Mística in the MST

Plínio de Arruda Sampaio*

The Brazilian elite have decided that their primary enemy is the MST. They are right. Since of era of the discovery of Brazil, the MST is the first popular movement to openly and successfully challenge them. And this is exactly what the MST does: occupy land, block entrances to public buildings, shut down streets, destroy fields of genetically modified crops without asking anyone’s permission.

The indignation is even greater because the MST is involved in politics. Its leaders and activists are affiliated with political parties, they run candidates for public offices, they publicly support candidates for various offices. Because the elite consider politics to be their own “private game reserve” the reaction is violent. But that’s not all: the MST organizes and participates in nearly every protest that exists. There isn’t a feminist demonstration, a public action in favor of indigenous rights, a protest against repayment of external debt in which the movement’s banners won’t be seen and the searing words of its leaders won’t be heard. The subject of these demonstrations is always the same: the need to finish building the Brazilian nation. The MST is a political movement of nationalist character. It is a nationalism tempered by the purest internationalism, a nationalism that does not seek to isolate Brazil but rather seeks to align her with other countries fighting to create a democratic international order that stands in opposition to a world governed by seven powerful nations.

While it questions, challenges and provokes, the MST operates schools in every state in the country. These schools educate the children of farmers who have land to work thanks to agrarian reform. The children are educated according to principles entirely different from those that guide the individualistic education at elite schools. What’s more, the MST organizes (through the work of its activists) the production of these peasant families. And in order to prevent agribusiness, powerful merchants and exporters from exploiting them, the MST also organizes the processing and commercialization of these products. This is all done under incredibly difficult circumstances. Since its founding, militants of the MST have been murdered by hired killers or police, wounded, or attacked using the legal system. Brazilian democracy will not tolerate a popular movement that doesn’t submit to the authority of the dominant elite.

What motivates the MST to carry on its single-minded work? It can all be summed up in a single word: mística, or mysticism. Mysticism: “the perception of a hidden nature that is not communicated by reality,” that, according to Leonardo Boff (“To Feed Our Mística,” 2001), “is not the limit of reason but is what is limitless in reason.”

The MST’s version of mysticism has its roots in campesino (or farmer) millenarianism. All over the world and since the beginning of time, the campesino has been a person that wants to believe in the possibility of a world that is just and in harmony with nature. In the name of this utopia, the rural masses throughout the ages have risen up against the real world. The real world, which is always unequal, cruel and unjust.

In his enlightening work on millenarianism, Eric Hobsbawm named the characteristics of these movements. These characteristics have been the same from the time of the anabaptists and taborites of the fifteenth century to the uprisings of English, Andalusian and Sicilian peasants in the nineteenth century up to the modern socialist revolutions of Mexico, Russia, China, Cuba, and Vietnam. What is notable in all of these is the way that rural people have not conformed to the advent of a world that they don’t comprehend, a world that destroys their way of life - a past that has been idealized as a Golden Age. What stands out in all of these manifestations is faith in grand transformations, in the New Man, in a world governed by social conscience. It is mística that calls into question a dehumanizing capitalist order. It is an order that is seen as inevitable by a people domesticated and humiliated by submission to it.

Campesino mística is the source of antagonism but it has also produced solid alliances and concrete results.

There are those who don’t believe this, who believe that campesino rebellions are not conducive to a new social order because the cult of the past cannot organize the future. Without going into the merits that this thesis may or may not have, what is certain is that all of the social revolutions of the twentieth century had, as a basic condition for their success, the campesino’s hope for a better world.

And so, the MST’s mística is based in this culture of the country’s rural population. It is in this telluric force of that population that the MST bases its faith in the possibility of change. It is from this force that it draws its values, sentiments and the intuitions that feed its mística.

To this foundation two great elements of mística are added: Christianity and Marxist socialism.

The MST was born in the southern part of the country (home to many parochial schools), the fruit of the indignation of a handful of young, southern campesinos. They were sickened by the devastation wrought by capitalist agricultural modernization on their parents’ cultural values, traditions and way of life. With their bishop’s blessing, these young Christian militants went all out in their fight against this impoverishing modernization. They weren’t fighting against technology but against its use in exacerbating the domination of capital over labor, in environmental destruction, in emptying campesino culture of all meaning. In the heart of this struggle they began to understand Marxist humanistic values and became self-proclaimed socialists.

