Born Naked in this World: Peasants, Protests, and Power in Andean Historiography

Like many global hotspots of the twentieth century, the Andes is marked by its history of structural inequality, racial conflict, and legacies of poverty and violence. Tensions between urban and rural areas as well as between descendants of European and Andean ancestry still exist and remain a source of scholarly interest in the region. In the mid twentieth century, Cold War battles between capitalism and communism spurred many Andean nations to begin a series of agrarian reforms in the hopes of liberalizing their own rural economies while simultaneously undercutting support for Marxist agitators and revolutionary movements. As the social, economic, and political shockwaves of these agrarian reforms spread over the next several decades, historians began exploring the origins of rural social movements and the people who fought for them as a way of informing contemporary debate. The field of peasant studies represents one of those initiatives.

In the historiography on Andean peasants in the 1960s and 1970, major works explored peasants as a class in relation to other segments of society, the pre-capitalist formations of agrarian life, economic transitions to capitalism, and peasant participation in revolts. As academic trends changed with the so-called cultural turn in the late 1970s and 1980s, scholars replaced historical questions about the material conditions of life with ones that focused more on ethnicity, power relationships, and nationalism. Methodologically, this period was marked by bottom-up studies of historical change in the longue durée, many of which remain classics in the field. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of Western neoliberalism, historians in the U.S. academe began to focus more on nationhood, citizenship, and state formation, as well as peasants’ engagement with markets. In recent years, gender, race, and culture have increases in importance alongside a newer spatial and environmental turn in the field. This historiographical essay maps these debates as seen through a selection of historical and anthropological works on peasants in Andean South America, published between 1969 and 2010, to gain a better appreciation for the range of questions, arguments, and sources scholars have used to analyze rural conflicts and revolts in the region.

The field of peasant studies is at least as old as Karl Marx’s 1851 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, but beginning in the politically tumultuous years of the 1960s and 70s, a new movement marked by the work of historian Eric Hobsbawm and anthropologist Eric Wolf set the tone for how scholars across disciplines conceptualized peasant protests.[1] While the focus of this essay is on the Andes, it is worth briefly mentioning these two authors because of their influence on the development of the field. Hobsbawm, an economic and social historian, focused on Europe’s pre-modern peasants, or “primitive rebels” in his 1965 work of the same name, while Wolf’s 1969 Peasants discussed peasant warriors in a range of locations and proposed a series of conceptual categories to use in analyzing what he called their “phenomena of backwardness.”[2] Importantly for the field, the authors sparked a long-running debate among historians about the apolitical or pre-political nature of peasants. Proponents of this essentially Leninist view argue that peasant communities often require external leadership, such as a millenarian figure or some type of revolutionary vanguard, to transform their grievances into organized protest.[3] In an influential 1973 article on the question of whether “there can be such a thing as a national peasant movement or a national peasant revolt” without external organization, Hobsbawm said, “I very much doubt it.”[4] Both authors were also influential for their work studying what Karl Polanyi referred to in 1944 as the “great transformation,” which became a major theme in Andean historiography.[5]

In the early period, anthropologist Muriel Crespi wrote the article “Changing Power Relations: The Rise of Peasant Unions on Traditional Ecuadorian Haciendas,” which explored the disruptive consequences of capitalism on rural authority structures in the highlands near the city of Cayambe.[6] Published in 1971, her work dealt with the expropriation of Church-owned haciendas and the rise of Marxist-inspired peasant unions in the area who went on to form the backbone of the modern indigenous political movements active today. This work built on Wolf and Hobsbawm’s ideas, adding that the collapse of haciendas and the moral economy that came with them played an important role in the sparking of peasant protests.[7]

Similar to the work of anthropologist Silvia Rivera’s work on Bolivia a decade later, Crespi relied on ethnographic fieldwork with peasant unions and other Marxist organizations in Ecuador to argue that rural workers’ constant agitation forced elites to accept an agrarian-reform package in 1964.[8] More broadly, her work was significant at the time for highlighting peasants as central protagonists in the relationship between with landowners and other elites, a theme that would be increasingly embraced by historians over the next several decades.[9]

Also focusing on Ecuador, in 1972 anthropologist Thomas Greaves published the article “The Andean Rural Proletarians” in which he applies Sidney Mintz’s concept of “rural proletarian” to the Andes region. This represents an attempt to narrow earlier categories of what constitutes the peasant class to highlight the social differences between different types of rural workers. Greaves argues that by the twentieth century, many Andean workers were what he called “post-peasants,” whose landless status and dependency on wage labor differentiated them from other types of land-based peasants.[10] Greaves makes the case for looking at workers for agricultural companies, the oil industry, and mining communities as “rural proletarians.”[11] Like Crespi, he also highlighted the role of labor syndicates as the social vanguard capable of organizing rural proletarians. However, in a break from earlier scholarship, Greaves emphasized that rural proletarians’ actually did engage with local and national politics as conscious political actors, challenging theories that stressed the apolitical nature of most rural workers.[12]

