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Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico: Introduction

John Holloway and Eloina Pelaez

The following article was contributed to körautonomedia by John Holloway. It is the Introductory Chapter of the forthcoming book, Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico, edited by John Holloway and Eloina Pelaez. It will be published in London by Pluto Press in June/July 1998. We thank John Holloway and Eloina Pelaez for their kind permissions.

Aşağıdaki makale, körautonomedia'ya John Holloway tarafından iletilmiştir. Makale, yazarın Eloina Pelaez ile birlikte derlediği, Haziran/Temmuz 1998'de Londra'da Pluto Press tarafından yayımlanacak Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico (Zapatistalar! Meksika'da Devrimi Yeniden İcat Etmek) adlı kitabın Giriş Bölümü'dür. John Holloway ve Elonia Pelaez'e katkıları için teşekkür ederiz.

"Introduction" to Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico

John Holloway and Eloina Pelaez


The Zapatista uprising opens a world that appeared to be closed, a hope that seemed to be buried.

The uprising took Mexico and the world by surprise. When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) occupied the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and six other towns in the early hours of 1 January 1994, they burst upon a world that denied their existence. It was not just that their existence was unknown, that nobody had ever heard of this organisation that revealed itself when thousands of armed indigenous men and women marched into San Cristobal. It was more than that: the reaction was rather that they should not be there, that they could not be there. And yet they were there, saying loudly and clearly 'here we are!'. That is the source of their resonance in the world: the 'here we are!' that is the 'here we are!' of all of us who, in whole or in part, have been painted out of the world's picture of itself, who have been told, in a million subtle or unsubtle ways, that we do not, or should not, exist. That is why the importance of the uprising stretches far, far beyond the state of Chiapas where it originated, far beyond Mexico, far beyond Latin America or the so-called 'Third World'.

There was no subtlety about the way in which the indigenous people of the Lacandon Jungle, a huge, forested area in the south-east of Mexico, had been told that they had no place in the modern, post-modern world. They, and their forebears, had been pushed out ever since the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century. But now they were facing extermination. Their land was wanted by cattle ranchers, by oil companies, by paper producers eager to replant the jungle with fast-growing eucalyptus trees, by capitalist planners eager to exploit the unique biodiversity of the jungle as a resource for future developments in genetic engineering. And if all that wasn't enough, the grinding poverty of every day, the deaths from curable diseases, the lack of schools and hospitals, the gradual suppression of their languages - all told them clearly and without subtlety that they were redundant in the new world of neoliberalism.

Neither the indigenous peoples of the countryside nor the poor of the city had any place at all, except perhaps as tourist attractions, in the image proclaimed by the Mexican government. Mexico was the golden child of neoliberalism. After precipitating the 'debt crisis' of the 1980s with its announcement in August 1982 that it would not be able to keep up with its debt repayments, Mexico had risen like a phoenix to become the darling of the world's financial press, the most emerging of all the emerging markets. It was one of the success stories of the neoliberal market-oriented policies that had gained such a hold throughout the world in the 1980s. The government had opened the economy to the world market, and privatised a large part of the state-owned sector, including the banks which had been nationalised in 1982. Capital was flowing in, the economy was growing. The economic success was crowned by Mexico's acceptance in 1993 into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which groups the world's richest states, and by the conclusion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada and the United States, which came into force on that first day of January 1994. The Mexican President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was favourite to become the first head of the World Trade Organisation when he stepped down from office at the beginning of December 1994. In this successful, modern Mexico, and in the economic statistics that underscored its success, there was no mention of the growing number of poor who beg, clean windscreens or sell their wares at every set of traffic lights in the major cities, nor of the peasants who struggle to find enough to eat.

In all this, Mexico is not so very different from the rest of the world. The capitalism of the last twenty years, often referred to as neoliberalism, has left its mark everywhere. The imposition in all the world of policies which promote the market and cut back on those activities of the state which do not immediately favour business has brought prosperity to some and poverty to many. The gap between rich and poor has grown, both within individual countries and between different countries. The dynamic of capitalism has let many, many people know that they are redundant, that a market-driven world could function better if they did not exist. For the miners of Britain, the message was reinforced with police truncheons to help them to understand. In other cases, the message has been often been much more violent. For over a thousand million people, the message is told through extreme poverty, the daily struggle just to get enough food to be undernourished, with all the illness and degradation that that involves. These people are no longer even the 'industrial reserve army' that capital requires for its economy to function: they are simply redundant, superfluous to an economy which is driven not by people's needs but by profit. In the dominant images of society, the economic statistics, the politicians' speeches, the Hollywood films, these people have already been painted out of existence.

