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The Zapatistas: A New Strategy in Mexico

category north america / mexico | the left | feature author Thursday November 17, 2005 23:47author by Andrew Flood - WSM - Red and Black Revolution Report this post to the editors

Anarchist analysis of the repercussions of the news from Chiapas

Over the summer the Zapatistas announced a new strategy but what was it and what does it mean? On the global level the the rebellion in Chiapas was both an inspiration and organisational model for new a generations of anti-capitalist activists. Because of this the change in direction will have repercussions that stretch far beyond Mexico

If the 6th declaration represents a very significant shift in Zapatista politics to anti-capitalism it also still contains many of the contradictions between their local organisational methods which are based on self-management and what they appear to advocate at the national level

Zapatistas: A New Strategy

Over the summer the Zapatistas surprised their supporters by suddenly declaring a Red Alert out of the blue. After a couple of days of near panic it emerged that this was just because they were undergoing a consulta (a discussion and referendum) which would decide on a new path for the movement. This new path is to once more turn outwards and to aim to build a new alliance across Mexico and beyond.

At the time I was drafting an article for Red and Black Revolution which looked at how the Zapatistas had been in a long inward looking phase which required many local compromises with the Mexican state. I was interested in the self-management structures they had built in this period but also the nature of the compromises and in particular the question of dual power. That is the question of how long a situation could exist where you had Zapatista structures of self-management on the one hand and the Mexico state on the other as opposed mechanisms that both tried to decide what life in Chiapas could be like.

The traditional leftist understanding is that situations of dual power cannot be indefinite - yet it appeared that the Zapatistas were attempting to do just this. Then the Red Alert and the communiques which followed made all my speculations irrelevant as they clearly brought this period to an end.

The years 2001-2004

The process by which the Zapatistas have spent most of the period from 2001 to mid 2005 building up self-management started when the Zapatistas realised they faced an all party coalition determined not to allow through the new indigenous laws contained in the San Andres peace accords. They date this to April 2001 when "the politicians from the PRI, PAN and PRD approved a law that was no good, they killed dialogue once and for all, and they clearly stated that it did not matter what they had agreed to and signed, because they did not keep their word".

After the usual long period of silence which indicates a lot of internal discussion the Zapatista's announced that the Auguscalantes where the big external meetings were once held were becoming Caracols or the centres of Zapatista internal organization as well as contact points with the Zapatistas for the outside world. These were to be the centres of the Juntas of Good Government (although in English junta is often assumed to mean dictatorship in fact it means something like council).

What exactly this meant was not all that clear until on the 15th of August 2004 the EZLN released a set of 8 communiques, most of which fleshed out in a huge amount of detail just what the Zapatistas were up to in this period. In many ways these are among the most important documents of the rebellion and it is worth taking the time to read them in detail.

Self-management in Chiapas

From these documents we learn that the "good government juntas" follow the libertarian structures established by the other layers of Zapatista self-management. By far the most provoking aspect is that the actual people who make up each junta are rotated in an incredibly rapid fashion. According to Marcos these rotations are from every "eight to 15 days (according to the region)". The delegates are themselves drawn from the members of the Autonomous Council (AC) and because these are rotated in turn (over a longer period which seems to be a year) this means that by the time everyone on an AC has been on the junta a new AC is created and so all these new people must in turn learn the ropes.

As might be imagined this is driving those who work with the Zapatistas nuts because it means every time you go to a 'good government junta' you are dealing with different people. This is by design and it is worth quoting Marcos at length as to why this is so

"If this is analysed in depth, it will be seen that it is a process where entire villages are learning to govern.

"The advantages? Fine, one of them is that it's more difficult for an authority to go too far and, by arguing how "complicated" the task of governing is, to not keep the communities informed about the use of resources or decision making. The more people who know what it's all about, the more difficult it will be to deceive and to lie. And the governed will exercise more vigilance over those who govern.

