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Lombardo Toledano’s Struggles in the World of Labor

Summary and Keywords

Vicente Lombardo Toledano was born into a prosperous family in 1894 in Teziutlán, Puebla, and died in Mexico City in 1968. His life is a window into the history of the 20th century: the rise and fall of the old regime; the Mexican Revolution and the transformations that the revolution made in society; the intellectual and social reconstruction of the country under new parameters that included the rise of the labor movement to political prominence as well as the intervention of the trade unions in the construction and consolidation of the state; the dispute over the course of the nation in the tumultuous 1930s; and the configuration of the political and ideological left in Mexico. Lombardo Toledano’s life and work illustrate Mexico’s connections with the world during the Second World War and the Cold War.

Lombardo Toledano belonged to the intellectual elite of men and women who considered themselves progressives, Marxists, and socialists; they believed in a bright future for humanity. He viewed himself as the conscious reflection of the unconscious movement of the masses. With unbridled energy and ideological fervor, he founded unions, parties, and newspapers. During the course of his life, he adhered to various beliefs, from Christianity to Marxism, raising dialectical materialism to the level of a theory of knowledge of absolute proportions in the same fashion that he previously did with idealism. In life, he aroused feelings of love and hate; he was the object of royal welcomes and the target of several attacks; national and international espionage agencies did not let him out of their sight. He was detained in and expelled from several countries and prevented from visiting others. Those who knew him still evoke his incendiary oratorical style, which others remember as soporific. His admirers praise him as the helmsman of Mexican and Latin American workers; others scorn the means he used to achieve his goals as opportunist.

Lombardo Toledano believed that the Soviet Union had achieved a future that Mexico could not aspire to imitate. Mexico was a semifeudal and semicolonial country, hindered by imperialism in its economic development and the creation of a national bourgeoisie, without which it could not pass on to the next stage in the evolution of mankind and without which the working class and peasantry were doomed to underdevelopment. In his interpretation of history, the autonomy of the subordinate classes did not enter into the picture; rather it was the intellectual elites allied with the state who had the task of instilling class consciousness in them. No matter how prominent a personality he was in his time, today few remember the maestro Vicente Lombardo Toledano, despite the many streets and schools named after him. However, the story of his life reveals the vivid and contradictory history of the 20th century, with traces that remain in contemporary Mexico.

Keywords: Lombardo Toledano, Workers Confederation of Mexico, Confederation of Latin American Workers, Cold War

The Making of a Public Intellectual

Not until the enactment of the 1917 Constitution and the new state’s assumption of its functions did Lombardo Toledano begin to reflect on his own role in the reconstruction of Mexico. In 1919 he graduated from the National School of Law with a thesis entitled “Public law and the new philosophical currents,” a kaleidoscopic journey into ideas of philosophers of the past two centuries and recent sociologists. He pointed to the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as the most important document of the 19th century because his teacher, the venerable Antonio Caso, had indicated so without inviting the students to read it. Based on a confusing array of ideas that Lombardo Toledano studied, and inspired by his teacher, he put forward an idealistic synthesis of the world. Ideas gave rise to social movements, and social movements sparked new ideas that explained such movements and foresaw their consequences. His nodal idea, which he was never to abandon, was the centrality of the State, which in his moralizing vision he conceived as a school of virtue with therapeutic functions for the historical evils of Mexico.1

The study of jurisprudence taught Lombardo that the state’s mission was to make laws that protected the personality of men, uniting them in a social interdependence. But he was concerned that the law as a set of rules was not necessarily ethical and that the social and political reality of postrevolutionary Mexico was so variegated that the mere fulfillment of the law did not ensure an acceptable standard of life. In November 1921 Lombardo Toledano took charge of the department of libraries of the Public Education Ministry and participated in the literacy crusade conducted in isolated rural areas, in need of “civilization.” While Minister José Vasconcelos wanted to flood the country with works of classical literature and brochures on practical crafts, Lombardo Toledano took it upon himself arranged with a manifest zeal for the literature to be sold in train cars. Education was a mission. Such was his reputation that the venerable professor Antonio Caso recommended him to Vasconcelos for the position of director of the National Preparatory School in 1922.2

The director’s goal extended beyond changing the curriculum. He insisted that the encyclopedic teaching methodology that the school provided should give way to practical instruction. Manual work should accompany theoretical subjects, and the number of subjects should be reduced to improve their quality. The teachers had to submit to competitive examinations to be the head or chair of a department. Since its origins, Lombardo had been an active member of the Mexican Regional Workers Confederation (CROM), founded in 1918 under the state’s auspices, and he believed that elite students should be brought into contact with workers. Vasconcelos had given Lombardo total freedom to do as he thought fit, but he soon began to chafe at what he called the “workerism” of the director. In 1923 the minister expelled Lombardo together with the students and the teachers that had sided with him (only to be forced to resign himself soon after).

Lombardo Toledano, who believed deeply in the regeneration of Mexico as a long-term process, was disciplined and without economic ambitions; his lifestyle and way of thinking were different from most of the politicians of the time. Convinced that he had a civilizing mission and a strong will to fulfill it, he did not measure the costs or consequences. He did not seek government appointments or elected office as an end in itself but as a means to achieve the objectives that he pursued in each historical moment. He was always certain that only the state could redeem working people from their prostration and lack of education and land, from bad politicians and rulers, and from the decrepit past. New ideas bounced around in his head. In addition to confronting domestic problems, he challenged Pan-Americanism, the policy of U.S. domination of the hemisphere, which he saw as equivalent to imperialism.

