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
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
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
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
One of the most respected MST leaders, has listed the values of that
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
Utopia: "We must always be prepared for the big encounter", they
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
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
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
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
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.