"It also makes corruption more difficult. If you manage to corrupt one member of the JBG, you will have to corrupt all the autonomous authorities, or all the rotations, because doing a "deal" with just one of them won't guarantee anything (corruption also requires "continuity"). Just when you have corrupted all the councils, you'll have to start over again, because by then there will have been a change in the authorities, and the one you "arranged" won't work any longer. And so you'll have to corrupt virtually all the adult residents of the Zapatista communities. Although, obviously, it's likely that once you've achieved that, the children will have already grown up and then, once again"

I think the logic here is quite recognisable to anarchists and needs no further explanation. The August 2004 communiques also explored the limitations of what had been achieved - notably the failure to involve women as equals in the decision making structures at the base of the organisation and the tendency of the military side of the organisation to try and make decisions for the communities.

The new turn of 2005

The new turn of the Zapatistas makes no signifi cant difference to the basics of the self-management structure sketched above. The communiques which announced it did add more details to what had been happening and the steps taken to address some of the problems identified.

But fundamentally they recognised that "we have reached a point where we cannot go any further, and, in addition, it is possible that we could lose everything we have if we remain as we are and do nothing more in order to move forward. The hour has come to take a risk once again and to take a step which is dangerous but which is worthwhile."

The 6th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle is interesting because it also sees the Zapatistas publically put forward an explicit and general anti-capitalist line for the first time. Previously there was an anti-capitalist logic underlying their opposition to neo-liberalism but here for the first time they distinguish between neoliberalism simply being a bad phase of capitalism and capitalism in itself being bad.

The section 'How we see the world' includes a long section on how capitalism works "capitalism means that there are a few who have great wealth, but they did not win a prize, or fi nd a treasure, or inherit from a parent. They obtained that wealth, rather, by exploiting the work of the many. So capitalism is based on the exploitation of the workers, which means they exploit the workers and take out all the profi ts they can. This is done unjustly, because they do not pay the worker what his work is worth. Instead they give him a salary that barely allows him to eat a little and to rest for a bit, and the next day he goes back to work in exploitation, whether in the countryside or in the cities".

Alliance with the left

This sets the basis for an unacknowledged change in who the EZLN are seeking an alliance with. In the past this was all progressive forces ('civil society'), now it is "with persons and organisations just of the left". Previously outside of Chiapas the EZLN appeared to advocate that the first step was a democratic (but capitalist) state and that the struggle for this included 'progressive' sections of Mexican business in the fight for democratic reform.

Now the declaration says "we are going to go about building, … a national program of struggle, but a program which will be clearly of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti- neoliberal, or for justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people". In concrete form "the EZLN will establish a policy of alliances with non-electoral organizations and movements which defi ne themselves, in theory and practice, as being of the left, in accordance with the following conditions:

  • Not to make agreements from above to be imposed below, but to make accords to go together to listen and to organise outrage.
  • Not to raise movements which are later negotiated behind the backs of those who made them, but to always take into account the opinions of those participating.
  • Not to seek gifts, positions, advantages, public positions, from the Power or those who aspire to it, but to go beyond the election calendar.
  • Not to try to resolve from above the problems of our nation, but to build FROM BELOW AND FOR BELOW an alternative to neoliberal destruction, an alternative of the left for Mexico.
  • Yes to reciprocal respect for the autonomy and independence of organisations, for their methods of struggle, for their ways of organising, for their internal decision making processes, for their legitimate representations.
  • And yes to a clear commitment for joint and coordinated defense of national sovereignty, with intransigent opposition to privatisation attempts of electricity, oil, water and natural resources."

The declaration also makes it clear that the EZLN is not talking about a return to armed struggle but "a struggle in order to demand that we make a new Constitution, new laws which take into account the demands of the Mexican people, which are: housing, land, work, food, health, education, information, culture, independence, democracy, justice, liberty and peace. A new Constitution which recognises the rights and liberties of the people, and which defends the weak in the face of the powerful."