Lombardo Toledano never lacked options for earning a living. After he was expelled from directing the National Preparatory School at almost thirty-five years of age, he returned to the National School of Law and the National Preparatory School to teach ethics. He was convinced that Mexican schooling must be ideologically oriented, working for the acceptance and understanding of the concept of property as a social function, against the individualistic theory, and sustain the principles in relation to labor and agrarian questions on which the Mexican Revolution was based. It was necessary to achieve a single concept of life given the heterogeneity of the population, unify education throughout the country “with a single technical criterion and one social vision.”3

By 1925, Lombardo had adopted a materialistic worldview at which he arrived through selective readings of Marxist interpretations of history, without ever becoming a member of the Mexican Communist Party. In 1931 at a session of the university council he waged a battle against those teachers and students “who still believe that the university should be this neutral thing in relation to scientific ideas, political ideas, human ideas,” claiming that anarchy reigned in the university because it had no ideological principles or political definition. The university should be socialist to serve the working class and not “an institution that teaches universal culture and that lacks ideology.”4 Knowing that he would be expelled from the university, he defended his ideas in public debates with eminent opponents, including his former mentor Antonio Caso.5

National Labor Leader and Organizer

Lombardo Toledano joined the CROM as an intellectual and a university professor to promote culture beyond the narrow confines of the middle class and to make contacts with the workers to teach them his vision of socialism, justice, democratic institutions, popular education and labor associations. In addition to state intervention and enforcement of laws, the emancipation of the working class required practical and ideological education. Lombardo understood this as teaching reading and writing to those who did not have such skills, and as providing classes on the socialist movement, physical education, techniques for effective work and the future direction of industry, the art of speaking, leading assemblies and drafting propaganda for those interested in such cultural manifestations. Probably on his initiative, in 1922 the CROM’s first labor education school was established, which in November 1924 became the education committee and workers’ college.

Lombardo Toledano had an unshaken belief in the progress that depended on the modernization of industries and on increased productivity through scientific organization and management, which, however, did not contradict his equally firm belief in the class struggle, which he understood to develop in three stages. The third, and that of his time, involved the participation or intervention of the working class in the running of companies. If he recalled Marx’s concept of surplus value—surplus labor expropriated by capital—he did so more as part of the history of ideas than as the creator of consciousness and the driving force of class struggle. He did not view it as an epistemological problem to explain the origin of capital accumulation. The Marxism that he professed brought together liberal humanism, trade unionism, and an undefined socialism; his denunciation of capitalism was of a moral character because it was a regime based on the exploitation of labor. The solution was the organization of the working masses under one ideological banner because society had changed to the extent that individual wishes crystallized in manifestations of collective life.

As a lawyer, Lombardo Toledano had confidence in the virtues of the existing legal system. As a politician, he knew that laws were not abided by, or were compiled halfheartedly and that to face the strength of the employers it was necessary to compensate for the weakness of legal institutions through the power of the unions and collective bargaining agreements. By union power, he understood the scaffolding that allowed unions to force compliance with laws rather than workers’ democracy, which he understood as labor’s autonomy and independence from state institutions and individual commitment derived from the debates in assemblies. He was aware of the weakness of the unions, and the corruption and neglect that permeated the political environment in the states and in the capital. All of these motivated him to use the levers of the state—the president, the governors, and ministers—to resolve what the institutions did not have the capacity or willingness to resolve.6

Lombardo Toledano was familiar with the precarious conditions of the workers and had a view on how to improve their lives, but his references to the Mexican Revolution did not appear to be a guide to action but rather a call to adhere to the regime that emanated from the revolution. He thought he understood the world, knew the history of Mexico and labor problems, and therefore took upon himself the right to represent the workers. Several unions did give him such a role, due to his knowledge of labor legislation that he helped them understand, despite his lack of direct relationship to the world of labor. If a company or an employer did not recognize their union, however, knowledge of the law was of little use.

In November 1928, Lombardo participated in the government-led labor-management convention on behalf of the CROM to advocate the making of labor law as federal legislation and for enacting what is known as secondary legislation, further defining and amending the main laws with the aim of closing the gap between norms and reality. The labor law was passed in August 1931. The CROM objected to the legislation because it restricted the right to strike by adding a clause, not included in the 1917 Constitution, declaring a strike nonexistent when it was not supported by the majority of workers in a company or when the strike call filed with the labor authorities did not comply with the corresponding procedural conditions. The right of the trade unions to exclusively represent workers in an industry or factory was not clearly spelled out, and many of the rights that workers had acquired in practice were lost. The federal law instituted guardianship over and greater interference by the executive branch in labor relations and internal union affairs, compared to the old state legislation. Nor did the new law prioritize collective bargaining between unions and employers or mandate obligatory union affiliation of the workforce or contain stringent stipulations governing the dismissal of employees.7

In September 1932, Lombardo resigned from the CROM. The passing of the labor law demonstrated its diminished influence among the labor unions, which the government could easily ignore, but it also showed the fundamental ideological discrepancies between him and the CROM’s leadership. Supported by various leaders and unions in Mexico City and in Puebla, Querétaro, and Veracruz, along with the electrical workers, in October he founded the General Confederation of Workers and Peasants of Mexico (CGOCM). Its discourse was radical: it would act “against the bourgeois regime” and for “the disappearance of the capitalist regime.” Direct action was understood “as the removal of all intermediaries between workers and employers.” But not all the leaders who created the CGOCM agreed with Lombardo Toledano’s assertion that it would be an instrument based on radical political doctrine.8

By then, Lombardo Toledano had contemplated the creation of a major worker and peasant confederation on a national scale. The CGOCM was a powerful organization, but it did not control the Mexico City federation of workers, the textile unions in Puebla and Orizaba, Veracruz. Estimates of its numerical strength ranged from 20,000 to 200,000 members, depending on whether the statistics came from the organization itself or the Department of Labor. Trade unions representing rail and oil workers, miners, and electricians—national in scope but fragmented in regional locals—in addition to telephone workers and truck drivers represented most of the organized working class that Lombardo planned to unite under the same banner. The new organization needed strength so that the government would recognize it as an indispensable partner in designing state policies.9

Working class unity was Lombardo Toledano’s watchword to create an organization that would be a bulwark against the opposition to the creation of trade unions, a strategic weapon to influence the government and employers. With these ideas in mind, Lombardo and his allies—the Mexican Communist Party’s labor confederation, the industrial unions as well as the regional federations—founded the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) in February 1936. There was general agreement about his becoming its general secretary. The confederation was blessed with the total support of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). To project labor’s strength and to be recognized in the United States by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations and in Europe by the International Federation of Trade Unions and the International Labour Organization, Lombardo planned to internationalize labor union relations.