Taken together, Crespi and Greaves’ work show how Andean scholars were testing broad theories about the way peasant societies work against the historical and ethnographic record for their respective areas. However, by the end of the decade scholars would still be debating whether peasants were inherently susceptible to charismatic leadership, especially revolutionary and millenarian, or if they were a politically conscious class with internal agency. By the 1980s, more historians started adding their voices to this debate, using new sources from local archives to argue that Andean peasants and indigenous groups had played a pivotal role in society during colonial and after independence. The early works of historians Christine Hünefeldt and Steve Stern are examples of this new wave of scholarship, blending elements of historical materialism with cultural history to understand peasant movements and their wider relationships to society.[13]

Looking first at Hünefeldt’s work, Lucha Por La Tierra y Protesta Indígena: Las Comunidades Indígenas del Perú Entre Colonia y República, 1800-1830, this book analyzed historical power relationships between social groups in the buildup to the nineteenth century wars of independence, including peasants, community leaders, Catholic priests, elite landowners, and the state.[14] Her work is in dialogue with two bodies of literature, international theories of peasant society and resistance, and Peruvian scholarship about the role of indigenous groups in the rebellions preceded the founding of the state. In terms of earlier Hobsbawmian conceptions of peasants as a relatively homogenous social class, she cautions against viewing peasants only in terms of their economic position in social hierarchy, saying a better relational concept for multiethnic societies would be “clase-etnía.”[15] For the Peruvian highlands, this means paying special attention to indigenous groups as historical actors because of their sheer numbers and importance to the region’s history.

Hünefeldt’s major contribution to the historiography was her attention to these different social groups and her insistence that indigenous groups and others who lived in rural areas not be viewed as a monolith. She drives home this point by exploring conflicts in the early nineteenth century between indigenous people and their local caciques, as well as between communities with legal claims to land and outsiders based on historical grievances dating from pre-colonial times.[16] In another section, the author highlights social conflict between indigenous groups who lived in corporate communities and those who lived and worked on nearby haciendas, known as yanaconas.[17] By showing these internal conflicts between indigenous communities, Hünefeldt drives home her argument that it is problematic to view indigenous peasants as an undifferentiated class.

Steve Stern’s 1987 edited volume, Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness, complements Hünefeldt’s work by continuing what could be described as bottom-up history that engages with indigenous and other peasant groups as politically-conscious actors. In twelve essays by some of the fields leading scholars that looked at everything from the Túpac Amaru rebellion and the role of consciousness and identity in the formation of Andean nation-states to the historical roots of Bolivia’s Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, each chapter demonstrates a different aspect of what Stern called “resistant adaptation,” a term he used to describe the long-term process and preexisting patterns of resistance and evolution that peasants engaged in with the state.[18] In different ways, each of the essays challenges and adds nuance to earlier assumptions made about peasants as a class. For example, Stern argue that peasants, at least in the Andes, were “continuous political initiators” as opposed to merely reactive protesters.[19] Like Greaves and Hünefeldt, the authors of this volume see a spectrum of consciousness and political horizons within the peasantry as a class and argue that “ethnic factors” often played an important role in driving peasants to revolt.[20]

Stern’s introduction on new approaches to the study of Andean peasants, as well as his chapter on the eighteenth century “Age of Andean Insurrection,” engage with several historiographical themes. First, Stern and the other authors focus on the transition between major economic systems as processes that are disruptive to traditional social institutions and cultural practices. Second, and more importantly, that Andean peasants have been incorrectly viewed peasants as reactive agents engaging and retreating from political life based on external forces. Instead, if we understand these groups’ patterns of “resistant adaptation” then scholarly attention shifts not to why peasant populations spontaneously revolted, but why they sometimes used violence as one of their political tools.[21] Methodologically, he calls for the use of multiple time-frames of reference that engage with both short-term of “episodic” acts of violence as well as longer time frames that place these episodes in their historical context.[22]