In all this the 6th declaration does not represent a return to the strategy of the 1994-2001 period - a strategy which limited itself to democratic demands and the opening up of a political space. This strategy meant that while the practical organisation of the Zapatistas was a useful model for anarchists of self-management in practice, their actual declared goals always seemed quite naive - a demand for a nicer capitalism in an age when neoliberalism ensured any such experiments would be isolated and impoverished.

So it can be seen that the 6th declaration represents quite a step forward in the political program advocated by the Zapatistas. But why or how did these changes occur. Is this merely the old core leadership of leftists that went into the mountains in the 1980's shifting a step along the path they always intended to follow. Or does it refl ect a genuine development of analysis at the base of the movement. Or more realistically a transformation at the base driven by the old leftists?

Learning from struggle

This question is addressed in another long communique released in the weeks after the 6th declaration called 'A Penguin in the Selva Lacandona'. Much of this is taken up with the story about the Penguin and dealing with criticisms from Mexican social democrats but a long section also asked the reader to imagine the infl uence of the rebellion, and everything that went with it, on the children who have grown up during it. "What happens with that girl- then-adolescent-then-young-woman after having seen and heard "the civil societies" for 12 years, bringing not only projects, but also histories and experiences from diverse parts of Mexico and the World?" "We told you in the Sixth Declaration that new generations have entered into the s truggle. And they are not only new, they also have other experiences, other histories. We did not tell you in the Sixth, but I'm telling you now: they are better than us, the ones who started the EZLN and began the uprising. They see further, their step is more firm, they are more open, they are better prepared, they are more intelligent, more determined, more aware.

What the Sixth presents is not an "imported" product, written by a group of wise men in a sterile laboratory and then introduced into a social group. The Sixth comes out of what we are now and of where we are."

The suggestion clearly is that the process of rebellion and solidarity shown with the rebellion has been a political education for all those growing up during it. And that this is why the Zapatistas have moved towards a more explicit anti-capitalist position. Only time can reveal the accuracy of this claim but there is no reason for dismissing it out of hand.

At the time of writing the work to build the 'National Campaign with Another Politics' is well underway with the first of a series of meetings, the one for 'Political Organisations of the Left' having just taken place. The Mexican anarchist groups, including 'Alianza de los Comunistas Libertarios', were taking part in this. The ACL had circulated a detailed discussion of the 6th declaration that questioned the aim of writing a new constitution. They pointed out not only that the fine words found in constitutions are frequently meaningless in reality but more importantly a constitution implied the existence of a government to implement it. In other words the state would continue to exist and the state is the negation of the social revolution.

Contradictions remain

So if the 6th declaration represents a very significant shift in Zapatista politics to anti-capitalism it also still contains many of the contradictions between their local organisational methods which are based on self-management and what they appear to advocate at the national level. The opposition to electoral politics has significantly hardened with the 6th declaration but still appears as a critique of all the existing electoral parties rather than of electoralism as a strategy in itself. The confusion between an anti-imperialist opposition to US domination and support for nationalism whether in Cuba, Mexico or Venezula also remains.

How meaningful is it to talk of "our leaders are destroying our nation" because "they are only concerned with the well being of capitalists" when this is the natural order of capitalism, not just in Mexico now but throughout the world and throughout the history of the capitalist period. There have always been those on the left - including James Connolly in Ireland - who tried to redefine the nation so as to exclude the capitalist class. But are such semantic word games not simply building on sand - and facilitating the creation of a future 'history' where radical movements can be drained of their meaning by draping them in the national flag?

None of these criticisms are new but they will provide the excuse needed for those council communists and others who have sat on their hands for the last 12 years waiting for the Zapatista rebellion to turn authoritarian to sit on their hands for the next dozen. The challenge of the Zapatista movement for anarchists has been how to have real solidarity with a movement that contains such ambiguities. And how to learn what there is to learn - and tell others - without becoming unthinking cheer leaders.

