Neil Faulkner looks at the rise and fall of Zapatismo: revolution from below by the common people of the countryside
The distance from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, the state capital of Morelos, is less than 40 miles. But to make the journey in 1914 was to pass from one social universe to another. Mexico City was controlled by a liberal bourgeoisie of landowners, businessmen, and politicians. Cuernavaca was controlled by the Zapatistas.
All the men in Cuernavaca were wearing the white pyjamas, sombreros, and sandals of Mexico’s working people. They all looked alike. It was impossible to tell who were jefes (chiefs) and who followers. Everyone spoke the plain language of the pueblo (village). Virtually all were of pure-blooded Indian descent. Few could read or write.
The town, in short, was controlled by revolutionary campesinos (peasant-farmers). The rich had fled. The leader of the campesinos was a small farmer turned guerrilla commander called Emiliano Zapata.
Zapata personified the revolution of the Mexican campesinos. He never entirely transcended the naivety and parochialism of the pueblo. He hated the city and distrusted men in suits and shoes. ‘They’re all a bunch of bastards,’ he said of the self-serving politicians of Mexico’s governing elite. So he shunned Mexico City, national politics, and attempts to suborn him with offers of high office.
Personally incorruptible, he remained loyal through a decade of revolution to the cause of the campesinos. In return, the poor of southern Mexico idolised him. When an old woman in an isolated village was asked what she thought of him, she answered, ‘us poor mountain Indians go along hanging on tight to the tail of chief Zapata’s horse’.
The touchstone of Zapata’s politics and the agrarian revolution he led was the Plan of Ayala. Clause 6 demanded the restoration of the fields, timber, and water which had been taken from the pueblos by the rich, Clause 7 that one-third of all large estates be seized and redistributed to the landless, and Clause 8 that the entire property of counter-revolutionaries be nationalised and two-thirds of the proceeds be used to pay war pensions and indemnities to the poor.
The Plan of Ayala was a response to betrayal – the betrayal of the revolutionary hope in which many poor men had joined an armed struggle against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in 1910.
When the revolution began, Mexico was dominated by a landowning elite of Spanish colonial descent. Politics was a matter of self-serving cliques, and elections were decided by backroom deals and ballot rigging. Whatever happened, the owners of the haciendas (big estates) continued to rule.
This did not mean nothing changed in Mexico; it simply meant change always benefitted the same people. Things were in fact changing. Global demand for Mexico’s primary exports was rising, especially from the mid 1890s, and hacienda-owners were cashing in, expanding their estates, digging irrigation works, and installing new milling machines.
Standing in the way of profit was the pueblo. But the hacienda-owners had money, and the state was corrupt. They could easily get their way by hiring their own gangsters and by bribing local police and magistrates. The villagers would go to town to defend their ancient claims, and the courts would spew them back as garbage.
This was the Mexico of the Diaz dictatorship. But the regime – that of a self-interested faction grouped around an ageing autocrat – was too exclusive and unbending. When Francisco Madero, a liberal politician, challenged the Diaz dictatorship in 1910, he garnered widespread middle-class support. More importantly, when Diaz resisted, the villages exploded.
Once in power, however, Madero asked the guerrillas to disarm. He then reneged on his promises of land reform. When the campesinos protested, the countryside was flooded with armed police and federal soldiers. The class war in the Mexican countryside quickly resumed.
The central contradiction in Mexican society was that between hacienda and pueblo, between Spanish landowner and Indian peasant, between the few who were rich and the many who were not. The difference between conservative supporters of Diaz and liberal supporters of Madero was secondary.
Conservatives generally in Latin America backed dictators, were close to the Army and the Church, and drew their support mainly from more traditional sections of the ruling class like the older landowning families. Liberals favoured parliamentary government, wanted greater independence from foreign influence (especially that of the US), and drew support from business interests and the middle class.
But conservatives and liberals had far more in common than divided them: they were two wings of a single property-owning elite of Spanish descent. That is why the liberals turned on the campesinos as soon as they had got rid of Diaz.
