[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Mentanko on Castro, 'Apostle of Progress: Modesto C. Rolland, Global Progressivism, and the Engineering of Revolutionary Mexico'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Fri Nov 8 11:52:09 MST 2019

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Andrew Stewart 
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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: November 7, 2019 at 11:53:02 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]:  Mentanko on Castro, 'Apostle of Progress: Modesto C. Rolland, Global Progressivism, and the Engineering of Revolutionary Mexico'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> J. Justin Castro.  Apostle of Progress: Modesto C. Rolland, Global 
> Progressivism, and the Engineering of Revolutionary Mexico.  The 
> Mexican Experience Series. Lincoln  University of Nebraska Press, 
> 2019.  Illustrations. 366 pp.  $30.00 (e-book), ISBN 
> 978-1-4962-1249-8; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-1173-6; $30.00 
> (paper), ISBN 978-1-4962-1174-3.
> Reviewed by Joshua Mentanko (Yale University)
> Published on H-LatAm (November, 2019)
> Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz
> For historians of twentieth-century Mexico, biography has long been 
> an important method for understanding major historical events and 
> processes. John Womack's _Zapata and the Mexican Revolution_ (1968) 
> and Friedrich Katz's _Life and Times of Pancho Villa_ (1998) are 
> foundational to understanding land reform, foreign intervention, and 
> the play of personality in internecine conflicts during the Mexican 
> Revolution. In his second book, _Apostle of Progress: Modesto C. 
> Rolland, Global Progressivism, and the Engineering of Revolutionary 
> Mexico_, historian J. Justin Castro uses the biography of a 
> relatively unknown man to shed light on themes of interest for 
> historians of twentieth-century Mexico contemplating the long-term 
> implications of the revolution. He makes the case for Modesto 
> Rolland's story for explaining the rise of a "technocratic" 
> perspective toward economic development, the shaping of agrarian 
> reform, and the integration of economic and political "peripheries" 
> into a politically centralized nation. 
> Rolland--"child of the Porfiriato, child of the periphery" (p. 
> 1)--was born in 1881 in the town of La Paz in the territory of Baja 
> California. Not unlike the Yucatán Peninsula, the Baja California 
> Peninsula had a long history of engaging in international trade. 
> Although Castro gives short attention to the indigenous history of 
> the region, he focuses on the cosmopolitanism of a region of Mexico 
> that was, from the view of the center, still underdeveloped and not 
> quite integrated. Rolland's father was a French migrant who had come 
> to pan for gold in the 1850s, and his mother was a member of a local 
> family. Together, they had eleven children.   
> Castro moves quickly through Rolland's early life. Modesto was the 
> youngest child. Educated in Culiacán in Sinaloa and Mexico City, he 
> studied at the National School of Engineering, and, taking advantage 
> of a growing demand for engineering education in the last decade of 
> the Porfiriato, he began teaching engineering at the National 
> Agriculture and Veterinary School in 1905. Castro explains Rolland's 
> growing political involvement as an outgrowth of his education in 
> Mexico City. While interacting with people from the humanities and 
> other intellectual backgrounds, "Rolland and his engineering peers 
> held more firmly to science-driven descriptions for making 
> improvements in society." They accepted positions in the government 
> out of a desire to improve Mexican infrastructure, but this group of 
> engineering intellectuals also "acquired a hubristic notion that they 
> were the only ones truly capable of bringing about an improved and 
> modern society" (p. 11). This hubris or assumption of the superiority 
> of his expertise, as Castro later shows, caused Rolland to overlook 
> local perspectives on various infrastructure development projects he 
> worked on from the 1920s to 1950s. 
> While Rolland was building a career as a professor and business owner 
> in the first decade of the twentieth century, he was also advancing 
> socially within Mexico City's elite. He was aided enormously in this 
> by his marriage to the seventeen-year-old Virginia de la Garza 
> Meléndez in 1908. Their marriage, according to Castro, was never a 
> happy one. Castro attributes discord in Rolland's first marriage to a 
> personality characterized by a "fierce desire to direct the forces of 
> nature, society, and politics" (pp. 14-15). Castro does not dwell on 
> Rolland's intimate life. Yet, as the above quote makes clear, Castro 
> draws connections between Rolland's public and private personalities. 
> Given that the book is almost exclusively concerned with Rolland's 
> public life, the reader might have welcomed Castro's thoughts about 
> the methodological issues of biography and about where to draw the 
> line as a historian, particularly if it is a matter of sources.  
> Castro offers a subtle take on Rolland's involvement with "politics" 
> both during the revolution and in the first decades of the 
> revolutionary state. Rolland nested his politics within the 
> "apolitical" framing of his technical expertise and concern. In 1908, 
> he founded the Engineer's Club in Mexico City. Clubs based around 
> professions or political interests were one acceptable way in which 
> to participate in a political discourse about improving Mexico 
> without stepping too hard on the toes of the "elected dictatorship" 
> of Porfirio Díaz. Nevertheless, through the venue of a professional 
> club, Rolland lobbied strongly for political issues. At its birth, 
> the primary issue of the Engineer's Club was the nationalization of 
> Mexican railways. On the eve of the revolution, Rolland attached 
> great importance to state ownership of communication and 
> infrastructure systems, identifying Mexican ownership of key 
> resources with national sovereignty.  