Using this approach, Stern attempts a reappraisal of the Túpac Amaru rebellion on the 1780s by linking it to a series of eighteenth-century uprisings, beginning with the Juan Santos Atahualpa insurrection in 1742. By viewing this entire period as a continuum of insurrection, disparate conflicts from across a broad stretch of time and space can more coherently be accounted for in history.[23] He notes that while the figure of an Inca King served as a unifying element in the 1742 and 1780 rebellions, he tries to understand the structural reasons that led support for such a sustained and extensive resistance to colonial rule instead of viewing the invocation of an Inca king as an example of peasants being led by millenarian figures. This example presents an interesting example to compare with Eric Wolf’s argument that “peasant movements, like peasant coalitions, are unstable and shifting alignments of antagonistic and autonomous units, borne along only momentarily by a millennial dream.”[24] If we use Stern’s method of viewing this period as more than a momentary episode of violence, the Age of Andean Insurrection seems sustained. Yet the isolated and sporadic nature of many of these rebellions supports the assertion that peasant coalitions were also unstable and shifting. Still, in broader terms, Stern is clear that indigenous peasants were not reactionaries in this period, but active participants in a sustained effort to force changes in the terms of colonial rule.[25]

Finally, similar to Hünefeldt, Stern also challenges earlier Marxist frameworks that primarily focused on material and class conditions of peasants without analyzing the significance of ethnicity as well. He says that when studying peasant societies in the Andes, “one must immediately weigh the significance of ethnicity in ‘peasant’ consciousness and revolt.”[26]

Within the same volume, the series of essays by Heraclio Bonilla, Florencia Mallon, and Tristan Platt, develop a debate on rebellion and the formation of the nation-state in Peru and Bolivia in the nineteenth century.[27] This debate revolves around whether the formation of peasant guerrilla groups in the Peruvian highlands to repel invading Chilean forces during the War of the Pacific represents a peasant nationalist movement.[28] Florencia Mallon’s essay, “Nationalist and Antistate Coalitions in the War of the Pacific: Junín and Cajamarca, 1879-1902,” argues that it does and that Andean uprisings against the Chilean army in Junín and Cajamarca represented an early emergence of a nationalist consciousness within the peasant class.[29] Mallon uses a large archive of military and political correspondence from Cajamarca, Junín, and Lima, to compare the uprisings in Junín and Cajamarca in which each group had their own “particular form of nationalist consciousness” and vision for a new nation.[30] However, as will be discussed later in my review of Mallon’s Peasant and Nation, she says these alternate ideologies eventually lost the battle against Creole’s fighting for a liberal market economy.

Bonilla’s chapter, “The Indian Peasantry and “Peru” during the War with Chile,” argued that because Peru was so socially fragmented in the late nineteenth century and because nationalism has been historically associated with the rising bourgeoisie class and a market society, that describing this period of peasant guerrilla insurgency against the Chileans as nationalist does not mesh with existing theoretical frameworks. If they were nationalist, he asks, what is their connection to the wider Peruvian society?[31] He rejects Mallon’s attempts to broaden what is meant by “nationalist” to include Andeans “poetic ‘love of the land,’” saying that more information is needed on what peasants at the time meant by nation or “we run the risk of including the most outlandish” definitions of what we mean by nation in our discussion.[32]

While dealing with a different place and time, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui’s Oppressed but Not Defeated on the 1900 to 1980 struggles of Aymara and Quechua peasants in the highlands and western valleys of the Bolivian Andes, is a complement to Stern and Mallon’s work on eighteenth and nineteenth century Peru.[33] This collection of essays, based on research and writing with Bolivian peasant unions carried out by Rivera in the prior decade, supports the argument for viewing indigenous peasants as politically conscious actors with clear political platforms. Rivera begins her story in the critical late nineteenth century period of liberal reforms, presenting a narrative of intensifying indigenous resistance to the encroachment of liberal oligarchs, from the end of Indian tribute in the nineteenth century to the peasant resistance to the government of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario. Through Rivera’s narrative arc, the reader sees peasant engagement with the political process at every turn, especially in the rejection of MNR policy over what it saw as liberal reforms that were antagonistic to indigenous institutions. Her comparison of the peasant union movement that grew out of the highland Aymara regions with the lowland Quechua movement also provides insightful detail about the differences between ethnic groups.[34] Like Hünefeldt, Rivera illustrates the complexities of peasant and indigenous societies, arguing that they cannot be treated as a homogenous class.[35] In this respect, Rivera’s work shows the fragmentation of Bolivian ethnic groups as seen in the Quechua and Aymara groups in the highland sierra, including intellectuals, students and entrepreneurs, versus the Quechua and mestizo communities of the lowland valleys.[36]

One of Rivera’s most intriguing contributions to the historiography of this movement is her development of a memory framework to explain how later social movements combined collective long-term memories of indigenous resistance to Spanish and liberal rule with short-term memories of more recent peasant unionization struggles.[37] As her seven appendices of excerpts from political manifestos and policy statements of different labor unions show, the Kataristas and other groups who formed the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia were aware of their history and actively used collective memories of the past to shape their vision for the future they were fighting for.