International Labor Leader and Organizer

A hemispheric confederation was the dream of trade unionists since the 1920s, mostly to improve their living conditions with reforms rather than structural changes. However, achieving such ends involved overcoming many obstacles. The level of labor organization differed between countries such as Argentina and Nicaragua. Countries that were exporters of raw materials had different working classes than nations with large manufacturing industries. Those with illiterate indigenous populations differed from those with European immigrants with various trades under their belt. In addition, there were also differences in terms of the relations between labor organizations and political parties and governments. Obtaining concessions from the state was so difficult and costly that in exchange the trade unions and confederations were obliged to support populist and reformist politicians. Once they were part of the reformist regime, many trade unionists preferred to remain within the system, not confronting dominant parties so as not to lose the gains that had been achieved. The governments also needed them as a counterweight to the opposition of the oligarchies, the military and outside interests, and to carry out development policies for the benefit of society, to a greater or lesser extent in an atmosphere of social peace.

The conditions of the second half of the 1930s were conducive to launching the desired continental confederation once the population recovered from the economic depression; it was also facilitated by the adoption of the left parties’ Communist-supported line of broad popular fronts together with the governments’ commitment to economic nationalism as a dike to contain domestic and foreign reactionary forces. Achieving this was a feat.10

For a sector of the labor movement and the Latin American left, Mexico was the shining light and hope for a soon-to-be-achieved liberation. When Lázaro Cárdenas announced the expropriation of the oil industry in March 1938, workers, students and leftist parties congratulated him from the most far flung corners of the continent. The expropriation boosted the fame of Mexico, its president and Lombardo Toledano. With the shadows of war hovering over Spain and threatening the spread of fascism in Europe, the atmosphere was conducive for Lombardo’s appeal for continent-wide workers unity to get a hearing.

The founding of the CTM in February 1936 was the occasion to call for the creation of the Latin American Workers’ Confederation (CTAL), Lombardo Toledano’s hemispheric project. Committed to the formation of an international system, through the CTM he aspired to change the balance of power between the working class and the Mexican state. Through the CTAL he sought to alter the relationship of forces both within and between states and nations, thus changing the rules and ways in which states and society interact with each other. The CTAL was finally created in September 1938 in Mexico City after Lombardo Toledano? toured the United States and European countries to invite interested parties and make its foundation a world event at the time of approaching war. Lombardo brought to Mexico prominent labor leaders of the Western Hemisphere and Europe as well as some powerful unions.

Lombardo Toledano expected that the Latin American Trade Union Confederation would become the world’s largest labor organization. He went as far as delegating the presidency of the CTM to Fidel Velázquez in 1941 to be free to devote all his time and effort to oversee its operations on the ground. However, after the CTAL’s foundation in 1938, the obstacles to its becoming the leading factor in promoting class peace in Latin America came from many quarters. From its inception, the American Federation of Labor was bent on its destruction because the CTAL was allied with the AFL’s rival CIO, which gained a foot in Latin America that the AFL had lost in the 1920s. The other obstacle was the Second World War and its economic and political exigencies, which included the subordination of labor unions and leaders. The United States believed that because it was enduring the most war effort, it deserved the sacrifice of the subsidiary countries to its war economy. Behind the Good Neighbor policy under U.S. leadership against a common enemy, there was underlying concern that the Axis powers would not be able to halt the production and shipping of vital raw materials. Washington’s war machine could only operate on the condition that it had access to Latin America’s mineral deposits. Ensuring the supply of these materials from their countries of origin—and thus the cooperation of their working classes—had to be maintained at all costs, as well their extraction and shipping.11

Lombardo shared the concerns voiced by the United States, without whose military machine the defeat of Nazi fascism was unthinkable. The war contingencies taught him that to think of the CTAL as an instrument exclusively of trade unionism was to think like “our grandparents.” If workers did not get involved in the solution of national and international problems, they would be condemned “to play a romantic, sad and miserable role, to be content with the crumbs thrown their way, with work contracts that the bourgeoisie rips to shreds within five minutes after a strike.”12

However, for workers a greater danger than fascism was the danger of hunger, their subordination to employers and brutal labor exploitation, the lack of union democracy, no respect whatsoever for the law and limits on democratic participation in each country’s political and social life. But Lombardo conceived the solution of local problems within his global strategy. When the end of the war was in sight after the defeat of the powerful German military forces at Stalingrad in 1943, fascism was about to be defeated, and the Soviet Union, the homeland of socialism and guarantor of the future for the rest of humanity, appeared invincible. The project for the postwar period was the industrial revolution in unity with workers, farmers, industrialists, technicians, and bankers. It was necessary to destroy the feudal past and to “open the doors of Latin America to foreign capital, on the condition that it be a force that could contribute to the progress of the people.”13

Despite such optimistic visions, the decline in real wages at the end of the war sparked strikes demanding salary increases in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, pressuring these respective governments to improve the living conditions of workers and expand citizenship rights. The working class insurgency was contrary to what the governments and Lombardo expected for the success of the great project that depended on labor submission to regulate labor relations and create a friendly environment for the participation of national and foreign capital.14