The principal jefe in the north was the former social bandit Pancho Villa. A social bandit is an outlaw who preys on the rich and enjoys the support of the common people from whom he has sprung. In periods of crisis, social banditry can swell into an agrarian revolutionary movement, transforming a figure like Pancho Villa into a national leader.
But Villa was politically unsophisticated and somewhat opportunist. Though he never broke with the campesinos of northern Mexico, neither did he provide clear and consistent revolutionary leadership.
Zapata quickly became the principal jefe in the south. A small farmer himself, he was more firmly rooted in the pueblos than Villa, and his politics were a more faithful reflection of the aspirations of the rural poor for land, water, and security.
The resistance of Villa, Zapata, and other popular chiefs paralysed the state apparatus across much of rural Mexico, leaving its police and troops holed up in the major towns, with the surrounding countryside in rebel hands.
History then repeated itself on a higher level. Madero was murdered by one of his own generals, Victoriano Huerta, but another liberal politician, Venustiano Carranza, quickly formed a ‘Constitutionalist’ army to renew the alliance with the peasantry and resume the struggle against dictatorship.
The peasant armies of Villa and Zapata entered Mexico City in 1914. But instead of taking state power, they handed control back to the liberal bourgeoisie.
Zapata’s embodiment of the agrarian-social revolution of the Mexican pueblos was too complete. He hated the rich and the liberals. He grew wise from long experience of lies and betrayals. The Plan of Ayala exudes bitterness. It denounces Madero for his attempt ‘with the brute force of bayonets to shut up and to drown in blood the pueblos that ask, solicit, or demand from him the fulfilment of the promises of the revolution’.
Yet, in November 1914, at the moment of his greatest power, Zapata handed state authority to Carranza’s Constitutionalists, the liberal successors of Madero. Zapata was content to retire to Morelos and act as guardian of its local agrarian revolution.
Unable to imagine, let alone work to achieve, a democratic state of workers and peasants, Zapata allowed the space he and his followers had prised open at the top of Mexican society to be reoccupied by the class enemies of the pueblo. Sooner or later, when preparations were complete and the moment judged right, these enemies would counterattack to eradicate the dangerous example of Zapatismo: revolution from below by the common people of the countryside.
It took them six years. They campaigned in the north in alliance with US troops from across the border, and they soon had Villa on the run. Though guerrilla resistance continued, the northern revolutionary movement never really recovered. Villa was eventually murdered in July 1923.
The resistance in the south was more entrenched. But by the end, such was the devastation and depopulation that the Zapatista revolution was reduced to little more than dwindling guerrilla bands.
Even then, the old ‘band of brothers’ of southern revolutionary chiefs formed in 1910 held together. Some accepted amnesty, but none turned on their former comrades still in the field. And the common people, spurning rewards and threats, continued to give support to the fugitive rebels.
Zapata himself was tricked, walked into a trap, and was gunned down in April 1919. ‘Zapata having disappeared, Zapatismo has died,’ proclaimed the government commander in Morelos. ‘Zapata was simply a gangster.’
It was not quite so simple. The Zapatista chiefs formed an alliance with Alvaro Obregon and again entered Mexico City as part of a victorious army in 1920. Carranza was overthrown and assassinated. This time, determined to retain power, the liberals left the pueblos of Morelos alone. It was enough the Zapata was dead and Mexico as a whole had been made safe for capitalism.
To win, a revolution must advance, drawing ever more of the masses into the struggle, seizing state power when this becomes possible, then using this as a lever to extend the gains of the revolution and to spread it internationally. To stop, on the other hand, let along to retreat, is to allow one’s class enemies the opportunity to regroup, gather strength, and prepare a counter-attack.
The extraordinary resilience of the Zapatistas through ten years of revolution resulted in lasting gains for the people of the pueblos. But their parochialism – their belief that it was enough to make revolution in their own villages – doomed their wider vision of a world permanently and radically transformed.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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