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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

versão impressa ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.1 no.1 Texcoco Jan./Jun. 2004


The social dynamics of Brazil's rural landless workers movement: ten hypotheses on successful leadership


La dinámica social del movimiento de los trabajadores rurales sin tierra del Brasil: diez hipótesis sobre un liderazgo exitoso


James Petras 1 and Henry Veltmeyer 2


1 Departament of Sociology. State University of New York, Binghamton, NY. (

2 (



This essay begins with an exposition of what the authors call New Sociopolitical Peasant Movements (NSPM) in Latin America, their dynamics and the class and social character of their leadership, to finally arrive to the analysis of the rural landless workers movement in Brazil, considered the most dynamic movement in Latin America. The main discussion is focussed to the success of the Brazilian movement, with reference to its leadership. This leadership is analysed throughout ten hypotheses which are constructed in order to interpret field data and demonstrate the importance of the relationship between leaders and their commiment with the movement and the specific struggle actions.

Key words: Sociopolitical movements, social commitment, social change.



Este ensayo se inicia con una exposición de lo que los autores llamamos nuevos movimientos campesinos sociopolíticos (NMCS) en América Latina, su dinámica, el carácter social y de clase de su dirigencia, para llegar al análisis del movimiento de trabajadores rurales sin tierra de Brasil, considerado como el más dinámico de América Latina. La discusión fundamental se da en relación con el éxito del movimiento brasileño, a partir del análisis de su liderazgo. Este liderazgo se analiza a través de diez hipótesis elaboradas para interpretar los datos de campo y demostrar la importancia de la relación de clase de los dirigentes y su compromiso con el movimiento y las acciones específicas de lucha.

Palabras clave: Movimientos sociopolíticos, compromiso social, cambio social.



Sociological studies of sociopolitical movements in recent years have addressed a number of questions rel ated to the social base of these movements; the issues around which collective action is mobilised, the form of struggles involved, and the context in which these struggles take place1. What is generally missing in these studies, however, is an analysis of the role and social dynamics of political leadership, a curious omission given the saliency of this factor in earlier studies and the non or post-structural social actor approach taken by so many social movements analysts nowadays (Calderón, 1995; Escobar and Alvarez, 1992; Esteva and Prakash, 1998).

One possible explanation of this is the emergence of a post-modernist sensibility among sociologists and historians in this area.2The effect of postmodernism generally has been to turn attention away from the structural factors and to eschew a comparative and objective analysis of these movements.

Indeed this lack of comparative analysis, together with a focus on contextualised and well described but largely unexplained collective actions of a single movement, is a notable feature of sociological studies in the 1980s and 1990s (Munck, 1997).

Another feature of these studies is an orientation towards a poststructuralist form of discourse analysis and, in this new intellectual context, an abandonment of structuralisms, particularly Marxist class theory (Howarth etal, 2000; Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001a; Veltmeyer, 1997). This essay is written as a counterpoint to this poststructuralist form of analysis and associated postmodernist and postdevelopment theory. In this context it is argued, with reference to the political leadership factor, that the dynamics of sociopolitical movements in Latin America can best be understood in structural terms and on the basis of a reconstituted form of class analysis.

This argument is structured as follows. First, we establish the emergence of what we have termed new peasant sociopolitical movements (NPSM). We then explore the dynamics of these movements in terms of a structuralist form of discourse analysis, which we contrast to the more dominant poststructuralist form. We then discuss the class and social character of the leadership of a movement that we and others3 regard as the most dynamic social movement in Latin America today. This discussion is made with reference to ten hypotheses that we constructed for the purpose of interpreting our field research data on the leadership of the Brazilian Rural Landless Workers Movement and for drawing a sociological portrait of these leaders4. With reference to these hypotheses, derived not from any general theory but from prior studies by the authors into diverse social movements, and on the basis of field research data, we argue that what is distinctively new about the peasant based movements that dominate the contemporary struggle for social change in Latin America is precisely the class character of their leadership as well as the organic ties of this leadership to the social base of the movements. We draw out various theoretical and political implications of this argument in the conclusions.


The emergence of new sociopolitical peasant movements (NSPM) in latin america

In the post Second World War context of a large scale development project initiated in the late 19405 and a globalisation project initiated in the 1980 under very different conditions, it is possible to trace out in Latin America three waves of social and political struggles against the capitalist system6. In the years 1950 and 1970 the social and political forces of change were mobilised in three ways: via leftist political parties and the use of the electoral mechanism, a strategy exemplified in the success of Salvador Allende in bringing the working class to power in Chile; via the unionisation of labour and the struggle of the organised working class against capital and the state for higher wages, improved working conditions and greater social benefits; and, in the wake of the cuban revolution, a guerrilla form of armed struggle against the state.