The global anti-capitalist movement

On the global level the significance of the rebellion in Chiapas has been the inspiration and organisational model it provided for new generations of anti-capitalist activists. Because of this the change in direction will have repercussions that stretch far beyond Mexico. The Zapatistas are also aware of this which is why the 6th declaration starts off by talking of forging a new relationship of respect and support with those struggling against neo-liberalism around the globe. This is to include sending aid - even to those in struggle Europe - although the communique makes clear that they are well aware that the relative poverty means this can only be symbolic.

But importantly it also announces the intention to organise a 3rd intercontinental encuentro at the end of this year or the start of the next. The previous two, held in Chiapas in 1996 and the Spanish state in 1997 played an important role in the emergence of the summit protest movement by bringing activists from around the globe into contact with each other. Those of us who met in Chiapas or Madrid would later meet on the streets of Seattle, Prague and Genoa. This encounter could help us take the next step.

From Red & Black Revolution 10 - 2005 - online soon

author by kdog - NorthStar Anarchist Collectivepublication date Fri Nov 18, 2005 10:30author address author phone Report this post to the editors

As usual this is an excellent discussion piece from WSM comrades. I particularly agree with te conclusion that:

" The challenge of the Zapatista movement for anarchists has been how to have real solidarity with a movement that contains such ambiguities. And how to learn what there is to learn - and tell others - without becoming unthinking cheer leaders."

NorthStar comrades share the enthusiasm for the strengths Zapatista revolution, while also having concerns of where the weaknesses might take it.

One area that stuck out to me was how consistently the latest communiques from the EZLN and Marcos encouraged the participation of lesbians and gay men in the common struggle against Power.

While this isn't proof of an inherit antiauthoritarian nature to the EZLN, it is yet another way that the Zapatistas have broken with Left guerilla orthodoxy. They do truly seem more concerned with human freedom in its totality then obtaining Power for the organization.

author by Colin - Seattle NAFpublication date Fri Nov 18, 2005 14:13author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I really enjoyed this piece. I heard a bit about the Red Alert in Chiapas and was curious about what exactly it meant. The ELZN is something that seems to have faded out of the collective memory of a lot of anarchists, especially in the US.

author by Nilpublication date Sat Nov 19, 2005 02:33author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Excellent essay, thanks so much, very helpful.

author by Henry - A Star Calledpublication date Sat Nov 26, 2005 02:56author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Amazing! Only an idealist living in a fantasy world could spin capitulation as some kind of vindication. I'm all for workers self management, in fact I see no other way forward, but this isn't a case to use to promote those ideas!

author by Joepublication date Sat Nov 26, 2005 04:35author address author phone Report this post to the editors

You not making any argument at all there 'Henry' except perhaps a all too predicatable knee jerk reaction from those who see the gun as coming before all else in politics. We've seen how that works out with the IRPs and it is not very attractive.

One attraction of the Zapatistas is their understanding that the military has to be under the actual control of the community they claim to represent. And that a military movement that involves itself in crime will become corrupted.

As to capitulation - capitulation to whom? Unless you are demanding some sort of offensive action which might sound cool but which on the ground would be a massacre - not of the combatants but of the civilian communities they exist to protect.

There are models which have involved armed struggle that we can learn from - and then there are those like the IRPs from whom the only lesson is what not to do. Whatever the flaws in the Zapatistas they are not regarded by the public as a sectarian murder gang or a bunch of criminals.

author by Henry - RSYMpublication date Sun Nov 27, 2005 11:38author address author phone Report this post to the editors

What you've said is just ultraleft dogma, Joe. Bringing up the issue of the INLA's past armed struggle is just not relevant. It's also a complete misrepresentation, as the INLA recognised the mistakes being made and implemented changes. It was the army that you call corrupt which led the restructuring throughout the movement.