Neoliberalism, however, does not just increase the gap between rich and poor, between the included and the excluded. The subjection of all life to the market cripples us all. Those who have jobs, even 'good' jobs, are increasingly insecure. The stress and the long hours of work entailed in trying to win security leave little scope for activities that might point to another type of life. The pressures and the growing individualisation of working conditions bring increasing isolation. There is a narrowing of life, a closure. Fantasies, dreams, ideas, emotions, projects for different forms of living, collectve enjoyment: all get squeezed, suppressed, excluded. Nowhere is this more obvious than in universities and other places of education. Funding drives both research and teaching to become more managerial, more oriented towards the success of the students on the market, more concerned with the management of society. For the voices that say 'no!', for the dreams of a human society, there is no place. Neoliberalism attacks humanity, not only in the sense that it kills millions by starvation and disease, but also in the equally devastating sense that it kills humanity as a project.

The failure of so many revolutions in this century and the dying out of revolutionary movements in the last fifteen years or so is, then, something that strikes deeply at all of us, whether or not we ever thought of taking up arms, whether or not we ever thought of ourselves as 'revolutionaries'. The failure of revolutions becomes part of the neoliberal chorus that tells us constantly that, in Margaret Thatcher's famous phrase, 'there is no alternative'. There is no alternative, we are told, to a market-driven society, whatever its costs may be. Humanity as a project is dead.

But if humanity as a project is dead, protest is not, and cannot be. However, there is a great danger that the only response open to all those people and all those parts of people whose existence is denied by modern capitalism is to say 'here we are!' in a purely particularistic way. The 'here we are!' becomes a mere assertion of identity: we are who we are, we are who we have always been, as our romanticised myths show. The world of protest becomes so easily a world of so many identities, counterposed one to another, each claiming exclusive right: blacks, women, moslems, gays, Basques, Irish. In so far as protest asserts mere identity, in so far as neoliberalism's denial of the project of humanity is extended into the struggles against it, these struggles can easily take on a brutal and absolutely destructive form: of the many examples in recent years, the massacre of tourists in Egypt by Islamic fundamentalists is just the latest.

This is where the Zapatistas' importance lies. Their 'here we are!' is not the defensive, romantic 'here we are!' of a threatened identity. They are not saying 'we are tzeltals and we want to defend our glorious traditions', but rather: 'we want a world in which there are many worlds, a world in which our world, and the worlds of others, will fit, a world in which we are heard, but as one of many voices'. Their 'here we are' simultaneously asserts identity and transcends it: 'we are tzeltals and more than that, a world within a world of worlds'. Their project is summed up in the title of the Intercontinental Meeting which they organised in their territory in July 1996: 'For Humanity against Neoliberalism'. Such a world, they argue, can be constructed only on the basis of freedom, justice, democracy. This is not a 'here we are!' of a past to be defended, but the 'here we are!' of a world to be constructed.

This idea of fighting for a world in which there are many worlds means that, unlike almost all previous revolutions, the Zapatista revolution does not aim to take power - neither through the ballot box nor through any form of seizure of power. The project of humanity cannot be achieved through the winning of power. This is what has been so difficult for politicians both of the left and the right to understand. As the Zapatistas put it in a recent communique:

'the "centre" asks us, demands of us, that we should sign a peace agreement quickly and convert ourselves into an 'institutional' political force, that is to say, convert ourselves into yet another part of the machinery of power. To them we answer ''NO" and they do not understand it. They do not understand that we are not in agreement with those ideas. They do not understand that we do not want offices or posts in the government. They do not understand that we are struggling not for the stairs to be swept clean from the top to the bottom, but for there to be no stairs, for there to be no kingdom at all.'

