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How to build socialism? Zapatista experience: Success or failure?

Guatemala City (Prensa Latina) On January 1, 1994, the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) made its public appearance.

Marcelo Colussi, Prensa Latina contributor

Heaving weapons in hand and under the leadership of Sub Commander Marcos – “We take up arms to build a world where armies are no longer necessary”, he stated- the insurgent movement demanded the vindication of property over ancestral lands taken from indigenous communities, a more equitable distribution of wealth and the involvement of different ethnic groups, both in the organization of the State of Chiapas and in the rest of the Mexican country.

After collapsing of the European socialist camp just a few years ago, with the full force of neoliberal policies that were rolling back historical conquests of the working class and the uneasiness spreading in the popular camp and on the left across the world due to the disappearance of revolutionary referents, ahead of this criminal advance of the right, the Zapatismo was a breath of fresh air. Great expectations were awakened about its actions, and progressive forces all over the planet watched it with interest. Socialism was not dead.

The Mexican government, then under the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, at first gave a military response to the uprising. Thus, for 12 days, armed confrontations emerged, but negotiations between the two sides quickly started off.

These talks, which lasted for over two years, resulted, in 1996, in the signing of the San Andres Accords concerning “Indigenous Law and Culture”, which committed the Mexican State to constitutionally recognize the indigenous peoples, allowing them to enjoy autonomy. These dialogues gave rise, in October 1996, to the founding of the National Indigenous Congress -CNI-.

Years later, under the presidency of Vicente Fox, the federal government failed to comply with the agreement, so the Zapatista movement, always based in Chiapas, opted to generate its self-government unilaterally, through the implementation of Los Caracoles and the Good Government Councils which reinforced the principle of “commanding by obeying”, following the ideas of the Irishman John Holloway and his idea of “changing the world without taking power”.

The Zapatista movement rejects the idea of a homogeneous and pure revolutionary subject, as has been the classical Marxist approach, because such purity and homogeneity mask a will of domination that denies the process of self-determination.

The emergence of this alternative at a time when the ideas of revolutionary transformation of society seemed to have been abandoned, instilled hope.

The popular power it began to build showed that grassroots democracy, the direct participation of the population in matters that concern them, that is, in the design of their lives, is possible.

In this novel perspective, the exercise of power is shared by each and every member of the community, with the ability to influence the decisions made within it. It happens, however, that the Zapatista experiment -because the central government isolated it and because its principled position also contributed to reinforce that isolation- did not take off, beyond being a very beautiful revolutionary figure as a novel option after the fall of the real socialisms.

It was never able to leave the Lacandon Jungle, in Chiapas, and its model has not served – at least until now – to build valid anti-capitalist alternatives in other latitudes of the planet.

Gerardo de la Fuente rightly claims, after years of existence of this initiative, that “It is difficult to appreciate the historical significance and transcendence of the Zapatista movement, starting with its armed uprising in 1994: its contribution to international resistance, its renewal of political thought at a time when the fall of real socialism had devastated leftist political thought, especially Marxism; its renewal of political discourse; the emergence of the Indian peoples as political subjects of transformation – them, but also all the Indian peoples of the world-; the impulse to civil society as a protagonist of world evolution; the vindication of anti-capitalism as a political position not only valid, but urgent; finally, even the possibility of vindicating the armed action of those from below as a resource still in force, all this and many, many more things are undeniable, extraordinary contributions of the movement led by the EZLN”.

Undoubtedly, as an experience of real popular power, from below, in collective construction, Zapatismo is valid and leaves a strong message.

But its isolation – not only the one suffered by the governmental initiatives but the one it decided itself – takes away its possibilities of becoming a revolutionary referent for other peoples worldwide. To rule without having the power of the State, experience attests, is an impossibility.

The State, according to the classic Leninist definition – “organized class violence”- is the instrument with which a sector of the population -the ruling class- leads the movement of society.

The bourgeois State, erected to maintain the private property of the means of production, cannot serve to promote an anti-capitalist project.

It must be destroyed in order to erect a new state machine, in which the new ruling class – the proletariat we could say, or all the subaltern sectors, impoverished by the system – can now build a new society with socialist values. The Chiapas experience helps to visualize this.

Twenty-five years after the beginning of the Zapatista experience, the now Commander Moisés, in his speech commemorating that anniversary, repeatedly expressed that “we are alone”. This should open a reflection on how, then, to build a true anti-capitalist option, powerful and sustainable, that will reliably serve to build a new society. Without central power-“Power comes from the gun,” said Mao Tse Tung-it does not seem possible to build something new.

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