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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Plínio Arruda Sampaio
(Translated by Plínio Arruda Sampaio. Revised by Catherine McGuirk. Edited by Else R P Vieira)


The Mística of the MST

The Brazilian elite has elected the MST (Movement of the Landless Workers) its enemy number one. They are right, indeed. The MST is the most important and the only serious enemy of that elite. The movement occupies land, blocks roads, protests in front of government buildings, and destroys transgenic crops, and it asks no permission.

The Brazilian elite tolerates people begging respectfully, but it does not admit people acting on their own. That is why when the Movement dares to enter the political arena, the elite goes mad. Politics since colonial times has been "chasse gardé" of the elite just like Sherwood Forest was for the British aristocracy. The engagement of the MST leaders in political parties is considered more than a threat; it is considered an unbearable insult.

The MST is also very active in all kinds of social protest. There is no feminist section, no rally against the payment of external debt, no Indian claim, no manifestation for political rights in which the red flags and the ardent word of peasant leaders are not present.

While questioning, provoking, defying the establishment, the MST runs 1,800 schools with hundreds of thousands students. They are children of the settlers and they are educated according to the Movement's own values, which are completely different from those of the educational establishment. The Movement has also helped the agricultural activity of 400,000 families already settled. In order to prevent agro-industries capturing the effort of the producers, financial orientation is given,and cooperatives and small processing plants are built.

This entire task is performed under very difficult conditions. In its twenty years of existence, the MST has lost many members, assassinated by professional killers or the police. Hundreds have been arrested and submitted to criminal prosecution. Their crime is a demand for freedom and citizenship.

What gives the MST the strength to realize such huge task? Its mística.

The roots of this mística are the millenarism of the peasant. Always and everywhere, the peasant believes in utopia and aspires to live in a world of justice, in harmony with nature. This goal has always been the powerful drive of the rural struggles against the ever-unjust cruel reality. In his brilliant essays on millenarism, Eric Hobsbawm described the main elements of these movements; from the Taborites and Anabaptists (in the XV century) to the peasant uprisings here in Britain, in Andalucia, in Sicily (in the XIX), and the XX century socialist, revolutions in Mexico, Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam.

In all these revolutions the fuel of revolt was the peasant rejection of a world that he did not understand and that destroyed his way of life. All these movements stressed the faith in radical changes in the social structures, in the advent of a "new man and new woman", in a world governed by social conscience. This mística has always questioned the subjugation of human beings under the capitalist rule. Obviously, this mística rejects the idea that the real world cannot be changed.

On the other hand, it gives rise to the strongest dedication; the kind of dedication that may change the world, which some people do not accept. The energy of the peasant rebellion, they say, cannot change the social order and produce a modern society, because the cult of the past cannot create the future. Without entering into the discussion of this problem, it is imperative to register that all social revolutions in the twentieth century were based on the peasant hope for a better world.

The basis of the MST mística is the culture of the peasantry. It is anchored in the telluric energy of the peasants that claim for participation and recognition. Values and feelings feed this mística. It is also influenced by two important mystical currents: the Christian and the Marxist.

The MST was born in the back of parochial churches in the south of Brazil. It is the fruit of the indignation of young peasants who experienced the devastation caused by the so-called capitalist modernization to their land, culture and values. Strongly supported by their bishops, they engaged in a struggle to change the perverse modernization. Obviously this was not against the improvement of agricultural technology, but against its use: increasing submission to the capital; destruction of the environment; degradation of rural culture, and the end of the rural universe. In this struggle, they discovered the humanistic values of the Marxist culture and became socialists. This mixture – the Millenarism of the peasant, Christian faith and a powerful socialist drive to build an egalitarian and democratic society - all this makes the MST mística.

One of the most respected MST leaders, has listed the values of that mística.

Solidarity. Solidarity not only to the family, to the neighborhood, to the Nation, but a broader solidarity of class and a great compassion for the suffering people all around the world.

Indignation. Indignation compels man to action. To the MST, action is crucial. A member of MST is always a nonconformist.

Hope. Hope to overcome the secular oppression on the peasant.

Tenderness. "We cannot forgive the enemy and let him free to attack again but we cannot impose on him something which can hurt the dignity of the human being".

Utopia: "We must always be prepared for the big encounter", they say.

