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Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico: Dignity's Revolt

John Holloway

The following article was contributed to körautonomedia by John Holloway. It is the Chapter 8 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 for his kind permission. A brief version of this article was published in Common Sense # 22, December 1997.

Asagidaki makale, körautonomedia'ya John Holloway tarafindan iletilmistir. Yazarin Eloina Pelaez ile birlikte derledigi, Haziran/Temmuz 1998'de Londra'da Pluto Press tarafindan yayimlanacak Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico (Zapatistalar! Meksika'da Devrimi Yeniden Icat Etmek) adli kitabin 8. Bölümü'dür. John Holloway'e katkisi için tesekkür ederiz. Bu makalenin kisa bir biçimi, Common Sense'de (# 22, Aralik 1997) yayimlanmistir.

Dignity's Revolt

John Holloway


Dignity arose on the first day of January 1994.

The 'Enough!' ('!Ya Basta!') proclaimed by the Zapatistas on the first day of 1994 was the cry of dignity. When they occupied San Cristobal de las Casas and six other towns of Chiapas on that day, the wind they blew into the world, 'this wind from below, the wind of rebellion, the wind of dignity', carried 'a hope, the hope of the conversion of dignity and rebellion into freedom and dignity'. (1) When the wind dies down, 'when the storm abates, when the rain and the fire leave the earth in peace once again, the world will no longer be the world, but something better'.(2)

A letter from the ruling body of the Zapatistas, the Comite Clandestino Revolucionario Indigena (CCRI), (3) addressed just a month later to another indigenous organisation, the Consejo 500 Anos de Resistencia Indigena,(4) emphasises the central importance of dignity:

'Then that suffering that united us made us speak, and we recognised that in our words there was truth, we knew that not only pain and suffering lived in our tongue, we recognised that there is hope still in our hearts. We spoke with ourselves, we looked inside ourselves and we looked at our history: we saw our most ancient fathers suffering and struggling, we saw our grandfathers struggling, we saw our fathers with fury in their hands, we saw that not everything had been taken away from us, that we had the most valuable, that which made us live, that which made our step rise above plants and animals, that which made the stone be beneath our feet, and we saw, brothers, that all that we had was DIGNITY, and we saw that great was the shame of having forgotten it, and we saw that DIGNITY was good for men to be men again, and dignity returned to live in our hearts, and we were new again, and the dead, our dead, saw that we were new again and they called us again, to dignity, to struggle'. (5)

Dignity, the refusal to accept humiliation and dehumanisation, the refusal to conform: dignity is the core of the Zapatista revolution of revolution. The idea of dignity has not been invented by the Zapatistas, but they have given it a prominence that it has never before possessed in revolutionary thought. When the Zapatistas rose, they planted the flag of dignity not just in the centre of the uprising in Chiapas, but in the centre of oppositional thought. Dignity is not peculiar to the indigenous peoples of the southeast of Mexico: the struggle to convert 'dignity and rebellion into freedom and dignity' (an odd but important formulation) is the struggle of (and for) human existence in an oppressive society, as relevant to life in Edinburgh, Athens, Tokyo, Los Angeles or Johannesburg as it is to the struggles of the peoples of the Lacandon Jungle.

The aim of this essay is to explore what it means to put dignity at the centre of oppositional thought. In the course of the argument it should become clear why 'zapatismo' is not a movement restricted to Mexico but is central to the struggle of thousands of millions of people all over the world to live a human life against-and-in an increasingly inhuman society.

The essay aims not so much to give a historical account of the Zapatista movement as to provide a distillation of the most important themes, without at the same time concealing the ambiguities and contradictions of the movement. In order to distill a fragrant essence from roses, it is not necessary to conceal the existence of the thorns, but thorns do not enter into what one wants to extract. The purpose of trying to distill the theoretical themes of zapatismo is similar to the purpose behind any distillation process: to separate those themes from the immediate historical development of the Zapatista movement, to extend the fragrance beyond the immediacy of the particular experience.


Dignity was wrought in the jungle.

The uprising of the first of January 1994 was more than ten years in the preparation. The EZLN(6) celebrates the 17th November 1983 as the date of its foundation. On that date a small group of revolutionaries established themselves in the mountains of the Lacandon Jungle - 'a small group of men and women, three indigenous and three mestizos'. (7)

According to the police version, the revolutionaries were members of the Fuerzas de Liberacion Nacional (8) (FLN), a guerrilla organisation founded in 1969 in the city of Monterrey, one of a number of such organisations which flourished in Mexico in the late sixties and early seventies. Many of the members of the FLN had been killed or arrested, but the organisation had survived. Its statutes of 1980 describe the organisation as 'a political-military organisation whose aim is the taking of political power by the workers of the countryside and of the cities of the Mexican Republic, in order to instal a popular republic with a socialist system'. The organisation was guided, according to its statutes, by 'the science of history and society: Marxism-Leninism, which has demonstrated its validity in all the triumphant revolutions of this century'. (9)

The supposed origins of the EZLN(10) are used by the authorities to suggest an image of manipulation of the indigenous people by a group of hard-core professional revolutionaries from the city. However, leaving aside the racist assumptions of such an argument, the supposed origins of the revolutionaries merely serve to underline the most important question: if, as is claimed, the small group of revolutionaries who set up the EZLN came from an orthodox Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, how did they become transformed into what eventually emerged from the jungle in the early hours of 1994? What was the path that led from the first encampment of 17th November 1983 to the proclamation of dignity in the town hall of San Cristobal? For it is precisely the fact that they are not an orthodox guerrilla group that has confounded the state time and time again in its dealings with them. It is precisely the fact that they are not an orthodox group of revolutionaries that makes them theoretically and practically the most exciting development in oppositional politics in the world for many a long year.