Each modality of political struggle helped to incorporate elements of the working class and rural producers into the political and economic development process. But none of these antisystemic struggles and strategies managed to overcome the array of forces ranged against them and the project of social revolution or societal transformation ultimately ended in defeat. In the 1980s, however, in the context of a democratisation process, a regionwide debt crisis, and the implementation of a new project based on a neoliberal program of policy measures designed to structurally adjust the economies in the region to the requirements of a new world economic order7. Protest against the new economic model of neoliberal capitalism and the project for social transformation was picked up by a second generation and a new form of social and political organisation a popular movement protagonised by the urban poor and a proliferation of nongovernmental organisations that manifested a burgeoning civil society and the emergence of a social, as opposed to the political left. But the forces mobilised by these civil society organisations were subsequently — in the 1990s — demobilised under conditions generated by a neoliberal program of economic and political reform measures implemented by governments in the region.8

In the 1990s, the region was hit by a third wave of social and political forces ranged against the system in place. The labour movement was in disarray, its forces and organisational and mobilising capacity decimated by the forces of a silent revolution wrought by the capitalist class under the agency of the state. The new social movements that had dominated the political landscape in the 1980s suffered a similar fate. With very few exceptions, the forces that they had mobilised were dissipated. But in the same context surfaced a new wave or rural activism protaganised by a number of peasant based sociopolitical movements the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Mexico; an indigenous uprising and social movement led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) in Ecuador; the Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil; and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These movements, all except FARC organised in the 1980s, and all but the EZLN operating on a national scale, took centre stage in the 1990s, dominated the popular struggle for social antisystemic change.

Currently these movements constitute the most dynamic forces for social change in the region as well as opposition to the economic and political system everywhere in place. However, these movements are still not that well understood, raising more questions than answers and generating a scholarly and political debate as to the nature of their social base and the dynamics of struggle involved (Brass, 2000; Bernstein, 2001; Foweraker, 1995; Haber, 1996; Petras, 1997; Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001a).


The question of leadership (10 hypotheses)

The debate on the nature and dynamics of the new peasant based sociopolitical movements in Latin America has generally focused on the social base of the movements and the dynamics of their organisation and mobilisation the general form of their struggles, the particular strategy and tactics involved, and the associated ideology. However, the character and form of leadership seems to be an equally important factor in explaining the relative success of these movements in organising and mobilising the forces of resistance and opposition of social change. For example, FARC is the only peasant based guerrilla army that not only survived the forces of counterinsurgency in the 1970s and 1980s but that has actually increased its mobilising capacity. The one striking difference between the FARC and the other guerrilla armies of national liberation and social change formed in the first two waves of post-Cuba insurrectionary activity is the social character and form of its leadership. In terms of their social base and operating ideology these guerrilla armies were very similar if not identical (see, for example, Wickham-Crowley, 1992); the FARC, however, is the only such movement that was not only peasant based but, like the NPSM, peasant led.

In the 1980s, the emergence in the region of what was conceived to be new social movements whose social base could not be reduced to or understood in class terms, led to a widescale abandonment of class analysis and the adoption of poststructuralist forms of discourse analysis (Calderón and Jelín, 1987; Camacho and Menjivar, 1989; Escobar and Alvarez, 1992; Mallon, 1995; Slater, 1995; Zapata, 1987). In the 1990s, class analysis virtually disappeared from the map of social movements being drawn and redrawn by political sociologists, leading the authors of this paper to seriously reconsider the class origins and character of the leadership of the peasant based social movements in the region today.

In this context, and with the aim of sparking a return to a reconstituted form of class analysis, the authors chose to conduct a case study of the MST leadership in Brazil. To inform and direct this study the authors formulated a number of hypotheses, each of which is discussed below in terms of observations made and data collected on the basis of several research visits; conversations on site with, and in depth interviews of, several MST leaders and activists; and a formal survey conducted of a cadre of 37 leaders representing every state where the MST is represented. These hypotheses were derived not from any general theory but an understanding resulting from fieldwork on a number of peasant based social movements in the region (see, for example, Petras, 1997; Veltmeyer, 1997). Given percentages relate to a statistical analysis of the data generated by this survey.