They do not understand because there is no room in the mind of the politician, nor in the mind of the political scientist, for the simplest, most ordinary statement of all: 'we do not want to struggle for power, because the struggle for power is central to the world we reject; it does not form part of the world we want'. This is the most ordinary statement simply because it is a statement made in the practice of most people every day. The pursuit of power is not central to the daily activities of most people. The fact that a revolutionary organisation such as the EZLN say that they are struggling not to take power but to abolish power makes them very ordinary and thereby very extraordinary.


Zapatismo is a struggle, not for power, but against power. It is not a struggle to win power in order to abolish power (or injustice or imperialism): this would imply adopting methods similar to those of the powerful. It is a struggle that aims to change the world not by winning power but by subverting or abolishing power. This means that the methods adopted cannot be those of the powerful. But how?

When the EZLN took their dramatic action on 1 January 1994, they started a political movement which involved a reinvention of revolution. How can one fight against the powerful without adopting the methods of the powerful? How can one even survive without adopting the methods of the powerful? That tension has been at the centre of the Zapatista uprising ever since the first day of January 1994. The Zapatistas speak of themselves as being 'armed with truth and fire': their main weapon is truth, the truth of their humanity. But in a world in which the powerful constantly seek to impose their dictate through armed force, it is necessary for the zapatistas too to be armed with fire.

The thousands of women and men who occupied San Cristobal and the other towns at the beginning of 1994 did so peacefully. They appeared to have come from nowhere. Very few people knew of the existence of the EZLN before the occupation of San Cristobal. In fact, of course, they had not come from nowhere. They were almost all indigenous, members of different ethnic groups who lived in the Lacandon Jungle.

They had come from a long history of indigenous resistance to exploitation and domination, from '500 years of struggle', as they put it in the 'Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle' which they issued to explain their action. They had come too from the work of a small group of revolutionaries who had been active in the jungle for more than ten years and who had had the wisdom to submerge their ideas of revolution in the accumulated experience of the people of the region. They had come, perhaps most directly, from their own particular experience of a worldwide phenomenon. Neoliberalism, the capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s with its emphasis on the destruction of obstacles to the free market and the free movement of money, had meant for the people of Chiapas, as for millions and millions of others throughout the world, a drastic deterioration in living conditions. Like so many other people in the world, they learnt through poverty and violence that they, the way they lived, the way they worked, the way they celebrated, the dreams they had and the land they occupied, were obstacles to capitalist development. When an amendment in 1992 to Article 27 of the Mexican constitution threatened the survival of their communities by opening the ownership of the land to the free market, more and more of the inhabitants of the jungle said 'Enough!' (!Ya Basta!) and joined the EZLN. If they were threatened with extinction anyway, they would rather die with dignity.

Although the occupation of the towns themselves was, with few exceptions, peaceful, since the Zapatistas had taken the authorities by surprise, the first ten days of the uprising became very violent when the Mexican army attacked and the air force started to bomb the Zapatistas and their villages. The reaction in Mexico, in nearly all sectors of the population, was one of revulsion at the violence and sympathy for the cause, if not necessarily for the methods, of the Zapatistas. A massive demonstration in Mexico city led to a declaration of ceasefire by the government on 10 January, which was accepted by the rebels. The ceasefire did not establish peace, but a situation in which the Zapatistas remained within the jungle, surrounded by a military cordon. It was after the smoke had cleared that it became clear that this was not just another guerrilla movement but an enormously innovative and articulate popular uprising, trying to invent revolution in a world in which there were no models to follow.

The path of armed but peaceful revolution has been an extremely tortuous one. The declaration of ceasefire placed the Zapatista army in a situation for which they were not prepared. They had expected a prolonged armed conflict in which either the people would rise up and join them to overthrow the government or they would be isolated and under open military attack. The popular response had not been to join the Zapatistas but to call for an end to violence. This reaction was almost certainly influenced by images of Bosnia and Ruanda, as well as by memories of the violent destruction of the guerrilla movement in Mexico in the 1970s and what people had seen of the revolutionary movements in neighbouring Guatemala and El Salvador, where years and years of bloody civil war had brought enormous misery, but no social revolution: nobody wanted to see Mexico embroiled in such a cycle of destruction. The popular reaction, and the ceasefire which followed, placed the EZLN, an army with weapons, in a situation where they had to find different ways of pursuing their struggle.

