Zapatista views on the struggle in Mexico:

Turning democratization into a panacea

By Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #2, June 1995)


The proletariat's attitude toward the peasant revolt
Replacing social revolution with "political space"
The EZLN agrarian reform
The "National Democratic Convention"
New shift, same basic orientation
Zapatista theories and fashionable anti-communism

. The heroic uprising of the poor peasants in Chiapas has been taking place against the backdrop of a major political crisis facing Mexican capitalism. The long-held monopoly of power of the ruling PRI is beginning to crumble. This process, generally referred to as "democratization," means that there will likely be a greater opening for political activity. The downfall of PRI political strangulation would be welcomed by the oppressed toilers and provides certain opportunities to get organized on a class basis. But to take advantage of the situation, there must be a clear assessment of what democratization means for the development of the class struggle.

. The Zapatistas (EZLN) have played a big role in the Chiapas peasant movement. But the Zapatista leadership does not see democratization as merely a possible opening for advancing the class struggle. They consider it as a panacea that can liberate the masses without the need for the social revolution of the future. And the rosy glasses through which the EZLN views democratization weakens the present struggle. It blinds them to the reality that destruction of a PRI monopoly will not mean a kindly government of the masses assumes power, but that the "free market" capitalist PAN and the bourgeois reformist PRD, which only split off from the PRI several years ago, will have a bigger role in defending the interests of the wealthy. It drives them to search for a reconciliation between exploiter and exploited. And it leaves them preaching that the fate of the struggle on a national level should be left to the likes of miserable reformists like Cardenas who only a few years ago was a player in the PRI before splitting off to found the PRD.

The proletariat's attitude toward the peasant revolt

. If the working class is to play a revolutionary role, it must support the peasant uprising. The Chiapas revolt is fighting against the extreme oppression of the indigenous peasants, the robbing of land by rich landowners, dire poverty, and the repression of the capitalist PRI government and local landowner gangs. If the poor are not to be ground down, they must wage a courageous fight. Such actions also inspire all those fighting oppression. The proletariat, because its goal is the complete elimination of all forms of exploitation, can only welcome the fight against the extreme backward conditions and abuse suffered by the peasants of Chiapas.

. But in supporting the peasant movement, the class conscious workers must never forget the distinction between the class aims of the workers and those of the peasantry. It must keep in mind that the different class aims are reflected in different conceptions of the struggle. Support for the peasant struggle does not mean cheering on every view guiding that movement. It also means criticizing the weaknesses of the peasant ideology. The proletariat's goal is liberation from wage-slavery which demands the overthrow of capitalism. The peasant movement's goals are confined to seeking the best conditions for the development of small-scale peasant economy. They seek land, freedom from tyranny, and various types of aid. The peasant movement may think that, in this way, it is establishing a society free from exploitation, but it is creating the conditions for the further development of capitalist relations and all its attendant social ills. Because the aims of the peasant struggle do not go beyond the framework of capitalism, it does not see that class oppression can only be ended under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolutionary rule of the workers at the head of all the toilers. Thus there is a tendency toward idealizing bourgeois democracy and hoping to reach a consensus between all the different class political forces of what the Zapatistas, for instance, call "Civil Society. " This ignores that Civil Society is divided into classes -- and the classes of wealth inevitably rule through this "consensus. "

. The fact that the peasant demands do not challenge capitalist relations per se, may seem to contradict the proletariat's goal of abolishing capitalism. But while democratization and land reform do not end capitalism, they clear the ground for the struggle against capitalism itself. The mass uprisings allow the peasants to keep from being totally crushed and creates a militant political atmosphere. The proletariat does not merely support certain peasant demands, however, but must make clear to the mass of peasants that capitalist development will eventually ruin most of them and therefore it is in the poor peasants' interest to ally with the workers against the system of capitalism.

. While the workers support the peasant struggle, the fate of the Mexican revolution rests with the working class. The working class must not only organize itself, but fight for its views among the peasant masses. Only in this way can it play its historic role as leader of all the oppressed and the gravedigger of capitalism. But to accomplish its goals will require a whole period in which the Mexican working class gets its own act together. Today the Mexican proletariat is not rallied around its own independent class perspective. Its organized sections are mainly under the thumb of the ruling PRI's own unions. There has been some motion to break out of these shackles. But presently this involves a relatively small amount of workers. Moreover, those workers moving toward more radical positions do not yet have a true class party to guide them, but, as far as we are aware, the left-wing groups are mired in various anti-Marxist positions. The proletariat faces the task of re-establishing its own revolutionary class orientation and organizations.

