On the 4th Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle:

Zapatista politics in crisis

by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #8, June 1, 1996)


. For some time, Communist Voice has been trying to keep our readers informed about the policy and ideology of the Zapatista (EZLN) leadership in Mexico. We, like many other progressive activists, have been excited about the Chiapas uprising led by the Zapatistas, and supported peasant demands for land, aid and an end to government repression. But we have also called attention to the weaknesses of the Zapatista leadership's views. We believe that glossing over the problems that come up only hurts the development of the revolutionary movement of the masses.

. On January 1 of this year, the Zapatista leadership issued their "Fourth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle". Like the previous three statements, this one is an attempt to map out the general position of the EZLN. While the latest Declaration has some notable changes from previous positions, these changes continue to demonstrate the underlying weaknesses that characterize Zapatismo. For some time, articles in Communist Voice have pointed out that ever since the uprising in Chiapas was contained by government troops, the Zapatista leaders' views have led them to an impasse. The EZLN negotiates with the government on behalf of the indigenous peasants. But the government encirclement means the Zapatistas have little leverage to press for major demands. So the EZLN leaders have been groping for what their activity should be now that the armed struggle has been blocked. The Fourth Declaration confirms this. It aims to sum up the results of a Zapatista "consultation" with the Mexican populace where the EZLN itself proposed that the nature of its activity had to change. What is striking about the Fourth Declaration is that the Zapatistas themselves not only admit they must follow another course, but that they have little idea what that course should be. Thus, their Declaration limits itself to calling for a "dialogue" with others to find a "plan [that] is yet to be made."

The "new stage"

. In the Fourth Declaration, the Zapatista leaders say their struggle is entering a "new stage". Previously, the Zapatistas claimed that what distinguished them from other groups opposed to the ruling PRI was that the EZLN relied on the armed struggle while others comprised the political movement of the peaceful, civic opposition. Now the Zapatistas say in the Fourth Declaration that they "will enter a new stage" in which "the EZLN won't disappear but its more important effort will go for the political fight." Namely, they want to form a political front.

. It was no fault of the Zapatistas that overwhelming government repression and other conditions forced them to curtail their armed revolt. But if the Zapatistas are no longer distinguished by their armed struggle, what is it that distinguishes them from other political groups? If we look at the history of the EZLN we will see they have emphasized that they don't consider their goals to be different than the other political groups, just their method of the armed struggle. (1) And in fact, the EZLN's elevation of democratization of the political system to a panacea that will automatically solve all the socio-economic ills of the masses, and not merely an opening for the class struggle, is a perspective the EZLN shares with the reformist political trends in Mexico.

. Evidently, the Zapatistas plan to distinguish themselves by being the ones that can overcome the differences between all the groups that comprise "civil society." The Fourth Declaration mentions three proposals for the political fight. It talks about organizing "civil society" into "committees of dialogue" which will form the basis of a new national political front in which the Zapatistas will eventually directly participate. The EZLN also calls for "places of encounter between civil society and Zapatism" called "Aguascalientes" after the 1914 convention organized in the Mexican revolution of early this century. And these attempts to organize Mexican "civil society" are to lay the groundwork for extending this work to an "intercontinental conference against neo-liberalism [conservative, "free-market" politics -- ed.]." The new front is not supposed to be "partisan" in any way but just represent all Mexicans who see "the system of the party of the State is the principle obstacle to the transition to democracy in Mexico", that is, oppose the ruling PRI's grip on the political process. And if these groups just "dialogue" with each other, they can allegedly reach a consensus on a plan that will be good for everyone.

Is "civil society" above the class struggle?

. "Civil society" as presented by the Zapatistas in their Fourth Declaration is simply various activists and ordinary citizens doing battle with the powerful forces who hate democracy and are ruining Mexico. Moreover, since the activists and citizens are supposed to be non-partisan, then allegedly they won't be subject to the corruption of political office and will do what's best for everyone. But this description fails to mention important features of the groups in "civil society." In reality the groups are influenced by, give support to, or are otherwise tied to various political parties or groups. Simply calling a group part of "civil society" does not change the fact that these groups have particular demands, agendas, and views. And even if these groups are not parties, their stand cannot reflect what is in the interest of Mexico in general because Mexico is fundamentally divided into classes. There are rich Mexicans and poor, big landlords and starving peasants, workers and the factory owners and financiers. Thus, the stands of the groups in "civil society" ultimately reflect particular class interests. And efforts to reach a consensus of "civil society" amount to trying to reconcile the differences between the exploited and the exploiter.