I never mentioned anything about the Zapatista's ceasefire, which is readily apparent. That military cessation was a foregone conclusion due to the strength of the Mexican government as a result of the USA's military aid. My comments reflected my disgust the cheerleading of their reformist orientation, and the current politics there that are as depressingly dead end as the 'peace' process.

There's nothing wrong with this ... if we realise the limitations of it. This was never going to be much more than that with this cause; it was by nature a reformist project attempting to fight the excesses of globalisation. It's not as if the movement was even contemplating taking power. This is of course not meant as a criticism of the EZLN as it is a comment on the deeply backwards conditions in the racial/caste system of Mexico.

The problem is when Leftists come along worshiping the EZLN as if they're a new model to emulate. This doesn't seem sound to me given that they've now watered down their demands and are like SF stuck in a reformist bourgeois political process with no options left.

Even more annoying is when various political groups use the Zapatistas to 'sell' their particular brand of ideology. As one libertarian marxist writer wrote: 'Everyone from anarchists to Marxist-Leninists, indigenous people’s freaks to social democrats, primitivists to ‘Third World’ developmentalists - all seemed able to see what they wanted in the struggle in Chiapas.'

author by Joepublication date Sun Nov 27, 2005 18:54author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Henry it is hard to see the political point you are trying to make behind jargon. 'Ultra-left' in particular is a meaningless term when applied to anarchism - its comes out of Lenin having a go at German marxists.

My point about the IRPs was to inform readers of where I reckoned you were coming from. The perspective of a top down semi-leninist organisation that claimed to wage war on behalf of a community and which degenerated into what is widely seen as another sectarian / criminal gang. The zapatistas have critiqued identical (but more successful) armed strategies in their region and with relation to ETA so knowing where you are coming from puts your hostility in that context. You reckon that led by its military wing the IRPs have now turned a corner - not the first time this has been claimed. But for those of us who see the problem in the model of organisation rather than bad individuals or state intervention this is not a claim that is convincing.

Anyway as this is about the Zapatistas rather than the IRPs I do want you to expand your criticism of the zapatistas beyond sloganeering about their 'reformism'. What exactly do you mean by this. What do you see as the alternatives? Despite where your coming from you might have a contribution to make if you can move from asserting a position to making an argument for it.

The question of how you see the struggle in Chiapas is important in this. The anarchist interest is easy to understand due to the similarities between the civilian side of decision making in the Zapatista communities and the sort of decision making structures anarchists talk about. But discussion of this has generally included criticisms of aspects of Zapatista ideology as well. As with the above article.

I'll give Marcos the last word on this (this was written in relation to ETA but applies here two)
We don't see why we would ask you what we should do or how we should do it. What are you going to teach us? To kill journalists who speak badly about the struggle? To justify the death of children for reason of the "cause"? We don't need or want your support or solidarity. We already have the support and solidarity of many people in Mexico and the world. Our struggle has a code of honor, inherited from our guerilla ancestors and it contains, among other things: respect of civilian lives (even though they may occupy government positions that oppress us); we don't use crime to get resources for ourselves (we don't rob, not even a snack store); we don't respond to words with fire (even though many hurt us or lie to us). One could think that to renounce these traditionally "revolutionary" methods is renouncing the advancement of our struggle. But, in the faint light of our history it seems that we have advanced more than those that resort to such arguments (more to demonstrate their radical nature and consequences than to effectively serve their cause)

Related Link:
author by Andrew - Anarkismopublication date Tue Nov 29, 2005 19:17author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The comment on the dissolution of the FZLN has been moved to the thread where we are carrying the communiques on this at

I've nothing in particular to add to the discussion of reformism - mostly because it is not clear what is being talked about - but it is an odd accusation to make now when the Zapatista strategy seems to be shifting from a the reformist 'civil society + democracy' one on the national level to a more revolutionary 'the left and anti-capitalism'. It would have made a lot more sense before the release of the '6th declaration' - perhaps its based on a rather old article/analysis? In which case I suggest reading the article above and the communiques it links to.

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