Debate International

Evaluating two decades of indigenous resistance in Chiapas – A Reply to Dan La Botz

By Steven Fake

Dan La Botz, a long-time labor activist who has considerable familiarity with Mexican affairs, marked the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion by penning a reflection on their legacy. His critique reflects his openness to electoral strategies for social change. La Botz is a member of Solidarity, one of the handful of Trotskyist-inspired groups of any visibility in the U.S. His views may be taken as broadly representative of a substantial chunk of the left, particularly Marxists.

In his assessment – “Twenty Years Since the Chiapas Rebellion: The Zapatistas, Their Politics, and Their Impact,” January 13, 2014 – La Botz accuses the Zapatistas of “political abstentionism.” The phrase requires some translation for those not steeped in left historical minutiae. Under this logic, political activity refers only to the electoral realm. One may engage in occupations, sit-ins, or demonstrations, while still being a political abstentionist.

La Botz holds the orthodox Marxist view that “elections by parties which are genuinely independent provide an opportunity for the left to propagandize for its ideas and to use elected positions to contribute to the organization of social movements.” History furnishes few instances to support this supposition.

La Botz recounts how,

“When the 2000 elections approached, the EZLN announced that it would not support either of the two rightwing parties—the National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party—nor would they support the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Cárdenas, who had been a presidential candidate in 1988 and 1994, remained enormously popular on the left. Many hoped that the Zapatistas would support him, though organizations of the revolutionary left were divided over the issue of whether to support Cárdenas or back some independent socialist candidate. The EZLN, however, rejected elections in general and Marcos excoriated Mexico’s political parties of all stripes as compromised and corrupt.”

For La Botz, the problem with this approach is that even illegitimate elections have consequences: “the election proved not to be irrelevant to the Zapatistas.” This is a refrain particularly familiar in the U.S. during the Obama era.

The more consequential error for La Botz, came during the next presidential contest:

“In 2006 when the next presidential elections took place, Marcos and EZLN adopted a different approach. Once again, most of the Mexican left hoped that the EZLN would support the left candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD, who was speaking out strongly against NAFTA, neoliberalism, and the corruption of the PRI and PAN. The EZLN, still rejecting both elections and the existing parties, had other plans. Marcos announced the organization of la Otra Campaña (the Other Campaign). Unlike other political parties, the EZLN would not put forward its own candidates and would not support the candidates of other parties, but would instead organize a campaign that would travel around the country speaking out against the Mexican government and against capitalism. ….

Meanwhile the PRD’s left candidate López Obrador harangued crowds of up to a million, mostly working class and poor people, with his populist rhetoric. When it became clear that President Fox and the ruling PAN party were violating election law and preparing an enormous fraud, which in fact took place on election day in July, there arose an enormous protest movement in defense of a fair election and citizens’ right to have their votes counted. Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands in Mexico City joined the protests blocking the boulevards and occupying public plazas.

Several of the revolutionary left groups involved in the Other Campaign went off to join the election protests as a matter of principle; even if they hadn’t liked the parties and candidates offered up in the election they felt the citizens had the right to vote and have their vote counted. Marcos and the EZLN, opposed on principle to elections, refused to participate in the defense-of-the-vote protests. So they withdrew and retired to Chiapas. The Zapatistas sectarian attitude toward that movement did enormous damage to their reputation among those in the broad left and those on the far left. They lost much of the moral authority that had clung to them since the 1994 uprising.”

The refusal of the Zapatistas to ally with the corrupt political parties is to their credit, even if it did lose them prestige within the left, as La Botz claims.

However, this is not to say that one should totally ignore elections. Was the Freedom Summer of the Civil Rights movement – now, 50 years hence, sanctified – which attempted to register black voters and mount a challenge to the Democratic Party a waste of energy? Or the entirety of the suffragist movement? Clearly not. Yet it is important that independent social movements, while recognizing the real opportunities presented by voting within a system of elite-managed democracy, not lend their credibility to the legitimacy of the proceedings.

Should the Zapatistas have participated in the election fraud protests? Quite possibly. But the disillusionment La Botz sees on the left with the Zapatista attitude towards the whole episode reflects more poorly on the left and its sectarianism than on the EZLN. An unhealthy focus on electoral productions as a venue for improving society is not limited to the U.S.

Another target that comes in for criticism from La Botz is John Holloway. Holloway “suggested that, in part under the influence of indigenous ideas, the EZLN had rejected the old Marxist paradigm of the proletariat struggling for state power, putting on the agenda a new theory and practice of revolution that seemed to have more in common with anarchism: anyone from any social class could begin to make the revolution by asserting their dignity and forming a liberated community where they were. The Zapatistas seemed to be building such a communitarian alternative to capitalism in the remote communities in Chiapas.”

There are two things to note immediately in this passage:

1) It is quite clear that Holloway’s central thesis, as popularized, is ridiculous. One cannot simply ignore the national government and ultimately its power must be overthrown – it will not permit any other course of action as no government will willingly tolerate threats to its monopoly on the use of violence. Of course, the Zapatistas have simply been pragmatic in retaining their autonomy within Chiapas; if they have failed to spark a revolution, it was not because they did not desire to do so, as La Botz himself notes in his piece. However, those who would follow Holloway and make a virtue out of necessity are clearly barking up the wrong tree.