. The Zapatistas have long had faith that the interests of the oppressed would be served by an all-class harmony of "civil society." This became especially noticeable after they could no longer advance their military struggle. For years, the Zapatistas patiently organized among the indigenous peasant population of Chiapas. And they may continue to be integrated there or among the downtrodden Indian peasants elsewhere. But after the government contained the uprising in Chiapas, the Zapatista leaders' illusions in reconciling class conflict left them flailing. The EZLN felt that the problems of the poor peasants in Chiapas could not be solved without extending the struggle beyond Chiapas, but it had no conception of how to advance the struggle of the oppressed in Mexico as a whole. It wasn't oriented to building up a revolutionary class movement against the Mexican bourgeoisie. It didn't see that the cause of the oppressed could not advance unless class organization was built among the workers and poor peasants, however humble the first efforts would be and however protracted the process. Instead, for the last two years they have been bogged down in one scheme after another to forge a coalition with the reformist forces of "civil society".

. The Zapatistas' first big attempt to try to unite the downtrodden with the other forces of "civil society" was their formation of the National Democratic Convention which is spoken of in their "Second Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle" in June, 1994. Here the Convention is described as a place where "civil society" would supposedly "organize itself to lead the forces of peace toward Democracy, Freedom and Justice." (2) But this Convention inadvertently demonstrated that the idea that "civil society" could achieve unity above particular class interests was a myth. Likewise it showed how false was the idea that "civil society" was somehow above partisan politics. The peaceful path declared by the Convention essentially amounted to lining up behind the 1994 election campaign of the PRD, a rotten bourgeois reformist party that developed as a split from the ruling PRI in the late 1980s by one of the former leading lights of the PRI, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

. The great hopes the Zapatistas had in the elections were dashed, however. Rather than the PRD increasing their power, it was the right-wing PAN party which grew in strength in the 1994 elections. Frustrated by the election results, the Zapatista leadership declared in its "Third Declaration from the Lacandona Jungle" in January 1995 that it was time to fight "by all methods" and declared a "national liberation movement." But the heart of this "national liberation movement" was still the old "civil society" grouped in the National Democratic Convention. And who was to lead "civil society" to do this fighting by all methods? The Zapatistas called on none other than the top reformist leader, PRD founder C. Cardenas, to lead this movement in alliance with the National Democratic Convention.

. The Fourth Declaration marks a bit of a shift while retaining the general framework of all-class unity. It criticizes the right-wing PAN whereas previously the EZLN was mainly quiet about them, and even wanted them to attend the National Democratic Convention. In contrast to the Third Declaration, it does not praise the reformist bourgeois, C. Cardenas, as the great savior.But neither does it expose Cardenas or the PRD, thus leaving the door open to a continued alliance with them. It appears that the PRD may not be welcome in the EZLN's newest political front, called the Zapatista Front of National Liberation, which gives the impression it might want to exclude parties that run in elections. [As it turns out, the PRD is very welcome in the Zapatista Front, which reinforces the overall point being made by Mark in this paragraph.--CV (2a)] But that doesn't mean the new Front itself couldn't lend a hand to the bourgeois reformists in the elections.

. But regardless of the particular maneuvers with the PRD and Cardenas, not telling the truth about the pro-capitalist policy of the bourgeois reformists, and their attempts to keep the struggle of the masses in check, damages the mass movement. Indeed, in so far as "civil society" participates in politics (and this is quite a lot), it is mainly PRD and Cardenista politics. Remaining silent on the bourgeois reformists means letting their rotten influence hold sway. The Zapatistas do not offer any analysis of what role any of the other groups in "civil society" are playing either. Indeed, in the past they have prided themselves on downplaying the importance of analyzing other trends. The EZLN prefers to soothe the masses with fairy tales about how everyone in "civil society" is on their side, no matter what their ideology, program or methods. They consider it a virtue to hover above the fight of political parties. The Zapatistas have, so far, avoided a merger with the reformists, while also courting the radical left and attempting to reconcile them with the reformists. Perhaps this is why the EZLN feels especially qualified to bring all of "civil society" together!

