Land and Food and Honest Elections

January 24, 1994|By William Pfaff

Paris -- A leader of the New Year's Day rebellion in southern Mexico, who calls himself ''Major Mario,'' gave the following answer to questions about links to the ''Shining Path'' movement in Peru:

''I have read Mao Tse-tung, but I am not a Maoist, and our organization is not socialist. We want democracy, elections without frauds, land for the peasants, decent houses, medical care, schools. We want to be treated like human beings -- to eat meat like everyone else. It's as simple as that.''

It is difficult to think of a European or Asian revolutionary in the 20th century who would have spoken quite those words. They are much too simple. Since the French Revolution, every uprising of any political sophistication has justified itself in ideological terms that looked forward to some large transformation of the condition not of particular men and women in a particular place, suffering their particular miseries and injustices, but of all people everywhere.

The French Revolution proclaimed the Universal Rights of Man. The Communist Manifesto said the proletariat everywhere should throw off its chains. Marxism and its Bolshevik, Menshevik and Maoist derivatives all promised a total transformation of human society. The state itself would wither away.

Marxism's rival, anarchism, said man's natural goodness would be freed by abolishing the institutions of society, and afterward everything would be done through spontaneous human cooperation. Major Mario asks for land and food for the Indian peasants of southern Mexico, and for honest elections.

It is peculiarly Mexican. The movement styles itself upon the original Zapatist uprising of 1910-1919, an agrarian revolt of oppressed Indians, demanding ''land and liberty.'' But because it is not ideological, one must ask if it is not also radically new -- a phenomenon of the post-1989 era.

This century's revolutionary conflicts, whatever their real causes, have almost always been given an ideological justification or distortion.

China's revolution was simply a peasant uprising against injustice, which took place after a long period of political, social and economic decline in China.

Vietnam's was essentially a nationalist uprising, directed first against colonialism and then against American intervention in the country. The Castro rebellion was against a corrupt and exploitative government with connections to the United States, and it had both social and nationalistic aspects.

However, the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban leaders, and any number of other contemporary revolutionaries, all have insisted that their revolutions really were the universal revolution, destined to shake the world and change the human condition.

Their enemies took them at their word. British foreign policy in the 1920s was formulated in the conviction that a far-reaching, Moscow-directed conspiracy was responsible for the nationalist movements active in Persia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and India, all centrally inspired to destroy the British Empire.

American Asian policy in the 1960s and early '70s, and our Latin American policy from the time Fidel Castro came to power to

the end of the Bush administration, was dominated by belief in a powerful international revolutionary threat, controlled in Asia by China and in Latin America by Russia, working through local communist movements. The idea that Vietnamese or Cubans were fighting on their own account, taking help where they could find it, was unacceptable in Washington. It was ''naive'' to believe that.

Certainly the Communist International existed, and it did its best to run a world revolution. But there was also in all of this a shared and mutually reinforcing delusion about global destinies, global transformation, the end of history. The realities were far more mundane, as the collapse of communism in 1989 demonstrated.

What has happened in Mexico presents itself as rebellion without universalist ideology. Yugoslavia is not an ideological war. It is a war of ethnic nationalisms, meant to aggrandize Serbia and Croatia.

The rightist and populist movements in contemporary Russia, and in the rest of Europe, want foreigners out, old political establishments turned out, past national glories recaptured, national power. But that is all. They are not interested in converting the world or changing humanity and history.

The Islamic fundamentalists want to give power and pride back to Islamic civilization through religious reconversion, virtue, obedience to God's law. They kill those who interfere with them, but make no claims on the societies that are not Muslim. They want as little as possible to do with the non-Muslim world.

This change has confused some Western analysts, who are lost without an ideological framework. They want to find in today's conflicts some new global struggle, a clash of civilizations, a war of religions or races. They want big explanations rather than small ones. They are uncomfortable with conflicts that express themselves in simple language and simple claims: to land, food, honest elections, schools, a doctor.

These small claims are found disorienting because they have no ''universal'' dimension, other than the universality of their humanity. They are claims made in a world of particular people and real needs. They represent a certain resurgence of reality, after the ideologies.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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