As the 1980s came to a close, the historiography of peasant revolts in the Andes was still grappling with fundamental questions related to socioeconomic transitions to modernity. While global politics were dimming the appeal of historical materialism, neoliberal reforms being applied in many places were exacting a heavy social price. In the Andes, these global changes also developed around the buildup to the five-hundred-year anniversary of the voyage of Columbus, a memory knot of global proportions. As scholars used the occasion to reflect on the consequences of 1492, the importance of indigenous actors in history became an increasingly important theme of study. Amidst a series of indigenous uprisings across the Andes, scholars increasingly turned to questions about native Andean society. Florencia Mallon’s 1995 book, Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru, is an example of this trend, moving from broader questions about class and social behavior to problems of subaltern groups, discourse, and structural relationships of power.[38]  In Ecuador, scholars such as Mark Thurner, A. Kim Clark, and Marc Becker’s research illustrate both similar and different concerns.

Looking first at Mallon’s work, her incorporation of postmodern theory, anthropology, and literary criticism is one of the first applications of those theoretical frameworks in the field and represents a major contribution to Andean historiography. Acknowledging her earlier dispute with Bonilla, she says that, ultimately, questions about how historic classes behaved are fruitless. Better instead to ask how historical discourses were used to shape social narratives at the expense of dissenting viewpoints from subaltern actors.[39] At the most basic level, Peasant and Nation compares cases of “peasant nationalism” in nineteenth century Peru and Mexico, arguing against the persistent view of indigenous peoples as “unable to comprehend, much less creatively engage, concepts of nation and nationalism.”[40] Instead, she says that popular groups in both countries were active participants in the nation-building process, albeit for a different vision of a nation than that held by Conservatives and Liberals.

To support her argument, Mallon puts Antoni Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in dialogue with Benedict Anderson’s image of the nation as an “imagined community” to compare how the different paths taken by elite in Peru and Bolivia affected the incorporation of popular movements into society.[41] Also reminiscent of Steve Stern’s Age of Andean Insurrection in the eighteenth century, Mallon proposes an era of “national democratic revolutions” in the long nineteenth century, in which she shows that peasant groups in Peru and Mexico consistently fought for a vision of the state that was different from traditional liberal ideology.[42] In terms of the historiography of peasant movements, Mallon is clearly in the camp of those who reject characterizations of peasants and indigenous people as apolitical. Like Hünefeldt and Rivera, she warns against approaching peasants and indigenous groups as a single analytical category. Instead, she tries to show how even within seemingly homogenous villages, factions had to reach negotiated consensuses, a process she describes as “constructing communal hegemony.”[43] Mallon also applies critical discourse analysis, deconstructing dominant historical narratives to show where counterhegemonic influences were buried in official histories.[44]

In terms of earlier historiographical questions about peasant consciousness and external leadership in rural revolts, her case studies showed a difference in terms of autonomy and ideology, with groups in Morelos, Junín, and Puebla being relatively more active in pushing for their own political visions than peasant groups she studied in Cajamarca. She argued that this was due to the different historical relationships between peasant communities and local landowners. In Cajamarca, traditional relationships between the two groups were better and so peasants tended to engage with the nation-building project through frameworks established by the local elite. In the other regions, tensions and conflict had characterized recent historical relations and provided these groups with more experience in social mobilization, thus they acted with more autonomy in their political organization and demands.[45] When compared to earlier works, such as Mariel Crespi’s research on peasant unionization in Cayambe, similarities appear in their emphasis on the disruptive effect of the breakdown in traditional social institutions on peasant communities. For Crespi in Ecuador, it was the expropriation of Church haciendas and the formation of experimental peasant cooperatives that opened space for the growth of peasant organization. In areas she looked at where haciendas maintained functional power systems, those estates saw much less agitation.[46]

In the historiography on Ecuador, this larger debate about citizenship, nationalism and peasant participation in the building of the nation-state came amid a period of domestic upheaval. The launching of the so-called levantamiento indígena in 1990, which kicked off a tumultuous decade that ended with the overthrow of two presidents, the collapse of the nation’s financial system, and the emigration of as many as a million economic refugees, demonstrated the ability of indigenous peasants to organize and fight for their vision of a different nation in dramatic form. As the Ecuadorian experiment with liberal economic policies unraveled, historians like Mark Thurner, A. Kim Clark, and Marc Becker published a series of studies that focused on the transition to the liberal economic system in the early twentieth century and the rise of indigenous organizations in reaction to it. By connecting these two periods, scholars sought to place the ongoing crisis in a historical context.

