The Nature of the Zapatistas

“Para todos todo, para nosotros nada”

The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatistas, are well-known in the United States, but rarely understood. USAmericans are very familiar with the aesthetics of the EZLN, in particular their signature ski masks, as well as with the fact that they are a primarily Indigenous movement. However, they have inaccurate understandings of the ideology and orientation of the EZLN, owing in large part to an ignorance of Mexican history.

The EZLN has been used as a vehicle for many Western leftists to project their political agendas onto. They are presented as anarchists, “postmodern rebels” who have given up the “masculinist” aim of seizing state power, anti-nationalists, libertarian socialists, anti-communists, and so on. They are leveled as a weapon at Marxists, smugly referred to as a refutation of their apparently “mechanical” and “authoritarian” ideology.

In reality, the Zapatistas are well within the lineage of Mexican revolutionaries. And in that phrase, both Mexican and revolutionary are very important to emphasize. As mentioned, a lack of historical knowledge and removal of the Zapatistas from their context is a core factor in misrepresentations of them. Therefore, we ought to trace the pre-history and history of the EZLN before delving into their ideology and international significance.

A Pre-History of the EZLN

Mexico has a long history of social revolutionary guerrilla movements. The uprising of Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos which launched the 1810–1821 War of Independence set the tone for others after.¹ With a largely Indigenous following, Hidalgo and Morelos issued the demand for a radical program that, had it been put into practice, would have established a social republic. They sought a redistribution of the land to the working class. Such an approach would be a negation of the existing system of massive landholders, who marginalized and exploited the peasantry. Their insurgency was defeated, with the conservative Mexican ruling class seized power in the ensuing independence struggle.

Later, the Yucatecan Mayans fought the 1847–1915 Caste War against the mestizo and criollo government of Mexico City.² Their rebellion followed a similar pattern of guerrilla warfare to Hidalgo and Morelos. In this case, the demand for Indigenous sovereignty was front and center. Although they were ultimately defeated, the Indigenous peoples of the Yucatán continued their armed resistance periodically against both the Mexican and Guatemalan governments.³

In the era of the 1910–1920 Mexican Revolution, land ownership in Mexico was even more concentrated than before. Under the dictator Porfirio Díaz, local landlords and foreign capitalists had deeply impoverished the rural working class.⁴ The anarchist Partido Liberal Mexicano in the North, led by the Magón brothers, and the Ejército Libertador del Sur in the South, led by Emiliano Zapata, continued the drive toward answering the same question as Hidalgo and Morelos.⁵ The basic content of their demands was for a social republic once again, albeit in a far more radical form. The Magónistas were gradualist anarchists inspired by both Peter Kropotkin and Vladimir Lenin.⁶ The Zapatistas were vaguely socialist, regionalist, and indigenist, although anarchists like Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama fought alongside them.⁷

Ultimately, both the Magónistas and Zapatistas lost the Revolution, with the more moderate Constitutionalists seizing power.⁸ The new ruling class formed a Party which would come to be known as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The question of land reform, the fueled of the revolutionary fire, was barely addressed under the early post-Revolutionary Presidents. Only once President Lázaro Cárdenas was elected in 1934 did land redistribution begin to be put into practice. Alongside this distribution of private and collective land, Cárdenas instituted social reforms addressing the demands of urban workers, the expansion of the public education system, and the nationalization of the oil.⁹ He is still extremely popular and well-remembered in Mexico for this reason.

His project of land reform slowed toward the end of his Presidency, as Cárdenas tried to counteract the flight of foreign capital. Foreign capitalists feared that their investments would be endangered by the popular social policies of his Presidency. His successor, President Manuel Ávila Camacho, made major concessions to the United States during World War II, and represented the solidification a new status quo.¹⁰ Mexico would never again have an administration that addressed the question of the rural working class as aggressively as Cárdenas did. With rural impoverishment growing, so, too, did the discontent of the campesinos.¹¹