Combatant on the Cold War Front at Home

Lombardo felt that the historical moment required that “the positive work done by the country’s progressive industrialists, bankers and businessmen” be extolled since Mexico’s industrialization and modernization depended on them, as was also the case for improved living standards and the opening of new domestic and regional markets. The previous years had shown the benefits derived from spending on public work projects, land reform, and wage increases, measures that, taken together, tended to revive domestic demand. Lombardo’s position on the country’s postwar development was demonstrated by his support for the signing of the worker–industrial pact in April 1945 to achieve the sovereignty and independence of the nation with the participation of all the factors of production and all the actors. It was viewed as the continuation of the “cooperation” of workers and industrialists in the postwar period, with the immediate goal of the control of inflation, which averaged 17.8% during the war years, and the creation of an attractive environment for domestic and foreign investment. In the U.S. embassy there was a sigh of relief because the labor movement did not seek the destruction of capitalism.15

The presidential candidate that Lombardo believed was to safeguard his postwar plans for state–labor relations was Miguel Alemán Valdés, his former student at the National Preparatory School and at the School of Law and Jurisprudence. Alemán, once governor of Veracruz and interior minister in the administration of President Ávila Camacho, was pleased with Lombardo Toledano’s agitation in favor of his candidacy, almost a year before the election and still without campaigning underway. But Lombardo’s predilection for the Soviet Union and his anti-imperialist stance were uncomfortable and could affect the credibility of Aleman’s candidacy. Privately, he insisted that Lombardo would have no influence in his government and that in case of a clash between the two world powers, he would be on the side of U.S. security, in the same way that General Cárdenas and President Ávila Camacho had been during the war.16

The elections of July 7, 1946, involved bitterly fought races for congressional deputy and senate seats. Alemán won the presidential elections and Lombardo Toledano, who had campaigned on his behalf, emerged strengthened. Believing in his role as an arbiter in national and international political arenas, Lombardo set out to found the People’s Party, not as a body of opposition but to legitimize his standing. However, the projected party was fiercely opposed by the renovated state party, which was founded in 1929 (and refounded in 1938 to directly incorporate organized urban and rural labor), in 1946 had become the Party of Institutionalized Revolution (PRI). The foundation of another party had a profound impact on the leadership of the CTM, whose political and economic livelihood depended on the subsidies and patronage from the government. In January 1948, the CTM national council expelled Lombardo, its founder, for lack of discipline. Several circumstances explain it: Lombardo never severed links to the labor unions, dividing the unions’ loyalties between him and the CTM; his extolling of the Soviet Union as the harbinger of the future for humankind was also unacceptable. Even though the PRI put pressure on the leaders of the CTM to reject the project of the Lombardo’s party, Lombardo was careful to exonerate the president and the PRI of any responsibility for his expulsion.17

Lombardo’s political maneuvering could not alter the economic crisis that was affecting workers’ wages to such an extent that manufacturing output could not find a domestic market. Campesino-based agriculture languished and industrialization was threatened by the onslaught of industrial imports from the United States, which Mexican industries could not compete against, often closing their doors. The lack of revenue affected construction and investment plans. The government’s response to the labor unrest, reacting to a fragmented trade union movement, corrupt higher echelons, and locals of the oil and railroad worker unions wracked by internal divisions, was to impose progovernment leaders to discipline the workforce, minimize work stoppages and strikes over unmet demands, increase productivity, accelerate the pace of work without boosting wages, and create an attractive labor environment for domestic and foreign investors in machinery and industrial infrastructure.

Charrismo was the name given to the ongoing practice in labor unions of using government-backed coercion and violence to maintain discipline. The origin of the term came from the leader imposed by the government in the railway workers’ union against the will of its members in 1948, Jesús Díaz de León, who liked to wear a charro, cowboy-type suit. Charrismo helped the CTM in 1948, and thereafter, imposed union leaders subordinate to and at the service of the state and to function as the political instrument of the ruling party. The CTM was reduced to about 200,000 members by 1948 after losing 600,000 who went to other labor confederations or remained as union locals without affiliation and whose insurgency would reemerge in subsequent decades.18

True, Mexico enjoyed a remarkable growth during the 1950s. Not only did the population jump from 20 million in 1940 to 36 million in 1960, with an annual increase in the birth rate of 3.3%, but the gross national product grew between 1940 and 1960 at the equivalent of 6.4% annually. Manufacturing output went up as did industrial production. The growth of the middle class was expressed in opportunities for mobility and well-being. This economic progress was coupled with an apparent political stability. But a series of problems—such as the monopolization of political power, fraudulent elections, intolerance of union democracy, land distribution proceeding at a snail’s pace, the growth or concealment of large landed estates, and disparities in social inequality caused by economic growth—provided fertile ground for opposition to the government.19

Lombardo knew that the problem of worker discontent was charrismo, the strong-arm and antidemocratic labor bureaucracy, but when a major railroad conflict erupted in 1958 in the middle of Adolfo López Mateos’ presidential election campaign, he dissociated the conflict from the regime that had generated, maintained, and reaffirmed it. The railroad workers demanded an increase in their dwindling wages. The negotiations between the salary commission and the union leadership resulted in the recommendation that wages be increased to 350 pesos a month. The union’s general secretary Samuel Ortega reduced the figure to 200 pesos and the company’s position was not to resolve the issue until after the July elections. In response, rank-and-file leader Demetrio Vallejo—member of the PCM from 1934 until his expulsion in 1945—who had been part of the salary commission, proposed staggered work stoppages as a protest measure. The government relented and increased the wage to 215 pesos. But the railroad workers were not satisfied. They wanted the proposed increase to 350 pesos, the restoration of union democracy violated since 1948 with the imposition of charro leaders, and Vallejo as their general secretary.20

Under such pressure, Vallejo was elected secretary general of the railroad workers’ union. On his travels throughout the country, local by local, he called for a reduction in union dues, the creation of cooperatives that would serve the workers, decreasing the salaries of union leaders, the right of retirees to vote in union elections, improved working conditions through a new collective bargaining agreement, thinning the company bureaucracy, increasing the rates charged for shipping minerals, and fighting the high cost of living. Along the way, Vallejo uncovered countless violations of labor standards and supported requests from railroad workers to address the problems that were never attended to by the company.21 But the government did not tolerate opposition, and in the spring of 1959 cracked down on the railroad workers and imprisoned Vallejo.

