The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'm Thankful For... the Zapatistas!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, enjoy the day off! Also, let's not forget what we're thankful for, like the indigenous resistance movements of the world and their struggle against exploitation. In their honor:

           The January 1, 1994 uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatistas, garnered worldwide attention for its apparent spontaneity and challenge to the ruling Partido Revolucinario Institucional. Its political program was vague but consisted of a call for “work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, justice and peace.” They articulated a unique conception of developmental democracy which they hoped to introduce into the primarily indigenous state of Chiapas. American views concerning the Zapatistas, far from a monolithic bloc, range from mainstream, liberal denunciations to nearly hysteric support in some leftist circles. While slight disagreements may exist within particular currents, the prominent American analyses are associated with four historic political ideologies: mainstream capitalist (nearly unanimous in their hostility), non-aligned leftist (post-modern in its association), Marxist-Leninist (of the internationalist, Trotskyist variety), and Anarchist (anti-establishment and anti-statist). While mainstream commentators, writing for powerful, highly-disseminated organs of capitalist power, are able to more extensively promote their vacuous analyses and manufacture for the American public what is ostensibly objectivity, the various leftist tendencies do not hide themselves behind a veil of objectivity. Instead, the multifaceted analytical frameworks of the American left provide a much deeper, and more interesting, understanding of how serious American activists and organizations are approaching the Zapatistas.
            Prior to surveying the various ideological commentaries concerning the Zapatistas, the origins of this movement must be lucidly understood. Chiapas, the southern state known for its enormous agricultural and resource wealth, maintains a population that constitutes one of the poorest, most abject sectors of Mexican society. While agrarian reform reached the state originally in the 1930’s, a significant portion of the land, especially the most arable, remained in the hands of wealthy ranchers and plantation owners. The onset of intense cattle ranching, along with petroleum drilling by the nationalized oil company PEMEX, further devastated the land peasants barely clung to. The government of Salinas destroyed the constitutional base upon which agrarian reform was based, Article 27, and rolled back the relatively nominal rights enjoyed by peasants to control communal ejidos upon which they depended for survival. Export incentives for the Mexican state fueled the growth of cash crops at the expense of peasant needs; Chiapas became what Roger Burbach dubbed an “internal colony.”[1] This contradiction, of great resource wealth and utter poverty, has only increased in the past two decades with the onslaught of neoliberal economic policy implemented in Mexico.
            The Zapatistas were born within this context. Claiming no desire to take hold of state power, a blatant rejection of both legitimate electoral politics and traditional leftist goals, they claim instead the desire to open up communal, democratic space in which the indigenous can function and organize. Two important factors, for instance, are that leaders can neither own property nor take political office.[2] They are organized upon a fluid, rotating internal structure and have created thirty-two autonomous municipalities within Chiapas. These municipalities are composed of various indigenous communities who decide whether or not to participate. The local communities handle all local affairs, are separate from the state, and elect representatives to the Autonomous Municipal Council, which handles regional decisions. They rely upon a social basis composed primarily of indigenous populations and the leaders remain relatively secluded in order to elude government repression. Much of the leadership is derived from the now defunct Frente Liberacion Nacional (FLN), a militant guerrilla group based upon Che Guevara’s conception of the revolutionary vanguard. However, traditional Indian influences and the liberation theology associated with certain radical Catholic priests are also prominent within the Zapatista movement. Above all, the Zapatistas claim to represent a movement for democracy and plan, with or without the state, to take democratic control over their own lives.[3] Originally organizing as an armed uprising, the military unsuccessfully attempted to suppress them twice in 1994 and 1995; mass protests and resistance forced them to back down.[4] Since then the Zapatistas have operated on a relatively peaceful basis.
