John Holloway

Zapatismo represents an important break with the tradition of revolutionary thought. When the Zapatistas rose up in Chiapas in the south-east of Mexico on the 1st January 1994, they took the world by surprise. This was not just because they revolted when the age of rebellion seemed to have passed, but also because they spoke a new language and expressed new ideas that broke sharply with the received language and ideas of the revolutionary tradition.

The nature of the break became abundantly clear in a letter sent by the Zapatista leadership on 30 January 1994, in which they explain their rebellion:

‘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’. (EZLN, La Palabra, Vol 1, p.122)

The fundamental break with the Leninist tradition lies in the centrality given to the idea of dignity. Dignity speaks in the first words of the Zapatista uprising: ¡Ya basta! Enough!. We rebel because we can no longer abide the humiliation of living the way we do. We rebel because, although our dignity has been trampled upon for five hundred years, we still have sufficient dignity to revolt against this negation. The revolt is the revolt of dignity against its own negation: it is a struggle of and for dignity, the struggle of dignity for its full realisation. It is a movement that comes from below and pushes towards a society based on the recognition of dignity. This includes the struggle for indigenous rights, but this must be understood as just one step, part of a broader and deeper struggle for the creation of a world based on the mutual recognition of dignities. In other words, the struggle of and for dignity is necessarily a struggle against capitalism (as the Zapatistas declare explicitly in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in 2005).

To start from dignity means to understand people as subjects, not as victims. However victimised, humiliated, objectified they may be, they are still subjects with dignity. These are not the inherently limited subjects of Lenin’s What is to be done? who can have no more than “trade union consciousness” and require the leadership of a Party, but rather subjects who do not need to be told what to do by any external authority.

There is no question, then, of having to bring consciousness to the masses: the central issue is not consciousness but dignity. This changes the whole conception of politics, the whole tonality and style of political action. Traditional revolutionary politics is monological: since the central problem is seen as the lack of consciousness, the task of the party is to explain to people what is wrong with the world and what must be done. Leaders speak at length, often at very great length. But if the starting point is the dignity of all, then this leads to a dialogical politics, a politics not of talking, but of listening, or, perhaps better, of listening-and-talking. “Preguntando caminamos”, “asking we walk” is one of the central principles of Zapatista organisation. We advance not by telling people what to do, but by asking them what they are doing and what should be done. Thus, when subcomandante Marcos left Chiapas to travel around the country as part of the Otra Campaña, the “other campaign” announced in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in July 2005, it was not to give big speeches but to sit and listen to people talking of their struggles and take notes on what he heard. There is no programme, no royal road to follow: the only way forward is the path we make by walking, and we walk by asking.

Dignity is not just the dignity of revolutionaries, it is the dignity of ordinary people. This is perhaps the most profound challenge, theoretically and practically, that the Zapatistas throw down: “We are quite ordinary women and men, children and old people, that is to say, rebels, non-conformists, uncomfortable, dreamers.” (La Jornada, 4 August 1999) There is nothing special about being an anti-capitalist rebel. We who rebel are not an elite. It is as if the Zapatistas are saying to us “look at the people around you and listen to their rebellion, listen and look, hear and see.” The traditional image of the revolutionary hero has no place here.

This concept of politics is inherently anti-hierarchical. An organisation that listens must be a horizontal organisation, one that seeks to articulate people’s views rather than to dictate a line. The basic unit of Zapatista organisation is the village council or assembly, in which all take part, express their views and work to reach a consensus. The EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, Zapatista Army of National Liberation) itself, however, is organised as an army, with vertical structures of command. This, they argue, is an unfortunate necessity in the situation of conflict in which they live. The way in which they combine the need for effectiveness with radical democracy is through the principle of mandar obedeciendo (to rule by obeying) which states simply that anyone in a position of authority must obey those who have placed her or him in that position. This involves a system of instant recallability of anyone entrusted with a particular responsibility. It is not quite the same as the radical principle of horizontality that was so important in the uprising in Argentina (the uprising that exploded on 19/20 December 2001 and brought down a whole row of presidents), but is perhaps more realistic in its recognition of the tensions inherent in trying to create a different type of society within a capitalist framework.

The emphasis on dignity leads inevitably to a rejection of trying to change society through the state. A focus on the state draws those involved into certain forms of organisation. The state is not a thing but a form of organisation characterised above all by its separation from society. A state-oriented politics involves processes of exclusion: separation of leaders from led, the adoption of a language that is not accessible to all, the learning of bureaucratic regulations and procedures, the calculation of advantages and disadvantages according to the logic of power, and so on.