A typical example of "civil society" politics

. The EZLN attitude to other groups of "civil society" can be seen in their praise in the Fourth Declaration for the liberal Civic Alliance. The Civic Alliance is a typical representative of "civil society" politics. The Civic Alliance has its political roots in the 1991 campaign of Salvador Nava for governor of San Luis Potosi. Nava had been a devotee of the old PRI politics of Lazaro Cardenas, who carried out a bourgeois reformist program in the 1930s. Nava's campaign established a model for the broad coalition of "civic society." Not only did Nava run as the PRD candidate, but as the candidates of the right-wing PAN and even the fascist PMD! Reportedly Nava had the support of local industrialists and some indigenous communities, too. (3) Nava led a protest movement against the election fraud engineered on behalf of the PRI candidate in this election and this forced new elections to be held.

. Nava also founded the Citizens Movement for Democracy (MCD) on a platform of democratic reform to break the PRI stranglehold over the political system. Nava died before the next elections but his widow forged an anti-PRI coalition including the MCD, PAN, PRD and others.In the new election, one of the Nava movement's own leaders ran as a PAN candidate against Nava's widow, who received support from the PRD. The PRI candidate won.

. The MCD was the backbone for forming the Civic Alliance in 1994 to be a national anti-fraud watchdog over the 1994 elections. Their reformist views were considered tame enough to gain support of U.S. imperialism's National Endowment for Democracy (NED), notorious for financing political trends that fight against revolutionary change in Latin America and elsewhere. The NED helped finance both the MCD and the Civic Alliance in their monitoring activities of the 1994 national elections in Mexico.

. But the Zapatista leadership has nothing but praise for this reformist milieu. The Zapatistas don't mention that the MCD and the Civic Alliance forces ally with an array of capitalist political parties. And what of the Zapatistas' calls for an "international dialogue" of "civic society"? The Civic Alliance and some other similar groups meet with U.S. State Department officials and beg for funds. This is part of the international activities of "civil society", too. Indeed, the EZLN's overall concept of "civil society" politics sounds like it comes right from Nava's reformist MCD. The MCD's founding platform declares for "reconciliation, dialogue and civil struggle to bring about the transition government in Mexico dedicated . . . to rebuilding the civil structure of the country." This is echoed by the Zapatista's Fourth Declaration call that all "civil society" should reach agreement on a plan for "the transition to democracy as the project of reconstruction of the country."

. As well, the Fourth Declaration continues the relentless Mexican nationalism of the EZLN. Its portrayal of the struggle in Mexico as one for "independence" and "national liberation" reinforces the idea of unity of all classes of "civil society" by ignoring that the struggle between classes is at the center of the fight against oppression today in Mexico.

Confusion on the role of democratization

. The Zapatista views that all classes can be reconciled are also reflected in their stand on democratization of the Mexican political system. The oppressed masses have an interest in seeing the downfall of the political strangulation of society by the PRI. It would create some opening for organizing the class struggle and make the struggle between classes stand out in sharper relief in Mexico. But the Zapatistas have created a panacea out of democratization. They promoted a democratic electoral system as meaning that the political parties would be obligated to serve the interests of the oppressed masses since they would have to get their votes. Thus they ignored that under bourgeois democracy, the wealthy also rule over the masses. And they made it clear they weren't interested in seeing a new class come to power, implying that the oppression of the masses would disappear without a revolution against Mexican capitalism. (4)

. The Fourth Declaration refers back to the previous Zapatista programs which includes the above-mentioned democratic reforms. But it also gives seemingly contradictory positions. From earlier enthusiasm for PRD election campaigns, the Zapatistas argue that elections are no good, that holding any elected office just means power and privilege, etc. And they argue that while breaking the political monopoly of the PRI is "the principal obstacle to the transition to democracy", they say that "democracy doesn't mean the alternation of power" by different political parties.