What, then, was it that the original founders of the EZLN learned in the jungle? A letter written by Marcos (11) speaks of the change in these terms: 'We did not propose it. The only thing that we proposed to do was to change the world; everything else has been improvisation. Our square conception of the world and of revolution was badly dented in the confrontation with the indigenous realities of Chiapas. Out of those blows, something new (which does not necessarily mean 'good') emerged, that which today is known as "neo-Zapatismo".'

The confrontation with the indigenous realities took place as the Zapatistas became immersed in the communities of the Lacandon Jungle. At first the group of revolutionaries kept themselves to themselves, training in the mountains, slowly expanding in numbers. Then gradually they made contact with the local communities, initially through family contacts, then, from about 1985 onwards, (12) on a more open and organised basis. Gradually, more and more of the communities sought out the Zapatistas to help them defend themselves from the police or the farmers' armed 'white guards', (13) more and more became Zapatista communities, some of their members going to join the EZLN on a full-time basis, some forming part of the part-time militia, the rest of the community giving material support to the insurgents. Gradually, the EZLN was transformed from being a guerrilla group to being a community in arms. (14)

The community in question is in some respects a special community. The communities of the Lacandon Jungle are of recent formation, most of them dating from the 1950s and 1960s, when the government encouraged colonisation of the jungle by landless peasants, most of whom moved from other areas of Chiapas, in many cases simply transplanting whole villages. There is a long tradition of struggle, both from before the formation of the communities in the jungle and then, very intensely, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as the people fought to get enough land to ensure their own survival, as they tried to secure the legal basis of their landholdings, as they fought to maintain their existence against the expansion of the cattle ranches, as they resisted the threat to their survival posed by two government measures in particular, the Decree of the Lacandon Community,(15) a government decree which threatened to expropriate a large part of the Lacandon Jungle and the 1992 reform of Article 27 of the Constitution, which, by opening the countryside up to private investment, threatened to undermine the system of collective landholding. The communities of the Lacandon Jungle are special in many respects, but arguably the rethinking of revolutionary theory and practice could have resulted from immersion in any community: (16) what was important was probably not the specific characteristics of the Lacandon Jungle, so much as the transformation from being a group of dedicated young men and women into being an armed community of women, men, children, young, old, ill - all with their everyday struggles not just for survival but for humanity.

The Zapatistas learnt the pain of the community: the poverty, the hunger, the constant threat of harrassment by the authorities or the 'white guards', the unnecessary deaths from curable diseases. When asked in an interview which death had affected him most, Marcos told how a girl of three or four years old, Paticha (her way of saying Patricia), had died in his arms in a village. She had started a fever at six o'clock in the evening, and by ten o'clock she was dead: there was no medicine in the village that could help to lower her fever. 'And that happened many times, it was so everydady, so everyday that those births are not even taken into account. For example, Paticha never had a birth certificate, which means that for the country she never existed, for the statistical office (INEGI), therefore her death never existed either. And like her, there were thousands, thousands and thousands, and as we grew in the communities, as we had more villages, more comrades died. Just because death was natural, now it started to be ours.' (17) From such experiences arose the conviction that revolution was something that the Zapatistas owed to their children: 'we, their fathers, their mothers, their brothers and sisters, did not want to bear any more the guilt of doing nothing for our children.' (18)

They learnt the struggles of the people, both the struggles of the present and the struggles of the past, the continuing struggle of past and present. The culture of the people is a culture of struggle. Marcos tells of the story-telling by the campfire at night in the mountains - 'stories of apparitions, of the dead, of earlier struggles, of things that have happened, all mixed together. It seems that they are talking of the revolution (of the Mexican revolution, the past one, not the one that is happening now) and at moments no, it seems that is mixed up with the colonial period and sometimes it seems that it is the pre-hispanic period.'(19) The culture of struggle permeates the Zapatista communiques, often in the form of stories and myths: Marcos's stories of Old Antonio (el viejo Antonio) are a favourite way of passing on a culture impregnated with the wisdom of struggle.

And they learnt to listen. 'That is the great lesson that the indigenous communities teach to the original EZLN. The original EZLN, the one that is formed in 1983, is a political organisation in the sense that it speaks and what it says has to be done. The indigenous communities teach it to listen, and that is what we learn. The principal lesson that we learn from the indigenous people is that we have to learn to hear, to listen.' (20) Learning to listen meant incorporating new perspectives and new concepts into their theory. Learning to listen meant learning to talk as well, not just explaining things in a different way but thinking them in a different way.

Above all, learning to listen meant turning everything upside down. The revolutionary tradition of talking is not just a bad habit. It has a long-established theoretical basis in the concepts of Marxism-Leninism. The tradition of talking derives, on the one hand, from the idea that theory ('class consciousness') must be brought to the masses by the party and, on the other, from the idea that capitalism must be analysed from above, from the movement of capital rather than from the movement of anti-capitalist struggle. When the emphasis shifts to listening, both of these theoretical suppositions are undermined. The whole relation between theory and practice is thrown into question: theory can no longer be seen as being brought from outside, but is obviously the product of everyday practice. And dignity takes the place of imperialism as the starting point of theoretical reflection.

Dignity was presumably not part of the conceptual baggage of the revolutionaries who went into the jungle. It is not a word that appears very much in the literature of the Marxist tradition. (21) It could only emerge as a revolutionary concept in the course of a revolution by a people steeped in the dignity of struggle. (22) But once it appears (conciously or unconsciously) as a central concept, then it implies a rethinking of the whole revolutionary project, both theoretically and in terms of organisation. The whole conception of revolution becomes turned outwards: revolution becomes a question rather than an answer. 'Preguntando caminamos: asking we walk' becomes a central principle of the revolutionary movement, the radically democratic concept at the centre of the Zapatista call for 'freedom, democracy and justice'. The revolution advances by asking, not by telling; or perhaps even, revolution is asking instead of telling, the dissolution of power relations.