Lombardo judged the dispute not on the correctness of the demands raised by the workers, whose union independence was violated by the labor authorities when they refused to recognize the democratically elected leaders, but rather by the destabilizing effect the conflict could have on the country. The participation of communists in the leadership of the union added to his concern. The railroad workers’ strike, he asserted, “seriously endangered the democratic life of the nation” and compromised “Mexico’s international relations.” The rail conflict “was taken advantage of by the most pernicious foreign imperialist and reactionary domestic forces to advance their plans to infiltrate the country’s public life.”22 Neither Lombardo nor the government was prepared for the awakening of civil society that took place in the late 1950s after years of unfulfilled demands and violation of its rights. The violence against the workers was unacceptable from the human and political point of view, yet Lombardo had to defend the state. He was aware of the sensibility of the U.S. government when its interests were threatened and when it labeled the danger with the epithet of radicalism, communism and the weakness of the authorities.23

Combatant on the Cold War Front Abroad

The AFL was determined to destroy the CTAL since the founding of the Latin American confederation in 1938. Even so, the Good Neighbor policy and the obligatory cooperation required between the hemispheric north and south during the war represented obstacles. But when President Roosevelt’s initiatives were dismantled after the war and his death in April 1945, U.S. policy returned to its interventionist model of the interwar period. From that point on, in conjunction with the State Department, policies that were previously applied semisecretly were now conducted in the open.

Lombardo was aware of the AFL’s preparations to create an organization in opposition to the CTAL. Through its envoy in Latin America, Serafino Romualdi, the AFL set out to organize an Inter-American Confederation of Workers (known by its Spanish initials CIT). While its explicit purpose was to combat communism, the implicit aim was to ensure a labor movement that would favor the conditions for the expansion of U.S. capital, companies and trade, lay the groundwork for collaboration between north and south on the basis of the terms set by the United States. Many politicians, governments, and union leaders resented the very blatant participation of Washington in the formation of the CIT, suspecting that its aim was to control the hemispheric labor movement. The conference took place thanks to the enormous funding from the AFL and the logistical support of U.S. diplomats in the different countries of the region.24

On January 10, 1948, at the Lima municipal theater, the CIT was created. It included several unions from the United States and Canada, rejected the participation of the communists and accepted the socialists because they were largely anticommunist. The Inter-American Confederation of Workers claimed to be committed to democracy, but the events that accompanied its birth and its first steps as an organization clouded that purpose. Political questions and the persecution of trade unionists by several governments came to permeate the organization and made the trade unionists’ aspirations incompatible with the promises of democracy and freedom of action in the new organization.

Lombardo was not prepared for the changes in the political configuration that were occurring in Latin America. With the exception of Guatemala, the rest of the region moved away from the ideal of a hemisphere united under one banner to control the economic forces adverse to the workers in accordance with his plan. The CTAL was the organization that he assigned the task of integrating the labor movement in Mexico and Latin America in the global movement. He expected that it would tip the balance of international relations toward ideological, political, and economic positions in line with those of the Soviet Union and contrary to the world domination by the United States. But it was not to be so.

At the end of November 1949, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) was founded in London to contest the Soviet-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions created in 1945, with Lombardo as one of the vice presidents. The ICFTU was expanded liberal democracy throughout the world with institutions that promoted values, such as the respect for representative democracy and the law; protected individual rights and socio-economic progress in the free market environment; and ensured economic growth, interdependence among nations, and therefore peace. Regional integration projects were one of its core goals to achieve global cooperation. The AFL promoted the new confederation. Latin American delegates were present at its foundation but rejected the AFL’s call for an aggressive struggle against communism, since this label was used by their governments to justify the attacks on the working class and was irrelevant to counter the existing military dictatorships.25

The regional organization of the ICFTU, Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (known by its Spanish acronym, ORIT), came into existence in 1951 in Mexico City. The decision to select Mexico was an attempt at a show of force vis-a-vis the CTAL. The unions under communist influence and those controlled by nondemocratic governments such as Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic were not invited. The CTM rejected the dominant voice of the North Americans at the expense of the Latin Americans, pressured for Mexico to be ORIT’s headquarters and a Mexican its president. The CTM’s motions were overruled, Havana was chosen as the seat, and the Mexicans did not join the organization. After Fulgencio Batista seized power in Cuba in March 1952, the changed circumstances were conducive to moving the confederation’s headquarters to Mexico and for the CTM to join the organization. But a few years into its functioning the balance sheet of the ORIT’s work was mixed. The dictatorships persisted and new labor confederations emerged that did not affiliate to either the ORIT or the CTAL.

As of 1958, Latin America began to experience political earthquakes. In January, the Venezuelan dictatorship fell. The victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 shook the world. With the fall of the Batista dictatorship, the July 26 Movement and Fidel Castro gradually took control of the trade unions in Cuba. Soon after, Lombardo knew that the CTAL was about to die and that there were plans to create a new organization under the Cuban leadership with Soviet support. The CTAL, which had played an important role between 1938 and 1945, influenced the emergence of trade unions in eleven countries with 4 million members, and held four congresses, now lost most of its affiliated labor confederations.

