Zapata and the intellectuals

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

It is hardly coincidence that the Chiapas rebels under Subcomandante Marcos call themselves Zapatistas and not Villistas or Carrancistas or Obregonistas or even Maderistas — to name other illustrious figures from the Mexican Revolution. Of all the revolutionary leaders, Emiliano Zapata was the most radical and the most committed to social justice. Detractors say that Zapata was a semi-literate brigand who allowed himself to be co-opted by city-bred radical intellectuals. These made him look ridiculous by putting his by-line on pronunciamientos containing names and ideas with which he could not possibly have been familiar: Hegel, Marx, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Emerson and Whitman, the Gracchi, Brutus, Marie Antoinette, Fourierism, Fabian Socialism, etc. There was even more laughter when an appeal went out over Zapata’s name to French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the World War I hero, that he use his “powerful moral influence” in support of “the cause of the Mexican people.”

Is this picture accurate? Was Zapata simply an apolitical bush marauder who permitted a band of radical city slickers to manipulate him?

This perception requires closer scrutiny. Though a leader of peons, Zapata was not a peon himself. His father, Gabriel, was a small property owner and Emiliano grew up not in a choza (hut) but in a comfortable abode-and-stone house. Neither he nor his brother, Eufemio, ever had to work as day laborers on one of the big haciendas. At the outbreak of the Revolution he was a renowned horse trainer and had even been asked to manage the Mexico City stables of a wealthy Morelos sugar planter.

Where others might have been tempted to use this skill as a passport to social advancement, Zapata did not. Though a man of limited formal education, Zapata had a strong and well-developed political consciousness. Members of his family had fought against Spain in the Independence War and on the Liberal side in the in the War of Reform and against the French Intervention. As a young boy, Emiliano devoured stories told by older family members of their campaigns against the Reactionaries and the Imperialists. Knowing that Zapata would never sell them out, citizens of his home town of Anenecuilco elected him president of a council to defend their interests in September 1909, the year preceding the Revolution.

So Zapata was no stranger to ideological commitment, however shaky may have been his knowledge of Hegel and Voltaire. Though he enthusiastically joined Francisco Madero’s rebellion against the old dictator Porfirio Diaz, by late fall of 1911, Zapata was completely disillusioned by what he saw as Madero’s footdragging on land reform. On November 27 of that year he published the Plan de Ayala, still considered the most radical reform program in Mexican history. Written by a village schoolteacher named Otilio Montafio, it is described by historian and Zapata biographer John Womack as “garbled and rambling, without a hint of metropolitan grace.” Wordy, repetitious and full of misspellings, it was considered a joke by Zapata’s more sophisticated enemies in Mexico City. So much so that Madero gave Enrique Bonilla, editor of Mexico City’s Diario del Hogar, enthusiastic permission to print the Plan. “Yes,” said Madero, “publish it so everybody will know how crazy Zapata is.”

This was a grave error. For all its stylistic defects, the Zapata-Montafio document contained provisions mandating a degree of social change that had never appeared in any other Mexican manifesto. Among other radical measures, the Plan de Ayala called for not only restoration to pueblos of lands they had lost through illegal expropriation but also for classification of landlords who opposed the Zapatista movement as “monopolises” whose property could be seized. Equally unprecedented were proposals for pensions to widows and orphans of those killed in the revolution and a provision that foes of Zapata under arms be classified not as war prisoners but as “traitors” subject to the death penalty.

This all took place before the urban intellectuals began flocking to the Zapatista movement. The Plan de Ayala was proclaimed at the end of 1911; the city radicals, migration began in May 1914. At the time, Mexico was under control of General Victoriano Huerta, the able but alcoholic and despotic professional soldier who overthrew Madero in 1913 and is widely believed to have masterminded his assassination.

In that late spring of 1914, Huerta’s days were numbered. Revolutionary forces under Venustiano Carranza, Alvaro Obregón and Pancho Villa were steadily advancing on Mexico City from the north. In June Huerta’s forces would suffer the shattering defeat at Zacatecas that triggered his July 20 flight into exile.

In a desperate attempt to break up any potential focus of resistance in the capital, Huerta closed down the House of the World Worker in May. The House was a hotbed of radical activity and many of its members belonged to that previously mentioned group of left-wing urban intellectuals.

With the House’s closure, a split developed among its former members. Some went underground in the capital, later to join Carranza and help organize the workers into the so-called “Red Battalions.” Others escaped south into Morelos and joined Zapata.

Of the group that joined Zapata, best-known was Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama. A fiery orator, he was strongly influenced by anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s creed of the good peasant. At the 1914 constitutional convention Soto y Gama had refused to write his name on a Mexican flag designed for the event, branding the flag a “symbol of clerical reaction.”

Others who rallied to Zapata were Rafael Perez Taylor, Miguel Mendoza Schwerdtfeger and Octavio Jahn. Perez Taylor and Mendoza Schwerdtfeger were vaguely Marxist while the French-born Jahn was a syndicalist who had reportedly fought in the Paris Commune.

Why did Zapata welcome followers who were seemingly so out of sync with the earthy values of a nativist Mexican revolutionary movement? Possibly because of disillusionment with Otilio Montafio, author of the Plan de Ayala and Zapata’s original intellectual guru. When Huerta overthrew Madero and seized power, Montafio had considered recognizing him. A year earlier he had suggested that he and Zapata should disguise themselves and flee the revolutionary struggle. In May 1917 Montafio was shot by a Zapatista firing squad. He had been found guilty of attempting to flee to territory controlled by Carranza, by now Zapata’s enemy.

The gap left by the departure of Montafio and other rural intellectuals was filled by the new wave of urban intellectuals. For all their high-flown rhetoric they served Zapata well. Soto y Gama elaborated and refined Zapatista agrarian policy while Mendoza Schwerdtfeger served ably as a headquarters secretary between 1914-16. After Zapata’s fatal ambush in 1919, almost all of these men joined Obregón’s revolt against Carranza (who had masterminded Zapata’s fall) and later played important roles in his administration.

Zapata’s lack of formal education was amply counterbalanced by native shrewdness and intense ideological commitment. So the myth of sophisticated city intellectuals exploiting a peasant revolutionary is as threadbare as it is facile. As much as the eggheads who introduced exotic historical names into his communiques used Zapata, he used them.

Published or Updated on: October 9, 2008 by Jim Tuck © 2008


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