Here too the Zapatistas learned from (and developed) the tradition of the indigenous communities. The idea and practice of their central organisational principle, 'mandar obedeciendo' ('to command obeying'), derives from the practice of the communities, in which all important decisions are discussed by the whole community to the point where a consensus is reached, and in which all holders of positions of authority are assumed to be immediately recallable if they do not satisfy the community, if they do not command obeying the community. Thus the decision to go to war was not taken by some central committee and then handed down, but was discussed by all the communities in village assemblies.(23) The whole organisation is structured along the same principle: the ruling body, the CCRI is composed of recallable delegates chosen by the different ethnic groups (tzotzil, tzeltal, tojolobal and chol), and each ethnic group and each region has its own committees chosen in assemblies on the same principle.

The changes wrought in those ten years of confrontation between the received ideas of revolution and the reality of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas were very deep. Marcos is quoted in one book as saying 'I think that our only virtue as theorists was to have the humility to recognise that our theoretical scheme did not work, that it was very limited, that we had to adapt ourselves to the reality that was being imposed on us'. (24) However, the result was not that reality imposed itself on theory, as some (25) argue, but that the confrontation with reality gave rise to a whole new and immensely rich theorisation of revolutionary practice.


The revolt of dignity is an undefined revolt.

A revolution that listens, a revolution that takes as its starting point the dignity of those in revolt, is inevitably an undefined revolution, a revolution in which the distinction between rebellion and revolution loses meaning. The revolution is a moving outwards rather than a moving towards.

There is no transitional programme, no definite goal. There is, of course, an aim: the achievement of a society based on dignity, or, in the words of the Zapatista slogan, 'democracy, freedom, justice'. But just what this means and what concrete steps need to be taken to achieve it is never spelt out. This has at times been criticised by those educated in the classical revolutionary traditions as a sign of the political immaturity of the Zapatistas or of their reformism, but it is the logical complement of putting dignity at the centre of the revolutionary project. If the revolution is built on the dignity of those in struggle, if a central principle is the idea of 'preguntando caminamos - asking we walk', then it follows that it must be self-creative, a revolution created in the process of struggle. If the revolution is not only to achieve democracy as an end, but is democratic in its struggle, then it is impossible to pre-define its path, or indeed to think of a defined point of arrival. Whereas the concept of revolution that has predominated in this century has been overwhelmingly instrumentalist, (26) a conception of a means designed to achieve an end, this conception breaks down as soon as the starting point becomes the dignity of those in struggle. The revolt of dignity forces us to think of revolution in a new way, as a rebellion that cannot be defined or confined, a rebellion that overflows, a revolution that is by its very nature ambiguous and contradictory.

The Zapatista uprising is in the first place a revolt of the indigenous peoples of the Lacandon Jungle, of the tzeltals, tzotzils, chols and tojolobals who live in that part of the state of Chiapas. For them, the conditions of living were (and are) such that the only choice, as they see it, is between dying an undignified death, the slow unsung death of misery suffered, and dying with dignity, the death of those fighting for their dignity and the dignity of those around them. The government has consistently tried to define and confine the uprising in those terms, as a matter limited to the state of Chiapas, but the Zapatistas have always refused to accept this. This was, indeed, the main point over which the first dialogue, the dialogue of San Cristobal, broke down.(27)

The Zapatista uprising is the assertion of indigenous dignity. The opening words of the Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, read from the balcony of the town hall of San Cristobal on the morning of the first of January 1994, were 'We are the product of 500 years of struggles'.(28) The uprising came just over a year after the demonstrations throughout America that marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus's 'discovery'. On that occasion, 12 October 1992, the Zapatistas had already marched through San Cristobal, when about ten thousand indigenous people, most of them Zapatistas (29) but under another guise, had taken the streets of the city. After the first of January 1994, the Zapatistas at once became the focus of the increasingly active indigenous movement in Mexico. When the EZLN began its dialogue with the government in April 1995, the dialogue of San Andres Larrainzar, the first theme for discussion was indigenous rights and culture. The Zapatistas used the dialogue to give cohesion to the indigenous struggle, asking representatives of all the main indigenous organisations of the country to join them as consultants or guests in the workshops which were part of the dialogue and concluding that phase of the dialogue with an Indigenous Forum, held in San Cristobal in January1996. The Indigenous Forum led in turn to the setting up of the Congreso Nacional Indigena (30) which gives a national focus to previously dispersed indigenous struggles. The first phase of the dialogue of San Andres also led to the signing of an agreement with the government designed to lead to changes in the constitution which would radically improve the legal position of indigenous peoples within the country, granting them important areas of autonomy.(31)

The Zapatista movement, however, has never claimed to be just an indigenous movement.(32) Overwhelmingly indigenous in composition, the EZLN has always made clear that it is fighting for a broader cause. Its struggle is for all those 'without voice, without face, without tomorrow', a category that stretches far beyond the indigenous peoples. The demands they make (work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace...) are not demands limited to the indigenous: they are demands for all. The Zapatista movement is a movement for national liberation, a movement not just for the liberation of the indigenous but of all.

The fact that the EZLN is an Army of National Liberation seems to give a clear definition to the movement. There have been many other movements (and wars) of national liberation in different parts of the world (Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, Nicaragua etc). Here we have what appears to be a clearly defined and well-established framework: national liberation movements typically aim to liberate a national territory from foreign influence (the control of a colonial or neo-colonial power), to establish a government of national liberation designed to introduce radical social changes and establish national economic autonomy. If the Zapatista movement were a national liberation movement in that sense, then, if the history of such movements is anything to go by, there would be little to get excited about: it might be worthy of support and solidarity, but there would be nothing radically new about it. This indeed has been the position of some critics on the left.(33)