> The election year of 1909-10 showcased the first significant 
> challenge to Díaz's rule in decades. A liberal-minded _hacendado_ 
> from Coahuila, Francisco Madero, won the nomination of the Partido 
> Antirreeleccionista party in 1908. Risking the security of his own 
> social advancement under Porfirian rule in Mexico City, Rolland, 
> along with other government functionaries and prominent 
> intellectuals, also joined the Anti-Reelectionist Party. By 
> corruption and force, Díaz won the 1910 election, but he was forced 
> to flee Mexico after Madero successfully staged a rebellion from 
> Texas. By June 1911 Madero's moderate liberal and nationalist ticket 
> controlled the presidency and Mexico.  
> When General Victoriano Huerta ousted Madero in a coup in February 
> 1913, Rolland found himself in a tricky position. Rolland had openly 
> supported Madero during the Ten Tragic Days leading to his fall from 
> power and execution. When he returned to deliver classes at the 
> Military College afterward, he told his students that under Huerta 
> "they would be the instrument of a traitor to shed the blood of 
> Mexicans" (p. 38). Fired almost immediately from his job, he was 
> placed in solitary confinement by Huerta's forces for one month. 
> Rolland emerged shaken from his experience; his security under Huerta 
> was only assured through the intercession of powerful friends. But 
> his business suffered, and he fled Mexico for the United States, 
> leaving behind his wife and four children.  
> From his base in New York City, Rolland directed the Mexican Bureau 
> of Information. The bureau essentially functioned as a propaganda 
> outlet for the Constitutionalist faction opposing Huerta's usurpation 
> of power. Undermining the push to invade Mexico made by William 
> Randolph Hearst in his newspapers, Rolland and another colleague sent 
> reports about Mexico to over five hundred newspapers across the US, 
> seeking to shape coverage of Mexico and influence popular opinion and 
> political will against US intervention. After the 
> Constitutionalist-Conventionalist split at the Convention of 
> Aguascalientes on November 9, 1914, Rolland allied himself firmly 
> with the Constitutionalists and Venustiano Carranza. Castro sees 
> Rolland's work for Carranza in the US as a kind of "technocratic 
> diplomacy" that usefully complements our understanding of global 
> progressivism as well as deepens our understanding of US and Mexican 
> relations during this period (p. 84). In this way, Rolland's 
> biography adds to recent work by Tore Olsson (_Agrarian Crossings: 
> Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside_ 
> [2017]), and Amy Offner (_Sorting O__ut the Mixed Economy: The Rise 
> and Fall of Welfare and Developmental States in the Americas_ [2019]) 
> about the transnational pathways and mixed public and private careers 
> of the experts who shaped policies related to economic development in 
> the Americas from the beginning until the middle of the twentieth 
> century. 
> Castro carefully builds the case for Rolland's growing importance in 
> the revolutionary state, showing how Rolland sought to shape policy 
> in areas as far apart as foreign policy to municipal reform. 
> Rolland's intervention in political debates continued to be inflected 
> by economic nationalism. While in the US, Rolland sought to influence 
> the direction of land reform, which had become the dominant issue at 
> this stage of the Mexican Revolution. He published _Distribución de 
> las tierras: Estudio sobre Nueva Zelandia, utilidad de la lección 
> para México _in September 1914. Drawing on New Zealand's 
> nationalization and establishment of an equitable rent system in the 
> late nineteenth century, Rolland did not reflect on the implications 
> of this policy for the Maori in New Zealand, nor did the sovereign 
> rights of indigenous peoples in Mexico preoccupy him. Influenced by 
> the Progressive thinker Henry George's idea of a "single land-value 
> tax," Rolland combined his engagement with global progressivism with 
> a strong desire for nationalization of key Mexican resources, 
> including arable land.  
> Except for a stint working for Governor Salvador Alvarado of Yucatán 
> during his brief administration between 1915 and 1917, Rolland never 
> really had a chance to influence the nature of agrarian reform. 
> Alvarado placed Rolland in charge of land redistribution and 
> reevaluation. Rolland "hoped this was the first step toward turning 
> poor Maya peasants into a prosperous, small-propertied class based on 
> a single land-value tax" (p. 66). The commission headed by Rolland 
> claimed by October 1916 to have distributed land to about forty 
> thousand people. Castro notes that historians from Frank Tannenbaum 
> onward have heralded the radicalness of Alvarado's rule in Yucatán. 
> Castro argues that Rolland's role in land redistribution as part of a 
> broader push to overhaul Yucatecan society shows the influence of 
> Progressivist ideas, alongside the more commonly credited ideas of 
> Andrés Molina Enríquez, in shaping the nature of agrarian reform. 
