Book Review from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
Zapata of Mexico, by Peter E. Newell (Freedom Press, £9.50)
The Mexican Revolutionary War which began in 1910 saw political power transferred from a reactionary military dictatorship allied to foreign capital to the liberal constitutionalists of the rising national bourgeoisie. Zapata supported the overthrow of dictatorship but once this was achieved his Liberation Army of the South refused to disband until their primary objective had been fulfilled. That objective was the return of communal lands that had been appropriated by plantation owners during the period of dictatorship.
The new government refused to redistribute land and so fighting continued for the rest of the decade until Zapata's peasant forces, a people in arms, could no longer maintain a guerrilla war against the larger and better armed government forces.
Zapata resisted entering the politics of the national government, though he encouraged the tradition of direct democracy in the communities he fought for. At the height of Zapatista military success they conquered the country's capital. When Zapata was invited to sit in the presidential chair in the National Palace, he is quoted as saying 'It would be better to burn it, for I have seen that everybody who has sat in this chair has become an enemy of the people'.
Despite opportunity and popular support Zapata refused to install himself as national president. Though Zapata's political writings and speeches are restricted to the aims of the revolutionary peasant army it is thought that he was influenced by the ideas of Ricardo Flores Magón, a Mexican anarchist who was then publishing a newspaper from the USA. The Zapatista slogan of tierra y libertad - land and liberty - was taken from Magón.
However, the Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of World Workers), an anarcho-syndicalist industrial union founded originally by Magón, considered Zapatismo to be reactionary. They opposed the peasants politically and militarily until increasing industrial action led to the new liberal government proscribing the union. Many members subsequently switched sides. Zapata did use the examples of the new government’s repression of industrial workers as evidence of the counterrevolutionary nature of Mexico's new political leadership.
Zapata is not thought to have been religious, in fact he is said to have written 'ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny', but he deplored the anticlerical violence of the new liberal government which aimed to reduce the power of the churches. The banner of his 'Death Legion' depicted 'Our Lady of Guadalupe', a Mexican apparition of the Virgin Mary, above a skull and crossed bones.
Since the revolutionary war, inspired by the popular image of Zapata's heroism and virtue as a leader, rhetoric from anarchists to governments promising reforms have invoked the name of Zapata. Zapata has even appeared on banknotes. Newell's respected biography does not dwell on personality traits, military aptitude or leadership skills but describes the material history that produced Zapata, the revolutionary war and its outcome.
This republication of Newell's book of 1979 begins with a new introduction which relates Zapata to the contemporary Zapatista movement, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. The book contains a list of sources, references, bibliography and internet links and an appendix which discusses the land question in greater detail.