Ideological Boundaries:

Old Arguments, New Stakes in the Zapatista Debate
Native Autonomy and the Authoritarian Left
--Eric Enriquez Battaglia
On Sunday, July 19th, the Working People's Action and Education Network (WPAEN) sponsored a public meeting on the subject of Chiapas. The meeting included a video documentary on Chiapas, an overview of the current situation of the region up to the present, and a presentation on the various actions and labor movements throughout Mexico.

The presentations themselves were all standard, informative, and focused towards tying the Zapatista struggle together with struggles in our own communities. The emphasis on solidarity could have provided more detail on possibilities in the Chicago area. The discussion that followed might have produced some ideas for such possibilities, but the session unfortunately became a platform for idealistic diatribes and the subsequent responses. Yes, this is the side effect of a democratic discussion, and I wasn't really surprised by the turn of events, but I still felt vaguely disappointed.

The lack of a cultural and historical overview may have contributed to some of the problems with the meeting, which seemed to focus mainly on State reactions to the uprising and other Mexican political movements. As a result, the presentations lacked a backdrop that could have increased understanding of the situation. More emphasis should have been given towards the fact that indigenous communities have been undergoing oppression for a much longer time than the initial uprising. Economic changes, new class divisions, military presence and PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) pressures were already working against these communities.
The PRI was breaking up groups with their renewed aggression against opposition politics, including and especially the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution). The North American Fair Trade Agreement threatened to make an intolerable situation even worse, and there was little solidarity or even knowledge of the situation outside of Mexico. The Zapatista rebellion was a response to these factors, and a means of holding further social disintegration at bay while strengthening indigenous political power.

While emphasis on the cultural and historical causes of the rebellion may have helped in the presentation, it would be naive to think that the discussion would have then been free of misconceptions and prejudices. Some of the objections to the EZLN were directly related to the understandable mistrust that the Zapatistas and their indigenous base hold for the Left. Perhaps, partially because of the inherent Marxist tradition of Eurocentrism and paternalism towards indigenous people, the meeting was turned into a series of attacks and defenses. There was strong criticism of the Zapatistas that led the discussion down a course of polemics and away from developing ideas about how we can learn from Chiapas.

I can't go over word for word what was said, but I will describe the two outstanding positions of this meeting. The first position was of a militant Marxist/Trotskyist line, and severely criticized the Zapatista uprising as well as supporters of the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas were described in a condescending manner and the presentation itself was called "liberal" and naive.

The second position was an attack on the fundamental assumptions of the first opinion, essentially undermining it through exposing its weaknesses. This position took issue with the Trotskyist call to forego any attempts at solidarity. There was also a third position, which admitted some truth in the first, while maintaining the second, and pushing for collaboration in Chiapas between Autonomous and Leftist groups.

In the first position, emphasis was placed upon perceived errors of judgement on the part of the Zapatistas. The ill timing of the uprising, the "lack of ideology," unrealistic demands and an irresponsible lack of foresight were all included among the errors mentioned. It was stated that such uprisings have occurred again and again throughout world history and have been crushed because of a lack of political preparation. One person said that he was reminded of the role of the IRA in baiting the British government to repressive action. In fact, he did not mince words as he called the idea of revolutionary autonomy "a con." He emphasized that he'd seen such "cons" happen before, and argued that the democratic decision of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (and by extension, of the majority of the Zapatista community) was no excuse for the EZLN's declaration of war. His feeling was that the EZLN, as a politically conscious guerrilla organization, should have held back from initiating a war, even against the decision of the community they'd come to be a part of. He also seemed to imply that the traditional indigenous methods of organizing society would hamper the revolutionary potential of Mexico, and he explicitly denounced the idea of autonomy as "utter garbage."

Another person brought up the examples of Korea, Russia, Spain, and other attempted rebellions that had "failed" because of ill timing, a lack of centralized unity, and a lack of definite ideology. He described the Zapatista movement as an anarchist one oriented towards guerrilla warfare, which necessarily makes them "dangerous and irresponsible." He then proceeded to expound the need for oppressed groups worldwide to adopt party politics and form a "Fourth International organized along Trotskyist lines." Both of these speakers ended with the conclusion that the Zapatista rebellion should not be supported and deserved no solidarity, precisely because it knowingly brought the reaction of the government down upon innocent people.

After these comments I found myself with my hand raised, faces turned towards me, and far too many things to say. So, I brought forth the following points:

A) The lack of a historical understanding of Chiapas and of indigenous autonomy. A strong part of the oppression in the region is cultural and political as well as economic and military. Autonomy is not a new idea but one that existed previous to the Conquest and that has survived and adapted for over five hundred years since. To dismiss it as immature or irrelevant is tantamount to dismissing the entire reason for the uprising. There would be no indigenous revolutionary movement without this vital factor.

B) The mistaken comparison of Chiapas with nations and historical events that had little to do with the rebellion at hand. Oversimplifying a situation that has its own unique pattern of development in order to fit an ideology is a typical trait of the authoritarian left.

C) The need for the people I was addressing to raise questions about their own actions or inactions. In summary, I said: "People should consider their own roles in confronting Neo-Liberalism rather than making harsh judgements about a place you've never been to and against people you can't understand."