The Cuban revolution shifted the center of gravity of the Latin American labor movement toward the unions not aligned with any international federation, strengthened the nationalism of some trade unionists, and radicalized the nationalism of others. The desertion and attacks against the CTAL ended in its dissolution in 1963, which diminished the relevance of Lombardo Toledano nationally and internationally. From then on, at 69 years of age, he abandoned the international scene entirely and dedicated his endeavors to representing his party in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies and writing weekly articles for the journal Siempre! And in 1968, in the final year of his life, he went on a campaign denouncing vigorously the student insurrection in France, and called the Prague Spring—the attempt at humanizing socialism in Czechoslovakia in opposition to the decades-long Soviet domination—the hidden hand of imperialism. In the same year, he supported the Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz in crushing the student protests for fear of Mexico losing its sovereignty to that same enemy.26

Lombardo Toledano fought for what he believed in to the end of his life, which occurred on November 16, 1968. A dogmatic Marxist, he did not understand Marxism as a critique of political economy (as explained in Das Kapital) but rather as a philosophy and ideology adopted by Lenin and adapted by Stalin to the Soviet regime reduced to the unilineal development of the transitions from the slave through to the feudal, the capitalist, and the socialist society. Lombardo rejected the ideas of contemporary Marxist thinkers such as Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson, Herbert Marcuse, and Wright Mills, because criticisms of the Soviet system flowed from their analysis.27

The state was not the subject of his research nor was the historical experience of socialism. He embraced the theory of the transition from capitalism to socialism through the development of the productive forces and the advent of the proletariat, whose liberation was linked to national liberation and the anti-imperialist struggle of the Latin American peoples for their autonomy, led by the state, by the “national” bourgeoisie and the national parties. He did not believe in the theory that held that the revolutionary action of the proletariat of the metropolis would be the axis of the world revolution, or that the oppressed masses in the dependent countries would carry out their own emancipation. Socialism was not only an ideology and a political movement, but a transcendental moral force that would reach Mexico and Latin America as an expansive wave that radiated its strength from the Soviet Union. He had abandoned Catholicism at some point in his youth, but did not become the atheist he claimed to be; Marxism, which would govern the new society (with the great sages like torches illuminating humanity), became his secular theology.

Discussion of the Literature

The studies on Lombardo Toledano and his work fill several shelves.28 The books devoted to extolling his life have created the myth of the hero and perpetuated the belief in the validity of his thought to illuminate the problems of the present. In the 1960s, he was interviewed by the American historian James Wilkie and his Guatemalan wife Edna Monzon, who came to Mexico to consult with several leading figures who played an active role in the Mexican Revolution and the political life of the country. Since the result of this research, México visto en el siglo xx, entrevistas de historia oral, was first published in 1969, historians have based their narratives on what the interviewee told the Wilkies without questioning his intent.29 It was hardly noticeable that Lombardo Toledano had airbrushed some episodes of his life to project them not as they actually happened but as he would have wanted them to occur and how he wanted history to remember them. He denied that subjectivity and personal relationships had importance. When Wilkie touched on the subject, Lombardo Toledano replied “I do not want to deal with things that have absolutely no value whatsoever for me.”30 He considered personal facets of his life as accidental, because history progressed according to the inexorable laws of which he was an incarnation. History was also one of his instruments of struggle to win followers to adopt his ideas and directives. Ideas were part of his arsenal against his opponents, who lacking the breadth of his knowledge and information about the world, resorted to using diatribes that he demolished with subtleties, rhetorical twists and turns, historical references and egocentricities. Subsequent studies have enriched aspects of Lombardo’s life, but using the Wilkies’ interviews as their starting point, they have not escaped either their ideological tendency or the hyperbolic tone of the protagonist’s achievements.

Primary Sources

Lombardo’s writings, speeches and public acts, which number in the thousands, have been published in dozens of tomes by the “Vicente Lombardo Toledano” Center for Philosophical, Political and Social Studies, located on the street in the southern neighborhood of Álvaro Obregón in Mexico City that bears his name, under the editorship of Marcela Lombardo Otero, his daughter, and Raúl Gutiérrez Lombardo, his grandson. The Workers University in the historic center of Mexico City, houses his personal archives, comprising more than 1,300 boxes arranged chronologically,31 full of speeches, lectures, corridos, poems, drawings, notebooks with their respective annotations, drafts of unwritten books, thousands of letters between him and his comrades the world over and figures from the world of high politics. These sources barely touch on the intimate moments of his life. Personal letters do not allow the researcher insight into his private life; instead they reveal that he conducted himself like a poker player who did not show his cards.

To put Lombardo’s life into the national and international contexts, the personal papers need to be complemented by the Mexican national archive, Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) and its presidential branches, together with the diplomatic sources of foreign countries. Ambassadors’ and consulars’ reports are biased but constitute a unique source of information for anyone writing international history. (See the U.S. Department of State documents from the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C., and the British National Archives foreign office documents in Kew Gardens, London.) The CROM’s and the CTM’s documents are scattered in various depositories such as the AGN and Lombardo’s archive. In addition to the Mexican sources, the relevant labor archives relative to the CTAL are located in the International Labour Office in Geneva, Switzerland, The George Meany Memorial archive in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, and in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The hidden face of Lombardo’s activities can be found in Soviet repositories, in the Russian State Archive of Sociopolitical History in Moscow, Russia, in the National Archive of the Czech Republic in Prague, and in the archive of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the U.S, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Finally, newspaper collections of national and international press, ranging from El Popular to The New York Times, are a window onto the newsworthy topics and prejudices of the time.