That the struggle would continue became clear almost immediately. To the government's offer of a pardon to the rebels, the Zapatistas replied, in a communique dated 17 January:

'What are we supposed to ask pardon for? What are they going to pardon us for? For not dying of hunger? For not being silent in our misery? For not having accepted humbly the giant historical burden of contempt and neglect? For having risen up in arms when we found all other roads blocked?... Who should ask pardon and who should grant it? Those who, for years and years, sat at a laden table and ate their fill while death sat with us, death, so everyday, so ours that we stopped being afraid of it? Those who filled our pockets and our souls with declarations and promises? Or the dead, our dead, so mortally dead of 'natural' death, of measles, whooping cough, cholera, typhoid, tetanus, pneumonia, paludism and other gastrointestinal and pulmonary delights? Our dead, so equally dead, so democratically dead of pain because nobody was doing anything, because all the dead, our dead, just went off like that, without anybody keeping the count, without anyone saying at last the 'Enough!'! that would restore meaning to those deaths, without anyone asking those dead of always, our dead, to come back and die again, but now in order to live...Who should ask for pardon and who should grant it?'

From that moment, it was clear both that the Zapatista acceptance of a ceasefire did not mean a capitulation, and that in the communique they had found a new and powerful weapon. They might be encircled by a military cordon, but the communiques gave them an effective way of overcoming the blockade. The communiques were published in full in some of the national newspapers and attracted a big readership. It was not long before they began to be translated into other languages and put out on the internet by Zapatista supporters - hence the description of the uprising as the first 'revolution of the electronic age'. The communiques are filled with humour, stories, poetry. They project a new type of revolutionary movement: one which does not aim to take power, but simply to ensure that those who hold office 'command obeying'.

The language of the communiques is not the traditional language of the revolutionary movements of this century. They leave aside much of the traditional vocabulary of revolution made barren by the experience of the past (proletariat, socialism, vanguard), and take up battle on other categories previously dismissed as being irrevocably compromised by their liberal use (freedom, democracy, justice, for example). They give new life to categories and symbols that seemed barren or insignificant. Their central category is dignity, 'that which made us live, that which made our step rise above plants and animals, that which made the stone be beneath our feet'.

Through the communiques, interviews with the press and media and the newspaper reports from the Zapatista territory in the jungle, and through videos, a picture emerged not of a revolutionary group, but of a community in rebellion: a community of men, women and children, with all the traditions and practices of cooperation that the word 'community' implies, and with all the transformation of those traditions and practices that 'rebellion' implies. Their aim, they said, was to make a revolution, but not a Revolution.

But how could they make a revolution 'with a small "r"', without armed struggle, without trying to take power? How was it possible to pursue a non-violent revolution that eschewed the traditional goal of both social democratic and leninist parties, the winning of power? How could they change the world when they were encircled in the jungle?

The government offered to negotiate. The EZLN replied that they would not negotiate but that they would take part in a dialogue with the government, principally as a way of establishing a dialogue with 'civil society', that is, with all those who were struggling, in whatever way, to transform the political regime, the 'party-state'. The dialogue took place in the Cathedral of San Cristobal at the end of February and beginning of March 1994. The Zapatistas used the occasion to further circumvent the government's blockade. They gave daily press conferences and established informal contacts with sympathisers from all over the country who had come to express their support. They insisted that they would have to submit the terms offered by the government in the dialogue to the democratic decision of all their communities. Just as the war had been started after a process of discussion by all the men, women and children over twelve years of age in their communities, so the settlement of their demands would have to go through the same process.

After nearly three months of consultation and discussion, the Zapatistas rejected the terms offered by the government. The principal reason for doing so was that the government was offering concessions only in relation to the state of Chiapas, whereas the Zapatistas had made it clear from the beginning that their struggle was a national one, not just for material concessions, but for freedom, justice and democracy. That did not mean, however, that they would return to armed action. Instead, they called a meeting of all those who shared their aims, to be held in the Lacandon Jungle at the beginning of August, just a few weeks before the Mexican presidential elections.