The MST cannot be classified as a corporative movement; it is much more than that. The MST heralds an authentic social humanism. We may find the same project among the young who protest against neo-liberal globalization today. For the socialists, still troubled by the contradictory experiment of the Soviet Union – where the sublime was mixed up with the dreadful – the peasant mística revitalizes the ideology that represented the best hopes of the working class and of all mankind in the XIX and XX centuries.

All mística has its liturgy; a language of symbols that combines gestures and words. Each liturgy is an aesthetic expression of a transfigured view of the world. "The rescue of a drama which will end happily".

The MST liturgy reveals the beauty of its inspiration: the mystery of the earth. It expresses the anguish of a population always oppressed and living on the limit of survival. It exorcises the humiliation imposed by the ruling class, and the yoke of hard, submissive labour. Let us look at some ceremonies of that liturgy.

Everyone who visits the MST receives a gift; it may be a flag, a book, a flower or a simple MST cap or pin. The souvenir is always handed over after a brief speech of thanks. It is not difficult to see the origin of this habit in the hospitality that is a mark of the Brazilian Indian.

The MST flag is solid red with the Brazil map in the middle. Over the map are the figures of a man and a woman. This flag wants to show that the struggle of MST is of national relevance, and that both men and women are responsible for it. The traditional idea of male superiority is abolished.

Beside the MST flag the Brazilian flag is always present. This seems to be a paradox since the Brazilian flag has always been a symbol of the elite. How it can be at same time the symbol of a socialist movement? As happens frequently, oppressed people assume defiantly the symbol of the oppressor changing completely its meaning. The Christians, in a sign of life and liberty, transformed the symbol of an infamous death.

All MST meetings begin with a celebration. A heap of earth; some water in a basin; bread in a basket; some ears of corn; fire; a book set in the middle of the room. These things are sufficient to evoke the transcendental meaning of the meeting. There are no speeches, but songs and poems of celebrated poets such as Chico Buarque, Haroldo de Campos, João Cabral de Melo Neto, as well their own poets, Pedro Tierra, Zé Pinto, Marquito, Adão Preto.

Big posters decorate the room. You may see Marighela, a communist leader, together with Madre Cristina, a Catholic nun; Florestan Fernandes, a sophisticated Marxist sociologist together with Father Josimo, a priest assassinated by professional killers of the latifundium; Karl Marx and Jesus Christ. They put them together, in this explosion of religious and ideological syncretism. He who is surprised at this extraordinary and apparently absurd mixture does not understand the Brazilian culture and the real dimension of the socialist humanism.

These celebrations are pedagogic and perfectly fit to the psychology of the Brazilian peasant. This man is a contradictory individual; on the one hand, he is an individualist, on the other, a very social character. When asked to choose between a familiar plot and a collective property, he invariably prefers the former option. He wants private property to feel he is the real owner. However, in his daily life he is used to voluntary collective work, like harvesting, cleaning roads and channels, communal house building and so on.

There is a general idea that the peasant is shy and submissive, unable to react violently; nothing could be more misleading. The most quiet of them, when provoked, may react promptly with a surprising violence. However, in face of political violence calling for collective reaction, he refrains. One possible explanation for this contradictory behavior is the conscience of the uselessness of reaction against the power of the oppressor. Since times of slavery, generation after generation of peasant has known that every form of rebellion is destined to annihilation, in spite of fierce resistance, which the revolts of Quilombos, Canudos, Contestado and many others prove. After the destruction of these legitimate forms of political resistance, peasant action often degenerated into brigandage, as was the case with the famous Lampião gang. This primitive form of political action, which is also present in the big cities where the gangs control the favelas, does not lead to higher levels of political conscience. Without political conscience no social transformation is possible.

The core of the MST mística is a pedagogy oriented to rescue the political dimension of the universal peasantry. This dimension has been blocked by the trauma of brutal repression. To rescue this dimension is a civilizing task, but it is also an enormous enterprise, in which the MST is engaged.

Obviously this mística frontally opposes the status quo. Surprisingly, however, it also startles many leftists. Still dependent on the dogma of the dullness of the peasant, they cannot see the importance of the peasantry for social change. Although at present society is almost entirely urbanized, its soul is still rural. That is why Celso Furtado, the celebrated Brazilian economist, says that the MST is the most important social movement in Brazil, since the movement to abolish slavery.


November 2002

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