some thoughts on the Zapatistas

Louis R Godena louisgodena at
Wed Jun 12 21:22:55 MDT 1996

A number of recent posts, beginning with one authored by our Turkish
comrade,  have dealt with the prickly question surrounding the often
backward outlooks of potential revolutionary movements, as well as the
masses they purport to lead.

I am speaking specifically of the recent call for the "National Day of
Prayer and Reflection" which has added to the lingering unease with which
the rebels in Chiapas are regarded in some quarters.    This follows, at a
respectable distance,   the New Year's declaration by the EZLN that called
for "various forces and citizens to build a broad opposition front that
unites the democratic will against a state party system: the National
Liberation Movement" (quoted in La Jornada, January 2nd).

Clearly, the Zapatistas are transforming themselves from an armed rebellion
into a "civil and peaceful organization."    And such an organization,
grounded as it is in the oldest and most venerable of social groups--the
peasantry-- would naturally assume in some form the traditions, culture,
and, yes, religious appetites that have suffused that strata of Spanish
America for centuries.    No successful revolutionary organization at this
stage of Mexico's history, standing foursquare in the peasant traditions of
provinces like Chiapas, could be completely secular.    Marx's own epigram
on religious faith ("heart in a heartless world") applies especially to a
country ravaged by the miseries of NAFTA and GATT.

I suggest that it is the more traditional left itself,  both inside  Mexico
and throughout the world, that have "abandoned", if you will, the earlier
promise of the indigenous rebellion in the South.

In Mexico, since 1993, the year before the Chiapas uprisings, a series of
combative strikes, first at Cananea, and then, with increasing ferocity, at
Sicartsa,  Ford,  Volkswagen, RCA, and SUTAUR, have shaken the country.
The militancy of Mexican labor is at a fifty year high,  as witnessed by May
Day in Mexico City, when fully half a million workers poured into the city's
Central Plaza in defiance of their own leaders, the encrusted charro
gerontocracy of the pro-government Labor Congress.    This volatile
demonstration, as well as literally dozens like it throughout the country
demonstrate the resilience and determination of a labor movement written off
just a few years ago by "post-modernists" like Carlos Castenada and
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Yet the labor movement has failed to mobilize, in any appreciable way, in
solidarity with the indigneous uprising of the Zapatistas.    Instead,  the
union movement itself has been badly divided by an insurgency led by, among
others, Hernandez Juarez of the telephone workers and Elba Ester Gordillo of
the federation of teachers, to form "free unions" more in accord with the
neo-liberal aims of monetarism.    And, of course, the old PRI government
dominated unions under the umbrella of the Confederation of Mexican Workers
(CTM) have not only not supported the Zapatistas, they have been among its
most active opposition.    There was in Mexico not a single national labor
leader of any note who would lift a finger in common cause with the armed
Chiapas uprising.

Much of the Zapatistas support has come, not from Mexico's growing,
increasingly militant industrial proletariat,  but from writers, artists,
and intellectuals disillusioned with the National Democratic Front (FDN) of
Cardenas, and who see in the EZLN as a unique alternative--a third
way--following the  "death of communism".   This approach has been mirrored
by the sundry "solidarity" groups abroad, many of whom saw in the amorphous
"humanism" and anti-imperialist rhetoric of the early rebellions a
sympathetic and resonant reflection of their own struggles.

If we are to search successfully for the causes of the Zapatista "retreat"
further and  further into a nationalist petty-bourgeois program of reformism
and accomodation, evoking the musty icons and symbols of Mexico's
historico-religious past,  we must be aware, as well,  of forces far beyond
the EZLN itself.

                                      Louis Godena

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