Some climate campaigners are promoting the Zapatistas in Mexico as an inspiration and model for building the climate movement. This is a snare, misunderstanding Zapatista politics. An honest account of the Zapatistas’ evolution shows their aims and methods are a long way from what is needed to mobilise millions of workers to prevent dangerous climate change.
On 1 January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), consisting of 3,000 poorly armed, mostly Mayan guerrilla soldiers, emerged from the Lacandón jungle in Chiapas, southern Mexico, seizing towns and the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
The EZLN rose on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an international treaty between Canada, Mexico, and the United States, came into force. The EZLN, fronted by subcomandante Marcos, called for the cancellation of NAFTA, the overthrow of the Mexican government and a constituent assembly to write a new Mexican constitution
President Ernesto Zedillo, barely a month into his six-year term leading the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) into its eighth successive decade in power in Mexico, sent the Mexican army and air force to suppress the rebellion. Throughout Mexico tens of thousands of people responded by protesting in public squares, demanding that Zedillo stop the military assault. Within twelve days Zedillo halted the attack and the EZLN agreed to a truce.
Within months, the Zapatistas held a consultation, asking what role they should play in Mexican society. Hundreds of thousands responded, the majority voting that the EZLN should lay down its arms and participate in Mexican political life. Most rejected armed violence on all sides. The Zapatistas declined to lay down their arms, but have not used them since the uprising.
The Zapatistas were founded in November 1983 by activists in northern Mexico. They were inspired by a long tradition of armed rebellion in Mexico, as well as the Chinese and Cuban Stalinist revolutions, following ideas articulated by Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Régis Debray.
Originally called the National Liberation Forces, by the late 1980s the group moved its operations to Chiapas. They added “Zapatista” to their name in honour of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the revolutionary peasant movement during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20).
The Zapatistas believed a spark in southern Mexico could unleash rebellion across the entire country. They thought a small group of dedicated revolutionaries could detonate a revolution through a bold armed intervention. They assumed that the people, exploited and oppressed, were simply waiting for an heroic example of revolutionary struggle to show them the way.
In August 1994, the Zapatistas called a convention in San Cristóbal, inviting a few thousand Mexican academics and activists, as well as a handful of foreign delegates. Marcos spoke in front of an enormous Mexican flag, as Zapatista soldiers marched carrying wooden rifles, not real firearms. The EZLN presented themselves as radical nationalists and supporters of indigenous rights. They called for a constituent assembly and a new constitution, but not socialism.
Surrounded by the Mexican army, the Zapatistas continued to organise a “liberated zone” where their indigenous and mestizo supporters lived and worked in their own autonomous communities, schools and local governments. They advocated “mandar obedeciendo” — to lead by following.
Indigenous women drove armed soldiers out of their villages. The EZLN convened the National Indigenous Congress. On 16 February 1996, the Zapatistas and Zedillo’s government signed the San Andrés Accords, a treaty granting autonomy, recognition and rights to the indigenous people in Chiapas. The Mexican Congress failed to adopt the accords.
In 1997, the EZLN launched a national organisation, the Zapatista Front for National Liberation (FZLN). The Zapatistas had no interest in a real coalition of social movements, trade unions and left political parties, which proliferated in Mexico. EZLN leaders insisted on dominating the FZLN. As a result, it never grew or had an impact on wider Mexican society.
According to Dan La Botz, the US socialist and leading authority on the Mexican left, the EZLN also attempted to form a Zapatista workers’ organisation. Trade union activists told La Botz that the Zapatistas opposed participation in the existing trade unions, not only because they were bureaucratic, but also because the unions held elections and the EZLN opposed voting. Unwilling to relate to existing unions structures and spurning longstanding rank-and-file union organisations, the Zapatista labour front was failed. The Zapatistas withdrew again to Chiapas.
