Cesar Chavez: The Failure of ‘La Causa’

Ronald A. Wells is professor of history emeritus, at Calvin College.  Although mostly retired in Tennessee, he is the director of the annual Symposium on Faith & The Liberal Arts at Maryville College.  Recently he wrote a brilliant analysis of the leadership failure that was Cesar Chavez in the Journal of Presbyterian History.

I grew up with great admiration for Cesar Chavez.  Throughout the 80’s and 90’s I was confounded with the dismal effect that his leadership had on both farmers and the farm workers movement.  It fell to Miriam Pawel, a veteran journalist and scholar, has written a welcome and very challenging addition to the literature on Chavez and the movement he led.

Chavez’ movement coincided with the civil rights movement, with one giant spiritual and moral distinction.  Mexican farm workers, in walking from Delano to Sacramento walked every step behind an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  The difference is seen in the failure of secular radicals to acknowledge the theological, sacramental devotion such protest inspired, for it was not a protest so much as pilgrimage (peregrinacion).

This is a needed distinction brought into focus by Miriam Pawel’s lovely devotional book titled ‘The Union of their Dreams:  Power, Hope & Struggle In Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement’.

Pawel’s objective is to bring more criticism to the distinct hagiography that has dominated most literature covering ‘La Causa’.

Dominating most of the book is a simple unnerving question:  given the success that became of Chavez and the farm workers movement, why is it so bad for them today?

‘The Union of their Dreams’ is an answer to this question.  Pawel discovers that something happened to Cesar Chavez along the way.  Simply put, Chavez could not make the transition from leader of a popular movement to a leader of a successful organization.  Weber’s classic formulation describes the necessary transition from charismatic to bureaucratic leadership.  Chavez’s failure to provide such a personal transition proved disastrous.

The beginning of his ‘turn’ toward ultimate failure was Chavez’s firm belief in the spiritual management style of Synanon, specifically a confrontational, confessional rubric that pitted people in open and discreet confrontation with each other.  Sadly, all those who worked honorably throughout the rise of ‘La Causa’ were defeated and humiliated by this cultic confessional style.  We can find similar abuses throughout the Marxist enterprise whether Soviet or Maoist.

The tragedy that became of Chavez was not to be anticipated by either his followers or supporters.  The failure of ‘La Causa’ is to be discerned throughout the long, secretive cultic confession that unhinged a great man and lost a great movement.

A reversal fit for Shakespeare!

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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