Volume 3, Number 68
15 March 2003

Chiapas and its Historical Antecedents

Dear Friends,

Will the peasants of Chiapas (Mexico) gain their freedom and dignity though fighting undertaken by the Zapatistas? Let us look to history for the answer.

Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, boldly marched up to the horse of King Richard II, grabbed the reins and presented his demands. Like the Chiapas peasants today, English serfs had long been treated inhumanely by their lords and taxed excessively by the king. Thinking Tyler was about to attack the king, the Mayor of London cut him down. Richard, shaking with fear, promised new charters with new rights, and the peasants — rejoicing over their victory — turned and went home.

Once Richard was safely away from the peasants, however, he revoked the charters, swearing, "Villeins [serfs] ye are, and villeins ye shall remain."

I don't know how many peasants' revolts there were in Europe, but this one — together with the Jacquerie in France (1358) and the Peasants' Revolt in Germany (1525) — were the principal violent challenges to feudal Europe. The Jacquerie, in which the peasants destroyed numerous castles and killed the noble occupants, was put down with a massacre of the insurgents themselves. In Germany too, "large forces of peasants attacked castles, monasteries, and some cities, and for a while it looked as if a united revolutionary front of ordinary people might be forged" (Encyclopædia Britannica). But they too were put down with massacres and executions.

What lessons are to be learned from these experiences? Mainly, that if peasants do not have the force to overcome their "superiors," they will suffer inordinately. Usually, as in Chiapas, peasants do not have that force. There must be (or must have been) some other way.

There was another way. In feudal Japan, "mostly, rebellions were not motivated by demands to change the system. Peasants protested not the levy of taxes, but the amount; not the system of tenancy, but the terms; not the idea of private business, but its monopolies; not the fact of daimyo or shogun control over the monetary system, but their monetary policies" (from my book, Centuries of Economic Endeavor, p. 21). The institutions oppressing the peasants changed, but only gradually — over centuries.

Where change did occur in Europe, it was by the same way. The violent peasants' rebellions all failed. But "peasants allied themselves with groups that, although more powerful than themselves, nevertheless needed support in conflicts with other powerful groups. In this interchange, the power of peasants was enhanced" (from Centuries, page 49). Peasants, burdened with feudal duties, learned new crafts, formed towns, and bargained with lords for their freedom.

To summarize: when peasants tried to overthrow "the system" violently, they always lost — and suffered immensely doing so. But when they built up their own power, negotiating with lords, kings, shoguns, and emperors in competition with each other, they improved their positions, to the point that today they have much greater quality of life (and wealth) than, say, the peasants of Chiapas, who are still crushed under feudalism.

The twentieth century saw a return to the violence of the Middle Ages, just with new weaponry. In the name of the "downtrodden peasantry," Lenin and Stalin established a brutal dictatorship that killed millions to preserve their power. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 distributed land to the peasants but so burdened them with taxes, controlled prices, and restrictions on land sales and borrowing, that the land had no value. The peasants of Chiapas still do not have the land they need.

The Cuban Revolution of 1960 "gave" land to the peasants but under conditions just as onerous as in Mexico — to which Castro added the "prison" of Cuba — no right to emigrate. The Sandinista Revolution of Nicaragua burdened the new peasant landowners with such obligations that the land could earn little or nothing for them. Major properties were grabbed by the Sandinista leaders themselves. In all these cases, the government's heavy hand prevented peasants from improving their land or adopting modern agricultural technology. Except in Cuba, they could not go to school to learn something better. They have remained in poverty and ignorance.

Now for Chiapas. Led by a revolutionary intellectual who calls himself Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas are demanding an end to NAFTA and to foreign investment. Surely illiterate and undereducated peasants would not themselves have thought of such a sophisticated "foreign policy." It must have come from Marcos. Besides, these demands are impossible because they imply an overthrow of the system, which will not occur.


So, what should they do instead? Marcos and the Zapatistas (under Comandante Ester) have been negotiating with the government. But doing so will bring them little. Following the history of the Japanese ikki and European merchant towns, they would do better to capitalize on divisions among the elite, of which there are many — particularly between the traditional Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the present government, the National Action Party (PAN).

Peasants are voters, and Mexico is a democracy. Offering to support one party or the other, the Zapatistas might constitute the balance of power to swing an election. If they make enough public noise, they might even get on to a party's committee. They might demand more schools, training for better jobs, land consolidation, and better work conditions. (Some of this they did bargain for, under the PRI).

They should not listen to Subcomandante Marcos, who says he holds their interests at heart but who, like Stalin and Castro, clearly seeks power for himself. He says he does not want to overthrow the government, but he makes demands that could only be met by an overthrow.

History tells us there are ways for peasants to enhance their power. That's one reason (not the only reason) European peasants are so much better off now than in 1525. It also tells us that these ways require incremental improvements, achieved slowly over centuries.

What if we don't want to wait? The suffering is NOW, and we must be rid of it completely. Sorry, we can no more do that than we can jump to the moon without a rocket. We (and the peasants) must learn to accept incremental betterment, for only in that way will "the system" ultimately be changed.

History also tells us that violence never creates a a new society. Culture does not change at the point of a gun. The U.S. civil war "worked" only in that it ended slavery, but every other country in the hemisphere (except perhaps Haiti) ended slavery without a war. Besides, the conditions of the freed slaves were far from ideal. The American revolution may have "worked" but only because it created a country very similar to the one rebelled against.

In most cases, the oppressive government will suppress the revolt, or if a new regime wins, the same oppression will again occur under different leaders (Lenin instead of the czar, Castro instead of Batista, the Sandinistas instead of the Somocistas, etc.) Or perhaps, Marcos instead of the Chiapas caciques?

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Your TQE #68 made me think of all those people who voted for Ralph Nader in the last election, the political phenomenon which has so greatly influenced our current situation. If half of those Naderites had put themselves into the Gore camp we would probably be dealing with Iraq differently, probably have signed a global warming accord, probably be providing contraceptives to needy women in the developing world, etc., etc.

— Rich Ailes Middletown Meeting, Lima (PA).

A reply to Rich Ailes: Maybe it's time to stop bashing the Nader voters. If R.E. Lee had evacuated his army into the mountains in 1864 he might have altered the war's outcome.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of Washington DC

Note: This is the last comment to a reader's comment to be published in TQE. Hereafter, please send such comments to tqe-discuss. — Jack

I think you could make the same point about Iraq. We're trying to change their culture so they become peaceful and prosperous. It will take more than even the twenty years of occupation that some pundits predict.

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Some of this strikes a painful note, considering that we (the US) seem about to try to change Iraq at the point of a gun, and also to be unable to bear the slowness of incremental change. Of course it's always easier to bear that slowness when one is not the one suffering.

— Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

I wholeheartedly concur that the purported "revolution" espoused by subcomandante Marcos in Chiapas is unlikely to be of any benefit to any of the poor in Chiapas. This self-serving egomaniac (I prefer this description to your "revolutionary intellectual"), like many in what was once the "anti-globalization" movement, uses the concepts of cultural identity and indigenous rights to promote their own opinions and interests.

I do think, however, that agrarian reform based on free-market principles will likely result in great and difficult changes in the indigenous-colonial cultural systems of Middle America. To suggest that this can be resolved by having a more democratic system is to over-simplify.

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake City (UT) Meeting.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting, Assistant Principal Editor.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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