            It is safe to assume that aside from perhaps having seen the extraordinarily hyped images in mainstream media of a masked Subcommandante Marcos with guns, most Americans probably know very little about the Zapatista uprising. Thus, the attitudes many Americans, if they have any predilection towards the situation at all, harbor of the EZLN most likely reflects the portrayal given to them by mainstream, corporate media outlets. These accounts are primarily hostile to the movement and, as is necessary to perpetuate their own cultural hegemony, reflect the dominant class interests of their owners. Even the brief instances where the Zapatistas are given room to speak in the corporate press, they are usually quotes removed from context and utilized in order to set up a caricature or straw-man they easily torn down of what the movement represents. Surveying six articles dating from 1994 to 2006 produced by the New York Times, one of the most influential and widely read mainstream newspapers, the unsympathetic attitude towards the events in Chiapas is particularly blatant.
            The first three articles all date from the early stage, 1994, of the Zapatista uprising when the EZLN still articulated the idea that struggle through armed force would achieve liberation. The first article, entitled “Shadowy Origins of Rebel Movement,” the title itself presenting a rather ominous tone, attempts to piece together the relatively unknown origins of the Zapatistas. While the article itself is rather harmless, it does imply that instead of an organic uprising, the leaders of the movement were outside agitators who came into the villages to stir up rebellion.[5] The second article is openly hostile to the uprising and suggests that various “peasants” had warned the mayor in Chiapas that the Zapatistas were organizing in their communities, implying they were unwanted outsiders and ignoring the vast support they shared among the indigenous people. It goes on to explain, based upon an account by interviewees critical of the Zapatistas, how men with guns stormed the ejido hall and forced peasants to participate in the uprising.[6] The last article from this period is the first to give the Zapatistas any space at all to speak for themselves; one sentence. It tells the story of the EZLN taking over the second largest city in Chiapas, San Cristóbal, claims the government called a cease-fire which the guerrillas refused, invokes images of “thousands fleeing Zapatista strongholds,” and ends with a random commentator denouncing the movement.[7]
This treatment continues throughout nearly every other New York Times article. One, dated from 1999, claims around a thousand pro-Zapatista protestors began smashing rocks into police cars and fueling violence.[8] Another fear-mongering article from 2003 explicates upon the seizure of an eco-tourism lodge in a liberated area and warns tourists to avoid the area.[9] The latest article, dated 2006, calls Subcommandante Marcos a “Marxist guerrilla,” a label he has denied repeatedly, and details his anti-electoral political campaign; this article is, perhaps, the only semi-neutral article appearing in the New York Times.[10] The attitude taken by the rest of mainstream press is undoubtedly consistent, or even more pejorative, than this liberal outlet. Thus, the information disseminated to most Americans is that the Zapatistas represent a dangerous, hostile, Marxist threat to the Mexican government, the peasants, and American interests and tourists. It can only be expected that a capitalist press, which serves to maintain a cultural hegemony intended to facilitate the perpetuation of the existing state apparatus, would take such an approach to what is, more or less, an anti-capitalist rebellion. More serious and scholarly political analyses, from a variety of political traditions, give a much more multifaceted, pragmatic analysis of the situation.
A more sympathetic but rather ambiguous analysis of the movement comes from the New Left Review, a non-affiliated but radical leftist journal published in Britain and widely read by radical circles on the American left. Roger Burbach, in “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas,” appearing in the New Left Review in May-June 1994, focuses more on understanding the historical context in which the EZLN arose. His account also articulates the idea that the Zapatistas desire neither state power nor socialism in the orthodox sense.[11] Burbach lacks any serious political analysis of the Zapatistas, aside from rendering them a “post-modern political movement” which, it seems, the author does not take issue with. The second article, appearing two years later in the July-August 1996 issue, is written by Régis Debray, a “one-time comrade of Che Guevara,” who travels to Chiapas to interview Marcos and details his experience. Furthering Burbach’s open-ended lead, his account gushes with uncritical support for the EZLN. Aside from extremely brief, vague accounts of unidentified “problems” which could arise, Debray explicates upon the Zapatistas from a post-modern political stance which romanticizes the movement. His account, perhaps correctly, utilizes the object-subject dichotomy of Paulo Freire and concludes that the Zapatistas have “transformed hundreds of thousands of people-objects into the subjects of history.” However, absolutely no critical analysis is given and, while this may serve as a useful propaganda piece to counter the harsh anti-Zapatista coverage in the mainstream press, it does little to clarify the Zapatista movement’s strengths and weaknesses.[12] Therefore, we find within the “post-Marxist” left a rather lackadaisical analysis of the actual political content of the Zapatista movement, filled instead with romantic imagery and what appears to be unconditional support.