The new, growing group of students attending public universities similarly grew unhappy with the stagnation of reforms.¹² In the 1960s, mirroring the rest of the world, radical student movements emerged to demand a return to a Cárdenista-style politics. In 1968, the Mexican government was to be the host of the Summer Olympics, planning to show off the fruits of its modernization to the international community. The event, however, came at great expense at a time when rural poverty was skyrocketing, and the living standards of the urban working classes was stagnating. Protestors in Mexico City attacked the PRI regime for the crying injustice. In response, the Mexican Army committed the October 2, 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, killing hundreds of protestors and injuring over a thousand.¹³

The Massacre was the breaking point for the belief of the masses in the PRI’s promises. Mexicans were radicalized. Students, workers, and campesinos alike turned to revolutionary Marxism in the place of the PRI. They took as their influences both the international icons of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara as well as local icons such as Emiliano Zapata.¹⁴ Urban radicals flooded to join and organize such guerrillas in the countryside as the Asociación Cívica Nacional Revolucionaria (ACNR) or the Partido de los Pobres (PdlP).¹⁵ Students and urban workers fought alongside peasants and rural workers, working toward the aim of a socialist revolution. The 1970s were a period of blooming for revolutionary socialism in Mexico. It was in this environment that we find the early roots of the EZLN.

A History of the EZLN

The EZLN initially formed as a re-organization of a different group: The Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (FLN). The FLN was founded in 1969, primarily by students of the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL).¹⁶ With an explicitly Maoist political orientation, the guerrilla organized in multiple states. Their presence ranged from Northern to Southern Mexico, their headquarters lying in the Southern city of Ocosingo, Chiapas. In 1974, a captured fighter revealed the location of the headquarters under the torture of the Mexican Army.¹⁷ The organization was devastated by the ensuing attack. The remainders went underground, suffering a drawn out period of decline.

In 1983, members of the FLN in Chiapas reconstituted themselves into the EZLN.¹⁸ The EZLN would spent the next decade organizing itself militarily, deepening roots in the local Indigenous communities, many of whom had already been politicized by Liberation Theology, and preparing for insurgency. The penetration of global capitalist market forces into rural Chiapas had deepened the impoverishment of the state and eroded the traditional collective relations of the Indigenous peoples.¹⁹ The atmosphere of the area was ripe for rebellion. The EZLN just needed the right moment to come aboveground.

The date of January 1, 1994 is most closely associated with the Zapatista uprising, but the conditions for their declaration of war went back further. The 1988 Presidential election was highly contested.²⁰ The contest was between between the social democratic Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas (the son of Lázaro) running on the Frente Democrático Nacional (FDN) ticket and the neoliberal PRIista Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Although by all measures Cárdenas seemed to be the guaranteed winner, in a series of extremely suspicious circumstances, Gortari won by a narrow margin.²¹ This almost certainly rigged election killed any remnant illusions of a democratic government for many Mexicans.

With a decades of stagnation, and years of suffering under neoliberalism, Mexicans were ready to cry: “¡Ya basta!” The signing of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) reflected the deepening exploitation of Mexico by USAmerican capital. Among other things, the Agreement ended the promise of land reform for Indigenous peoples in Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution.²² Using this as a pretext, the EZLN emerged from the underground. With the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, they declared war on the Mexican government. In the Declaration, they laid out their aims thusly:

“To the People of Mexico: We, the men and women, full and free, are conscious that the war that we have declared is our last resort, but also a just one. The dictators have been applying an undeclared genocidal war against our people for many years. Therefore we ask for your participation, your decision to support this plan that struggles for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic.”²³

The course of the EZLN’s war with the Mexican government is well-known. With the iconic Subcomandante Marcos as their spokesman, the EZLN received significant attention from the international media. Countless anti-imperialist and alter-globalization movements in Mexico and abroad offered their support for them. The Zapatistas became a symbol for those dispossessed by the decrepit neoliberal order, triumphant after the fall of the Soviet Union. And yet, their insurgency resulted in a draw. In 1996, they negotiated the San Andrés Accords with the Mexican government.²⁴ In exchange for the end of the armed insurgency, the Accords were to guarantee Indigenous cultural and social autonomy, including sovereignty over land.