More than 6,000 people from all over Mexico went to Chiapas for the meeting, the National Democratic Convention (Convencion Nacional Democratica - CND). The Zapatistas had cleared a space in the jungle and used the tree trunks to construct an auditorium large enough to hold all the participants, a meeting place they called 'Aguascalientes', after a convention held in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution. The Convention did not align itself with any political party for the presidential elections, although a considerable number of the participants were members of the principal centre-left party, the PRD (Partido Revolucionario Democratico). The general conclusion of the meeting was that it was time to give priority to the struggle of civil society. The EZLN would remain armed, but if the civil struggle for freedom, democracy and justice was successful, then they would fade back into the mountains from whence they had come.

The Convention had been a great success in bringing civil struggle into close contact with the EZLN, but it did not, and did not seek to, define a clear way forward. The months which followed were a time of difficulty, disillusionment and tension. The party which had been in power for more than 60 years, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) won the Presidential elections comfortably, with the PRD coming in third place. The PRI's victory was probably due not so much to direct electoral fraud as to the encrusted position in networks of patronage, corruption and self-interest that it had acquired after being in office for so many years. In an election held on the same day, the PRI also retained the governorship of Chiapas, and in this case there was considerable evidence of fraud. In Chiapas itself, tension between the army and the EZLN increased as the army increased its low-intensity warfare against the Zapatistas, with the increased use of surveillance flights, increased harrassment of people at military checkpoints and attacks on peasants in other parts of the state. The situation further deteriorated at the beginning of December when the newly inaugurated President, Ernesto Zedillo, showed his support for the new governor of Chiapas by participating in his inauguration.

The EZLN responded to the military pressures with a military action, but a military action very different from the violence of the state. On 19th December, the EZLN called a press conference in the jungle to announce that they had broken through the military cordon and undertaken actions in 38 municipalities of Chiapas, without a shot being fired. They had effectively surrounded the army surrounding them, without being seen, without violence, without suffering violence - a brilliant and mischievous display of their strength.

On the following day, the government responded to a massive outflow of capital by devaluing the peso, blaming the Zapatistas for the devaluation. In the days that followed, the continuing outflow of capital forced the government to allow the peso to float, and within a few days it had lost 40% of its value. The devaluation sparked off a financial crisis throughout the world and led to a period of severe economic crisis in Mexico itself. In the financial negotations that followed, the Mexican government came under pressure from at least some of the US banks to break the ceasefire and intervene militarily against the Zapatistas.

On 9 February 1995, the army moved into the Zapatista territory in pursuit of the leaders of the EZLN. The EZLN refused to be drawn into a confrontation of violence against violence and fled into the mountains together with the people of the region. The army occupied villages and destroyed crops, but did not succeed in capturing any members of the EZLN. There was an enormous demonstration in Mexico City (and protests throughout the world). Under pressure, the government called off the military pursuit, although the army continued in occupation of the territory. The ceasefire was restored and the orders for the arrest of the Zapatistas were suspended, under condition that the EZLN agreed to begin a new dialogue.

The extent to which the Zapatistas had succeeded in breaking the blockade over the previous year was shown by the fact that the principal cry of the demonstration in Mexico City was no longer just a call to stop the violence, but 'we are all Zapatistas!' and 'we are all Marcos' (a reference to the spokesman of the EZLN, subcomandante Marcos). This mirrored a statement by Marcos in one of the communiques:

'Marcos is gay in San Francisco, a black in South Africa, Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Isidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, an indigenous person in the streets of San Cristobal, a gang member in Neza, a rocker on campus, a Jew in Germany, an ombudsman in the Department of Defence, a feminist in a political party, a communist in the post-Cold War period, a prisoner in Cintalapa, a pacifist in Bosnia, a Mapuche in the Andes, a teacher in the National Confederation of Educational Workers, an artist without a gallery or a portfolio, a housewife in any neighbourhood in any city in any part of Mexico on a Saturday night, a guerrilla in Mexico at the end of the twentieth century, a striker in the CTM, a sexist in the feminist movement, a woman alone in a Metro station at 10 p.m., a retired person standing around in the Zocalo, a peasant without land, an underground editor, an unemployed worker, a doctor with no office, a non-conformist student, a dissident aga! inst neoliberalism, a writer without books or readers, and a Zapatista in the Mexican southeast. In other words, Marcos is a human being in this world. Marcos is every untolerated, oppressed, exploited minority that is resisting and saying "Enough!"'