Hypothesis 1

The MST leaders have deep and continuing roots in the countryside and among the constituency they are organising

One of the most striking characteristics of the MST relative to other Latin American rural movements in the past, is the high proportion of leaders who have longstanding ties to the rural poor the social base of the movement. First, close to two-thirds are sons and daughters of peasants — small producers (37.6 to 40.6%) or landless rural workers (28.2 to 21.9%). Although there are no systematic data or studies on this for comparable movements in earlier waves of peasant movements, most analysts of these movements have commented on the urban middle class origins of the leadership. In the case of the MST, however, most leaders (79%) originate in families of small farmers, members of producer cooperatives or landless workers.

There is an ongoing academic debate as to how to conceptualise these various categories of peasants in the context of an advanced process of capitalist industrialisation, social decomposition and class differentiation, but the subjects of this debate generally see and define themselves both as peasants and as landless workers, creating problems of objective categorisation if not self-definition (Bernstein, 2001; Brass, 2000; Kearney, 1996; Mallon, 1995)9.

From our conversations with diverse MST leaders it is clear that they not only tend to have deep roots in the countryside but they maintain and cultivate their rural ties, going back to the countryside whenever possible, usually in the context of mobilising a land occupation, and work actively to ensure a lack of social distance from the rank and file in the field, identifying with their struggles and way of life. Furthermore, there is little to differentiate these leaders from the rank and file in terms of material conditions, including housing, eating, modes of transport and personal possessions. In this connection, it is well known that leaders who share the same material conditions as their followers are more likely to engage in struggles that relate their common interests, as opposed to bureaucrats ensconced in hierarchies who tend to be focused on and to defend their own particular privileged position. Although there are no comparable data for other rural social movements in the past, both in South and Central America and in México, there are clear indications that, relative to the MST, these movements werecharacterised by a significant social distance between the leaders and the rank and file. On this see, ínter alia, Wickham-Crowley (1991).

Hypothesis 2

The leaders are relatively well educated and committed to continuing education, thus securing the learning and teaching skills to diagnose social realities and develop appropriate strategies

Successful movements of the popular classes require leaders who are well trained and capable of articulating and formulating grievances, devising appropriate strategies and diagnosing social situations. In many, if not most situations, social movements have tended to rely on well educated leaders from the urban middle class or rank and file leaders with little formal education. However, the MST is possessed of a large cadre of grassroots leaders from the popular classes who are relatively well or highly educated. Over half of the MST leaders have some post-secondary education (either in technical schools or the university). In addition, another third (27.9%) have completed or attended high school. Only 12% have never attended school or failed to complete primary school. In addition, the MST invests a large part of its budget on education and has developed ties with a number of universities that provide extension courses for leaders and activists (Caldart, 1997, 2000). Women leaders, constituting 31% (9/29) of our survey sample,10 are particularly well educated: twice as many women as men have some university education. Thus it is clear that the MST has a cadre of popular leaders with both the formal training and class experience to develop successful national organising drives. In this regard they differ significantly from the leaders of an earlier wave of guerrilla movements formed in the 1970s, most of whom, particularly those who were well educated, had no organic ties to their rural constituency. With the exception of FARC's leader, Manuel Marulanda (Tirofijo), these leaders, like those of the Central American guerrilla movements of the 1970s and 1980s, were reliant on a much smaller leadership cadre that with few exceptions was drawn from the middle strata of the class structure. On this see Johnson, in Domínguez (1994).

Hypothesis 3

The primary loyalties of the leaders of the MST are to that organisation. They do not have any conflicting loyalties with other political groups that could lead to ideological divisions and undermine their unity of purpose

One of the perennial and divisive scourges of popular movements in Latin America is sectarian political conflict. Since many of the leaders of these movements tend to come from a political party whose prime purpose is to use the movements to build their party, the movements are often cannibalised and immobilised in the process.11 In contrast, the MST is a sociopolitical movement that has fraternal relations with other parties, particularly the Workers' Party (PT), but its leadership insists on retaining the autonomy of the movement and its capacity for independent action (Stedile, 2000). Most leaders joined the movement through participation in MST-organised land occupations and/or through attending meetings and discussions. Having been introduced to the movement through direct contact with its activities rather than party intermediaries, their ideological formation and practice is essentially a result of social interactions within the movement. This shows up in their political attitudes: large majorities, ranging from 65 to 100%, are in agreement on the major issues of the day — the negative position of Henrique Fernando Cardoso's regime on an effective agrarian reform, the negative impact of the policies designed and sponsored by the IMF and the World Bank. This internal consensus allows the Movement to focus on building outside support and to channel available resources in the direction of organising, and mobilising, direct action. Again, this is not a conclusion drawn by the authors as much as a point made in as many or few words by Pedro Stedile himself and other leaders who we interviewed. Indeed it is clearly a matter of internal policy as well as general strategy that conflicting loyalties and other conditions that might undermine a unity of purpose be avoided if possible and counteracted if not.