. The peasant movement in general, and the EZLN in particular, are not in a position to lead the Mexican revolution, much less take up the tasks of proletarian reorganization. But if the revolutionary activists in Mexico take up the tasks of proletarian reorganization, it will provide a pole for the radicalized workers to rally around. And to the extent the revolutionary workers' movement grows, so will its ability to build ties to poor peasants, influence them, and help them see that their future lies not with the bourgeois reformist parties, but with the communist workers. The duty of the class-conscious workers in the U.S. is not simply to oppose the support which U.S. imperialism renders the Mexican exploiters, as important as that is. It is also to encourage the development of an anti-revisionist communist trend in Mexico which can illuminate the path out of class oppression.

. To show the need for proletarian reorganization in Mexico, let's take a more detailed look at how the views of the Zapatistas are not those that can guide the struggle against Mexican capitalism, but rather a particular variety of peasant ideology with some fashionable anti-communism thrown in.

Replacing social revolution with "political space"

. The EZLN has reflected the militant spirit of the oppressed peasants of Chiapas. It has organized the armed seizures of villages in Chiapas, articulated a series of demands of the campesinos, and has weathered the PRI's attempts to wipe them out. They talk of their movement in terms of organizing a revolution. But the nature of the "revolution" they are talking about is not a social revolution against Mexican capitalism. What they call revolution is really certain reforms the peasantry thinks will solve all their problems. These reforms may be worthwhile, but this confusion about revolution shows the limits of the peasant perspective. There is no perspective of overthrowing Mexican capitalism which is the only way the peasants can hope to escape ruin in the long run.

. But the problem is not just one of long-term goals. Their illusions in capitalist society tend to undermine the class consciousness necessary to build up the present movement. For the EZLN the results of "revolutionary change" are as follows: "And its result will be not of one triumphant party, organization or alliance of organizations with its specific proposal but a democratic space of resolution of the confrontation between various political proposals. "(1) Similar statements appear throughout the key documents of the EZLN. If the statement was just supposed to describe the democratization process already under way, it would be of little significance. But by equating "democratic space" with revolution, and proclaiming against parties or even alliances of parties taking power, they eliminate the concept of a revolutionary government from the concept of revolution. In fact, the existence of "democratic space" is considered more important than the victory of any particular social program. Does the EZLN really expect good things will happen to the masses merely because the political process is opened up somewhat? This outlook plays into the hands of the bourgeoisie which will tell the masses that democratization means they must now sacrifice even more. When the state-capitalist regimes fell in Eastern Europe a few years ago, the new capitalist rulers openly proclaimed that democratization would require belt tightening. And this is one promise the new "market-capitalist" regimes have kept!

. It may be argued that such statements from the Zapatistas should not be criticized because a toilers' revolution is improbable in the near future. But even if we agree that the conditions for a revolutionary onslaught do not presently exist, if there is no goal of social revolution it cannot ever be achieved. As well, the lack of a revolutionary perspective creates a tendency to tone down the struggle for the immediate social demands.

. Another example illustrates the later point more directly. The demand for democratic electoral reform is a just demand raised in opposition to the repression and manipulation by which the PRI has helped maintain its domination. Such democratic reforms could be used to help advance the class struggle. But the Zapatistas are excited about the prospect of honest elections leading to "resolution of the confrontation between various political proposals. " They hope elections lead to an accommodation between the different class political interests. This is not using elections to further the class struggle but to mute it.

. The EZLN imagines that their "revolution will not end in a new class, faction of a class or group in power but rather in a free and democratic 'space' of political struggle. "(2) But class rule exists not just in PRI-dominated Mexico, but in the U.S. , the parliamentary democracies of Europe, etc. , which are the capitalist models of "democratic space. " The Mexican political parties, like all political parties, represent class interests. The Zapatistas, however, rest content with talk about how democratic elections mean that the parties will have to win votes without PRI-style tricks and terror while ignoring that even in scandal-free elections all the advantages are with the parties of the wealthy and that once these parties come to power, they will serve definite class interests. "Within this new political relation," they state, "the different proposals of the system and direction (socialism, capitalism, social democracy, liberalism, Christian Democracy, etc. ) will have to convince the majority of the Nation that its proposal is best for the country. " and "the political parties will be obliged to deal with this majority. . . . "(3) They do not recognize that a system of free elections does not mean the interests of the oppressed majority must be met in Mexico anymore than it does in say, the U. S.