Further Reading

Agustín, José. Tragicomedia Mexicana. Mexico City: Planeta, 2007.Find this resource:

    Alexander, Robert, and Eldon M. Parker. International Labor Organizations and Organized Labor in Latin America and the Caribbean: A History. London: Prager, 2009.Find this resource:

      Berger, Henry Weinberg. “Union Diplomacy: American Labor’s Foreign Policy in Latin America.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1966.Find this resource:

        Bergquist, Charles. Labor in Latin America. Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

          Collier Berins, Ruth, and David Collier. Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, Labor Movement and Regime Dynamics in Latin America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

            Echeverría, Mónica. Antihistoria de un luchador. Clotario Blest. Santiago, Chile: LOM, 1993.Find this resource:

              Grandin, Greg, and Gilbert M. Joseph. A Century of Revolutions: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during the Latin America’s Long Cold War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                Herrera González, Patricio Bernardo. “A favor de una patria de los trabajadores. La Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina y su lucha por la emancipación del continente, 1938–1953,” PhD diss., El Colegio de Michoacán, Mexico, 2012.Find this resource:

                  Tarcus, Horacio, dir., Diccionario biográfico de la izquierda argentina. De los anarquistas a la “nueva izquierda” (1870–1976). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Emecé, 2007.Find this resource:


                    (1.) Vicente Lombardo Toledano (hereafter VLT), “El derecho público y las nuevas corrientes filosóficas,” thesis presented to obtain his law degree at the National School of Law of the National University of Mexico, March 15, 1919, in Obra Histórico-Cronológica de Vicente Lombardo Toledano (hereafter Obra), volume I, 1917–1923 (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Filosóficos, Políticos y Sociales “Vicente Lombardo Toledano,” 1994), 55–109.

                    (2.) VLT, Definiciones sobre el derecho público, Cultura, Mexico City, 1922, in Obra I/1, 1917–1923, 187–213; VLT to Agustín Loera y Chávez, Mexico City, January 27, 1922; VLT to the general director of Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, Mexico City, January 28, 1922, Fondo Histórico Lombardo Toledano (hereafter FHLT), file 17; Engracia Loyo, “Lectura para el pueblo” in Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, coord., La educación en la historia de México (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1999), 248–256; Mary Kay Vaughan, The State, Education, and Social Class in Mexico, 1880–1928 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1982), 140–146; and VLT, “Proyecto de la Misión del Maestro Ambulante,” December 5, 1921, FHLT, file 11 and May 28, 1922, FHLT, file 22.

                    (3.) VLT, “En torno a la universidad libre,” El Universal, February 20, 1933, in Obra, II/4, 1934, 25–29; VLT, “Las conclusiones del congreso nacional de maestros,” October 2, 1929, FHLT, file 160.

                    (4.) VLT, “Discurso en el Paraninfo de la UNAM,” Mexico City, January 28, 1932, FHLT, file 195; VLT, “Sesión del Consejo Universitario,” Mexico City, September 12, 1931, FHLT, file 186; Ignacio García Téllez to VLT, Mexico City, January 29, 1932; “Maestros y alumnos al Consejo Universitario,” Mexico City, February 2, 1932; Ignacio García Téllez to VLT, Mexico City, February 13, 1932, FHLT, file 195.

                    (5.) “Breve reseña del Congreso de Universitarios Mexicanos,” Mexico City, October 1933, FHLT, file 229; Carlos Illades, “La polémica Caso-Lombardo Toledano (1933–1935),” in Alicia Mayer, coord., vol. 2, México en tres momentos: 1810–1910–2010 (Mexico City: UNAM, 2007), 335–345.

                    (6.) VLT, “El contrato sindical de trabajo,” VLT, in Obra, I/4, 1927–1928, 131.

                    (7.) Kevin J. Middlebrook, The Paradox of Revolution: Labor, the State, and Authoritarianism in Mexico (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Lorenzo Meyer, El conf1icto social y los gobiernos del maximato (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1980), 105; and Marjorie Ruth Clark, La organización obrera en México (Mexico City: ERA, 1984), 173–184.

                    (8.) “Declaración de principios de la CGOCM,” October 1933, in Obra II/4, 229, 231, 232; Francie R. Chassen de López, Lombardo Toledano y el movimiento obrero mexicano, 1917–1940 (Mexico City: Extemporáneos, 1977), 158–161.

                    (9.) VLT, “La Confederación General de Obreros y Campesinos de México,” El Universal, 8 November 1933, in Obra II/4, 235; Middlebrook, The Paradox, 358, footnote 48.

                    (10.) Jon Kofas, The Struggle for Legitimacy: Latin American Labor and the United States, 1930–1960 (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1992), 11–22; and Francisco Zapata, El sindicalismo latinoamericano (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2013), 17–72.

                    (11.) Max Paul Friedman, Nazis and Good Neighbors, The United States Campaign Against the Germans of Latin America in World War II (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2–12.

                    (12.) VLT, “Posición de la CTAL frente al imperialismo, al nazifascismo y las huelgas,” Montevideo, Uruguay, February 27, 1944, in Obra IV/13, 1944, 2.

                    (13.) VLT, “Presente y futuro de América Latina,” December 1944, in Obra, IV/15, 1944, 253–279.

                    (14.) Ian Roxborough, “La clase trabajadora urbana y el movimiento obrero en América Latina desde 1930,” in Leslie Bethell, ed., Historia de América Latina. Política y sociedad desde 1930 (Barcelona: Grijalbo Mondadori, 1999), 149–150.