Hypothesis 4

The main source of recruitment is based on practical problem solving that attracts doers rather than ideologues.

Most of the political organisations that recruit their members on the basis of ideological polemics at the level of leadership tend to create armchair revolutionaries given to spinning theories and discovering ideological differences — highly ideological purists divorced from the language and interests of the people at the social base of the movement (on this see, inter alia, Wickham-Crowley, 1992).

As for the MST, leaders generally joined the movement through participation in land occupations and public meetings. By their own accounts, their attraction to the movement was based on its history of success in solving practical problems, including their own. In this regard, a majority of leaders (69%) have participated in 10 or more land occupations and over two-thirds believe that land occupations are the most effective way to bring about agrarian reform and translate theory into practice. While the MST as an organisation is acutely aware of the need for both theory and practice, and to unite the two, its emphasis on continuing political education needs to be understood in the context of a concern for practical problem solving. As a result, the MST tends to recruit doers rather than ideologues — a perception confirmed by the leaders themselves.12

Hypothesis 5

The leaders have accumulated practical experience via continuing direct actions that enhance their capacity to organise and carry out successful actions that can, and do, attract new members and supporters.

MST leaders do not engage in successful action to then rest on their laurels. They are, as it were, in continuing action. Despite their relative youthfulness (88% are under 40 years old and over one third in their 20s) many have been involved in multiple land occupations. These occupations frequently involve prolonged experiences in which squatters are organised to administer the settlement, negotiate with the government, and pressure for a favourable resolution. Through these multiple and varied experiences the leaders of the MST have developed the savvy to secure land appropriations in such a way as to benefit their main constituency — landless or near landless workers. This continuing, cumulative practical problem solving type of leadership, and the emphasis on continuous if limited gains, appears to be a key factor in the success of the MST. At least, this is the view expressed by the leaders themselves in various discussions on this point. In this connection, over fifteen years of struggle, the MST has settled over 300,000 landless families and from 1995 to 1999, at the height of the struggle for land and land reform, the MST mobilised 363,053 families of landless peasants or workers for land occupations (Robles, 2000: Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001c).13 In the first six months of 1999 the MST organised 147 occupations involving 22,000 families, a level of mobilisation maintained in subsequent years under conditions of a major counteroffensive launched by the Cardoso government. No other sociopolitical movement in Latin America has demonstrated anywhere close to such dynamism and relative success in making practical gains to the benefit of so many of its members.

Hypothesis 6

The leaders tend to be self-reliant and less dependent on electoral politicians, thus able and willing to engage in bringing about change via direct action

Unlike movement leaders in other contexts (particularly the ex-guerrillas in Central America) the leaders of the MST have what could be regarded as a healthy distrust of electoral processes and politicians.14 For one thing, they have seen many popular leaders over the years enter parliament and abandon the struggle. For another, they have seen the success to be achieved via direct action.15 Both in terms of their own recruitment as in terms of evaluating the best strategy for bringing about the agrarian reform, over two thirds (70%) favour land occupations over the electoral process as a means of bringing about change, even when the pressures to opt for what the government and the international community of development assistance organisations term forms of peaceful and civil struggle (including use of the electoral mechanism) are considerable16. Although political conditions were radically different and perhaps not comparable, this finding differs markedly from findings related to sociopolitical movements for agrarian or land reform in Central America (see, inter alia, Edelman, 2000). In addition, a significant minority (23%) of MST leaders believe that a combination of direct action and electoral campaigns provides the best route to social change. Only one leader prioritised the electoral path towards social change and development, again in contrast to what analysts have found with regard to other land reform movements in the region. In this context the MST does support progressive politicians who support their program (mainly from the Worker's Party) but always from a position of the autonomy of their social movement; they do not, for example, suspend land occupations during election campaigns.