During the 2000 elections, the EZLN announced that it would not support either of the two right wing parties — the ruling PRI or the conservative National Action Party (PAN). They also opposed the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Sadly Cárdenas, who had been a presidential candidate in 1988 and 1994, had divided the left and effectively split the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), which had established a solid base. The EZLN rejected elections in general and denounced Mexico’s political parties as compromised and corrupt.
Vicente Fox of the PAN won the election, ending the PRI’s hold on the Mexican government. The Zapatistas took advantage of the political opening, travelled to Mexico City and sent representatives to address the Mexican Congress. They asked it implement the San Andrés Accords, without success.
In 2006 presidential elections, the EZLN took a different approach. It did not support Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD. Instead the EZLN continued to reject elections and the existing parties, but organised la Otra Campaña (the Other Campaign).
The EZLN did not put forward its own candidates and did not support the candidates of other parties, but instead travelled around the country speaking out against the Mexican government and against capitalism.
The EZLN’s Other Campaign was joined by several other left groups, from the PRT to the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML). The EZLN’s Other Campaign held moderately successful meetings and rallies, sometimes speaking to thousands against the evils of capitalism. Everywhere they went, the CPML’s giant portraits of Stalin hung in the background, casting doubt on their liberatory politics. And the EZLN abstained from the ferment around electoral fraud, which mobilised many millions of Mexicans during the elections (eventually won by the PRI). Zapatista sectarianism damaged their moral authority on the Mexican left.
Climate activists have looked favourably on the Zapatistas because they have held up a model of social land ownership, known as the ejidos, which they posit as an alternative to capitalist agriculture. There is no doubt that capitalist agriculture can be enormously damaging. Marx recognised that damage wrought to the soil, which capitalist farmers sought to mitigate with guano and later fertilisers.
After the Mexican revolution, notably under the Lazaro Cárdenas government (1934-40), land was given to male members of peasant or indigenous communities in the form of ejidos, state-leased land to be held in perpetuity by them and their descendants. This was inspired by Zapata’s slogan: “land to those who work it” and earlier forms of land ownership. While sometimes collectively owned, ejido land was often held in the form of individual parcels belonging to the patriarchal heads of families.
Non-capitalist forms are not necessarily more progressive than capitalism. Mexican history had seen other collectivist forms that went hand-in-hand with oppressive states. Many Mexican civilisations had fallen after ecological disasters, which these forms of land tenure failed to prevent.
In the late 1990s, the political writer John Holloway popularised Zapatista ideas in a series of best-selling books. Holloway argued that under the influence of indigenous ideas, the EZLN had rejected the old Marxist paradigm of the working class struggling for state power. Instead, anyone could make the revolution by asserting their dignity and forming a liberated community where they were. The Zapatistas seemed to be building a communitarian alternative to capitalism in the remote communities of Chiapas. They rejected taking state power or the working class making socialism. Holloway cheerfully told activists to follow the Zapatistas: “change the world without taking power”.
Holloway merely generalised the confusion inherent in Zapatista ideas from the start. The Zapatistas did not start from the political economy of global capitalism and try to locate the classes that could genuinely challenge capitalist power. They cut themselves off from the militant struggles of Mexican workers, preferring to base themselves on indigenous peasants. They did not lead masses of exploited and oppressed peoples into struggle, but relied on the actions of an elite minority. The Zapatistas failed to build united fronts with other left forces, including in the unions, to build a counterpower. They failed to use the limited openings of bourgeois politics as a platform to mobilise workers to struggle.
The Zapatistas offer no model for building a climate movement, other than to demonstrate the mistakes that follow from incoherent political ideas. If climate activists want examples from the past, they should start with the labour movement. Despite many failings and multiple defeats, the working class movement remains the only force with interest and power to prevent climate catastrophe.
• Further reading: Dan La Botz, Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (1999); Dan La Botz, Twenty Years Since the Chiapas Rebellion: The Zapatistas, Their Politics, and Their Impact, Against the Current and New Politics (2014)