The Marxist-Leninist critique, drawn from two articles dating from 1997 and 2005 by the same author, Lance Selfa, representative of the International Socialist Organization, the largest revolutionary socialist group in the United States, is much more critical of the Zapatista movement. The ideological approach to the Zapatistas is best summarized by this statement, “For socialists, the justice of the EZLN's demands is not in doubt. The question is whether their politics and strategy offer a way forward in Mexico.”[13] Selfa’s assessment in 1997 is that, while maintaining that the aspirations of democratic control for the indigenous are worthy ones, the EZLN has organized primarily upon a Guevarist guerrilla structure and failed to coalesce the demands of the peasantry with those of urban workers, thus alienating the majority of Mexico’s population. An example of this is when they refused to sanction the Mexico City bus drivers’ struggle in 1995.[14] This is the primarily complaint leveled against them, but Selfa furthers the critique suggesting that they fail to seriously challenge capitalism and function primarily upon the “revolutionary nationalist tradition of Zapata and Villa” which does not allow room for socialist ideas. While the 1997 article can seem slightly sectarian, the 2005 reappraisal is less so. The fundamental analysis remains the same, but the style and approach differ. Instead of simply rejecting the Zapatista movement, Selfa begins by explaining that the Chiapas situation has opened up a new debate on the left which begs the question “What kind of political strategy is needed to win the demands of social movements and ordinary people?”[15] The article is much more critical of the three mainstream political parties (PAN, PRI, PRD), and presents the Zapatistas as an alternative. Yet, a new criticism is added to the previous stance; the fact that Zapatistas refuse to participate in any electoral politics whatsoever Selfa proclaims is a mistaken tactic. He concludes that a “revolutionary socialist organization” must stand independent of “Zapatismo, Guevarism or Mexican nationalism” for all Mexicans to achieve liberation.[16]
The antithesis of the Marxist-Leninist critique is exemplified by the Anarchist conception of the Zapatista uprising. The article by Andrew Flood entitled “What is it that is Different About the Zapatistas?” originally published in the journal Chiapas Revealed[17] but adopted by, a California based website which has “provided free web space for anarchist thinkers since 1997,”[18] summarizes the Anarchist position. Flood’s basic premise is that, while not providing a model for all situations, the Zapatistas represent an organic, participatory, and democratic struggle from below that negates the need for the Leninist vanguard party. Ignoring the fact that the vanguard concept, being that the most class-conscious members lead the others of their respective class, basically applies to the Zapatista situation, the Anarchist account is highly sympathetic to the movement and its principles. It quotes heavily from Subcommandante Marcos and draws upon his refutation of Marxism as a liberating ideology. He defends the Zapatistas principled stand against seeking state power and criticizes Leninist critiques by questioning why they ignore the democratic structures and organization of the Zapatistas. The democratic methods of organization, the anarchist view contends, are the most fundamental aspect to understanding and sympathizing with the movement. Flood provides a fleeting criticism of the undemocratic internal structure of the military wing of the EZLN, but explains this contradiction away by claiming that the army command is actually democratically controlled. He also dislikes the fact that the Zapatistas, while refusing to participate in electoral politics, believe that their direct democracy and the indirect representative forms of democracy can coexist peacefully. Lastly, he gives a brief criticism that the movement correctly disassociated itself with neoliberal, but fails to argue that land should go to those who work it rather than those who simply have a right to it because of traditional claims. Flood’s conclusion maintains that “power of the Zapatistas is the power of example” and that they represent an infinitely more democratic “authority” than anything which can be achieved from established institutions.[19]