Hypothesis 7

There is a common understanding or consensus of the leaders as to who are their common enemies, the nature of state power and the impact of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other International Financial Institutions (IFIs) on their followers and the process of agrarian reform.

MST leaders manifest a high level of consensus regarding their adversaries and the nature of state power: 75% perceive the Cardoso regime as completely opposed to agrarian reform; over two thirds see the government and landlords as acting in concert against agrarian reform; over 75% perceive an increase in repression over the years of the Cardoso presidency; there is unanimous agreement that the World Bank and IMF program of structural adjustment are designed in the interests of the rich and the well to do, as well as the large corporations that dominate the economy. Its impact on the producing and working classes of Brazil are perceived as very negative. Specifically on this issue 90% think that IMF-WB policies largely benefit foreign investors and Brazil's rich and powerful; 94% believe that with reference to the operations of transnational corporations, foreign direct investment and neoliberal policies mandated by the IMF and the World Bank, the impact of the US on Brazil has been totally negative. In this connection, almost two thirds of MST leaders are oriented to one form or another of socialism and 84% are optimistic about the future. It is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the precise source of this ideological orientation class background, experience or political education but there is no question as to its saliency in defining the Movement.

Hypothesis 8

The leadership has a realistic view of the international and national configuration or structure of power and whose interests it serves.

Unlike the Central American ex-guerrillas (see Vilas, 1995) the leaders of the MST have no illusions about the international configuration of power.17 For one thing, they have a clear understanding of the imperial nature of US policy and interests; and, as a result, they are generally hostile to the IFIs and have a clear understanding of the class alignments organised against them. This is evident in several survey questions in which MST leaders were asked to define their ideological orientation and to report on their views regarding the World Bank, the IMF and other International Financial Institutions, which are almost universally viewed by the national and regional leadership as agents of US Imperialism. As a result, these leaders are generally resolved to mobilise internal support rather than appeal to outside organisations for support or conditioning their action to accommodate the interests and demands of such organisations. Both the interviews that we conducted and our survey pointed towards this conclusion.

Hypothesis 9

The movement leaders have a common vision of an alternative social system that informs their actions, thus motivating the organisation and providing guidelines to action.

Many former leftist parties, especially but not only in Central America, have adapted to neoliberal realities, shedding their former socialist views in the process. On this see, for example, Castañeda (1993) as well as Petras (1997). This could in part explain the divorce of so many of these movements from the mass struggle and their electoral pragmatism. In contrast the leaders of the MST and their actions continue to be guided by a socialist vision of an egalitarian, participatory society based on Brazilian realities. Unlike Central American revolutionaries (see Halebsky and Harris, 1995; Liss, 1991; Vilas, 1995; Wickham-Crowley, 1991) their socialist vision rejects the Soviet model and thus was not affected by the downfall of the USSR and the collapse of actually existing socialism. Of the MST's 37 leaders 27% favour socialism as practised in Cuba; 33% the democratic socialism advocated by Brazil's Worker's party (PT); and 33% project a new form of Brazilian socialism. That is, 90 per cent are oriented towards socialism in one form or another but not as practised in the former USSR18.

At a different level, that of practice rather than ideology, the MST leadership is clearly committed to the principle of substantive or popular democracy. This is evident in the decision making related to both the formulation of political strategy and in the social organisation of production. Our observations of actual practice in diverse contexts (small meetings and congresses that bring together up to 10,000 rank and file members, popular assemblies, consultations and open discussions with the rank and file in the encampments and on permanent settlements and their constituent communities) point towards a very substantive or egalitarian form of participatory democracy. Discussions are open, voting is direct but secret and decisions, even on matters of fundamental strategy and policy, are generally reached, and made, on the basis of popular participation. For example, after a year of occupation, encampment and settlement — and successful negotiations with the government on the legal expropriation of the occupied land peasant families are free to choose whether or not to form a production cooperative and collective, the strategy preferred and promoted by the national leadership, or to work the land on an individual household basis.

Hypothesis 10

The leaders have the élan and mystique required in bringing about change in the future, thus providing the motivation to sustain action in times of repression and opposition by formidable adversaries.