Looked at more closely, however, the apparent definition of 'Army of National Liberation' begins to dissolve. In the context of the uprising, the term 'national liberation' has more a sense of moving outwards than of moving inwards: 'national' in the sense of 'not just Chiapanecan' or 'not just indigenous', rather than 'national' in the sense of 'not foreign'. (34) 'Nation' is also used in the Zapatista communiques in the less clearly defined sense of 'homeland' ('patria'): the place where we happen to live, a space to be defended not just against imperialists but also (and more directly) against the state. 'Nation' is counterposed to the state, so that national liberation can even be understood as the liberation of Mexico from the Mexican state, or the defence of Mexico (or indeed whatever territory) against the state. 'Nation' in this sense refers to the idea of struggling wherever one happens to live, fighting against oppression, fighting for dignity. That the Zapatista movement is a movement of national liberation does not, then, confine or restrict the movement to Mexico: it can be understood rather as meaning a movement of liberation, wherever you happen to be (and whatever you happen to do). The fight for dignity cannot be restricted to national frontiers: 'dignity', in the wonderful expression used by Marcos in the invitation to the Intercontinental Gathering held in the Lacandon Jungle in July 1996, 'is that homeland without nationality, that rainbow that is also a bridge, that murmur of the heart no matter what blood lives in it, that rebel irreverence that mocks frontiers, customs officials and wars'.(35) It is consistent with this interpretation (36) of 'national liberation' that one of the principal slogans of the Zapatistas recently has been the theme chosen for the Intercontinental Gathering, 'for humanity and against neoliberalism'.

The open-ended nature of the Zapatista movement is summed up in the idea that it is a revolution, not a Revolution ("with small letters, to avoid polemics with the many vanguards and safeguards of THE REVOLUTION"). (37) It is a revolution, because the claim to dignity in a society built upon the negation of dignity can only be met through a radical transformation of society. But it is not a Revolution in the sense of having some grand plan, in the sense of a movement designed to bring about the Great Event which will change the world. Its claim to be revolutionary lies not in the preparation for the future Event but in the present inversion of perspective, in the consistent insistence on seeing the world in terms of that which is incompatible with the world as it is: human dignity. Revolution refers to present existence, not to future instrumentality.


The revolt of dignity is a revolt against definition.

The undefined, open-ended character of the Zapatista movement sometimes rouses the frustrations of those schooled in a harder-edged revolutionary tradition. Behind the lack of definition there is, however, a much sharper point. The lack of definition does not result from theoretical slackness: on the contrary, revolution is essentially anti-definitional.

The traditional Leninist concept of revolution is crucially definitional. At its centre is the idea that the struggles of the working class are inevitably limited in character, that they cannot rise above reformist demands, unless there is the intervention of a revolutionary party. The working class is a 'they' who cannot go beyond certain limits without outside intervention. The self-emancipation of the proletariat is impossible. (38)

The emphasis on dignity puts the unlimited at the centre of picture, not just the undefined but the anti-definitional. Dignity, understood as a category of struggle, is a tension which points beyond itself. The assertion of dignity implies the present negation of dignity. Dignity, then, is the struggle against the denial of dignity, the struggle for the realisation of dignity. Dignity is and is not: it is the struggle against its own negation. If dignity were simply the assertion of something that already is, then it would be an absolutely flabby concept, an empty complacency. To simply assert human dignity as a principle (as in 'all humans have dignity', or 'all humans have a right to dignity') would be either so general as to be meaningless or, worse, so general as to obscure the fact that existing society is based on the negation of dignity.(39) Similarly, if dignity were simply the assertion of something that is not, then it would be an empty daydream or a religious wish. The concept of dignity only gains force if it is understood in its double dimension, as the struggle against its own denial. One is dignified, or true, only by struggling against present indignity, or untruth. Dignity implies a constant moving against the barriers of that which exists, a constant subversion and transcendence of definitions. Dignity, understood as a category of struggle, is a fundamentally anti-identitarian concept: not 'my dignity as a Mexican...', but 'our dignity is our struggle against the negation of that dignity'.

Dignity is not a characteristic peculiar to the indigenous of the south-east of Mexico, nor to those overtly involved in revolutionary struggle. It is simply a characteristic of life in an oppressive society. It is the cry of 'Enough!' (!Ya Basta!) that is inseparable from the experience of oppression. Oppression cannot be total; whatever its form, it is always a pressure which is confronted by a counter-pressure, dehumanisation confronted by humanity. Domination implies resistance, dignity. (40) Dignity is the other side, too often forgotten, too often stifled, of what Marx called alienation: it is the struggle of dis-alienation, of defetishisation.(41) It is the struggle for recognition, but for the recognition of a self currently negated.

Dignity is the lived experience that the world is not so, that that is not the way things are. It is the lived rejection of positivism, of those forms of thought which start from the assumption that 'that's the way things are'. It is the cry of existence of that which has been silenced by 'the world that is', the refusal to be shut out by Is-ness, the scream against being forgotten in the fragmentation of the world into the disciplines of social science, those disciplines which break reality and, in breaking, exclude, suppressing the suppressed. Dignity is the cry of 'here we are!', the 'here we are!' of the indigenous peoples forgotten by neoliberal modernisation, the 'here we are!' of the growing numbers of poor who somehow do not show in the statistics of economic growth and the financial reports, the 'here we are!' of the gay whose sexuality was for so long not recognised, the 'here we are!' of the elderly shut away to die in the retirement homes of the richer countries, the 'here we are!' of the women closed into the houses whose wives they are, the 'here we are!' of the millions of illegal migrants (42) who are not where, officially, they should be, the 'here we are!' of all those pleasures of human life excluded by the growing subjection of humanity to the market. Dignity is the cry of those who are not heard, the voice of those without voice. Dignity is the truth of truth denied.(43)

'Us they forgot more and more, and history was no longer big enough for us to die just like that, forgotten and humiliated. Because dying does not hurt, what hurts is being forgotten. Then we discovered that we no longer existed, that those who govern had forgotten us in the euphoria of statistics and growth rates. A country which forgets itself is a sad country, a country which forgets its past cannot have a future. And then we seized our arms and went into the cities where we were animals. And we went and said to the powerful "here we are!" and to all the country we shouted "here we are!" and to all the world we shouted "here we are!" And see how odd things are because, for them to see us, we covered our faces; for them to name us, we gave up our name; we gambled the present to have a future; and to live ... we died'. (44)

This 'here we are!' is not the 'here we are!' of mere identity. It is a 'here we are!' which derives its meaning from the denial of that presence. It is not a static 'here we are!' but a movement, an assault on the barriers of exclusion. It is the breaking of barriers, the moving against separations, classifications, definitions, the assertion of unities that have been defined out of existence.