Looking first at Mark Thurner’s 1993 article “Peasant Politics and Andean Haciendas in the Transition to Capitalism: An Ethnographic History,” the author joins the debate over peasant agency by arguing for a “middle ground” between peasants as political organizers and peasants as prepolitical masses.[47] Building on Steve Stern’s calls for historical analysis of both episodic and long-term time, Thurner looks at crop and livestock theft, gift-giving, land invasions and revolts as a “historical struggle of ‘cultural micropolitics’” that represent the small ways that peasants engaged in politics without magnifying those actions into evidence of a larger national project.[48] Like Mallon’s Peasant and Nation, Thurner’s work was also trying to account for indigenous and subaltern groups in Andean history who had been consistently overlooked in traditional historical narratives. At its core, his work is a microhistory of a peasant village’s transition to capitalism, shedding light on the meaning of daily acts of resistance within a broader, disruptive process that undermined the social traditions of rural life. Yet this work limits the extent of this agency, arguing “Andean peasants made politics in the local, frequently ‘ritualized’ contests” like he documented between landowners and hacienda workers in the highland area he studied in Ecuador.[49] Unfortunately, he is not able to broaden his analytical focus enough to see how movements like the ones he studied in Chimborazo relate to broader patterns of resistance seen in areas like Cayambe that Crespi, Greaves, and, later, Becker looked at in their work.

In terms of this narrow topical focus, Thurner’s book has much in common with anthropologist Gavin Smith’s 1989 study of peasant resistance in the Mantauro Valley of central Peru.[50] In that influential monograph, Livelihood and Resistance: Peasants and the Politics of Land in Peru, Smith looked at a village’s almost sixty-year struggle against a local hacienda to argue that some peasants avoided becoming proletarians by changing their economic strategies and migrating to cities like Lima even while not letting go of their ties to communal land back home.[51] Both Smith and Thurner contribute to the larger historiographical debate about the disruptive influences of the penetration of capitalism – and adaptations to it – by looking at relatively successful peasant movements to take back community land. This represents a line of argument at odds with Mallon’s more radical claims of peasant agency in the formation of Andean nation-states.         Smith had explicitly challenged Mallon’s first book, The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands, in which she asserted that laborers abandoned the peasantry when they moved to cities and joined the urban proletariat.[52] Reflecting earlier debates about how to classify peasants as a socioeconomic class, Smith argued that the objective of migrating for work in this area of Peru was precisely to raise funds to support traditional peasant relationships with their community and ancestral lands.[53] Posed like this, the question seemed to be, what happens when peasants use their agency to protect traditional society? Is this a defense of community or an offensive strategy for achieving a new national project?

At this point, an interesting contrast between the historical and anthropological works reviewed in this essay can be seen. While anthropological and ethnohistorical studies, like those of Smith and Thurner, seem to broadly support many of the conclusions of the historical research reviewed in this essay, they are cautious about extrapolating their findings too far. Historians, on the other hand, have favored longer temporal and spatial periods of analysis and seem more comfortable with higher levels of generalization. In this respect, the work of anthropologist A. Kim Clark, The Redemptive Work: Railway and Nation in Ecuador, 1895–1930, is an anthropological outlier.[54] Instead of focusing on a limited region or a subaltern community, she looks at what the building of a railroad connecting Ecuador’s largest cities, Guayaquil and Quito, meant for social groups in different regions of the country.

Looking at a similar period as Mallon’s work in Peasant and Nation, Clark uses the construction of the railroad as a window into the period of Liberal rule between 1895 and 1930 and state efforts to integrate the nation. She focuses on political-economic transformations, elite discourse of nationhood, and the uneven effects of the railroad project on different social groups and regions.[55] She argues that although the elite landowners of the highlands and the commercial agro exporters on the coast had different reasons for supporting the project, the building of a railroad represented a key point of consensus that allowed both groups to break a political impasse and move the country forward into the twentieth century.[56]

Written in 1998, Clark’s work is reflective of a wider turn in Andean studies toward understanding the role of markets in changing historical conditions. Similar to Gavin Smith’s work, her attention to economic issues, such as the formation of internal markets and labor systems, shows a shared concern for the role of the political economy in the shaping of cultural meaning, albeit in a wider geographical area.[57] For example, she shows how a century before the collapse of the neoliberal economy, an economic crisis of nineteenth-century liberalism sparked the decline of the highland textile industry created a wave of indigenous migration to the coast as agricultural workers sought work in the better-paying jobs in the lowlands. This spurred the creation of the country’s first modern labor market and the rise of the agro-export economy, but also “provided a discursive field within which different social groups could come to an uneasy consensus about the nature of national development and modernization.”[58]