From the beginning the Zapatistas have been consistent in their refusal to enter into this kind of politics, but there has been a process of learning and change in their dealings with the state. In the early period, they entered into a dialogue with the Mexican state in order to achieve the recognition of indigenous rights. This led to the signing of the Agreement of San Andrés in 1996 in which the government agreed to the implementation of many of the demands of the indigenous movement aimed at improving the position of the indigenous peoples and giving recognition to a certain degree of self-government). The agreement, although signed, was never implemented. After a change of government (involving the replacement of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) after seventy years in power), the EZLN organised a march (the “march of the colour of the earth”) to Mexico City, where they addressed the Congress. In spite of this, and of the promises of the new government, the Congress proceeded to introduce legislation which, far from implementing the agreement of San Andrés, actually reduced indigenous rights in some respects.

Since then, the EZLN has abandoned any attempt to negotiate with the state and insisted on implementing the demands through their own organisation. The key element in this strategy of autonomy is the structure of administration centred on the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (councils of good government), the authorities established by the Zapatistas to regulate the territory that they control in Chiapas. The composition of these councils is based on a combination of the election of instantly recallable delegates (on the basis of “mandar obedeciendo”) and a rapid rotation at the regional level between the councils of the different villages within the region. The Juntas de Buen Gobierno should not be seen as an alternative state but as a radically different form of organisation. They are based not on a separation from society, but on the integration of communal organisation into the society. Thus, the constant rotation of the composition of the Juntas is designed to ensure that as many people as possible gain experience of community organisation, even at the cost of a loss of efficiency.

The rejection of the state as a form of organisation means also the rejection of the temporality of the state. A dialogical politics based on discussion, on listening and the taking of decisions by consensus means a different time framework from that of the state and of state-centred politics. This was expressed very neatly in the context of the dialogue that led to the agreement of San Andrés. When the government representatives insisted on rapid replies to their proposals, the Zapatistas replied that they did not understand the indigenous time. 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.”(La Jornada 17 May 1995) And Comandante Tacho commented: “They haven’t learned. They understand us backwards. We use time, not the clock.” (La Jornada, 18 May 1995)

This sense of time is undoubtedly rooted in the practice and traditions of the indigenous communities, but it is also inherent in the construction of a society with different social relations. In the case of the Zapatistas it is expressed in a dual temporality. On the one hand there is the urgency of their cry of ¡Ya basta! Enough! Revolution now! We cannot accept one moment longer this terrible system that is humiliating and destroying us! But also there is a different temporality, the temporality of the patient construction of a different world, beautifully expressed in their saying that “we walk, we do not run, because we are going very far” (“caminamos, no corremos, porque vamos muy lejos).

More than anything else, zapatismo is a challenge. The Zapatista movement is an indigenous movement and it is much, much more than an indigenous movement. The Zapatista language and practice draw on the traditions and history of the indigenous communities, but this is not just an expression of indigenous wisdom, but something that resonates profoundly with the questions and reflections of the anti-capitalist movement throughout the world in the last forty years or so. The Zapatista movement is not a movement out there in far-away Chiapas but a political direction, a new sensibility that was already sprouting in many parts of the world, a particularly powerful articulation of that which was already pushing to be born. That is why it has had so much influence in the “anti-globalisation” movement and in the general rethinking of the possibility of transforming the world. The global appeal of zapatismo was expressed by Major Ana María put it in her speech to the “Intergalactic” meeting (the Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism organised by the zapatistas in July 1996): Behind us are the we that are you (Detrás de nosotros estamos ustedes).Behind our balaclavas is the face of all the excluded women. Of all the forgotten indigenous people. Of all the persecuted homosexuals. Of all the despised youth. Of all the beaten migrants. Of all those imprisoned for their word and thought. Of all the humiliated workers. Of all those who have died from being forgotten. Of all the simple and ordinary men and women who do not count, who are not seen, who are not named, who have no tomorrow.” (Chiapas no. 3, pp. 101-105, at 103)

The struggle of the Zapatistas is not just an indigenous struggle. It is a struggle for a different world, a struggle that touches us all.


Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, La Palabra del los Armados de Verdad y Fuego, 3 volumes, Mexico

Suggested Readings:

J. Holloway, E. Peláez Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico, Pluto Press, London, 1998

J. Holloway Change the World without taking Power Pluto Press, new edition 2005

Midnight Notes Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles of the Fourth World War, Autonomedia, New York 2001

Mihalis Mentinis Zapatistas: the Chiapas Revolt and what it means for Radical Politics, Pluto Press, London 2006

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