Unlike the leaders of so many left wing parties and movements who tend to be sceptical about large scale change and pessimistic about socialism, the leaders of the MST manifest a high degree of optimism (84%) based on their own practices and successes as well as faith in the righteousness of their cause. It is difficult to operationalise the concepts of élan and mystique as critical factors in the mobilising capacity of a social movement. But with regard to the former (élan) we took cognisance of the degree of enthusiasm and positive spirit exhibited by the leaders in their response to questions about what the movement means to them and their sense of its future prospects. The degree of enthusiasm and optimism about the future was striking, much greater than that exhibited by leaders of various urban centred social movements who we have interviewed over the course of research visits undertaken over the last four years. To some extent this enthusiasm and what we have termed élan is generated and maintained via the movement's anthem, flag carrying and other rituals that precede and accompany each official act or daily session of training sessions at the MST's leadership training school in Santa Catarina. As for mystique it defines the particular relationship that most peasants have to the land and is exhibited in the quasi-religious spirit of solidarity (reference here to Durkheim) generated by ritualised events such as the annual gatherings of the leaders and activists at regional and national congresses and national meetings of regional leaders such as the one in Sao Paulo where we conducted our interviews. The mystique of the movement is also reflected in the many symbolic representations of the movement's historic struggle against the forces of reaction such as banners, its insignias, and the songs of struggle and conquests written to lift the spirits of the movement's members and to mobilise them to collective action. The use of such symbols is a characteristic feature of events staged by the MST, including meetings and daily openings of sessions of lectures and classes at the Leadership Cadre School in Santa Catarina.


Class as a dynamic factor in political organisation and leadership

Despite the propensity of recent sociological analysts armed with a postmodernist theory to downplay if not ignore the class factor in social movements, viz. the objectivity and subjectivity of class conditions, there is little question about the centrality of class in regards to the social base of the most significant and dynamic sociopolitical movements in Latin America, including the MST (Veltmeyer, 2000; Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001a). But when it comes to leadership the issues that surround the concept of class are more clouded. A number of peasant or worker based sociopolitical movements in the region draw much of their leadership from the urban centred middle class, particularly its intellectual stratum. In the case of the MST, however, the movement is peasant led as well as peasant based; class is a salient feature of leadership as well as the social base of the movement.

As to the role of class as a factor of analysis, our research suggests that the principles of class analysis established by Marx, and generally used by Marxists, continue to be useful as a guide to analysis and practice: that is, the dynamics of social movements such as the MST are based on a dialectical interplay between the objective and subjective between the objectivity of the structural conditions shared by the MST leadership with their members and the corresponding subjectivity of shared awareness as to these conditions. This is not to say that the radicalism and orientation towards direct action exhibited by the MST is directly attributable to the class origins of the leadership and the rank and file. The political landscape in Latin America and elsewhere is littered with counter examples. However, the leadership of the MST exhibits a high degree of class consciousness of the socially shared conditions generated by the economic structure of Brazilian society. The mobilisations and direct actions taken by the Movement clearly reflect this class consciousness as well as the class origins of the leadership. This consciousness is also reflected in the political education programming at the MST's leadership training school. Also, the responses of the MST leaders who we surveyed and interviewed to the questions put to them clearly establish the centrality of class as a dynamic factor in both the social organisations of the Movement and the struggles involved, as well as in the subjective consciousness of the leaders and activists. Class, defined as both a relationship to the means of social production and to the instruments of political power, is clearly a central factor in the thinking, and actions, of these activists.


Summary and conclusion

Our case study of a successful leadership group is based on a leadership whose social origins are proximate to their organising constituency, that is, who have organic ties to the social base of the movement; and that have achieved a higher education than the norm and are directly involved in practical struggles that engage supporters and are independent of other political organisations. These leaders have a unified political vision of the future and have a positive view of the efficacy of their action and are highly motivated regarding future success.

The antithesis of this positive profile of successful leadership would be a leadership drawn from social classes that are distant from their constituency (part of the rural elite or urban professionals) or who are from the same class but poorly educated, drawn to the organisation for purely ideological rather than pragmatic reasons, remote from the actions taken (leaders ensconced in central headquarters) and relying on the electoral process for solutions. Leaders who have illusions about concessions and reforms from established regimes or international donors are likely to lack both vision and initiative and to misdirect the organisation with false expectations that tend to lead to internal divisions, ideological conflicts and political demoralisation — a sense that there are no alternatives.

