The Zapatistas: a new road to revolution?


By Nick Soudakoff

Since the January 1, 1994, Chiapas uprising, the Zapatistas have been a major factor in Mexican politics and an inspiration for struggles in Latin America and around the world. Their example has been used by many, including anarchist trends, to argue for a new road to revolution without taking state power. The Zapatistas have been cited as proof that revolutions can be made without a revolutionary party to unite and lead popular struggles.

The Zapatistas themselves have not spelled out their strategic aims and political program. Their numerous declarations voice general progressive political demands.

In particular, Marcos, one of the leaders who is responsible for many of the Zapatista declarations, tends to produce declarations which are poetic but not particularly analytical. One key point of ambiguity is the EZLN's claim that it does not want to take power. It is easy to interpret this to mean a range of things.

Harry Cleaver, in his response to Zanny Begg's critique of "Autonomous Marxism" on the National Broad Left e-mail network, highlights this: "The point of revolution is to change the meaning of power, not to substitute the power of one class for another. The point is to abolish the state not to substitute one state structure for another ... This is the point Marcos has made in explaining the EZLN critique of the Left opposition in Mexico. And it is a good one."

Has the experience of the Zapatista movement disproved the Marxist position that to make a revolution you need a revolutionary party to lead a popular insurrection and win state power?

Who are the Zapatistas?

The Zapatistas are considered to be made up of three components: the army (EZLN), the Zapatista base communities in Chiapas centred on autonomous municipalities and the Frente Zapatista (FZLN), the EZLN support network which has affiliates across Mexico.

The first leaders of the EZLN, including Marcos, went into the Chiapas jungle in 1983. It took them more than a year to win many adherents, but by 1988 they had won the allegiance of the elders of many indigenous villages, who took the decision to send some of their sons and daughters into the jungle highlands to prepare an uprising.

The EZLN made its first public appearance in 1992, when thousands of indigenous peasants marched into San Cristóbal de las Casas on the anniversary of Columbus' landing and pulled down the statue of a notorious Spanish conquistador.

Since the January 1 uprising they have become renowned for their use of e-mail networking to popularise their struggle. They have held three major international conferences against neo-liberalism, supported politically many major struggles in Mexico by sending delegations from Chiapas and held a nationwide referendum for peace and indigenous rights in which some 3 million people voted. They have made the struggle for the rights of indigenous people a central aspect of Mexican politics.

While the EZLN is focused on struggling for indigenous rights, it has played a central role in the development of a broad front of movements against neo-liberalism.

This approach has developed more systematically since mid-1998 in response to the government's all-out military offensive against Zapatista communities in Chiapas. The Zapatista leadership's political support of every single major struggle over the last 18 months, especially the electricity workers' fight against privatisation and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) students' struggle against education fees, is premised on the idea that the fate of the Zapatista and indigenous people is linked to the fate of other popular sectors.

A new path?

Building a united anti-capitalist alternative to the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) will be crucial if the social movements are to defeat the government's austerity drive.

As long as the PRD can pose as the alternative to the ruling and corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party, the potential exists for popular resentment to be channelled into purely electoral channels. Anti-capitalist forces in Mexico are still plagued by the lack of a political voice with real national weight.

Could the Zapatistas be such an organisation? In the founding texts of the FZLN, the Zapatistas declared their politics of resistance "without aspiring to take power", aiming at the creation of "a political force that doesn't fight to take power but to create, to bring together, and to develop mass movements and civil society".

The EZLN was set up to fight for the social rights of indigenous people, including autonomy and self-rule. Its leadership is the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee.

This helps explain why the Zapatistas have not and do not want to formulate a social and economic program for Mexico, nor consider making the FZLN a Mexico-wide political party. While they are not currently prepared to lead or organise other sectors of population to overthrow capitalism, it is clear that they will be a key part of that struggle.

New answers to old questions?

For over 150 years, anarchists have argued against the Marxist perspective that the revolutionary masses need to form their own state, based upon their own organisations, in order to construct a new society based on social ownership of the means of production.

Anarchists have argued that the key to overthrowing capitalism is abolishing the state because freedom will flow from the removal of authoritarian constraints.

The question of state power hasn't been just an arbitrary debate between theorists. It has been posed by the struggle throughout history.

Emiliano Zapata confronted this question after the Southern Liberation Army (EPS) took Mexico City in 1914. He allowed the new government to be formed by his allies on the proviso that land redistribution was legislated for. The newly formed government, after demobilising the EPS, later destroyed Zapata and his collaborators.

When struggles of the working masses develop to the point that their mass organisations pose a counter-power to the state of the ruling class, a contest for dominance ensues between the institutions of the oppressed and oppressors. The success or failure of revolutionary movements is determined by how this question is resolved.

In the case of the Russian Revolution, the institutions and the apparatus of the ruling class were defeated by the soviets (councils) of workers, soldiers and peasants. In Spain 1936, state power remained uncontested despite the initial collapse of the republican government, so the revolutionary movement was eventually demobilised and crushed. In Chile, the reliance by the Allende government on parliament as a counterweight to the rest of the state (the courts and the military) ended with Pinochet's military coup in 1973.

The ruling class and its state don't ignore resistance. Further, if there is a successful popular insurrection in Mexico that unites workers, indigenous peoples, peasants and the urban poor, how will they be able to deal with the onslaught of the US? How would or should the insurrectionary masses organise themselves?

Would it not be in the form of state power based on and organised by the armed masses themselves? Would that body not also need a program for the economic and social reconstruction of the country for the benefit and development of all?

The struggle continues

The period since January 1994 has been one of a remarkable upsurge in political opposition throughout Mexico. The UNAM student campaign has had a major presence in Mexico City, and there has been the regrowth of an independent trade union movement. The Zapatistas have been central to developments toward the unification of popular and mass struggles in a common front against neo-liberalism.

Revolutions in Latin America have always faced direct and indirect intervention by the US. This includes the US support of the contras during the Nicaraguan revolution, its continuing blockade and sanctions against Cuba and its massive military aid to the Columbian government in the face of successes by left-wing guerillas.

The Mexican government and its supporters are mounting a "low intensity" war against all forms of resistance and will continue to do so. The question that still faces the developing popular movements, the Zapatistas and other Mexican anti-capitalist forces is how to defeat the capitalist state. The development of a revolutionary party will be essential in achieving this.