President Ernesto Zedillo refused to agree to their conditions. Instead, he re-commenced attacks by the Mexican Army and far-right paramilitaries on the EZLN. This violence was extended Yucatecan Mayans in general, who had long been considered to be “race rebels.” In 1997, with the support of the Mexican government, the right-wing paramilitary Máscara Roja committed a massacre of 45 Indigenous residents of Acteal, Chiapas.²⁵ They spared neither women nor children. The brutal terrorism of the Mexican state failed to crush either the Zapatistas or the movement for Indigenous rights, nevertheless.

During his 2000 Presidential campaign, Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox promised to uphold the Accords during his 2000 campaign.²⁶ Fox would become the first post-Revolutionary President not to be a member of PRI, leading some to place hope in his Presidency marking a change in policy. This promising image seemed to be confirmed when he re-commenced peace talks with the EZLN. Furthermore, despite his reduction of military presence in the region and released Zapatista prisoners, Fox refused to implement the Accords as-is. The Mexican Congress instead passed a law allowing states to recognize the demands if they wished, effectively rendering them null and void.²⁷

Meanwhile, with the conflict frozen, the Zapatistas expanded autonomous municipalities in Chiapas.²⁸ This is something they continue to do today, with the support of much of the Mexican left.²⁹ Their attempt to overturn the US puppet regime of the PRI failed, leading them to focus on consolidating their hold in Chiapas and promoting their politics abroad. The Zapatista-held regions of Chiapas are still impoverished, but relative to the rest of the state, have dramatically superior living standards, life expectancy, education, and political participation.³⁰

From their inception, the EZLN was anti-electoralist, citing the extreme corruption and illegitimacy of the Mexican “democratic” process. In 2018, they broke with this tradition. In collaboration with the National Indigenous Congress, the EZLN selected Nahua activist María de Jesús Patricio Martínez to represent them in the Presidential election.³¹ She ran as a protest candidate, using her campaign to publicize the concerns of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples.

In the end, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, longtime Cárdenista activist and member of the social-democratic Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA), won the election.³² AMLO promised to reverse the trend of neoliberalism in Mexico, with his early policies seeming to move in this direction. The EZLN dismissed him as yet another loud-talking Mexican politician. They asserted to him that they would continue to act as an independent political force. During his Presidency, they made as their priority opposition to the Mayan Train project, which is meant to encourage tourism in Southern Mexico.³³ The Zapatistas consider it to be yet another infringement on Indigenous sovereignty and a vehicle of further capitalist penetration into the region.

The Ideology and Aims of the EZLN

The EZLN’s ideological orientation is clearly not as unprecedented as the Western press has sought to portray them. Although they emerged in 1994, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the temporary ideological “death” of Marxism, they are not anti- or non-communist. It is true that they do not set socialism their immediate aim. However, they do not reject revolution. Instead, they have long been trying to overthrow the corrupt, US-aligned PRI bureaucracy of Mexico in favor of a democratic, social republic. They make this clear in the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, saying:

“We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic.”³⁴

It is possible that they consider the goal of socialism to only be possible given these conditions. There is a long history of Marxists setting national liberation from imperialism and the construction of an independent democracy as their short-term aims. This has been true from the early Communist Party of China, to the Iraqi Communist Party, and even to Mexico’s own Communist Party. The key distinction is that the EZLN seeks to build a broad front specifically for this aim.

The EZLN are, therefore, clearly staunch nationalists rather than anti-nationalists. They do not seek to abolish Mexico, but to strengthen it. They wield a pluralistic interpretation of of Mexicanidad, considering Indigenous peoples both distinct from yet still part of the Mexican nation. Rather than attacking the basic premise of government and the Mexican Republic, they appeal to the principles of the 1917 Constitution and “official” Mexican icons, from Morelos to Zapata.