The bane of many popular movements is the prodigal son phenomenon: leaders who are renegades from their class, usually in the middle strata of the class structure19, who identify with the lower classes but who upon achieving institutional positions return to a middle class centrism and shift their politics accordingly, thus undermining or derailing collective actions in the direction of fundamental and sustained social change. Drawn, to a large extent, from a class of landless or near landless workers in the rural sector the MST leadership has shown no propensity toward accommodation to the status quo as a means of feathering their own nests. While the organisation has grown and to some degree has become institutionalised, and it has its national headquarters in a two story building in Sao Paulo as well as a network of professional accountants and agronomists, it still depends heavily on the voluntary actions of lawyers, clerics and, above all, its own members to carry out daily operations. Institutionalisation without bureaucratisation seems to work well in providing regularity and order while supporting a decentralised and innovative style of leadership that is very responsive and accountable to the membership. Arguably, the small material difference that separate top leaders from rank and file members is a critical factor in the MST's successful mobilisations. At least we forward this as a tentative suggestion that warrants further comparative study. The idea is that a relative equality of material conditions, a similarity in social origins and shared social perspectives make for long term commitments and sustained struggles.

Land occupations are a key element in the MST's strategy for effecting agrarian reform. The success of this strategy is based on democratic participation by the mass of beneficiaries in the planning, organisation and execution of the occupations and in resisting repression by local gunmen and the military police. The importance of the land occupation strategy in the thinking and actions of the MST leadership is closely linked to the participatory style of social change practiced by the Movement.

The centrality of the Movement in the lives, beliefs and practices of the leaders is a critical factor in the creation of the high degree of cohesion that sustains their activity. The Movement is the social, political and economic organisation for realising activity. There is no separation between party, trade union and enterprise with parallel and competing loyalties as is the case in most Latin American countries. A unified and combined sociopolitical movement provides both social practice and ideological direction, thus avoiding the typical problems of social movements dependent on political parties, and subject to their separate agendas. Over the years, we have come across innumerable complaints by activists of being used or manipulated by their political or guerrilla leaders, the practical and essential goals of the organisation sacrificed for supposedly higher ends. However, the self-reliance of the MST leaders has guaranteed that the fundamental issue of interest to their constituency — land reform — has remained in the forefront of their program, struggles and negotiations with political authorities.

In conclusion and this is the theoretical point of our analysis — successful leadership seems to coincide with material equality within the organisation, social solidarity as an outreach strategy and participatory democracy in the realisation of organisational goals. The fact that there is no gap between the goals of the movement and everyday practice means that cynicism and pessimism do not take root; the coincidence of everyday realities and idealism fuel optimism, faith and a belief that people can change the world. And that this change can benefit the people.



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1 For examples of these studies see, ínter alia, Burgwal (1990); Calderón (1995); Calderón and Jelín (1997); Camacho and Menjivar (1989); Eckstein (1989); Latin American Perspectives (1994) ; Zapata (1987).

2 On this point see, inter alia, Brass (1991, 2000); Haber (1996); Mallon (1995); Slater (1985); and Veltmeyer (1997).

3 See, for Example, Robles (2000).

4 The data for this study were derived from three sources; (i) systematic observation, over a ten year period (1992, 1995-1996, 1998-2001), of behaviour at an annual School for Leadership Cadres in Santa Catarina, periodic conferences, workshops and meetings, and various encampments and settlements (11) and cooperatives (8) in S. Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Parana, Ceara, and Sao Paulo State; (ii) a survey conducted of this movement's leadership cadre: 32 regional and national leaders representing every state where the MST operates (conducted at a seminar on May 12-14, 2000, in Sao Paulo); and (iii) a series of in depth interviews with Pedro Stedile, the Leader of the MST, and several regional leaders and activists, and a caucus of women leaders.

5 On this project see, ínter alia, McMichael (1996). In the optics of postdevelopment Esteva and Prakash, 1998; Escobar, 1995; Rahnema and Bawtree, 1997; Sachs, 1992. This project is viewed as an imposition of an idea (development), which is at the centre of an incredibly powerful semantic constellation (modern mentality), able to exert a most powerful force in guiding thought and behaviour.

6 On the theoretical and practical postulates of these two intellectual and political projects and the processes to which they gave rise, see, inter alia, Veltmeyer (2000). A periodisation and analysis of these waves of struggle to bring about change and implement an emancipatory project in Latin America can be found in Petras (1997) .

7 On this new project - globalization — see, ínter alia, Bulmer-Thomas (1996); Green (1995); and Petras and Veltmeyer (2001b).