Dignity is an assault on the separation of morality and politics, and of the private and the public. Dignity cuts across those boundaries, asserts the unity of what has been sundered. The assertion of dignity is neither a moral nor a political claim: it is rather an attack on the separation of politics and morality that allows formally democratic regimes all over the world to co-exist with growing levels of poverty and social marginalisation. It is the 'here we are!' not just of the marginalised, but of the horror felt by all of us in the face of mass impoverishment and starvation. It is the 'here we are!' not just of the growing numbers shut away in prisons, hospitals and homes, but also of the shame and disgust of all of us who, by living, participate in the bricking up of people in those prisons, hospitals and homes. Dignity is an assault on the conventional definition of politics, but equally on the acceptance of that definition in the instrumental conception of revolutionary politics which has for so long subordinated the personal to the political, with such disastrous results. Probably nothing has done more to undermine the 'Left' in this century than this separation of the political and the personal, of the public and the private, and the dehumanisation that it entails.

Dignity encapsulates in one word the rejection of the separation of the personal and the political.(45) To a remarkable extent, this group of rebels in the jungle of the south-east of Mexico have crystallised and advanced the themes of oppositional thought and action that have been discussed throughout the world in recent years: the issues of gender, age, childhood, death and the dead. All flow from the understanding of politics as a politics of dignity, a politics which recognises the particular oppression of, and respects the struggles of, women, children, the old. Respect for the struggles of the old is a constant theme of Marcos's stories, particularly through the figure of Old Antonio, but was also forcefully underlined by the emergence of Comandante Trinidad as one of the leading figures in the dialogue of San Andres. The way in which women have imposed recognition of their struggles on the Zapatista men is well known, and can be seen, for example, in the Revolutionary Law for Women, issued on the first day of the uprising, or in the fact that it was a woman, Ana Maria, who led the most important military action undertaken by the Zapatistas, the occupation of the occupation of the town hall in San Cristobal on the 1st January 1994.(46) The question of childhood and the freedom to play is a constant theme in Marcos's letters. The stories, jokes, and poetry of the communiques and the dances that punctuate all that the Zapatistas do are not embellishments of a revolutionary process but central to it.

The struggle of dignity is the 'here we are!' of jokes, poetry, dancing, old age, childhood, games, death, love - of all those things excluded by serious bourgeois politics and serious revolutionary politics alike. As such, the struggle of dignity is opposed to the state. The Zapatista movement is an anti-state movement, not just in the obvious sense that the EZLN took up arms against the Mexican state, but in the much more profound sense that their forms of organisation, action and discourse are non-state, or, more precisely, anti-state forms.

The state defines and classifies and, by so doing, excludes. This is not by chance. The state, any state, embedded as it is in the global web of capitalist social relations, functions in such a way as to reproduce the capitalist status quo. (47) In its relation to us, and in our relation to it, there is a filtering out of anything that is not compatible with the reproduction of capitalist social relations. This may be a violent filtering, as in the repression of revolutionary or subversive activity, but it is also and above all a less perceptible filtering, a sidelining or suppression of passions, loves, hates, anger, laughter, dancing. Discontent is redefined as demands and demands are classified and defined, excluding all that is not reconcilable with the reproduction of capitalist social relations. The discontented are classified in the same way, the undigestable excluded with a greater or lesser degree of violence. The cry of dignity, the 'here we are!' of the unpalatable and undigestable, can only be a revolt against classification, against definition as such.

The state is pure Is-ness, pure Identity. Power says 'I am who am, the eternal repetition'.(48) The state is the great Classifier. Power says to the rebels: 'Be ye not awkward, refuse not to be classified. All that cannot be classified counts not, exists not, is not.'(49) The struggle of the state against the Zapatistas since the declaration of the cease-fire has been a struggle to define, to classify, to limit; the struggle of the Zapatistas against the state has been the struggle to break out, to break the barriers, to overflow, to refuse definition or to accept-and-transcend definition.

The dialogue between the government and the EZLN, first in San Cristobal in March 1994, and then in San Andres Larrainzar since April 1995, has been a constant double movement. The government has constantly sought to define and limit the Zapatista movement, to 'make it small', as one of the government representatives put it. It has constantly sought to define zapatismo as a movement limited to Chiapas, with no right to discuss matters of wider importance. It did sign agreements on the question of indigenous rights and autonomy, but apparently without having at the time any intention of implementing them. (50) In the section of the dialogue devoted to democracy and justice, however, the government representatives made no serious contribution and have apparently no intention of signing agreements in this area. The Zapatistas, on the other hand, have constantly used the dialogue to break out, to overcome their geographical isolation in the Lacandon Jungle. They have done this partly through their daily press conferences during the sessions of the dialogue, but also by negotiating the procedural right to invite advisers and guests and then inviting hundreds of them to participate in the sessions on indigenous rights and culture and on democracy and justice: advisers from a very wide range of indigenous and community organisations, complemented by a wide range of academics. Each of the two topics also provided the basis for organising a Forum in San Cristobal, first on Indigenous Rights and Culture in January 1996 and then on the Reform of the State in July of the same year, both attended by a very large number of activists from all over the country.

On the one hand, the government's drive to limit, define, make small; on the other, the (generally very successful) Zapatista push to break the cordon. On the one hand, a politics of definition, on the other a politics of overflowing. This does not mean that the Zapatistas have not sought to define: on the contrary, the definition of constitutional reforms to define indigenous autonomy is seen by them as an important achievement. But it has been a definition that overflows, thematically and politically. The definition of indigenous rights is seen not as an end-point, but as a start, as a basis for moving on to other areas of change, but also as a basis for taking the movement forward, a basis for breaking out.