Therefore, while the mainstream accounts of the Zapatistas are almost unanimously opposed to the democratic movement, the wide range of debate within the American left provides a much more thorough analysis of how informed Americans view the events in Chiapas. Each one is useful for understanding the dynamics of not only Chiapas and Mexico, but of how both the American establishment and social justice activists and radicals respond to them. The mainstream accounts, exemplified by the New York Times articles, betray the class biases of their corporate owners. The various left-wing analyses provide the basis upon which mainstream accounts can be refuted; more importantly, however, each account, in a unique fashion, provide absolutely vital critiques of the Zapatista movement. The non-aligned leftists are perhaps the least useful for this but most useful as propaganda pieces to challenge corporate hegemony on this issue. The Marxist-Leninist critique transcends the romantic post-modernist view and attempts to articulate why a movement which seriously incorporates working-class politics is essential. The anarchist critique, while ostensibly in opposition to the other analyses, also details, in a more sympathetic manner, some problems within the Zapatista movement that are not necessarily in opposition to either of the above currents of thought. All of these, in one way or another, promote much needed dialogue and debate on the left of how to best achieve a democratic society. These critiques help less to point a way forward for the Mexican left and the Zapatistas than for how the American left can organize and struggle for a truly democratic alternative.

[1] Roger Burbach, “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas,” New Left Review, Issue 205, (May-June 1994), accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[2] Burbach, “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion.”
[3] “A Commune in Chiapas?” Aufheben, Issue 9, Autumn 2000, accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[4] Lance Selfa, “Zapatistas Reenter the Political Fray,” International Socialist Review, Issue 44, (Nov-Dec 2005) accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[5] “Shadowy Origins of Rebel Movement,” New York Times, Jan 17 1994, accessed 30 July 2009; available from 3963&RQT=309&VName=HNP; Internet.
[6] “Guerrillas Summon Peasants to Battle,” New York Times, Jan 17 1994, accessed 30 July 2009; available from 3963&RQT=309&VName=HNP
[7] “Guerrillas Strike, Then Fall Back,” New York Times, Jan 17 1994, accessed 30 July 2009; available from 3963&RQT=309&VName=HNP
[8] Julia Preston, “Rebels in Mexico Take a Town Hall Seized by Police,” New York Times, Apr 9 1999, accessed 30 July 2009; available from 117102839&sid=3&Fmt=10&clientId=3963&RQT=309&VName=HNP 
[9] Tim Weiner, “Mexican Rebels Confront Tourism in Chiapas,” New York Times, March 9 2003, accessed 30 July 2009; available from did=866861262&sid=1&Fmt=10&clientId= 3963&RQT=309&VName=HNP 
[10] James C. McKinley Jr., “The Zapatistas Return: A Masked Marxist on the Stump,” New York Times, Jan 6 2006, accessed 30 July 2009; available from =1631610052&sid=7&Fmt=10&clientId= 3963&RQT=309&VName=HNP 
[11] Burbach, “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion.”
[12] Régis Debray, “A Guerrilla With a Difference,” New Left Review, Issue 218, (July-August 1996), accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[13] Lance Selfa, “Mexico After the Zapatista Uprising,” International Socialistm, Issue 75, (1997), accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[14]  Selfa, “Mexico After the Zapatista Uprising.”
[15] Lance Selfa, “Zapatistas Reenter the Political Fray.”
[16] Ibid.
[17] Andrew Flood, “What is it that is Different About the Zapatistas?” Chiapas Revealed, Issue 1, accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[18] “About Flag,” accessed 30 July 2009; available from; Internet.
[19] Andrew Flood, “What is it that is Different About the Zapatistas?”

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