Originally published by n.b. a web project of the New York Review of Books

Back to the Future

Mexico: Biography of Power
by Enrique Krauze
I0-06-016325-9   HarperCollins   $35.00

Review by Fred Murphy

This massive new history of Mexico offers a unique and innovative approach to unraveling the complexities of the Mexican past—and present. Enrique Krauze is a neo-liberal protegé of Nobel laureate Octavio Paz and a controversial figure in recent Mexican cultural and political life in his own right. Krauze makes intriguing use of a modified and updated "great man theory" of Mexico's history, wherein what matters is not so much the person of a particular leader but rather the institution of personal power. Krauze thus crafts a "biography of power" in which the "accidents of individual lives" have "had an enormous effect on the directions taken by the nation as a whole."

While the work's scope ranges well beyond even the dates in the title—an early set of chapters sketches the pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial background—Krauze aims to focus readers' attention on the decades at the close of the 19th century when, in his view, modern Mexico was given birth by the authoritarian-liberai regime of Porfirio Díaz. Even though Porfirio drew consciously and adeptly upon deeply rooted traditions of personal command and power, Krauze stresses the ways in which his regime brought to a close a "century of caudillos" and ushered in modernity by rationalizing and centralizing the national state apparatus, encouraging massive foreign investment in railroads and export agriculture (accompanied by the expropriation and displacement of large numbers of Indian peasants), and partially supplanting traditional Catholicism with a "patriotic religion" concocted around a mystique of Mexico's mixed Indian and Hispanic heritage and a pantheon of national heros from Moctezuma to Benito Juárez.

Krauze's account of Mexico's 20th-century upheavals, then, is a Tocquevillean one in which the Porfirian state had already set a course toward modernity, and the Revolution that overthrew it between 1911 and 1917 tragically sidetracked the country down "a path from peace to anarchy, from wealth to poverty, from international friendship to isolation." This argument remains quite a heretical one in today's Mexico, where the decaying regime of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) continues to stake its legitimacy on the legacy of the Revolution.

Still, however much Krauze might wish to see the PRI's shaky rule replaced by a neo-Porfirian regime committed to "little politics and a lot of administration", he frames his contemporary critique as a democrat and directs scathing fire at the PRI's disregard for civil liberties and popular participation. Indeed, a crucial turning point in his account of recent decades is the "luminous and terrible experience" of the 1968 student movement. That all too brief "golden age" in which the campuses became "public spaces for the practice of democracy"' came to a brutal halt in army massacres engineered by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

Krauze closes his highly readable though contentious history with the hope that a democratic Mexico will one day bring to light the full truth of those events and, while honoring the martyrs of 1968, finally bury "at once and forever" the conflictive and theatrical past and construct a polity in which all citizens are assured "security and justice and stability and liberty." Only then, he says, will "the biography of Mexico begin to be the story of all Mexican lives."

Fred Murphy is a Ph.D candidate in historical studies at
The New School for Social Research. He has taught Latin
American history at Eugene Lang College.