                    (15.) Alfonso Guillén Zelaly, César Ortiz, and Rafael Carrillo, “Memorando sobre la revista,” Futuro, Mexico City, February 1943, FHLT, file 496; VLT to Salvador Francisco Urías, Mexico City, November 29, 1944, FHLT, file 586; B. Martha Rivero Torres, “Dos proyectos de industrialización ante la posguerra (1944–1946),” Investigación Económica 41.161 (July–September 1982): 15; and Jeffrey Bortz Los salarios industriales en la ciudad de México 1939–1975 (Mexico City: FCE, 1988) (original in English 1984), 150.

                    (16.) María Emilia Paz, Strategy, Security, and Spies: Mexico and the U.S. as Allies in World War II (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 240–244.

                    (17.) VLT, speech at the Monument to the Revolution, Mexico City, December 16, 1945, Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter AGN), Ramo Manuel Ávila Camacho, vol. 747, file 544.61/39; VLT, speech in the “Congreso constituyente del Partido Revolucionario Institucional,” Teatro Metropolitano, Mexico City, January 19, 1946, in Obra, IV/18, 1946, 70; and Soledad Loaeza, “La reforma política de Manuel Ávila Camacho,” Historia Mexicana LXIII.1 (2013): 317–320.

                    (18.) Roberto Alegre, Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 25–59; Alan Tennyson, “Downfall of Sr. Luis Gomez Z.,” Mexico City, October 4, 1948, National Archives, LAB13/541; and Jorge Basurto, La clase obrera en la historia de México. Del avilacamachismo al alemanismo, 1940–1952 (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1984), 202–222.

                    (19.) Leslie Bethell, ed., “Mexico since 1946,” in Mexico Since Independence (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 85–111; Soledad Loaeza, Clases medias y política en México: La querella escolar, 1959–1963 (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1988), 119–125; and Mary Kay Vaughan, Portrait of a Young Painter. Pepe Zúñiga and Mexico City’s Rebel Generation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 1–28.

                    (20.) Enrique Krauze, La presidencia imperial (Mexico City: Tusquets, 1997), 228–230; Marcos T. Águila, “Demetrio Vallejo: como un huizache,” in Jeffrey Bortz and Marcos T. Águila, México y el mundo del trabajo: Trabajadores, líderes y gángsters (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 2014), chapter 8.

                    (21.) Marcos Águila and Jeffrey Bortz, “Con los dientes apretados: José Revueltas ante las huelgas ferrocarrileras 1958 y 1959,” ibid., 27.

                    (22.) “Declaraciones del PP ante el conflicto obrero patronal planteado por la huelga de los trabajadores ferrocarrileros,” Mexico City, April 2, 1959, FHLT, file 1091; “Secretariado de la CTAL a López Mateos,” Mexico City, October 30, 1959, FHLT, file 1104; Demetrio Vallejo, Lecumberri Prison, Letter to Política, July 1, 1960, year 1, no. 5, 40; and Antonio Alonso, El movimiento ferrocarrilero en México, 1958/1959 (Mexico City: ERA, 1983), 156–159.

                    (23.) VLT to Lázaro Peña, Mexico City, October 21, 1958, FHLT, file 1074.

                    (24.) Kofas, The Struggle for Legitimacy, 315.

                    (25.) Magaly Rodríguez García, Liberal Workers of the World, Unite? The ICFTU and the Defence of Labour Liberalism in Europe and Latin America.1949–1969 (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 29–33, 73–79, 289–292; Anthony Carew, “Towards a Free Trade Unions Centre: The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (1949–1972),” in Marcel van der Linden, ed., The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 196–199; and John D. French, “The Laboring and Middle-Class Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. Historical Trajectories and New Research Directions,” in Global Labour History. A State of the Art, ed. Jan Lucassen (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 289–333.

                    (26.) VLT, Todos contra México. Escritos en torno al conflicto del 68 (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Filosóficos, Políticos y Sociales Vicente Lombardo Toledano, 1998).

                    (27.) Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: A Survey of Critical Theories and Debates since 1917 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 5–8.

                    (28.) Robert P. Millon, Lombardo: biografía intelectual de un marxista mexicano (Mexico City: Universidad Obrera, 1964); Gerardo Unzueta, Lombardo Toledano y el marxismo-leninismo (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Popular, 1966); Enrique Krauze, Caudillos culturales de la Revolución mexicana (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1976); Francie Chassen de López, Lombardo Toledano y el movimiento obrero mexicano. 1917–1940 (Mexico City: Extemporáneos, 1977); Lourdes Quintanilla Obregón, Lombardismo y sindicatos en América Latina (Mexico City: Fontamara, 1982); Héctor Ramírez Cuéllar, Lombardo, un hombre de México (Mexico City: El Nacional, 1992); Martín Tavira Urióstegui, Vicente Lombardo Toledano. Acción y pensamiento (Mexico City: FCE, 1999); Rosendo Bolívar Meza, Vicente Lombardo Toledano: vida, pensamiento y obra (Mexico City: Instituto Politécnico Nacional, 2005); Rosalío Hernández Beltrán, Lombardo (Mexico City: La Buena Estrella, 2007; Raúl Gutiérrez Lombardo, Lombardo mi abuelo (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Filosóficos, Políticos y Sociales “Vicente Lombardo Toledano,” 2010); and Cuauhtémoc Amezcua Dromundo, Lombardo y la CTAL (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Filosóficos, Políticos y Sociales “Vicente Lombardo Toledano,” 2012).

                    (29.) James W. Wilkie and Edna Monzón de Wilkie, México visto en el siglo XX. Entrevistas de historia oral (Mexico City: Instituto Mexicano de Investigaciones Económicas, 1969); reprinted and expanded as Frente a la Revolución Mexicana, 4 vols. (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2005).

                    (30.) Wilkie, México visto en el siglo XX, 231.

                    (31.) The archives have recently been digitized.