The mixture of these three elements - campesino millenarianism, the Christian belief in eternal life and the socialist desire to build an egalitarian and democratic society here on Earth - resulted in the mística of the MST.

That statement can easily be confirmed if one closely examines the MST’s values. Ademar Bogo, one of the MST’s most influential leaders, has named them as follows: solidarity, indignation, commitment, consistency, hope, self-confidence, joy and tenderness (“Values that should cultivate a fight for the people” in Values of a Practical Militant, Popular Consultation, notebook 09, 2000).

It is worth studying these values more closely.

The value of solidarity is not only understood at the level of family, neighbors or even the country. It also encompasses class interests internationally as much as within Brazil itself. It is solidarity with all the victim’s of injustice in the world. “Although we might need to reanimate our national projects because it is at this level that the nation must resist”, says MST mística, “ we must not close our eyes to internal problems because many of them can only be solved with international struggle.”

Indignation makes solidarity complete. Indignation in the face of injustice that occurs in any corner of the world should be a characteristic of the militant, according to mística.

Commitment consists of respect for the collectively adopted aims and is complemented by consistency, which demands that actions correspond to words.

For the people there are no definitive defeats and this is the meaning of hope whose partner is self-confidence. Self-confidence means overcoming the inferiority complex that crushes the campesino.

Among the values that a militant should cultivate are happiness- which comes from the struggle- and tenderness “which does not mean pardoning the enemy and letting him go so that he can recuperate and come back to attack us with even more strength, but rather never forgetting that he is human.”

Crowning all of these values is Utopia: living “as if we were always preparing ourselves for a great encounter.”

The Liturgy or “Work of the People”

All mysticism is expressed through a liturgy, that is, a language of symbols that unites word and expression. All liturgies are an aesthetic that translate a transfigured vision of the world: “the reclamation of a drama that has a happy ending.”

The MST’s liturgy is rather diverse and very beautiful. It has a simplicity that reveals the presence of the culture of rural people. This culture expresses the struggle of a population always oppressed by daily life on the edge of economic survival, humiliated by the arrogance of the social class that exploits it, subjugated by work that has been transformed into a yoke. The extraordinary thing is that, in spite of these living conditions, the Brazilian campesino has been able to create beauty, solidarity, tenderness, joy.

Now let’s look at the elements that make up this liturgy.


No one speaks with, visits or helps the MST without receiving a gift - a cap, a t-shirt, a pendant, a book, a CD, a flower. Men receive their gifts from women, women from men. A greeting, a hug, applause. Simple, modest, moving. If you still need more evidence that MST mística is linked to the deepest roots of our nationality, it should suffice to remember that giving gifts to visitors is a rural custom that has its origin in the large indigenous component of our country’s culture.

The MST Flag

A man and a woman who symbolize equality of the sexes. In MST communities, women are not obligated to play the subordinate role that the country’s macho culture imposes on them. The man swings a sickle, recalling the commitment to production. Both are framed by a map of Brazil, affirming the commitment to building the nation.

The Brazilian Flag

There is no meeting large or small in which the Brazilian flag isn’t hanging in some prominent place. The odd thing is that this flag is a symbol of the power of the elite that proclaimed the republic in the nineteenth century. How can a symbol of the oppressor preside over a gathering of socialist militants? The explanation is simple: through the years, a depoliticized population appropriated this symbol of the elite and, unaware of its meaning, gave it another - that of the nation that the people want to build. Might this be what happened with the Roman symbol of execrable death that was transformed by Christians into a symbol of glorious life?


Meetings small, large and enormous always begin with a celebration. It’s short at small meeting, long and elaborate at large ones. The elements of these celebrations are always the same: earth, water, fire, ears of corn, the student’s notebook, the hoe, flowers. Not much is said. Poetically and convincingly, they reclaim the voices of popular poets and of the great Brazilian poets such as Haroldo dos Campos, Drumond de Andrade, Pedro Terra. The expressions are meaningful and significant: canto, a closed fist signifying indignation, readiness for struggle, hope. Pure canto of popular troubadors from deep in the country, people like Ze Pinto, Ze Claudio, Marquinho. This is blended with canto, delicate as the finest flower, from Brazilian artists like Chico Buarque, Tom Jobim, Caymi, Milton Nacimento.