Surprisingly, while Clark’s book seems to embrace the work of Florencia Mallon by focusing on social hegemony and elite discourses of nationalism, she portrays indigenous groups more as reactive elements who fought modernization at the edge of the larger national project.[59] Furthermore, unlike Mallon she accepts the assumption that the Liberal modernization and nationalism were two sides of the same coin. In this respect, her work would have benefitted from a longer temporal framework, as recommended by Stern in the 1980s, to help situate the construction of this railroad in the wider historical context of Ecuador’s nation-building project. Still, this is a thorough, top-down history of Ecuador’s early twentieth century political economy, but one that still presents indigenous people as part of a landscape that resisted attempts to bring Ecuador into the modern world.

The work of Marc Becker, one of the most prolific contemporary writers on the history of Ecuador, is indicative of another post-Cold War shift in Andean historiography away from Marxist analysis of peasant social movements to more nuanced histories of specific historical movements, such as the 1990 indigenous uprising, that analyze the role of ethnicity in class struggle. Becker published his first book in 1993, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory, on the local roots of Marxist revolutions as an attempt to distance contemporary regional social movements from the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union. In that book, he argued that local indigenous movements were often more important to the formation of Latin America’s twentieth-century revolutionary uprisings than any ideological connections to Leninism or Stalinism.[60] Tracing the work of Peruvian Jose Carlos Mariátegui, he links the political philosopher’s ideas to the founding of the Cuban Communist Party, Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, and the later revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara.[61]

In terms of the historiography of peasants, his work is perhaps the most radical formulation of indigenous agency seen in the works reviewed for this essay. His next book, Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements sought to recast class-conscious Marxists of the twentieth century as aligned with the ethnic struggles of the nation’s indigenous peasants.[62] In this revisionist history, the indigenous uprising became part of a long continuum of movements spurred by the alliance of socialist intellectuals with rural peasants.

Amidst an outpouring of social science research on the indigenous uprisings after 1990, one of Becker’s main contribution to Ecuadorian historiography was the historical links he made between contemporary indigenous activism and rural peasant movements in the period from 1920 to 1950, saying that “Ecuador has a longer and more diverse history of Indigenous movements engaging issues of gender, class, and ethnicity than most scholars and activists realize.”[63] His work is important for shedding light on social processes like the dissolution of Church-owned haciendas in the early twentieth century, which allowed for the creation of state-run plantations and peasant cooperatives that then spurred larger political movements. To be sure, much of this ground was covered by anthropologists Mariel Crespi in 1971 and Barry Lyon in his 2006 monograph, Remembering the Hacienda: Religion, Authority, and Social Change in Highland Ecuador, but Becker drives home the point that rural movements were integral in the modernizing push for state reform in the twentieth century.[64]

Also important for the historiography, Becker’s work incorporates women into his analysis, emphasizing the central leadership roles played by early female activists, such as Dolores Cacuango, and the gender complementarity of protest in Ecuador’s twentieth-century indigenous movements.[65] As he attempts to show, another effect of the “great transformation” in the Andes was the disappearance of traditional gendered ideologies and the hardening of attitudes toward female leaders. In this respect, apart from Mallon’s works, Becker engages with gender more than any other author reviewed for this essay does ad his attention to the role of women in the development of rural protest movements is a major contribution.

Additionally, his focus on the origins of Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, known as the CONAIE, is similar to earlier research on peasant syndicates carried out by Crespi, Greaves, and Rivera in the 1970s and 1980s. These prosopographies of movements like the CONAIE or Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo provide important context for historians working in these fields and do much to dispel claims that peasants lack political agency.

In conclusion, looking back at four decades of scholarship on Andean peasants a number of historical issues stand out. First, in terms of early challenges of categorizing peasants as a class, the most recent historiography shows the need of also factoring in ethnicity, gender, and ideology into our understanding of peasant society, especially in areas like the Andes where indigenous populations represent a critical mass of rural populations.