2) La Botz employs an amorphous concept of anarchism and thereby makes it synonymous with Holloway’s ideas. This is quite unsupportable. Anarchism is a far richer ideology than La Botz’s reference would imply. Yet this notion of anarchism remains lodged in the minds of many on the left; seemingly immovable and unresponsive to countervailing historical information.

La Botz wishes the EZLN had “help[ed] to organize—not to insist on controlling—a national social movement and a genuinely independent national political party.” The first part of that admonition is good, though as discussed above, we can drop the last bit. I am not able to evaluate La Botz’s charge of “sectarianism;” nor his accusation that they “cut themselves from other sections of the far left” within Mexico.

Certainly, internationally, the EZLN managed to engage the solidarity movements formed around the globe that were instrumental in providing the public prominence that helped to protect their autonomy from a full siege by the Mexican state.

However, this aspect of La Botz’s criticism warrants greater attention. How have the Zapatista’s fallen short in engaging with other Mexican social movements? La Botz recounts his observations from the late ‘90s:

“Living in Mexico in those years, I attended in Mexico City and in Tijuana meetings of the Zapatista Front for National Liberation (FZLN) which held a founding of the national organization in 1997. The Zapatistas, however, seemed to have no interest in a real front, that is, in a coalition of various left organizations and movements. EZLN leaders found difficult the give and take of coalition building in a country where there were scores of social movements, labor unions, and left political parties. The EZLN’s insistence on dominating the supposed front that they had created meant that it never grew or became popular and never had an impact in Mexican society at large.

The EZLN also attempted at about the same time, with the aid of leftists in the labor movement, to organize a Zapatista workers’ organization. The labor union activists I knew and with whom I spoke told me that the Zapatistas opposed participation in the existing labor unions, not only because they believed they were bureaucratic, but also in part because the unions held elections and the EZLN didn’t believe in elections and voting. With an unwillingness to deal with the unions and their existing structures and with longstanding rank-and-file labor organizations, the Zapatista labor organization was stillborn. The Zapatistas’ attempt to turn themselves into a political force in Mexican society failed utterly, and they withdrew again to the canyons of Chiapas.”

Later, with the Other Campaign – an attempt to engage Mexican society, or at least the left – La Botz sees similar problems:

“The EZLN’s Other Campaign was joined by several other left groups, from the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) to the followers of Albanian Enver Hoxa in the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML). The Campaign took place during a period of a number of dramatic social conflicts, most important the civil unrest in Sal Salvador Atenco in the State of Mexico. When police suppressed flower sellers and other street vendors, the Peoples Front for the Defense of the Land called upon the EZLN for support. Marcos and EZLN showed up bringing thousands of supporters. During the Other Campaign, Marcos and other speakers held moderately successful meetings and rallies around the country, sometimes speaking to thousands against the evils of capitalism. Everywhere they went, the CPML’s giant portraits of Stalin hung in the background, casting doubt in some minds about the meaning of it all.”

This sounds like a fair criticism. One might hazard a guess that independent trade unions and other social movements with some popular membership may have made for a better alliance than an outlandish Stalinist sect.

The success of the Zapatistas, though inspirational and far more impressive than anything the U.S. has mustered in recent memory, has certainly been limited – they have carved out autonomy but not stirred a national revolution. As La Botz summarizes:

“The Zapatistas failure in launching a revolution and the Mexican army’s siege of the zone in which they operated forced them to retreat and fall back on the indigenous and other poor people in the canyons where they had their base. The Zapatistas now did more openly what they had been doing clandestinely for years, organizing their indigenous and mestizo supporters into communities that constituted a kind of liberated zone—though interspersed with other indigenous and mestizo communities that did not support them and surrounded by the army which sometimes harassed them.”

Certainly, more than mere praise is appropriate in commemorating the Zapatistas. They deserve skeptical appraisals as well. Like La Botz, I have long been curious about the Caracoles and Juntas de Buen Gobierno that the EZLN has organized as a form of governance in territories under their control. And like him I have been frustrated by the failure to publicize the details of these apparent organs of self-governance. If they are truly models of democracy, then the mechanisms by which they operate and the principles they abide by are of universal interest and should be promoted broadly.

It is ironic that the famed Zapatista masks, donned, they claimed, to avoid creating distracting personality cults around leaders, nonetheless permitted their most public spokesperson to be elevated to celebrity status. True, he was no Hugo Chavez (“Chavez is the people!” proclaimed a poster I was once given). But, as La Botz notes, “Many were charmed by subcomandante Marcos’ sardonic wit and great creativity both as a speaker and a writer.” The fascination came despite, or perhaps because of, a rhetorical style that is offputtingly vague, poetic, and fantastical.

The critique La Botz has presented of the Zapatistas may be largely off the mark, but there is considerably need for a more substantial analysis by a less party-focused analyst. The 21st year of the Zapatistas public existence provides an excellent opportunity for such a look at this movement that still holds global fascination.

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