Zapata of Mexico - a review

A timely reprint of Peter E. Newell’s account of the life of Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919) and the part played by the insurgent peasant forces under his direction in the Mexican Revolution. Originally published by Cienfuegos Press in 1979, this short and fast-paced book provides a useful introduction to the ideas of the original Zapatista forces.

Many readers will be struck by the many similarities between the life and struggle of Zapata and those of another great revolutionary anarchist figure, Nestor Makhno. Both were charismatic organisers of peasant insurgent armies and highly expert in guerrilla warfare tactics, who initially supported a wider social ‘revolution’ only to be betrayed and forced to continue fighting against a professional group of bureaucrats, petty tyrants and opportunists. Vilified by an increasingly biased press, who referred to Zapata as a ‘licentious and savage demon’, both men were portrayed as mere ‘bandits’ in an attempt to stifle their concepts of egalitarian land distribution and libertarian social revolution.

Although he never explicitly referred to himself as an anarchist, Zapata was clearly influenced by the ideas of the Flores Magon brothers and their libertarian communist journal Regeneracion. This was published by the Partido Liberal Mexicano from exile in Texas and smuggled into the country. In fact, the famous rallying-cry of the Zapatistas, ‘Tierra y Libertad!’ was originally coined by Flores Magon and was only later adapted by Zapata and his comrades.

Newell places the Zapatistas within the context of growing anarchist, socialist and syndicalist concepts that began to take root in Mexico from the 1870s onwards. However, although he touches briefly on the early mutual-aid and friendly societies formed at the end of the nineteenth century, and mentions the Gran Circulo de Obreros (and early trade union centre), it would perhaps have been better to have explored these areas in more depth. Libertarian ideas never exist in a vacuum and by mainly concentrating on the chronological events of the Mexican Revolution, the reader is sometimes left confused as to the ideological background and basis behind Zapata’s guerrilla tactics.

However, as a straightforward account of Zapata and the Mexican Revolution Newell’s book is certainly a page-turner. The struggle for the restoration of communal land rights in their fight against the oppressive hacienda system (huge estates owned by wealthy landlords and worked by the locals for near starvation ‘wages’) was the central concern of Zapata and his forces. The famous ‘Plan de Ayala’ drafted by Zapata and Oticio Montano, a libertarian schoolteacher, wherein the revolutionary demands of the Zapatistas were clearly formulated, is well covered by Newell. Addressing a gathering of local chiefs who had been called together to express their opinions on the Plan de Ayala, Zapata uttered his and stirring words:

Amigos, seek justice from tyrannical governments, including this one we have now, not with your hat in your hand, but with a rifle in your fist… Men of the South, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees… The land is free, free for all, without masters, that is the cry of the revolution.’

There follows a clear account of the twists and turns of the Revolution and the parts played by figures such as Madero, Huerta, Obregon and Carranza. For anyone unfamiliar with the events of 1910-19 and the roles of such shadowy figures as ‘Pancho’ Villa (with whom Zapata formed a brief alliance) Newell’s book is certainly a useful starting point.

The Zapatista forces were not a highly centralised or structured army as such, but rather a loose collection of armed guerrilla bands. As Newell points out, these forces represented the people themselves in arms. Functioning without paid secretaries or officials, the Zapatistas operated along libertarian lines, insisting upon regional autonomy and decentralisation. As Newell comments: ‘It organised itself into small, largely self-supporting bands, based upon the village which, in turn, could be marshalled rapidly into much larger contingents where and when necessary… the liberation army established the procedure of alternating the Soldados between three month periods of “active service” and working in the fields.’

This will be of great interest to students of anarchist methods of organisation in the first half of the twentieth century, as are accounts of the local federalist administrations that were set up in the southern state of Morelos during the middle years of the revolution. We see how a direct grassroots democracy was put into place, based around village councils and self-policing, with the aim of destroying the old hacienda system one and for all. A highly-structured programme of agrarian reorganisation was undertaken by the Zapatistas who employed the services of skilled technicians and agronomists. This led to a (regrettably brief) period of relative prosperity in Morelos state. However, we should perhaps take with a pinch of salt Newell’s assertion that during the summer of 1915 ‘Morelos had become almost a rural paradise.’

Zapata’s eventual murder in 1919 by the treacherous Colonel Guajando is covered very well, as is the gradual disintegration of the southern revolutionary forces as the wider revolution eventually ‘fizzled out’. There is also a useful appendix summarising the history of the Mexican land question and the continuing struggle for a fairer share of land and natural resources.

Newell quotes a Mary Charlesworth in his conclusion: ‘The Mexican Revolution is still incomplete, as great inequalities in wealth exist and the peasant problem is still unsolved. But at least there is the ideal of the revolution to struggle towards, and this is important for the Mexican temperament.’

Newell’s book is clearly of interest to those following events in modern Mexico. The EZLN, the indigenous rebel army of Chiapas, who have named themselves after Zapata and continue the same struggles against power and corruption are seen by many anarchists as the most important and influential libertarian grouping of the early twenty-first century. This is not the place to discuss the aims and methods of the EZLN and their relationship to the original Zapatistas. However, for a critique of the EZLN, I would recommend Beyond the Balaclavas in South Mexico published by Elephant Editions (2003).

Zapata of Mexico (£9.50) from Freedom Press -