Second, any claim that peasants are inherently apolitical actors or marginal actors in regional history should be judged with caution. As Mallon noted in Peasant and Nation, before assuming that peasants did not take part in their own nation-building projects, it is necessary to critically examine assumptions that nationalism is inextricably tied to liberalism as an ideology. While most serious scholarship no longer assumes peasants are inherently incapable of conscious political action, this is not the case everywhere. In this respect, even Thurner’s “middle ground” fails to take seriously the idea that non-Western ways of understanding the world also count as political ideology. As historians have searched for evidence of emerging peasant consciousness and active participation in the modernization of their societies, few have questioned what that “progress” actually means and why someone would support it. If one takes seriously the idea that liberal democracy is not some Hegelian end in and of itself, then alternate ideological frameworks appear as plausible visions for the creation of a national society.

It is here that a closer consideration of human-environment relationships would be a useful approach to understanding these historical issues better. For example, as recent research on the complex relationships between societies and their physical environment show, it is now clear that modern systems of economic production are unsustainable and perhaps cataclysmic. By considering the effects of land change and natural resource extraction on the physical environment, it becomes clearer why societies that place more value on sustainable ecosystems would choose not to participate in liberal ideologies that ignore the costs of environmental degradation. Does that mean that those societies are politically unconscious, or perhaps more aware?

Furthermore, more work also needs to be done on the role of gender and race in rural peasant movements. Given the racist and patriarchal nature of modern western democracies, scholars who claim peasants and subaltern communities did not engage with the political process should answer the question of why they should have in the first place. Perhaps in areas where peasants did not violently resist oppression their fine-tuned awareness of their historical plight actually led them to resignation or disengagement with society-at-large. While this is only a hypothetical example, it serves to illustrate that there is no necessary connection between resistance and political consciousness. As historians, we cannot assume that all rational people deal with oppression by fighting back.

Finally, in terms of questions about the role of external leadership in peasant social movements, what seems most surprising is the implied assumption that non-peasant members of society are themselves politically conscious actors. None of the authors reviewed in this essay even raise the question of whether citizens of so-called modern liberal democracies might be better described, as peasants have been, as reactive agents dependent on external leadership. In this respect, one of the central debates in the field of peasant studies remains trapped in anachronistic conceptions of Europeans and their descendants as inherently political actors. Indeed, as recent political events in the United States and Europe show, liberal gains are not the result of a teleological process that can be taken for granted. Each generation is born naked in this world and must learn everything anew. While peasants have traditionally had few opportunities to gain a formal education, access to schooling is no guarantee of wisdom.


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———. Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory. Monographs in International Studies, no. 20. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1993.

Becker, Marc, and Silvia Tutillo. Historia Agraria y Social de Cayambe. 1a. ed. Quito, Ecuador: FLACSO Ecuador : Abya-Yala, 2009.

Bonilla, Heraclio. “The Indian Peasantry and ‘Peru’ during the War with Chile.” In Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, edited by Steve J. Stern, 219–31. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Clark, A. Kim. The Redemptive Work: Railway and Nation in Ecuador, 1895–1930. Latin American Silhouettes. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1998.

Crespi, Muriel. “Changing Power Relations: The Rise of Peasant Unions on Traditional Ecuadorian Haciendas.” Anthropological Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1971): 223–40.

Greaves, Thomas C. “The Andean Rural Proletarians.” Anthropological Quarterly 45, no. 2 (1972): 65–83.

Hobsbawm, E. J. “Peasants and Politics.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 1, no. 1 (October 1, 1973): 3–22.

———. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The Norton Library N328. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965.

Hünefeldt, Christine. Lucha Por La Tierra y Protesta Indígena: Las Comunidades Indígenas Del Perú Entre Colonia y República, 1800-1830. Bonn, República Federal de Alemania: Bonner Amerikanistische Studien BAS 9, 1982.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement.” In V. I. Lenin: Collected Works, 5:347–530. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977. Digital Reprint 2009,

Lyons, Barry J. Remembering the Hacienda: Religion, Authority, and Social Change in Highland Ecuador. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Mallon, Florencia E. “Nationalist and Antistate Coalitions in the War of the Pacific: Junín and Cajamarca, 1879-1902.” In Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, edited by Steve J. Stern, 232–79. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

———. Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

———. The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860-1940. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International publ, 1990.

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. 2nd Beacon Paperback ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001.

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia. Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900-1980. Environment Department Papers: Participation Series. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1987.

Smith, Gavin A. Livelihood and Resistance: Peasants and the Politics of Land in Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Stern, Steve J., ed. Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Thurner, Mark. “Peasant Politics and Andean Haciendas in the Transition to Capitalism: An Ethnographic History.” Latin American Research Review 28, no. 3 (1993): 41–82.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasants. Foundations of Modern Anthropology Series. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.