> At the same time, Rolland's brief practical work, as well as his 
> intellectual contributions, represent more of a foreclosed 
> possibility to the kind of agrarian reform that eventually took shape 
> during the revolutionary state, which emphasized communal _ejidos_ 
> and a centralized state adjudication process rather than state 
> ownership.     
> After returning to Mexico City following the end of Alvarado's 
> governorship, Rolland continued to assume a role in politics, both as 
> a state functionary and as a member of the press. Castro states that 
> during this period, Rolland's career became "chock full of examples 
> of how engineering projects and politics are intertwined." Part of 
> the reason for Rolland's longevity working for successive Mexican 
> presidents--who did not always agree with each other--was his uncanny 
> ability to "find ways to navigate hazardous political waters and to 
> keep himself relevant in top political circles while not appearing 
> overtly political" (p. 105). In one amusing incident, Rolland was 
> made to take the fall for President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938 for 
> ordering Juan O'Gorman to change his mural for the Mexico City 
> Airport. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Salvador Novo denounced the 
> "modest engineer" Rolland for censorship, but Castro uses this case 
> to show how functionaries like Rolland could be valuable for 
> pragmatist presidents like Cárdenas (p. 177).  
> In 1920, Rolland was appointed to the Free Ports Commission and the 
> National Agrarian Commission. The idea of establishing free 
> ports--essentially a custom- and tax-free zone--in Mexico dated to 
> the Porfiriato. Rolland's goal was to use the ports of Puerto México 
> and Salina Cruz to connect Atlantic and Pacific trade. For such a 
> committed nationalist in economic affairs, establishing free ports 
> might seem like a strange goal, especially given the importance the 
> US had long attached to finding a way to more efficiently connect the 
> Atlantic and Pacific. But, for Rolland, free ports also offered the 
> possibility of enhancing trade and general development in the 
> Tehuantepec Peninsula, another "periphery" in need of deeper 
> integration into the nation. The free ports dream expressed a 
> powerful motive regarding development in the first decades of the 
> revolutionary state: "If Mexico did not develop the region for itself 
> and for those foreign capitalists, under Mexican terms, powerful 
> foreigners might attempt to take control of the isthmus" (p. 125). 
> The free ports plan failed to connect Tehuantepec in the way Rolland 
> had hoped, although it took until the 1950s for the project to 
> completely peter out. But already by the 1940s, Rolland had ceased to 
> reject US involvement in the free ports, coming around to the 
> idea--much like the post-Cárdenas presidents--that the role of the 
> Mexican state may not always come down to state ownership, but rather 
> a formula that weighed "Mexican development and sovereignty against 
> the desires of its powerful neighbor" (p. 195). In this balance of 
> interests, the state emerged as a broker between foreign and national 
> capital. 
> Notably absent in this balance of interest between the Mexican and US 
> states are "locals." Instead, the rise of technocratic expertise 
> within Mexican state-led development from the 1920s to the 1950s, as 
> told through the story of Rolland, exposes the contradictions of 
> capitalist integration and political centralization in this period. 
> In Salina Cruz, expensive dredging machines dreamed up by Rolland 
> turned into symbols of corruption, not the triumph of expertise and 
> scientific state-making. Nicknamed the "white elephant" by locals and 
> "the mansion of Salina Cruz," the "strange, massive structure" drew 
> rumors of corruption. Although Castro places doubt on some of the 
> accusations of corruption by local union leaders, he notes that 
> accusations leveled by union leaders and residents "appear to have 
> come from frustration about being excluded and forced to deal with 
> changes they had not desired" (p. 226). The state and the idea of 
> national sovereignty was not always on the same side as locals in 
> these development projects. The state was emerging, as it did in the 
> Porfiriato, as a broker with foreign investors.  
> Castro's biography of Rolland amply demonstrates the utility of 
> biography for charting shifts in the role of science in state-making 
> during and after the Mexican Revolution. Rolland's actions on behalf 
> of Mexican sovereignty over railroads in the waning years of the 
> Porfiriato comes full circle when he invited US investment in the 
> free ports in the 1940s. The hubristic notion that imported science 
> provided all the answers for integrating and modernizing peripheries 
> that Rolland acquired as a burgeoning _científico_ during the same 
> period also marks the way he steamrolled over local opinion in the 
> free ports project. This may be one of Castro's most useful 
> contributions: to link the role of science in Porfirian and 
> revolutionary state-making projects. But rather than suggesting a 
> neat story of increasing importance of science, Rolland's life shows 
> how technical expertise and intellectual thought were molded both by 
> raw ambition and the imperatives of capitalist integration. Castro's 
> biography of Rolland not only satisfies the questions it sets out to 
> answer but also leaves on the table many questions about the links 
> between expertise and capitalism in state-led development in the 
> twentieth century. 
> Citation: Joshua Mentanko. Review of Castro, J. Justin, _Apostle of 
> Progress: Modesto C. Rolland, Global Progressivism, and the 
> Engineering of Revolutionary Mexico_. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. 
> November, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54481
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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