The difference in approach between the two sides of the dialogue has at times resulted in incidents which reflect not only the arrogance of the government negotiators but also the lack of understanding derived from their perspective as representatives of the state. This has even been expressed in the conception of time. Given the bad conditions of communication in the Lacandon Jungle, and the need to discuss everything thoroughly, the Zapatista principle of 'mandar obedeciendo' ('to command obeying') means that decisions take time. When the government representatives insisted on rapid replies, the Zapatistas replied that they did not understand the indigenous clock. As recounted by Comandante David afterwards, the Zapatistas explained that 'we, as Indians, have rhythms, forms of understanding, of deciding, of reaching agreements. And when we told them that, they replied by making fun of us; well then, they said, we don't understand why you say that because we see that you have Japanese watches, so how do you say that you use the indigenous clock, that's from Japan.'(51) And Comandante Tacho commented: 'They haven't learned. They understand us backwards. We use time, not the clock.' (52)

Even more fundamentally, the state representatives have been unable to understand the concept of dignity. In one of the press conferences held during the dialogue of San Andres, Comandante Tacho recounts that the government negotiators 'told us that they are studying what dignity means, that they are consulting and making studies on dignity. That what they understood was that dignity is service to others. And they asked us to tell them what we understand by dignity. We told them to continue with their research. It makes us laugh and we laughed in front of them. They asked us why and we told them that they have big research centres and big studies in schools of a high standard and that it would be a shame if they do not accept that. We told them that if we sign the peace, then we will tell them at the end what dignity means for us.'(53)

The Zapatista sense of satire and their refusal to be defined is turned not only against the state, but also against the more traditional 'definitional' left. In a letter dated 20 February 1995, when the Zapatistas were retreating from the army after the military intervention of 9 February, Marcos imagines an interrogation by the state prosecutor, consisting of the prosecutor's accusations and his own responses:

'The whites accuse you of being black: Guilty. The blacks accuse you of being white: Guilty... The machos accuse you of being feminist: Guilty. The feminists accuse you of being macho: Guilty. The communists accuse you of being an anarchist: Guilty. The anarchists accuse you of being orthodox: Guilty... The reformists accuse you of being an extremist: Guilty. The 'historical vanguard' accuse you of appealing to civil society and not to the proletariat: Guilty. Civil society accuse you of disturbing its tranquility: Guilty. The stock market accuses you of spoiling their lunch: Guilty... The serious people accuse you of being a joker: Guilty. The jokers accuse you of being serious: Guilty. The adults accuse you of being a child: Guilty. The children accuse you of being an adult: Guilty. The orthodox leftists accuse you for not condemning homosexuals and lesbians: Guilty. The theorists accuse you for being practical: Guilty. The practitioners accuse you for being theoretical: Guilty. Everybody accuses you for everything bad that happens to them: Guilty.' (54)

Dignity's revolt mocks classification. As it must. It must, because dignity makes sense only if understood as being-and-not-being, and therefore defying definition or classification. Dignity is that which pushes from itself towards itself, and cannot be reduced to a simple 'is'. The state, any state, on the other hand, is. The state, as its name suggests, imposes a state, an Is-ness, upon that which pushes beyond existing social relations. Dignity is a moving outwards, an overflowing, a fountain; the state is a moving inwards, a containment, a cistern. (55) The failure to understand dignity, then, is not peculiar to the Mexican state: it is simply that statehood and dignity are incompatible. There is no fit between them.

Dignity's revolt, therefore, cannot aim at winning state power. >From the beginning, the Zapatistas made it clear that they did not want to win power, and they have repeated it ever since. Many on the more traditional 'definitional' Left were scandalised when the repudiation of winning power gained more concrete expression in the Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle at the beginning of 1996, when the Zapatistas launched the formation of the Zapatista Front of National Liberation (FZLN) and made the rejection of all ambition to hold state office a condition of membership.(56) The repudiation of state power is, however, simply an extension of the idea of dignity. The state, any state, is so bound into the web of global capitalist social relations that it has no option, whatever the composition of the government, but to promote the reproduction of those relations, and that means defining and degrading. To assume state power would inevitably be to abandon dignity. The revolt of dignity can only aim at abolishing the state or, more immediately, at developing alternative forms of social organisation and strengthening anti-state power. 'It is not necessary to conquer the world. It is enough to make it anew'. (57)

The central principles on which the Zapatistas have insisted in developing alternative forms of social organisation are those of 'mandar obedeciendo' ('to command obeying') and 'preguntando caminamos' ('asking we walk'). They have emphasised time and time again the importance for them of taking all important decisions through a collective process of discussion, and that the way forward cannot be a question of their imposing their line, but only through opening up spaces for discussion and democratic decision, in which they would express their view, but their view should count only as one among many. In relation to the state (and assuming that the state still exists), they have said many times that they do not want to hold state office, and that it does not matter which party holds state office as long as those in authority 'command obeying'. The problem of revolutionary politics, then, is not to win power but to develop forms of political articulation that would force those in office to obey the people (so that, fully developed, the separation between state and society would be overcome and the state effectively abolished). Just what this would mean has not been spelt out by the EZLN, (58) apart from the obvious principle of instant recallability: that the president or any other office-holder should be instantly recallable if they fail to obey the people's wishes, as is the case with all the members of the EZLN's ruling body, the CCRI. (59)

Although the details are not clear, and cannot be, since they could only be developed in struggle, the central point is that the focus of revolutionary struggle is shifted from the what to the how of politics. All the initiatives of the Zapatistas (the Convencion Nacional Democratica, the 'consultation' on the future of the EZLN, the invitation of advisers to the dialogue with the government, the organisation of the forum on indigenous rights and culture and on the reform of the state, the intercontinental meeting for humanity and against neoliberalism, amongst others) have been directed at promoting a different way of thinking about political activity. Similarly, all the contacts with the state and even the proposals for the 'reform' of the state have in fact been anti-state initiatives in the sense of trying to develop new political forms, forms of action which articulate dignity, forms which do not fit with the state. The principal problem for a revolutionary movement is not to elaborate a programme, to say what the revolutionary government will do (although the EZLN has its 16 demands as the basis for such a programme); the principal problem is rather how to articulate dignities, how to develop a form of struggle and a form of social organisation based upon the recognition of dignity. Only the articulation of dignities can provide the answer to what should be done: a self-determining society must determine itself.