Within the umbrella of their nationalist project, they levy demands in the vein of feminism, anti-imperialism, and popular power. They seek to reorganize the Mexican government along democratic, progressive lines. Quite a far cry from the characterization of them as “anarchist” which is so often deployed by USAmericans. This characterization is quite evident in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle:

“We are inviting all indigenous, workers, campesinos, teachers, students, housewives, neighbors, small businesspersons, small shop owners, micro-businesspersons, pensioners, handicapped persons, religious men and women, scientists, artists, intellectuals, young persons, women, old persons, homosexuals and lesbians, boys and girls — to participate, whether individually or collectively, directly with the Zapatistas in this NATIONAL CAMPAIGN for building another way of doing politics, for a program of national struggle of the left, and for a new Constitution.”³⁵

Internationally, they align themselves with the revolutionary Republic of Cuba and the Bolivarian parties of Central and South America.³⁶ In particular, they claim Che Guevara as a hero to them.³⁷ This is quite in line with their roots in the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movements of the 1970s. Once again, they don’t seem to make an absolute rejection of socialist revolution. Instead, they seem to perceive it as something which must be approached in an innovative way in the long term. This is to be expected, given that they publicly emerged in an era when Marxism, and especially Marxism-Leninism, seemed to have been discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As far as how the EZLN approaches the struggle for this project, it places a heavy emphasis on participatory democracy and “leading by following.” In the Sixth Declaration, they described their approach to politics:

“In Mexico…

1 — We are going to continue fighting for the Indian peoples of Mexico, but now not just for them and not with only them, but for all the exploited and dispossessed of Mexico, with all of them and all over the country. And when we say all the exploited of Mexico, we are also talking about the brothers and sisters who have had to go to the United States in search of work in order to survive.

2 — We are going to go to listen to, and talk directly with, without intermediaries or mediation, the simple and humble of the Mexican people, and, according to what we hear and learn, we are going to go about building, along with those people who, like us, are humble and simple, a national program of struggle, but a program which will be clearly of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti-neoliberal, or for justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people.

3 — We are going to try to build, or rebuild, another way of doing politics, one which once again has the spirit of serving others, without material interests, with sacrifice, with dedication, with honesty, which keeps its word, whose only payment is the satisfaction of duty performed, or like the militants of the left did before, when they were not stopped by blows, jail or death, let alone by dollar bills.”³⁸

The third point, where they directly tie themselves to the largely Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movements of the ’60s and ’70s, is very important. The form of politics they describe in the second point is often taken to be anarchist in character, or totally distinct from Marxism. This is immediately debunked by the Zapatista rejection of anarchism as a label:

“The EZLN and its larger populist body the FZLN are NOT Anarchist. Nor do we intend to be, nor should we be. In order for us to make concrete change in our social and political struggles, we cannot limit ourselves by adhering to a singular ideology. Our political and military body encompasses a wide range of belief systems from a wide range of cultures that cannot be defined under a narrow ideological microscope. There are anarchists in our midst, just as there are Catholics and Communists and followers of Santeria[…] What we all have in common is a love for our families and our homelands. What we all have in common is a desire to make things better for ourselves and our country. None of this can be accomplished if we are to build walls of words and abstract ideas around ourselves.”³⁹

The Zapatistas continuously present themselves as a broad front organization, dedicated to the core goals of Indigenous sovereignty and a pluralistic nation. At the same time, we know that the EZLN emerged from a Maoist organization. If one is familiar with the theories of Maoism, the policy of the second points ought to sound very familiar. It is seemingly a radicalized version of the Maoist idea of the mass line.

Mao Zedong described this form of politics in Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership, stating:

“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily “from the masses, to the masses”. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.”⁴⁰

The main difference between Zapatista politics and Maoist politics can perhaps be said to lay in the Zapatista rejection of a vanguard party. Subcomandante Marcos is often quoted as saying, “I shit on all the revolutionary vanguards of this planet.” It is important to emphasize that this statement was not as simple as is often portrayed. It seems to be an outgrowth of a Maoist and Guevarist inflected Marxism rather than a negation of such politics. The context of the quote is also very important. Marcos was responding to a letter from the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque separatist paramilitary organization in Spain known for, among other things, assassinating their critics. Marcos took particular offense to this practice of theirs and considered them to lack the dialogic approach necessary for a healthy revolutionary politics.

