Anarchism, the Zapatista's and the emerging anti-capitalist movement

This is the text of a talk given to the WSM Ideas & Action dayschool 13 Nov 1999 shortly before the Seattle WTO protests.  It looks at whay anarchists should be interested in the Zapatista rebellions and in particular references the anti-capitalist network that was emerging around the rebellion.

The rebellion in Chiapas is not like most other Latin American rebellions or revolutions. The central aim of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolution for instance was for the revolutionaries to seize state power and so become a new and 'fairer' government. The problem with this model for anarchists is clear - we are against government after all - even if this should not stop us defending these countries against US imperialism. [This talk in Serbo-Croat]

This is not a problem that arises with the Zapatistas for the simple reason they do not wish to cease state power. More on this later. But more importantly is what is happening on the ground in Chiapas. This requires us to stand in solidarity with the Zapatista's despite the political disagreements we have with them.

The rebellion in Chiapas has created a space in which a flourishing 'direct democracy' has come into being. By 'direct democracy' I mean the sort of decision-making structures anarchists advocate, be it in the unions or in workers councils. That is where locally those affected by the decisions assemble and debate out their position and where co-ordination of the assemblies is carried out be delegates that are elected and recallable.

This is what is happening in Chiapas. At the local level there are community assemblies in which all above the age of 12 can speak and vote. At the regional level there are a range of bodies all of whom have elected and recallable delegates that are expected to obey a mandate. The ideology behind this is not identical to anarchism - the Zapatista slogan which describes it for instance is 'to lead by obeying'.

There isn't time to describe these structures in detail as part of this talk. I'd refer anyone interested to the articles I've written for 'Workers Solidarity' and an article of mine that ASR will be publishing. Also if you have web access these articles are on my web page.

The ideology of the Zapatistas

The ideology of the Zapatista's is not anarchist. There are some anarchist influences, directly through Ricardo Flores Magnon who in many ways is the Mexican equivalent of James Connolly and indirectly through Zapata himself. The other influences include indigenous tradition (and at the turn of the century Magnon pointed out that the indigenous tradition of assemblies and collective ownership of the land made them open to an alliance with anarchists), liberation theology and Latin American Marxism.

These ideological differences mean that some of the EZLN's analysis is not what we would agree with. For instance they uncritically accepted the idea of the Soviet Block as being socialism in practise and therefore demonstrating a failure of socialism. They also seem to frequently imply that a 'good government' that didn't interfere with their autonomous communities might be OK. Most importantly and related to this they seem to have a naïve understanding of how possible it is to force the 'bad government' to give ground. The San Andres talks demonstrated this. Either the Zapatistas expected real and meaningful reform to come via the talks or they only entered the talks in order to make more time for themselves while exposing the government as being unable to reform. In many ways a reading of their communiques leads towards the first option.

There are three points to be made here though

1. The general conditions that the vast majority of Zapatistas live under include illiteracy, 14 hour + work days and extreme poverty. The rank and file Zapatista has very little access to 'socialist theory' for instance the 'reform or revolution' debates.

2. For the most part the movement has reached the right conclusions even if this sometimes is for what seems like the wrong reasons. Zapatista politics is almost completely generated by local conditions so the right conclusions tend to have been generated from 'first principles' rather then any abstract study of the workers movement.

3. Much of the 'ideological' material put out by the educated 'leadership' is quite useful and is certainly provoking. In particular the relationship between the 'revolutionary organisation' and what they call 'civil society' includes many aspects that traditional anarchism has not fully investigated.

The problems of solidarity

The biggest problem to deal with in Ireland is what we can do to support the Zapatista struggle. For a tiny group of people the Irish Mexico Group has achieved a lot. Dozens of people have visited Chiapas, we've maintained a presence in the community of Diez de Abril for over two years and importantly here we've managed to tell a fair number of people about Chiapas despite the lack of interest in such struggles in the current period.

But there are no shortage of pitfalls for the organisation, not least of which is the ease with which you can fall into the traditional practise of solidarity groups - spending more time and effort talking to Irish government ministers then anything else. Indeed the major ideological weakness of the group as far as I'm concerned is a tendency to drift towards 'Humanitarian interventionism' where you call on the Irish Government/EU / UN to force the Mexican government to reform itself.

Be a Zapatista where ever you are

This tendency however flies in the face of the oft-repeated call from Chiapas to 'Be a Zapatista where ever you are'. This and more recently the Zapatistas release of a communiqué saying they wanted nothing to do with the UN are a bulwark against the tendency to become another 'It's terrible over there' lobby group.

The message coming from Chiapas is that neo-liberalism is not just a Mexican problem but is a problem that effects all the people of the world. This is the basis for the two enormous international encounters initiated by the Zapatistas. Each of these saw thousands of people from dozens of countries meeting to exchange ideas and network for the future.


These gatherings attracting as they do a huge range of activists are not the theoretically pure events one might wish could happen. But they were never intended to become such-  for the simple reason that the network that is envisaged is one without any head or centre.

This sort of international organisation is becoming more important. I don't believe it replaces the need for anarchists to build co-herant international organisations but it does provide a way to confront capitalism in its latest and most global phase.

A final thing I want to mention in this connection if the international day of Action to co-incide with the World trade Organisation conference in Seattle at the end of this month. It's expected that 100,000 will demonstrate in Seattle and the IMG here are helping to organise protest at 1pm at the Central Bank on Saturday the 27th Nov. You'll find more information on this on the table but I strongly encourage anyone interested to take part in this demonstration. If you're a member of any organisation get your organisation to send a table and literature to the protest.

[This talk in Serbo-Croat]

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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