8 On the diverse strategies implemented by governments against antisystemic movements see, inter alia, Veltmeyer (2001).

9 In the context of a process of industrial capitalist modernisation a part of the peasantry is converted into a class of rural capitalists who most often invest their accumulated capital in the purchase of land, new technology, export production, transportation; another part is converted into a class of independent medium sized proprietors and producers and a large part, at least 50%, is converted into a rural proletariat and a semiproletariat of jornaleros, landless or near landless workers, many of whom migrate to and are absorbed into the burgeoning slums and the informal sectors of Brazil's cities. On the basis of census data the rural exodus from 1986 to 1996 is estimated to have reached a level of 5.5 million, leaving an estimated 4.5 million landless workers or peasants in the countryside, many of whom are expected to migrate to the cities in the next few years (INCRA, 1999; Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001c).

10 In its second to last Congress (in 2000) the MST adopted a resolution to increase the current representation of women in the regional delegations of leaders from current level of around 40% to parity with men.

11 This relationship of social movements to political parties is well known and is one of the key issues on the agenda for debate and discussion at the annual Foro de Sao Paulo where representatives of Leftist or Marxist political parties and associated social movements meet each year and have done so for the past eleven years.

12 Notwithstanding this perception, as pointed out by a reviewer of this essay, the key to success in building a social movement is an ability to theorise political practice and to convert theory into practice to combine theory and practice. On this point, one of the very few truisms of sociological thought on social movements, all of the MST leaders are in agreement.

13 Not all occupations have led to permanent settlements; the conversion of land occupations into settlements require a process of negotiation with the government which has its own land reform agenda. Nevertheless, from 1995 to 1999 the MST managed to create 2,194 permanent settlements involving 368, 325 families of peasants/landless workers (Robles, 2000). To appreciate the scope of the problem and success of the MST - it is estimated that there are in Brazil upwards of 1.5 million landless workers or peasants.

14 On the penchant of Central American ex-guerrillas for electoral politics, and their accommodation and absorption in to the political class see, inter alia, Vilas (1995) on Nicaragua and Zamora (1995) on El Salvador, as well as Castañeda (1993), who explains (or constructs his theory of) the widespread abandonment by the Latin American Left of what he regards as its utopian quest for transformative or revolutionary change largely in terms of the shift in political orientation and behaviour of these and other such ex-guerrilleros.

15 Apart from their own experience this is also the lesson that the MST leadership (Stedile, 2000) has drawn from the history of other movements in the region such as the EZLN, CONAIE and FARC, as well as peasant social movements in Bolivia, Paraguay and Central America. On this point see Petras (1997).

16 In this connection the MST has, for over a year, and at the time of writing (June 2001) been subject to a major offensive by the government, based on a multipronged stategy that includes outright repression, a major public relations media campaign and concerted efforts to channel grievances and land claims into the World Bank sponsored Land Bank program. On the political dynamics of this process see Veltmeyer (2001). As part of the intellectual weaponry marshalled by the World Bank, the Brazilian government has also turned towards the sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA) to tackling the problem of entrenched rural poverty. Based on the agency of civil society organisations (CSOs) in partnership with the government, the SLA is predicated on empowerment of the poor, increasing their access to society's productive resources, and encouraging the use of the market mechanism (land titling, land banks) and the electoral mechanism (Amalric, 1998; Chambers and Conway, 1998; Liamzon, et al, 1996; UNRISD, 2000).

17A question might be raised as to what might constitute political realism. We define it as do proponents of the Realist School of political science, namely in terms of the centrality of power relations in politics and the tendency for power holders to pursue their own class interests. However, it is not unusual for those without political power who seek to advance their own interests, to harbour all sorts of illusions about the motives of power holders.

18 This supports similar findings about the ideology of other peasant-based and led social movements in the region such as FARC, CONAIE and the EZLN. On this, see FARC-EP (2000) with regards to FARC; Macas (2000a, 2000b) with regards to CONAIE; Harvey (1994) and Veltmeyer (2000).

19 On the role of the middle strata or class in Latin American social movements see Johnson (Dominguez, 1994). A characteristic feature of the new peasant sociopolitical movements that have swept across Latin America's political landscape in the 1990s is that they are peasant led as well as peasant based (Petras, 1997). Although this factor needs to be examined more closely, it might very well explain the fact that FARC is the only peasant based guerrilla movement of the many formed in the wake of the Cuban revolution that not only survived the counterinsurgency movements of the 1970 and 1980s but that has actually continued to build social and political forces of resistance to the point that it now controls up to 40 percent of the countryside in Colombia (FARC-EP, 2000).

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