. The EZLN talk against classes taking power in general not only obscures class rule under bourgeois democracy, but precludes the revolutionary class rule of the oppressed, too. But how else can the exploitation of the workers and peasants by Mexican and foreign imperialist capital be ended unless through the overthrow of the Mexican bourgeoisie? Can anyone really believe that if the ruling class is willing to kill and terrorize the peasants of Chiapas for asking for a few reforms, that they will peacefully give up their entire profit-system?

. This does not mean that the Zapatistas could have organized a nation-wide revolution in the present conditions. Early declarations of the EZLN were full of bravado about the peasant army liberating the country on the way to Mexico City but in fact the Zapatistas knew, or soon found out, that such a course of action was not in the cards. In fact, they are not strong enough to hold the villages of Chiapas when the federal troops arrive. The revolution in Mexico will not be a matter of extending the present armed actions to the rest of the country.

. However, the Zapatistas do not simply oppose a revolution on the grounds that the time is not ripe, but try to justify opposition to a revolutionary solution on the grounds that a peaceful democratic evolution can more easily accomplish the same thing. As part of their reasoning for opposing a revolutionary class rule in favor of a consensus of the political forces of all classes, they say "the pain that this process [for a democratic electoral system -- Mark] will mean for the country will inevitably be less than the damage a civil war would produce. . . . "(4) This is an argument for writing off revolution for all time and diverting the masses from the tasks of today that will make a revolution possible in the future. It means the downtrodden must endure their suffering forever because sacrificing for their liberation will be too painful. It downplays that even striving for the limited changes the EZLN wants has involved tremendous sacrifice and that, important as some reforms may be, the masses will still feel the heavy weight of exploitation on their shoulders unless there is a revolution. It is ironic the EZLN has resorted to such arguments because when they launched their own armed actions, they were right to argue they were a just response to the "peaceful" destruction of the peasantry. But now we are to forget that the untold suffering Mexican capitalism brings is precisely why the masses will eventually make heroic sacrifices to end this system.

. And note also that in the passage above, the EZLN talks not about the pain of the masses, but of the country as a whole, i. e. , the bourgeoisie and the toilers alike. In fact they commonly portray their movement as a patriotic movement or a "national liberation movement. " To portray the stage of struggle in Mexico in this way hides that it is a country where the class contradictions have come to fore and that progress for the masses in Mexico today lies not in independent bourgeois development but the fight against capitalism, whether home grown or foreign.

The EZLN agrarian reform

. Among the social demands that the EZLN feels democratization will usher in, their agrarian reform is the centerpiece. Their program, enunciated in their Revolutionary Agrarian Law issued in December 1993, calls for redistribution of the big landholdings to landless peasants and to the present co-ops or communal lands. It also calls for various types of aid for the peasant economy. Such measures may temporarily alleviate some suffering. It would help the indigenous peasants escape from economic marginalization. But becoming more integrated into the Mexican farming system will hardly mean an era of prolonged prosperity. Insofar as these reforms are actually carried out, insofar as they are successful, they will accelerate the growth of capitalist relations. The further development of small-scale peasant farming means the competition between the farms speeds up, class differentiation grows, and dreams of harmonious relations between the peasantry vanish. True, the EZLN program emphasizes the value of co-ops over individual farming. But this will not prevent competition, but put it on a somewhat larger scale. In any case, the inevitable spread of capitalist relations will lead to the impoverishment of many peasants alongside the enrichment of a relative handful. Government aid to the peasant economy is a just demand, but it too will not prevent class differentiation and is likely to speed it up. The Zapatistas are not wrong to advance certain reforms, but a fuller flowering of capitalist agriculture will not, as they imagine, bring the good life to the mass of peasants.

