Reflections on Zapatismo: A Book Review

Venkata Narayana

Millon, Robert.P. 2011. Zapata: The Ideology of a peasant revolutionary, New Delhi: Aakar Books. pp. 153

Born in 1879, Emiliano Zapata was one of the main leaders of the Mexican revolution in the beginning of 20th century. He gained a renewed international attention over the last few decades after the emergence of Zapatistas in Chiapas and the widespread global interest over their revolutionary tactics. But he has been a prominent figure within revolutionary and nationalist discourses within Mexico. In spite of operating mostly in Southern Mexico, Zapata did not have a strong following in Chiapas, which is where Zapatistas have come to operate since 1994. Khasnabish talking about the roots of political philosophy and practice of the Zapatistas in Chiapas says “Out of the confluence of urban guerrillas seeking favourable ground for revolutionary organizing, migrant indigenous communities practising a new kind of politics, and a socio-economic and political context marked by extreme violence, exploitation and repression, the EZLN and Zapatismo emerged as rebellious articulations of hope that the world could be remade into a more just, democratic and free place.” (Khasnabish, 2010: 73) He also points out that the reason behind Zapata being the icon of the struggle by the Zapatistas today is to affirm the ‘Mexicanness’ of the movement and to claim “the authentic and uncompromised legacy of the Mexican Revolution.” (Khasnabish, 2010: 71) In light of the new forms of organisation and struggle brought about by the Zapatistas in Chiapas it is important to understand the foundational principles of struggle that Emiliano Zapata and the Zapatistas led in the early decades of 20th century.

Robert P. Millon in this book unravels the ideology behind the struggle that Zapata led from 1911 in Southern Mexico. Drawing from extensive research of statements and pamphlets of the movements led by Zapata and his contemporaries in Mexico, Millon argues (as the title suggests) that Zapata’s movement was primarily a peasant movement. He points out that movement led by Zapata was agrarian, liberal and anti imperialist in nature.

Zapata’s struggle began with him being elected the president of the village defence committee of Anenecuilco where he led the peaceful occupation and division of hacienda (estate) lands to the villagers. The political economy of Mexico in the early 20th century was such that it was dominated by large landed estates (haciendas) which were cultivated by sharecroppers, renters and peasants bound to the estate by debt. He attained more prominence when he enlisted supporters and captured Cuautla in May 1911 in support of Francisco Madero who had started a revolution against Porfirio Diaz, the then President of Mexico. The main reason Zapata supported Madero was that in his ‘Plan of San Luis’ Madero promised return of illegally encroached land to small peasants of the country. However, after the overthrow of Diaz government there was fallout between Zapata and Madero as neither the interim government nor Madero (who later became the president) implemented the land reforms. It was during this conflict in November, 1911 that Zapata declared the Plan of Ayala which remained the banner of zapatistas throughout. In 1913 Madero was overthrown by Huerta who committed significant number of his troops to deal with zapatistas in the south under his presidency. From the northern part of the country the Constitutionalists army, which was led by Villa and Carranza with the pressure put by the zapatistas from the south pushed Huerta out of the country in 1914. The new constitution, which came in 1917 was preceded by intense rivalry between the carrancistas and forces led by Villa and Zapata. Carranza held the upper hand as he was able to garner the support of US. Zapatistas after 1914 were in conflict with the carrancistas over the implementation of provisions of land reform from their Plan of Ayala. Zapata was killed in April 10, 1919 by a carrancista colonel.

Millon unravels the ideology of zapatistas by tracing the way in which Zapata led his side against the establishment and their differences with other forces. According to Millon land reforms was at the centre of the struggle led by Zapata. It is obvious in Zapata’s struggles beginning as the village president reclaiming occupied land to leading the army of South against the establishment. The Plan of Ayala, which the zapatistas stood by till the end, had land reforms at its core. The provisions in the document included return of usurped land authorising the armed villagers to take the lands back, expropriating one third of haciendas land for public utility and nationalisation without indemnification of property of people against the Plan. Standing by this Plan in his struggle against Madero, Zapata upheld that political change could happen only alongside the destruction of old economic order. Millon argues that for Zapata political reform was necessary to ensure agrarian reform. Even during the later part of the revolution the zapatistas upheld their demands for land reforms and few provisions of their Plan was incorporated within the constitution.