Breaking the blockade, in other words, meant making real the unity of the Zapatistas with all those 'without face, without voice, without future' who stand against neoliberalism. Revolution involves establishing the unity of a heterogeneous subject, recognising and simultaneously transcending identities in a process that can be seen as the recomposition of class struggle.

The new dialogue began a couple of months later in San Andres Larrainzar, a small town in Chiapas, in which there is very strong Zapatista influence. The initial meetings between the representatives of the Zapatistas and of the government, in the presence of two groups of intermediaries, one parliamentary and the other non-parliamentary, agreed on an agenda for further talks. The first theme chosen was indigenous rights and culture. It was agreed that each side could invite a number of assessors and guests to take part in the sessions. The EZLN published a list of several hundred assessors, including representatives of the most important indigenous organisations in Mexico, most of the leading academics in the field and a number of people being held in prison for their supposed involvement with the Zapatista uprising. The government invited a much smaller number of functionaries and academics. In the discussions that followed, held in San Cristobal and San Andres, the Zapatista side was of course by far the stronger, in terms of the strength of their cause, their ideas and their intellectual force. The two sessions of discussions were followed by a Forum on Indigenous Rights and Culture, held in January 1996 in San Cristobal and attended by hundreds of people actively involved in indigenous struggle from all over the country. The Forum was followed by a meeting a month later between the government representatives and the representatives of the EZLN, at which a number of agreements were signed on indigenous rights and culture, the Agreements of San Andres. The Agreements included a number of measures to improve the position of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and to give them a certain degree of autonomous self-government. The government promised to introduce legislation and constitutional reforms to implement the agreements.

The theme of the second phase of the dialogue was the reform of the state. Again the Zapatistas chose hundreds of assessors, including both people involved in all sorts of social and political struggles and left-wing and liberal academics. The government took a more obstructive line this time, to indicate their reluctance to accept that the Zapatistas should discuss anything beyond the local and the ethnic: they did not appoint assessors and their representatives did not take any part in the discussions. The two sessions were again followed by a week-long Forum, held in San Cristobal with the participation of over a thousand people from all over the country, from all sorts of different backgrounds, but united by a sense of being part of the Zapatista struggle for a different society. Support for the Zapatistas was no longer thought of in terms of solidarity, but primarily in terms of being a Zapatista, of participating in the struggle for a new politics. The Forum discussed such questions as alternative forms of economic organisation, experiences of social struggle in the city and the countryside, the formation of a constituent assembly to frame a new constitution, the meaning of neoliberalism and the political future of the Zapatista movement.

The Forum was followed, some weeks later, at the end of July 1996, by the 'Intergalactic', the first Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism, attended by more than three thousand people from 43 different countries. The Intergalactic demonstrated clearly that the Zapatistas' struggle was not just a local one, nor an ethnic, nor a national one, but a struggle understood as the struggle of humanity for humanity. The meeting was held at different sites within the Lacandon Jungle, in five different meeting places or 'Aguascalientes' constructed by the Zapatistas and taking the place of the first Aguascalientes (the one constructed for the National Democratic Convention), which had been destroyed by the army when it attacked in February 1995. The meeting, which had been proposed by the Zapatistas in January and prepared in five continents for months, was a week of mud, dancing and discussion, and above all participation in the attempt to construct an alternative politics.The meeting ended with a call for the construction of an international network of opposition to neoliberalism, and for a second intercontinental meeting to be held in Europe a year later.

The year and a half leading up to the Intergalactic had seen a fertile and imaginative development of peaceful revolutionary politics - not just the dialogue, the Forums and the Intergalactic itself, but also the national consultation in July 1995 on the future of the EZLN, in which over a million people participated, the formation of civil committees throughout the country to support the Zapatistas and develop Zapatista politics and the formation of the National Indigenous Congress to coordinate indigenous struggle throughout the country.