Others took up the main points of both arguments: that autonomy is an intrinsic part of the Zapatista rebellion and that there were several mistakes made by the Zapatista movement. The obvious was pointed out: that the EZLN itself is a hierarchically organized guerrilla army, but that they also engage in a constructive and egalitarian relation with the communities. The timing of the rebellion was seen as problematic, but the decision-making systems of the communities were respected. One important criticism was that the EZLN were engaging in a type of sectarianism. This statement was made despite the internationally recognized "Encuentro" (a gathering of over 3,000 activists from over 40 countries in Chiapas) and other Zapatista- initiated methods of opening up to international left communities.

The critique of "sectarianism" deserves a deeper examination in light of the dangers of making the wrong kinds of allies at a crucial moment, or not making strong enough ties with other organizations. Cited as an example of sectarian behavior was the Zapatista rejection of attempts at solidarity initiated by the EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army), a Marxist guerrilla organization that rose up some months after the EZLN uprising. Taking the Mexican government's intensive propaganda campaign against the Zapatistas into account, the decision not to work in solidarity with another guerrilla organization, whose goals and methods are not similar to the Zapatistas, can be seen as more cautionary (and with reason) than sectarian.

The lack of a political party and a concrete ideological standing was also criticized, but I have to wonder why. The hold the Zapatistas have on the world is partly due to their receptivity towards various groups, and their reluctance to engage in party politics. At a time when most ideologically based organizations find themselves falling to pieces at the cracks in their own beliefs, many in the left (and society in general) are choosing activism without dogma. The need for vision and planning are indisputable, and being in the middle of a social crisis that started long before them, the Zapatistas may be a bit short on both. Yet, over the past century alone, what has ideology done for the world? How many wars has it caused, how many people has it killed?

The foundations for a libertarian revolution based on autonomy can be found in many indigenous communities, and especially in the Zapatista movement. These foundations are: collectivism, communalism, decentralization tempered by an interdependence that the State has tried to render obsolete, and a direct democracy in which representatives are elected free of the restraints of party politics. The Zapatista communities are not to be seen as an end in themselves; they are far from ideal. However, the indigenous and peasant struggle we are witnessing can be a model for the preparation of a revolution in which the structure of the future society can be seen in the organization of the present struggle. It is through autonomy that a society can progress beyond the limitations set by Hegelian philosophy, bypassing the "stages" of centralization that capitalism and socialism both entail, and remaining free to adapt.

The ideas expressed at this meeting demonstrate an old political clash that is seeing a renewed urgency as Neo-Liberalism rushes us towards a new millennium. For so many authoritarian leftists, the problems are entirely universal and demand a universal solution: for people to throw their energies into party politics and indirect top-down activism under a specifically designated ideology. While it is true that the very root causes of global oppression stem from the legacies of Imperialism, Colonialism and Neo-Liberalism, all of which can be traced to the United States and Europe, the Socialist solution is part of the problem.

Historically, an active element of global conquest was religion and the subsequent racism it entailed. Some Marxists offer their own version of fanaticism which questions the validity of any non-Marxist entities. For example, some people at the meeting spoke of the Zapatistas in a paternalistic manner, as though they were children who'd gotten hold of some handguns. Behind this attitude is an assumption of the infallability of Marxist ideas, an infallibility which Subcommandante Marcos himself discovered to be false. Ideological fanaticism seems to be its own reason for failure. As was demonstrated by the various reactions (such as snickers, muttering, and head shaking) to the Trotskyist platform we were assailed with, these ideologies alienate people because they deny and in fact repress the true nature of rebellion.

While the authoritarian left may argue for the formation of a single party powerful enough to challenge capital, it should be taken into account that this new force would in no way be revolutionary. To create a power to overtake another superpower may be a challenge to private capital, perhaps even a challenge to Western Society, but there is nothing expressing the freedom, imagination, and democratic participation that defines revolution. The International they talk of would be just another superpower waging just another war. The Zapatistas are more than a distant revolution; as even the non-aligned can see, they offer us new models of resistance, ones we don't need to be afraid of.

The lack of cultural comprehension demonstrated at the meeting points out one of the inherent dangers of ideology: being regarded as a universal truth, it is often substituted for historical and cultural understanding of a given people in a given situation. The ideologue only needs to understand the complexities of philosophical theory, leaving the rest of the world with the duty of fitting into this theory. There is only the facade of rational and creative thought, restrained by the ideological philosophical theories that one man developed for his own time.

Perhaps guerrilla movements provoke atrocities. But starvation, cultural genocide, and repression are the atrocities that sparked rebellion. What immediate answers does the left provide for a people driven to desperation? Without the rebellion, NAFTA would certainly have a sizeable portion of Indian land sold out from under their feet by now. What would Marxism do for landless, homeless, and jobless peasants? If there were no guerrilla army, only communities supporting a national opposition party, who would have protected them? Who would be willing to stand up for an isolated region facing severe repression for a mere political affiliation?

Sure, guerrilla warfare kills people, but politics kills people as well, and the worst part about it is that there are no defenses. Belonging to a non-PRI party is not any less dangerous in Chiapas. The fact of the matter is that the officials of the government acted with full knowledge of the consequences, and killed innocent people with full knowledge of the reasons why. Blaming the victims is nothing less than counter-revolutionary, meanspirited, and inhuman.

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