Dignities unite.

The Zapatistas rose up on the first of January 1994 in order to change Mexico and to make the world anew. Their base was in the Lacandon Jungle, far away from any important urban centre. They were not part of an effective international or even national organisation.(60) Since the declaration of the cease-fire on the 12th January 1994, they have remained physically cordoned within the Lacandon Jungle.

Cut off in the jungle, how could the EZLN transform Mexico, or indeed change the world? Alone there was little that they could do, either to change the world, or even to defend themselves. 'Do not leave us alone' ('no nos dejen solos') was an oft-repeated call during the first months of the cease-fire. The effectiveness of the EZLN depended (and depends) inevitably on their ability to break the cordon and overcome their isolation. The revolt of dignity derives its strength from the uniting of dignities.

But how could this uniting of dignities come about when the EZLN itself was cornered in the jungle and there was no institutional structure to support them? Marcos suggests a powerful image in a radio interview in the early months of the uprising: 'Marcos, whoever Marcos is, who is in the mountains, had his twins, or comrades, or his accomplices (not in the organic sense, but accomplices in terms of how to see the world, the necessity of changing it or seeing it in a different way) in the media, for example, in the newspapers, in the radio, in the television, in the journals, but also in the trade unions, in the schools, among the teachers, among the students, in groups of workers, in peasant organisations and all that. There were many accomplices or, to use a radio term, there were many people tuned in to the same frequency, but nobody turned the radio on... Suddenly they [the comrades of the EZLN] turn it on and we discover that there are others on the same radio frequency - I'm talking of radio communication, not listening to the radio - and we begin to talk and to communicate and to realise that there are things in common, that it seems there are more things in common than differences.'(61)

The idea suggested by Marcos for thinking about the unity of struggles is one of frequencies, of being tuned in, of wavelengths, vibrations, echoes. Dignity resonates. As it vibrates, it sets off vibrations in other dignities, an unstructured, possibly discordant resonance.

There is no doubt of the extraordinary resonance of the Zapatista uprising throughout the world, as evidenced by the participation of over three thousand people from forty-three different countries in the Intercontinental Meeting organised by the EZLN in July 1996. 'What is happening in the mountains of the Mexican southeast that finds an echo and a mirror in the streets of Europe, the suburbs of Asia, the countryside of America, the towns of Africa and the houses of Oceania?' (62) And equally, of course, what is happening in the streets of Europe, the suburbs of Asia, the countryside of America, the towns of Africa and the houses of Oceania, that resonates so strongly with the Zapatista uprising?

The notion of resonance, or echo, or radio frequency may seem a very vague one. It is not so. The EZLN have engaged in a constant struggle over the past few years to break through the cordon, to overcome their isolation, to forge the unity of dignities on which their future depends. They have fought in many different ways. They have fought, with enormous success, by letters and communiques, by jokes and stories, by the use of symbolism (63) and by the theatre of their events. They have fought by the construction of their 'Aguascalientes', the meeting place constructed for the National Democratic Convention (Convencion Nacional Democratica) in July 1994, and by the construction of a series of new Aguascalientes in the jungle after the first one had been destroyed by the army in its intervention of February 1995. They have fought too by the creative organisation of a whole series of events which have been important catalysts for the opposition in Mexico and (increasingly) beyond Mexico. The first important event was the National Democratic Convention, organised immediately the EZLN had rejected the proposals made by the government in the Dialogue of San Cristobal and held just weeks before the presidential elections of August 1994: an event which brought more than 6,000 activists into the heart of the jungle only months after the fighting had finished. The following year, the EZLN built on the popular reaction to the military interventon of February 1995 to organise a consultation throughout the country on what the future of the EZLN should be, an event in which over a million people took part. The new dialogue with the government, begun in April 1995, also became the basis for inviting hundreds of activists and specialists to take part as advisers in the dialogue, and for organising the forums on Indigenous rights and culture (January 1996) and on the Reform of the State (July 1996). The same year also saw the organisation of the Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism, held within the Zapatista territory at the end of July. In each case, these were events which seemed impossible at the time of their announcement, and events which stirred up enormous enthusiasm in their realisation.

The communiques and events have also been accompanied by more orthodox attempts to establish lasting organisational structures. The National Democratic Convention (CND) established a standing organisation of the same name, with the aim of coordinating the (non-military) Zapatista struggle for democracy, freedom and justice throughout the country. After internal conflicts had rendered the CND ineffective, the Third Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in January 1995 proposed the creation of a Movement for National Liberation, an organisation which was stillborn. The Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, a year later, launched the Frente Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (the Zapatista National Liberation Front - FZLN) to organise the civilian struggle thoughout the country. This, although it has provided an important point of organisational support for the Zapatistas, has stirred up none of the enthusiasm aroused by the EZLN itself.

The relative failure of the institutional attempts to extend the Zapatista struggle lends weight to the argument that the real force of the Zapatista uniting of dignities has to be understood in terms of the much less structured notion of resonance. The notion of resonance is indeed the counterpart of the idea of 'preguntando caminamos' ('asking we walk'). We advance by asking, not by telling: by suggesting, arguing, proposing, inviting, looking for links with other struggles which are the same struggle, looking for responses, listening for echoes. If those echoes are not there, we can only propose again, argue again, probe again, ask again: we cannot create echoes where they do not exist.