In the summer of 1996, however, there were indications of the limits to what such a politics might achieve. The struggle against power is constantly encroached upon and threatened by the struggle for power. The violence, both by the authorities and by rightwing paramilitary groups backed by the authorities, continued. Then, the end of June saw the appearance in the south-western state of Guerrero, of a new guerrilla group, the EPR (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario - Popular Revolutionary Army), which started to undertake direct military action against the army. The EPR projected itself as a much more traditional type of hard-line guerrilla group, and undoubtedly appealed to those who were growing impatient with the lack of tangible progress in the realisation of the EZLN's demands. Fianlly, it became more and more clear that the government intended to do nothing to implement the agreements of San Andres.

In these circumstances, and given the arrogance with which the government had treated particularly the second phase of the dialogue, the EZLN suspended the dialogue with the government. The principal condition which it set for the resumption of the dialogue was the fulfilment of the government's commitments under the San Andres agreements. A renewal of talks, not with the government, but with the parliamentary and non-parliamentary intermediaries, failed to solve the stalemate when a proposal for legislation made by the all-party parliamentary committee of intermediation was accepted by the EZLN but rejected by the government at the beginning of 1997. The EZLN fell into a prolonged period of 'struggle by silence' in the first half of 1997. By the middle of 1997, however, the political situation was changing again. In the mid-term elections of July, the PRI lost its absolute majority in the Congress, for the first time ever, and, even more important, the PRD won the first elections ever for the mayor of Mexico City. After its long silence, the EZLN announced a march of 1,111 Zapatistas (corresponding to the number of Zapatista communities) to Mexico City, to demand the implementation of the Agreements of San Andres and to be present at the inauguration of the civil Frente Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (FZLN - Zapatista Front of National Liberation), a political organisation of 'a new type' set up to coordinate the struggle for democracy, freedom and justice. The march, joined by many other organisations on its way from Chiapas, received a tumultuous welcome when it entered the central square of Mexico City on 12 September. After a few days, the Zapatistas returned to Chiapas, where the situation remains unresolved and the aggression of the authorities and the paramilitary groups increases.


Four years have passed since the first appearance of the EZLN. In Chiapas, the violence and the oppression continues. In Mexico there has been no revolutionary transformation, although the presence of the Zapatistas has undoubtedly accelerated the decomposition of the old regime. In the world, the unbridled capitalism of neoliberalism still rules. However, any appreciation of the Zapatista achievements has to be seen not only in terms of what exists but in the strengthening of that which does not (yet) exist.

In what way does the Zapatista uprising strengthen the project of revolution, the project of creating a human society (what might be called 'communism', even though the word has been so brutally degraded), humanity as a project?

Firstly, by keeping it alive, when it appeared to be almost dead. In spite of the obvious horrors of neoliberalism, the idea of revolution has fallen into discredit in recent years. This discredit has much to do with the experience and fate of the Soviet Union, China and other countries: the result of the revolutions of this century has often been oppressive: bureaucratic, macho, anti-creative - far removed from the dreams of most revolutionaries. The discredit also has much to do with the difficulty of imagining a revolution in today's conditions, however desirable it might be considered. How can one even think of a successful revolution when states are so heavily armed, have such sophisticated means of establishing consensus (parliamentary democracy, mass media etc), and are tightly integrated into a global economic/political capitalist system? Even for those horrified by the violence of neoliberalism to ourselves and to others, it very often seems that there is no alternative, no hope. The world, it seems, is closed.

Against this, the message of the Zapatistas has been one of hope. They prise open the lid of closure. They turn the 'there is no alternative' on its head. In a world in which we are all crippled by neoliberalism, in a world in which millions upon millions of people are condemned by the functioning of the market to degradation, hunger, illness and isolation, there is no alternative: we must rebel. Humanity is the struggle against dehumanisation. We start not from a means-end logic (will our rebellion lead to the desired results? do the objective conditions make the construction of a human society possible?) but from the much simpler realisation that there is no alternative to struggling against dehumanisation, in whatever way we can. Hope is central to the Zapatista uprising, but it is not a hope that springs from the certainty of the end, but from confidence in the necessity of the project. Hope is dignity, the struggle to walk upright in a world which pushes us down.