From Marcos’s January 9, 2003 letter to the ETA:

“We know that the Zapatistas don’t have a place in the (dis) agreement of the revolutionary and vanguard organizations of the world, or in the rearguard. This doesn’t make us feel bad. To the contrary, it satisfies us. We don’t grieve when we recognize that our ideas and proposals don’t have an eternal horizon, and that there are ideas and proposals better suited than ours. So we have renounced the role of vanguards and to obligate anyone to accept our thinking over another argument wouldn’t be the force of reason.

Our weapons are not used to impose ideas or ways of life, rather to defend a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world and relating to it, something that, even though it can learn a lot from other thoughts and ways of life, also has a lot to teach. We are not those who you have to demand respect from. It’s already been seen how we are a failure of “revolutionary vanguards” and so our respect wouldn’t be useful for anything. Your people are those you have to win respect from. And “respect” is one thing; another very distinct thing is “fear”. We know you are angry because we haven’t taken you seriously, but it is not your fault. We don’t take anyone seriously, not even ourselves. Because whoever takes themselves seriously has stopped with the thought that their truth should be the truth for everyone and forever. And, sooner or later, they dedicate their force not so that their truth will be born, grow, be fruitful and die (because no earthly truth is absolute and eternal) rather they use it to kill everything that doesn’t agree with this truth.”⁴¹

This critique seems to come straight from the Maoist critique of dogmatists and commandists. Mao Zedong attacked dogmatists for assuming their abstract theoretical knowledge totally outweighed any practical knowledge, including that of the masses. He believed that a healthy dialogue between theory and practice, the party and the masses, was key.

Mao considered commandists to be of the same ilk as dogmatists, trying to command the masses without having earned their respect, given them service, or becoming a real representative of them. It seems that in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall and the subsequent decline of Marxism-Leninism, Marcos and other Zapatistas considered vanguardism to be a dead end. This is not especially surprising, as many Marxists became disillusioned with vanguardism in that era without necessarily breaking from Marxism.

Today, with the EZLN’s participation in the 2018 elections, it is possible that they may be reconsidering their past positions on electoral politics and a vanguard organization. If they are not, it would nevertheless be beneficial to consider an innovative, fresh approach to vanguard politics. We have long moved past the hegemony of the stagnant, mechanical approach of late Soviet Marxism-Leninism. Given the unstable and discontented atmosphere of modern Mexico, and the need for a political organization to unify and refine the political aims of Mexican radicals, it would certainly be a welcome development.

In conclusion, the EZLN is ultimately well within the Marxist tradition of politics, although they are a broad front movement. They organize themselves essentially as a popular democratic front, an aim which is common in Marxism. They seek to unify many social groups toward a democratic politics, and identify themselves with a pluralistic, but nevertheless deeply patriotic, vision for Mexico.

What the EZLN Teaches Us

The Zapatistas are deeply rooted in the local history of Mexico, especially Southern Mexico. In spite of this extremely local character, they offer those of us abroad important lessons in organizing for socialism, regardless of our particular alignments.

First of all, they show us how important it is to draw on the history of a region. This includes both culture and national discourse. Mexican history holds a wealth of “official icons” who can easily be co-opted for a revolutionary critique of the status quo. It is perhaps more difficult for us USAmericans, as in our history, revolutionaries have been more of a counter-current than a main current.

Secondly, the EZLN demonstrates just how important building a mass base is for a movement to succeed. Not only did the EZLN spend years militarily preparing themselves for rebellion in Chiapas, they also dedicated tireless effort toward winning the respect of the locals and earning recognition as their representatives. Building a mass base is not done by merely throwing ideas at people. Instead, it is done by serving them, and making ourselves stand out as a viable alternative to the present state of things.

Finally, the EZLN shows the necessity of support from civil society organizations. We cannot depend only on one form of mass movement or organization for support. We must be broadly linked up in order to have a properly sturdy position, rather than having an imbalanced arrangement of support in society which can more easily be usurped. For example, excessively focusing on urban workers and neglecting those in the countryside. By following these lessons, we can begin to build for ourselves a viable revolutionary movement.


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