of Charles III (by far the most enlightened of Spanish kings) and the political revolution that spread throughout Spanish America from 1810 onwards. Establishing “continuities” in revolutionary times is always risky, but in this case the aforementioned reforms depended entirely on the will of a single person (the king), while the Spanish American revolutions, especially in its first phases, distrusted the accumulation of power in a single person up to the point of making the executive powers almost useless. On the other hand, one figure mentioned by Aguilar Rivera is Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos who may have been a liberal “in his theoretical writings” (p. xvi), and, of course, he fought with the patriots against the French when the war against Napoleon started in the Spring of 1808, but the truth is that he adopted a very cautious attitude regarding the political options opened by the crisis that started that year in the mundo hispánico. When we talk about “first Spanish liberalism” we think of people like Manuel José Quintana, Agustín de Argüelles, the Count of Toreno, Álvaro Flórez Estrada or José María Blanco White, but not Jovellanos, who does not fit in with these Spanish liberales, who were the protagonists of the Spanish liberal revolution that took place in the Peninsula between 1808 and 1814.

However, it is in regard to “the power of reason to order society” that I find this interpretation unconvincing. I would even say that a certain “mistrust” on the power of reason can be perceived in Spanish America behind the ubiquitous eagerness to write constitutions. An anti-revolutionary or anti-liberal perspective is present in almost all of the Spanish American leaders mentioned above. This attitude is evident regarding certain aspects of social life in the two most important leaders of the first phase of the independence process in New Spain: Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos. In both cases the fact that they were priests is crucial to explain their social conservatism, but I would say that conservatism in general was more present in the Spanish American independence movements than what can be inferred from this section of Aguilar Rivera’s introduction. This conservatism helps explain, for example, why is it that the viceroyalties of New Spain and Perú took thirteen and sixteen years, respectively, to become independent (that is, 1821 and 1824). This “slowness” in assuming a revolutionary/liberal perspective about society can hardly surprise us, for practically all of the main leaders of the Spanish American independence movements were creoles and the last thing they wanted was a revolutionary transformation of their societies.

In the next page, Aguilar Rivera insists in the “uncontested predominance of liberalism [in Spain and Spanish America] in the early nineteenth century” (p. xvii) and he argues that one of the reasons to explain this is that there was no republican tradition to dispute the field. Besides what I just said about this purported “predominance,” I do not think that extrapolations from other historical and intellectual contexts provide much light if we want to understand what went on politically and ideologically during the first quarter of the nineteenth century in the mundo hispánico. The editor writes, for example: “When Florentine political thought was flourishing in Italy, the School of Salamanca was instead devoted to new scholasticism and speculative thought.” (p. xvii). As scholastic and speculative as this thought was, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), who in page xvi appears as a theoretical pillar of Spanish liberalism, was a member of this school. In fact, as Quentin Skinner has shown, Suárez’ contribution to the development of the notion of consent is paramount in the history of Western political thought (The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. II, Cambridge University Press, p. 163).

The other historical development that the editor considers fundamental for Spanish liberalism was the French Revolution (p. xvii). From a constitutional perspective this may be true, but it should not be forgotten that this revolution almost always appeared in the contemporary Spanish political literature as something that should be avoided at all cost and that what is, arguably, the most important element of first Spanish liberalism (i.e., constitucionalismo histórico), was a historical device and an ideological construct that was entirely a product of Spanish authors and Spanish history (i.e., it had nothing to do with French history or with the French Revolution). A bit further, the editor writes that Benjamin Constant was “the most relevant influence for Spaniards and Spanish Americans in the early nineteenth century” (p. xix). My impression is that Constant was one among many “influences” and that important as he may have been regarding certain constitutional topics, this does not warrant the assertion just cited.

In the rest of the introduction, Aguilar Rivera gives the reader the elements he will need to contextualize the contents of this anthology. With very few exceptions (for example, Octavio Paz’ first text), the essays included are interesting and illuminating regarding (Mexican) liberalism. In the first part of the book, that covers the period 1821-1840, the main figure is, of course, José María Luis Mora. His intellectual stature is undeniable: he is by far the most important Mexican liberal thinker of the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact, he covered almost all of the main topics of his age related with this political tradition, as the reader can verify in the nine texts of him included in the book under review. The only other political thinker of the period that had an analogous intellectual ambition was Lucas Alamán. It is true that Alamán ended up creating the Mexican conservative party in the middle of the century, but the only reading of his included in the book, shows that he was also a liberal (this political mixture, on the other hand, was very common at the time, not only in Latin America). Nine authors appear in the next section (1845-1876). This was the heyday of Mexican liberalism and the República Restaurada (1867-1876) was its highest point.

In the third section comes the Porfiriato: the protracted dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910). As the texts in this section show, liberalism was able to find its way through this dictatorship. However, talking of the “continuity” of liberalism throughout this period, like the reputed historian Charles Hale proposed in his book The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico (1989), seems to me an exaggeration (as I tried to show in “La magna obra de Charles Hale”, Estudios de Historia Moderna y Contemporánea de México, n. 43, enero-junio 2012.)

The final section of the book, that covers the period 1930-1989, includes only three authors: a writer and poet (Jorge Cuesta), a philosopher (Antonio Caso), and another writer and poet (Octavio Paz). As the works and trajectories of Caso and Paz clearly show, Mexican liberalism has had what could be considered a complex and tense relationship with liberalism. How tense it is at present, is open to debate, but for “good” or “bad” reasons, the tension has lessened of late in my opinion. In any case, it may be added that Aguilar Rivera is now working on a book that will show how two dozen Mexican contemporary liberals inscribe themselves into and understand this political tradition at this very moment.

Reflecting what the editor mentioned in the Introduction about the wane of liberalism in the Western world during the first half of the twentieth century (p. xxviii), the vast majority of the authors and the texts included in the book belong to the nineteenth century (15 out of 19; including Rabasa in the twentieth century, that some would include in the previous century). On the other hand, as with any other anthology, some readers may think that some names are missing. The editor knows this very well, as his selection of the Mexican edition evinces (as noted, that anthology included 37 authors). In any case, this is a well-conceived and much necessary book about the political ideology that, along with nationalism, has been the most important in the history of Mexico.

The need for a book like Liberty in Mexico has to do not only with the disregard that exists in the English-speaking world about the history of liberalism outside the borders of the United States and/or England. It also has to do with how important it is to go to the texts themselves, instead of trusting in commentators that tend to pontificate about authors and books that very often they know only superficially. The book also shows the level of ignorance contained in the extended notion, in many academic institutions of the United States, that anything that happened politically in the Spanish-speaking world during the last two hundred years has nothing to do with liberalism. As Aguilar Rivera reminds us in page xvii of his Introduction, the term “liberal” was coined not in Philadelphia or London, and once defined a political group in the Cortes of Cádiz (more specifically, in the Winter of 1810). From there, this usage extended to the rest of the Western world. Regarding Spanish America, the constitutional “explosion” that the region experienced during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century deserves no doubt the attention that the editor has been claiming for more than a decade. In any case, after reading the book he edited, it is impossible to keep on considering Spanish American liberalism as a sort of historical oxymoron. Hopefully, it will also help eradicate the (all too) common view of liberalism as a set of trans-historical rules or archetype, a timeless standard by which we can judge and evaluate the multifarious liberalisms that have existed during the last 200 years in the Western world.