Celebrations always occur against a backdrop of the great stories of those who have fought for the people. Here the syncretism of the landless erupts: Marighela, the communist guerilla fighter is found next to the image of Paulo Freire, the revolutionary Catholic educator. Rosa Luxembourg is next to Madre Cristina, a Catholic nun. Florestan Fernandes, profound Marxist intellectual is at the side of Padre Josimo, a monk murdered by the landholders’ assassins. Karl Marx is found next to Jesus Christ.

The truth is that those who are surprised by this mixture know very little about the mentality of the Brazilian people nor do they seem to understand the true dimensions of socialist humanism.

All liturgy is pedagogy. The celebrations that precede the work meetings remind the participants of the meaning of their mística: solidarity, internationalism, readiness for struggle. This symbolism gives the group its identity and links it to the past. But at the same time it orients the group to the future with an image of a just Brazil, rich with milk and honey.

The MST and The Left

The importance of mística in the conduct of the MST puts it in permanent conflict with the dominant elite, which doesn’t allow the movement’s independence. But even in the very heart of the left, the MST creates friction.

Because they have had to work under extraordinarily adverse conditions, left-wing parties developed (not just in Brazil but all over the world) defensive strategies that leave radical transformation of society by the wayside in favor of small advances. As we know, this is an old debate. In this minimalist context, the MST’s actions, by proposing an ethical, liberating, egalitarian, socialist revolution appear to be a deliberate criticism and a fundamental deviation.

The left that gave up on possibility in the name of modernity could not comprehend open talk of socialist revolution in a society in which alienation had become a natural part of the collective consciousness. From there came a facile and energetic criticism: this was just primitive millenarianism with no connection to the real world, incapable of guiding a process that would effectively and gradually transform capitalism into a humane system. The error in this criticism is that it fails to acknowledge that in the MST’s millenarianism, the past is a component that represents a reclaiming of campesino culture, womb of our nationality. Together with this reference to the past, mística firmly points to a socialist future.

It is a grave mistake to underestimate the importance of the rural world in modern revolutionary processes. All of them, as we have seen, are only able to defeat the repression of the system because guerillas travel the countryside “like a fish in water”. What are the FARC, the EZLN or the MST but glaring examples of how highly significant agrarian millenarianism is in profoundly agricultural societies? And we shouldn’t harbor any doubts: in spite of an irrational urbanization and a false industrialization, Brazilian society continues to be basically agrarian. It has not been able to liberate itself, as much as it may try to hide it, from its colonial and slaveholding past. Without exorcizing this past, Brazil will never be an independent nation much less a socialist society.

Two statements by Caio Prado Jr., one of our most important thinkers, sum up the problem. The first: “...it is in the Brazilian countryside that one finds the fundamental contradictions and the greatest revolutionary potential in the current phase of our country’s socio-historic process”. The second: “ It doesn’t make sense to insist that it is possible to construct a modern nation, with elevated economic and societal standards, on the foundation of economic and moral misery that dominates the Brazilian countryside and which is inevitably reflected in the cities.”

The intellectuals who call themselves modern (some of them turncoats from the MST itself) have failed to notice that socialism in Brazil is umbilically linked to the process of building the Brazilian nation. They also ignore the fact that the energy that drives this process comes from the enormous contradiction between a society that freed the slaves but denied them access to land with the evident intention of preserving the superexploitation of the rural work force.

The Brazilian economist Celso Furtado saw what many of his colleagues failed to appreciate: the strategic importance of the MST in building the nation. Because of this, he had no reservations about emphatically affirming, even going against his own sober style, that this movement is the most important of the twentieth century in Brazil. He goes on to say that it is linked to the most important movement of the nineteenth century: the abolition of slavery. The MST is the continuation of that movement but with a distinct historical significance. The abolitionist campaign, on the verge of achieving victory, was derailed by a terrible blow that diluted its victory to a mere reconciliation among various factions of the dominant classes. This transformed the liberation of the slaves into a “ business of whites for whites”. The MST prevents the elite from killing agrarian reform. Its motto: “ agrarian reform is everyone’s struggle” is a call to everyone that extends beyond the countryside, referring to the building up of the entire nation. The engine of this struggle is the mysticism, or mística, of liberation.

*Professor and former member of Brazil’s Federal House of Representatives/SP