. Moreover, if the peasant struggle is guided by hopes of class reconciliation, this means toning down the struggle or making the agrarian reform palatable to the exploiters and undermining the fight for a thorough agrarian reform. The situation is not that the movement is so powerful that the exploiters will have no choice but to make vast concessions, but that unless there is an upsurge in the class struggle across Mexico, the bigger demands of the EZLN program will not be met. For instance it is highly unlikely that the big landowners will be expropriated without such a struggle or that massive aid will flow to the indigenous peoples.

The "National Democratic Convention"

. In order to achieve the goal of democratization, the Zapatistas placed high hopes in the National Democratic Convention (NDC) that they organized. The basis of unity of the NDC has been opposition to the PRI political domination and includes various left-wing groups and reformist trends, even the PRD which split off from the ruling PRI a few years back. The NDC is supposed to form a transitional government that is to come to power through the abdication of the PRI government or through the present electoral system. The transitional government is to implement a new, democratic electoral law. This is what the EZLN has put forward for the transition of Mexican society.

. But will democratic space actually bring the wonderful transformation that the EZLN desires? As far as national political forces are concerned, the weakening of the PRI control does not just create more possibilities for the reformists but for the PAN, a capitalist party to the right of the PRI. Last year's election results show the PAN making inroads on PRI territory. As well, the PRI has been trying to reach a deal to share some power with the PAN. The EZLN blames the neo-liberal policies adopted by the PRI for all the problems in Mexico. But the growing strength of PAN means that conservatism will continue to be a major factor in national policy for the time being. The Zapatistas are probably not fond of the PAN, but don't do much to expose the PAN either as if ignoring PAN will make them go away or make democratization more pristine. Possibly the PRD will also make some inroads. But a section of it at least has already been striving to reach a deal with the PRI. And the "best" that one can expect from the PRD is the capitalist politics of the PRI of yesterday, not the road to a bright tomorrow for the oppressed. This does not mean that one should back away from democratic reforms but that there has to be a realistic assessment of what to expect from them. They will not in themselves save the masses and should be used by the class conscious activists to organize the class struggle.

. The Zapatistas' faith in the NDC reflects their stand that almost everyone who isn't in the PRI are forces the masses should rely on. Thus they "recognize the National Democratic Convention as the authentic representative of the interests of the Mexican people in its transition to democracy. "(5) In particular, they have illusions in the bourgeois reformists of the PRD which has played a major role in the NDC. The Zapatistas conceive of their struggle as mainly one to create political space for others who will supposedly carry out the masses' will. They declare: "The flag is now in the hands of those who have faces and names, [i. e. , not the EZLN who wear masks to hide their personal identity -- Mark] of good and honest people who walk paths that are not ours but whose end is the same one that we walked longingly toward. "(6) And who are the forces who will supposedly share the same goals as the Zapatistas? At one time, the EZLN's Subcomandante Marcos admitted that "we naively thought that the PRD had a plan for civil resistance"(7) to oppose election fraud. Yet even after that, Marcos continued to promote that "the social forces rallied around Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and the National Democratic Convention are recognized as an honest, civic, peace opposition. " (8) Cardenas, former PRI bigwig, was the founder of the PRD.

New shift, same basic orientation

. Since it burst onto the scene, the EZLN has made some tactical shifts, but maintained its basic orientation. In January 1994 it declared its armed peasants would "advance to the capital of the country, defeating the Mexican Federal Army" in its "liberating advance. "(9) But even then it was banking on others to come to power. Then when the government terror campaign threatened them in their strongholds in Chiapas, they founded the "Convention" and preached the wonders of peaceful change. Several months ago, there was another readjustment. With the peaceful pressure of the NDC failing to win demands and with the EZLN becoming frustrated with their reformist allies, they struck a more militant pose. They issued a call for a "national liberation struggle. " But this national liberation struggle is a far cry from a revolutionary movement, for it is to be led by none other than Cardenas of the PRD! Thus in January 1995, in their "Third Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle" they declared: "We call on the National Democratic Convention and on Citizen Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano to head this Movement for National Liberation, as a broad front of opposition. "(10) So the EZLN has consistently been looking to the bourgeois reformists to carry out the transformation of Mexico, and the more this orientation is covered with militant language, the greater the illusions created in the reformists.