Talk of hope, rebellion and revolution cannot, however, simply be a revival of the revolutionary ideals of earlier years. The project of creating a society based on human dignity cannot be based on the authoritarian discipline which has characterised so many revolutionary movements of the past. Revolution itself now presupposes a reinventing of revolution. This has inevitably brought the Zapatistas repeatedly into conflict with the received ideas of the revolutionary left. As the spokesman of the EZLN, subcomandante Marcos, commented at the end of the first year of the uprising:

'Something was broken in this year, not just the false image of modernity which neoliberalism was selling to us, not just the falsity of governmental projects, of institutional alms, not just the unjust neglect by the country of its original inhabitants, but also the rigid schemes of a left dedicated to living from and of the past. In the midst of this navigating from pain to hope, the political struggle finds itself bereft of the worn-out clothes bequeathed to it by pain; it is hope which obliges it to seek new forms of struggle, new ways of being political, of doing politics. A new politics, a new political ethic is not just a wish, it is the only way to advance, to jump to the other side'.

Developing a new revolutionary politics is not an easy task. As comandante Tacho puts it, it is like trying to learn lessons in a school that has not even been built yet. There is no model to follow. The old conception of bringing about revolution through winning state power at least has the merit of defining a clear goal: the drawback, of course, is that the goal is a mirage, that the state does not have power, that the state itself is just one form of the capitalist social relations which the revolution aims to destroy. But, mirage or not, the aim at least provides a clear framework for revolutionary action. When the aim is to change the world without taking power, not to conquer the world, but to make it different, then the way forward is far from rectilinear. It can only be understood as the attempt to bring together and make effective that which already exists in all our lives, in a million different ways.

The Zapatistas have made clear that any such attempt must go far beyond the confines of what is usually understood as politics, whether bourgeois or revolutionary. An (anti-) politics directed against power cannot be understood in the same way as a politics of power. It involves an (anti-) politics of the non-political: humour, stories, dance, openness to new ideas and a willingness to admit mistakes, and, perhaps above all, ever renewed experimentation to find ways of channelling the struggle for humanity.

Inevitably, any such project also involves problems and uncertainties. The idea of a revolutionary path that is made in the process of making it implies that the revolution may get lost in the way, that it may either be destroyed physically in confrontation with the army, or (worse, according to the Zapatistas themselves) that it may gradually become integrated into the political system. So far, the EZLN has managed to avoid both of these dangers, but there are considerable pressures (from the left as much as from the right) on the EZLN to convert itself into an institutional force which would function as part of the political system.

In the Zapatista project, there is no room for a concept of the 'correct line'. But does this mean a total relativism, that all forms of rebellion are equally valid, even fascist or racist ones? Clearly not. The central notion of dignity, so much emphasised by the Zapatistas, implies not only a recognition of one's own dignity but also of the dignity of others: it thus implies an aversion to violence and precludes the denial of dignity to others on the basis of race, gender, nationality or any other supposed identity. Beyond that, the crucial issue is not which form of struggle is correct, but how the different forms of struggle are articulated or brought into relation with one another. That is why all the political initiatives of the EZLN point towards experimenting with political forms with the aim of making effective the principle of 'commanding obeying', the principle that those who lead should be subject to the rule of those whom they claim to lead.

To sing the praises of the Zapatista uprising is not to deny that there are a whole host of unclarities and unresolved problems. Conversely, however, to recognise these ambiguities is no reason to stop singing their praises. The Zapatista uprising has provided an enormous stimulus to oppositional thought, both in Mexico and beyond. In a world in which we appear to be cornered on all sides, they offer a way forward. Neoliberal capitalism becomes daily more obscene and unstable, both in the extremes of wealth and poverty it engenders and in its unrelenting subjection of all life to the dictates of the market. Experience has made it clear time and time again that the state offers no possiblity of bringing about radical change. Armed struggle to bring about change through seizing state power reproduces the structures of power it is trying to combat and has had little success in bringing about radical social change. So what is left? The only possibility is to reinvent revolution. That is what the Zapatistas are doing.

That is why this book is not a neutral one. Although not uncritical of the Zapatista movement, our attempt to understand it is a partisan attempt.When the Zapatistas occupied San Cristobal and the other towns of Chiapas on 1 January 1994, they sent flares of hope, dignity and revolutionary enthusiasm into the sombre night sky of the world. If this book succeeds in contributing to and deepening that hope, dignity and enthusiasm, then it will have succeeded in its aim.

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