. But if the Zapatistas think breaking the PRI political monopoly is the key issue, why do they wail about other parties coming to power? Evidently, the EZLN cannot come to grips with the fact that weakening of the PRI monopoly did not lead to the bourgeois reformists of the PRD gaining strength as they had been banking on. Instead, it was the right-wing PAN that gained. The elections were far from clean, but the loss of strength of the PRD and rise of the PAN were not a matter of election fraud. But since the Zapatistas don't like PAN's free-market capitalist views, they refuse to acknowledge PAN's "alternation of power" as having anything to do with breaking the PRI monopoly. So all the talk against elections actually betrays their exaggerated expectations in democratization. For the Zapatistas, democratic reforms of the political system mean the "good guys" win, and the will of the masses is realized in government. They can't understand why parties they don't like can win even in a democratic system, why the rich capitalists really have all the advantages under bourgeois democracy, not only PRI-style dictatorships. The EZLN imagines democratic reform in the idealized version of school books that hide the class essence of democracy under capitalism beneath talk about "government of the people, for the people, and by the people."

. In passing, it should be noted that the EZLN statements casting aspersions on participating in elections in general are wrong for another reason. There are many situations where participating in elections, or participating in legislative bodies can be useful to the revolutionary forces. It may help propagate revolutionary politics, help expose the maneuvers of the bourgeois politicians, etc. Of course, to serve such a revolutionary end, the electoral work must serve the development of the class struggle, not create illusions that democratic elections will solve the evils of capitalism.

A revolutionary alternative to Zapatismo

. The Fourth Declaration marks the recognition by the Zapatistas themselves that they are no longer able to carry out the type of struggle that gave them their reputation. What faces them, however, isn't just the retreat from the military struggle, a retreat forced on them by circumstances. Rather it is that their search for a new path has brought their weaknesses to the fore. The problem is the conceptions they are pushing are harmful to the mass movement and push it away from the path of class struggle and revolution against Mexican capitalism.

. The crisis of Zapatista politics shows that a different sort of trend is needed for the struggle in Mexico to advance. Such a trend must repudiate the fashionable ideas of class reconciliation and begin the arduous task of the reorganization of the Mexican proletariat on the basis of its own class politics, distinct from, and in opposition to, the bourgeoisie. Not only would such a trend have to overcome the influence of the PRI unions and various reformist and opportunist trends in the workers movement. Such a trend would also work to win the poor peasants away from the illusions in "civil society" and the reformist bourgeoisie spread by the Zapatista leadership and strive to rally the poor peasants to ally with the revolutionary workers. The revolutionary activists should use the energy and political atmosphere generated by the Chiapas uprising to begin the task of proletarian reorganization.


1. For instance, the "Second Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle", in addressing itself to the array of political parties and non-governmental organizations who oppose the PRI political monopoly, explains that the EZLN believes all these groups share the same goals, only the Zapatistas are those who wear the masks of the armed guerrillas. It states: The flag is now in the hands of those who have faces and names [i.e., not the EZLN who wear masks to hide the personal identity -- ed.], of good and honest people who walk paths that are not ours but whose end is the same one that we walked longingly toward."[emphasis added --ed.] See Communist Voice, vol.1, #2, June 1, 1995, p.24. (Return to text.)

2. "Second Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle", June 10, 1994, reprinted in Communist Voice, vol.1, #2, June 1, 1995, p.29. (Text)

2a. In the next CV, vol. 2, #4, in the midst of discussing another subject, Mark pointed out (pp. 30-31):

  1. . The CWV group as a whole downplays the fight against opportunism. An amazing example of this comes from the Anita's page three article "News from Mexico" in CWVTJ #10. In a brief report on some activities of the Zapatistas, she casually mentions that the recently formed Zapatista Front for National Liberation, which is defined by the Zapatista leaders as their main work in this period, has been turned over to the bourgeois reformist forces like the PRD. Anita's comment on this central undertaking of the Zapatistas is that "it is not clear at this time how successful this organizing is" because of this "one problem." If Anita "is not clear" how successful the Zapatista's new front is when it has been turned over to the likes of the PRD (the Mexican rough equivalent of the Democrats here), this is because nothing can make her criticize the Zapatista policy. To say there is only "one problem" with a front under the PRD's thumb is like a doctor saying there was only one problem with the last operation -- the patient died! (Text)

3. La Botz, Democracy in Mexico: peasant rebellion and political reform, pp.132-134, South End Press, 1995. (Text)

4. The EZLN holds that "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." See "Second Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle" reprinted in Communist Voice, vol.1, #2, June 1, 1995, p.29. (Text)

Back to main page, write us!

Last changed on October 19, 2001.
e-mail: mail@communistvoice.org