The important contribution of Millon’s study is not that he points out the demands and provisions of the movement but he elucidates the ideology behind them. The redistribution of land as per the Plan was always to individual peasants giving them the direct authority to reclaim and takeover land with the government legalising the action later. While Zapata unlike his contemporaries envisioned action from peasants rather than a top down approach of government initiated redistribution, Millon points out, it was the individual peasant who benefited. According to him, the zapatistas were partial to small private property in countryside and the only instance when they conceived of communities were while forming producer and consumer cooperatives to enhance the profits of the small land holding. Millon argues that land reforms as envisioned by Zapata were necessary for the destruction of semi-feudal mode of production in Mexico so that it could industrialise and develop a domestic market for industrial goods. The only other way that Mexico could have kept up with rapid industrialisation and modernisation of agriculture would have been through collectives and state farms. It was the zapatistas amongst the revolutionary factions who were nearer to communal property according to Millon through their provisions for agricultural credit and organisation of consumer and producer cooperatives.

Another cornerstone of the ideology of Zapatistas was liberalism, which is obvious even in their conception of agrarian reforms. The distribution of land within the political practice of Zapatistas aimed at breaking the monopoly of haciendas and empowering the individual peasants. This was accompanied by attempts to establish a liberal bourgeois democracy with a parliamentary form of government and an independent judiciary. From some programs that the zapatistas were instrumental in proclaiming in the Convention of Aguascalientes (were the revolutionary factions met after overthrowing Huerta) Millon points out three features that show the radical petty bourgeois nature of the movement: 1) creation of small individual properties 2) permitting local and foreign organised capitalist industry and 3) establishing a parliamentary republic with democratised political life and separation of powers. He argues that the features of the liberalism of zapatistas contained both anti monopoly provisions of 19th century liberal concepts and welfare provisions of new liberalism of state capitalism. The zapatistas’ guarantees to the working class too were of this nature as they offered to only protect their interests within the capitalist system without envisioning an end to the capitalist property relations.

The book argues that the anti-imperialist ideology of the Convention was moderate and indirect as they were cautious in light of the power of US imperialism. But the attack over monopolies in industries and extensive labour reforms carried out by the programs of the Convention affected enterprises of foreign capitalists. Moreover, the assertion of the Convention over reform of minerals and petroleum laws of the country would primarily alienate foreign control of these resources. Outside of the Convention, Millon points out that only one statement with anti imperialist content was made by Zapata to the Diplomatic Corps which declared null all treaties, agreements and conventions made by foreign powers with Carranza. So in essence agrarianism, liberalism and anti imperialism were at the core of Zapata’s ideology according to Millon.

The book tries to address the misconceptions regarding the ideology of Zapata whereby the author strengthens his argument on Zapata’s ideology being an agrarian and liberal. The forces led by Zapata have been categorised by many as anarchist, socialist or Indianist. Rejecting any kind of affiliation to Indianist ideology the author cites the multiple attempts made by the zapatistas to expand the territories within which they operated and their entrenched support for peasants as clear indications. With regard to socialist or anarchist leanings of the zapatistas the following lines explain the primary stance of the book: “The men of the South wished to democratize the state, not eliminate it, and although they sought to distribute property widely, they also would have left sufficient land in private hands to permit bourgeois agriculture to flourish in Mexico. Furthermore, although the Zapatistas proposed to forbid the formation of monopolies, to protect and encourage small owners and to defend the rights of the proletariat, they also contemplated that capitalist property relationships would continue to prevail in industry finance and commerce.”

This book is an attempt to understand the ideology of Emiliano Zapata and the movement he led in the beginning of the 20th century. It posits zapatismo in relation to its contemporaries and explains the principles that governed zapatistas. Though it could be said that the author presents a linear progression of the movement he has been able to bring out the exact content of the ideology of Zapata without infusing the ideals of the possible. It is because of this that the book is important for anyone seeking to understand the historical conditions within which the zapatistas of Chiapas have come to build their movement. There are drastic differences between the political practices of the Zapatista movement that ended in the beginning of the 20th century and the one that began in the end of the same century. Anyone who wishes to probe into these differences would find this book useful to understand the zapatistas led by Zapata in Southern Mexico.


Khasnabish, A. (2010). Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global. New York: Zed Books.

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