. The EZLN continues to hold on to its arms and peasant actions in Chiapas have continued. And they have so far rejected settling for PRI peace proposals that do not meet the most basic demands of the poor peasants. But their orientation of searching for the big political forces of the present like the reformist Cardenas to represent the aims of the masses is a dead end.

Zapatista theories and fashionable anti-communism

. The Zapatista leadership takes up petty-bourgeois nationalist politics and adds to this fashionable phrases against revolutionary principles that have become the rage in the left with the collapse of the phony communists of the revisionist state-capitalist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, in some quarters the politics of the Zapatista leadership is promoted as a great advance in revolutionary thinking. There are those who are enthused by the EZLN's petty-bourgeois nationalism and, in particular, their taking up fashionable phrases against communist principles in the name of opposing "vanguardism. " For example, a co-author of a compilation of Zapatista communiqués and interviews entitled Voice of Fire, Ben Clarke, is enthused about the EZLN because it does not consider itself a "vanguard movement. " If this was just meant as an accurate description of the EZLN's inability to lead the Mexican revolution, there would be no quarrel. But when Clarke and the Zapatistas rail against the idea of a vanguard revolutionary force, they are arguing something else. For them, the problem with vanguard revolutionary forces is such forces seek to guide the revolutionary classes to take power, do not consider democratic space as the be-all-and-end-all, take revolutionary theory seriously, and defend revolutionary ideas against bankrupt opportunist views.

. For example, earlier in this article it was explained how the Zapatistas theorize against the idea of a new class coming to power and look to electoral reform as a panacea that can substitute for revolution. And we have seen how they paint up the reformist bourgeoisie as genuine representatives of the masses. These are some of the sad results of the war on vanguardism. Now let's see how Marcos considers a disinterest in clarifying political trends as a blow against vanguardism. He explains: "We don't want to monopolize as a vanguard or to say we are the light, the only alternative and deny the qualifications of revolutionary to one or another current. We have dignity, patriotism and we're demonstrating it. You go and do the same, within you own ideology. . . . "(11) Marcos' gripe against the vanguard idea is it requires a fight against opportunism.

. Marcos' attack on vanguardism is connected to his confusion of phony revisionist "communism" with the real thing. Referring to the revisionist state-capitalist regimes that had existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, he states: "We don't want another type of dictatorship, nor anything from anywhere else, no international communism or anything like that. "(12) Since the revisionists dressed up their corrupt parties and bureaucratic rule as a model of being a Marxist-Leninist vanguard, Marcos attacks communism instead of its revisionist distortion. For good measure, he makes sure to take up the stock nonsense that communism couldn't be relevant to Mexico if its from "anywhere else. "

. Far from advancing revolutionary theory, the anti-vanguard phrases emphasize the weakness of the views of the EZLN leadership. The class-conscious workers must support the revolt of the peasants. But this does not mean reconciling to the views of the Zapatista leadership. Real support includes providing the proletarian class stand for all the toilers of Mexico. The Chiapas revolt must inspire conviction to tackle the task of establishing a genuine Marxist-Leninist trend and rallying the worker and peasant masses around it.


(1) Voice of Fire: Communiqués and Interviews from the Zapatista National Liberation Army , edited by Ben Clarke and Clifton Ross, translated by Clifton Ross, et. al. , New Earth Publications, Berkeley, California, 1994, p. 58, Communiqué of Subcomandante Marcos, "Ski Masks and Other Masks", January 20, 1994. (Return to text)

(2) Ibid. , p. 117, the EZLN's "Second Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle" of June 10, 1994. This EZLN communiqué is also reprinted elsewhere in this issue of the Communist Voice. (Text)

(3) Ibid. . (Text)

(4) Ibid. . , p. 118. (Text)

(5) Ibid. , p. 120. (Text)

(6) Ibid. , p. 119, boldface added. (Text)

(7) Socialist Action, Jan. 1995, "Zapatistas take their distance from the PRD", p. 7. (Text)

(8) Ibid. . (Text)

(9) Voice of Fire, p. 36 (Text)

(10) See elsewhere in this issue of Communist Voice for the text of the Third Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle. (Text)

(11) Voice of Fire, "On Origins", Jan. 1, 1994, an interview with Subcomandante Marcos, pp. 48-49. (Text)

(12) Ibid. , p. 48 (Text)

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