[1] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International publ, 1990); E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, The Norton Library N328 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1965); Eric R. Wolf, Peasants, Foundations of Modern Anthropology Series (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), 108–9. [2] Wolf, Peasants, viii. [3] E. J. Hobsbawm, “Peasants and Politics,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 1, no. 1 (October 1, 1973): 3–22. For more on the role of the revolutionary vanguard, see Vladimir Lenin’s seminal essay “What Is To Be Done? Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement,” in V. I. Lenin: Collected Works, vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 347–530, Digital Reprint 2009, [4] Hobsbawm, “Peasants and Politics,” 9. [5] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback ed (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001). [6] Muriel Crespi, “Changing Power Relations: The Rise of Peasant Unions on Traditional Ecuadorian Haciendas,” Anthropological Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1971): 239. [7] E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, The Norton Library N328 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1965); Eric R. Wolf, Peasants, Foundations of Modern Anthropology Series (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), 108–9. [8] Crespi, “Changing Power Relations,” 238. [9] Ibid., 223. [10] Thomas C. Greaves, “The Andean Rural Proletarians,” Anthropological Quarterly 45, no. 2 (1972): 65. [11] Ibid., 66. [12] Ibid., 74–75. [13] Christine Hünefeldt, Lucha Por La Tierra y Protesta Indígena: Las Comunidades Indígenas Del Perú Entre Colonia y República, 1800-1830 (Bonn, República Federal de Alemania: Bonner Amerikanistische Studien BAS 9, 1982); Steve J. Stern, ed., Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987). [14] Hünefeldt, Lucha Por La Tierra y Protesta Indígena, VII. [15] Ibid., II. [16] Ibid., 24–26; 55–57. [17] Hünefeldt, Lucha Por La Tierra y Protesta Indígena, 119. [18] Stern, Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, 10; authors included in this edition are Steve J. Stern, Magnus Morner, Efraín Trelles, Leon G. Campbell, Frank Salomon, Jan Szeminsky, Alberto Flores Galindo, Heraclio Bonilla, Florencia E. Mallon, Tristan Platt, Jorge Dandler, Juan Torrico A. and Xavier Albó. [19] Ibid., 9. [20] Ibid., 8–9. [21] Heraclio Bonilla, “The Indian Peasantry and ‘Peru’ during the War with Chile,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, ed. Steve J. Stern (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 72–73. [22] Stern, Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, 11. [23] Bonilla, “The Indian Peasantry and ‘Peru’ during the War with Chile,” 34. [24] Wolf, Peasants, 108–9. [25] Bonilla, “The Indian Peasantry and ‘Peru’ during the War with Chile,” 76. [26] Stern, Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, 15. [27] See Part III, Stern, Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries[28] Ibid., 214. [29] Florencia E. Mallon, “Nationalist and Antistate Coalitions in the War of the Pacific: Junín and Cajamarca, 1879-1902,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, ed. Steve J. Stern (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 233. [30] Ibid., 267–69. [31] Bonilla, “The Indian Peasantry and ‘Peru’ during the War with Chile,” 220. [32] Ibid., 228–29. [33] Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900-1980, Environment Department Papers: Participation Series (Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1987). [34] Ibid., 97-98. [35] Ibid., 101–2. [36] Ibid., 149. [37] Ibid., 150. [38] Florencia E. Mallon, Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). [39] Ibid., 14. [40] Ibid., 4. [41] Ibid., 5. [42] Ibid., 228. [43] Ibid., 65. [44] Ibid., 90. [45] Ibid., 243. [46] Crespi, “Changing Power Relations,” 229. [47] Mark Thurner, “Peasant Politics and Andean Haciendas in the Transition to Capitalism: An Ethnographic History,” Latin American Research Review 28, no. 3 (1993): 42. [48] Ibid., 42–43. [49] Ibid., 42. [50] Gavin A. Smith, Livelihood and Resistance: Peasants and the Politics of Land in Peru (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). [51] Ibid, 22-24. [52] Florencia E. Mallon, The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860-1940 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1983). [53] Smith, Livelihood and Resistance, 23–24. [54] A. Kim Clark, The Redemptive Work: Railway and Nation in Ecuador, 1895–1930, Latin American Silhouettes (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1998). [55] Ibid., 2. [56] Ibid., 199. [57] Ibid., 73. [58] Ibid., 42. [59] Ibid., 154. [60] Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory, Monographs in International Studies, no. 20 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1993). [61] Ibid. [62] Marc Becker, Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). [63] Becker, Indians and Leftists, 16. [64] Barry J. Lyons, Remembering the Hacienda: Religion, Authority, and Social Change in Highland Ecuador, 1st ed (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). [65] Becker, Indians and Leftists, 189.

By N. H. Gill, 2018

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