All this does not mean that organisation is not important, that it is all just a matter of vibrations and spontaneous combustion. On the contrary, the whole Zapatista uprising shows the importance of profound and careful organisation. It does suggest, however, a different, less structured and more experimental way of thinking about organisation. The concept of organisation must be experimental in a double sense: experimental, simply because there is no pre-given model of revolutionary organisation, but also experimental in the sense that the notion of dignity and its corollary, 'asking we walk', mean that revolutionary organisation must be seen as a constant experiment, a constant asking. The notion of dignity does not imply an appeal to spontaneity, the idea that revolt will simply explode without prior organisation; but it does imply thinking in terms of a multitude of different forms of organisation and, above all, thinking of organisation as a constant experiment, a constant probing, a constant asking, a constant searching: not just to see if together we can find some way out of here, but because the asking is in itself the antithesis of Power. (64)

Yet there is obviously a tension here implied in the very notion of the 'uniting of dignities'. The Zapatistas speak, not just of 'dignity', but of 'dignities'. Clearly, then, it is not a question of imposing one dignity or of finding what 'true dignity' really means. It is a question rather of recognising the validity of different forms of struggle and different opinions as to what the realisation of dignity means. This does not mean a complete relativism in which all opinions, even fascist ones, are granted equal validity. Conflicts between different dignities are inevitable: it is clear, for example, that the Zapatista women's understanding of the dignity of their struggle has brought them into conflict with the men's understanding of their dignity. (65) What the concept of dignity points to is not the correctness of any particular solution to such conflicts, but rather a way of resolving such conflicts in which the particular dignities are recognised and articulated. Even here, the Zapatistas argue that there is not just one correct way of articulating dignities: while they themselves organise their discussions on the basis of village assemblies, they recognise that this may not be the best form of articulating dignities in all cases. What form the articulation of dignities might take in a big city, for example, is very much an open question, although there are obviously precedents (66) and, in some cases, deep-rooted traditions of forms of direct democracy. The struggle to unite dignities in a world that is based on the denial and fragmentation of dignities is not an easy one.


Dignity is the revolutionary subject.
Dignity is a class concept, not a humanistic one.

The EZLN do not use the concept of 'class' or 'class struggle' in their discourse, in spite of the fact that Marxist theory has clearly played an important part in their formation. They have preferred, instead, to develop a new language, to speak of the struggle of truth and dignity. 'We saw that the old words had become so worn out that they had become harmful for those that used them.'(67) In looking for support, or in forming links with other struggles, they have appealed, not to the working class or the proletariat, but to 'civil society'. By 'civil society', they seem to mean 'society in struggle', in the broadest sense: all those groups and intitiatives engaged in latent or overt struggles to assert some sort of control over their future, without aspiring to hold governmental office.(68) In Mexico, the initial reference point is often taken as the forms of autonomous social organisation that arose in Mexico City in response to the earthquake of 1985 and the state's incapacity to deal with the emergency.

It is not difficult to see why the Zapatistas should have chosen to turn their back on the old words. That does not mean, however, that all the problems connected with these words are thereby erased. The Zapatistas have been criticised by some adherents of the traditional orthodox Marxist left for not using the concept of class. It is argued that, because they do not use the traditional triad of class struggle, revolution and socialism, preferring instead to speak of dignity, truth, freedom, democracy and justice, their struggle is a liberal one, an armed reformism which has little possibility of leading to radical change. An extreme form of this sort of application of a class analysis is the argument that the Zapatista uprising is just a peasant movement and, while it should be supported, the proletariat can have little confidence in it.

The orthodox Marxist tradition works with a definitional concept of class. The working class may be defined in various ways: most commonly as those who sell their labour power in order to survive; or as those who produce surplus value and are directly exploited. The important point here is that the working class is defined.

In this definitional approach, the working class, however defined, is defined on the basis of its subordination to capital: it is because it is subordinated to capital (as wage workers, or as producers of surplus value) that it is defined as working class. Capitalism, in this approach, is understood as a world of pre-defined social relations, a world in which the forms of social relations are constituted, (69) firmly fixed or fetishised. The fixity of the forms of social relations is taken as the starting point for the discussion of class. Thus, working class struggle is understood as starting from the (pre-constituted) subordination of labour to capital. Any sort of struggle that does not fall within this definition is then seen as non-class struggle (which consequently raises problems as to how it should be defined).

The definitional approach to class raises two sorts of problems. Firstly, it inevitably raises the question of who is and who is not part of the working class. Are intellectuals like Marx and Lenin part of the working class? Are those of us who work in the universities part of the working class? Are the rebels of Chiapas part of the working class? Are feminists part of the working class? Are those active in the gay movement part of the working class? In each case, there is a concept of a pre-defined working class to which these people do or do not belong. (70)

The second (and more serious) consequence of defining class is the definition of struggles that follows. From the classification of the people concerned there are derived certain conclusions about the struggles in which they are involved. Those who define the Zapatista rebels as being not part of the working class and draw from that certain conclusions about the nature and limitations of the uprising. From the definition of the class position of the participants there follows a definition of their struggles: the definition of class defines the antagonism that the definer perceives or accepts as valid. This leads to a blinkering of the perception of social antagonism. In some cases, for example, the definition of the working class as the urban proletariat directly exploited in factories, combined with evidence of the decreasing proportion of the population who fall within this definition, has led people to the conclusion that class struggle is no longer relevant for understanding social change. In other cases, the definition of the working class and therefore of working class struggle in a certain way has led to an incapacity to relate to the development of new forms of struggle (the student movement, feminism, ecologism and so on). The definitional understanding of class has done much in recent years to create the situation in which 'the old words had become so worn out that they had become harmful for those that used them'.

The notion of dignity detonates the definition of class, but does not thereby cease to be a class concept. It does so simply because the starting point is no longer a relatio

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