What is the EZLN

WSM public meeting June 1994 by Andrew Flood

What made the EZLN rising so interesting for libertarians were the trappings of anarchism that went with it. We had become used to liberation movements that described themselves as Marxist-Leninist, or whose visions were tightly within bourgeoisie society, a fight for new leaders rather than a new society. Unlike a lot of the left we are unwilling to flock towards any movement just because it takes up the gun. Hence our initial response although welcoming the rising was clear to state that the EZLN were not anarchists as they seemed to lack any vision of the future society they wanted.

Since then we have received alot more material from and about the EZLN. In particular valuable work has been done by North American anarchists including the Love and Rage anarchist group and their counter-parts in Mexico city. This has included translation of EZLN policy documents, newspapers and interviews with the EZLN. What this has told us is that although indeed the EZLN could not be described as an anarchist organisation they are in fact much closer to anarchism then we previously suspected.

Most important of these is an interview with Sub-commandante Marco's where he is asked "Have you been influenced by anarchism at all".

His reply was

"Basically, all out thoughts about the workers and campesinos and the revolution are taken from Flores Magon, Francisco Villa , Emiliano Zapata. Their ideas about the farm workers, the workers in the cities, the hopes for liberty, are our inspiration for this movement"

Now Zapata could be expected, despite his clear position as an anarchist he is seen as James Connolly of the Mexican left, i.e. claimed by everyone. But Flores Magon is more significant, he was the most prominent figure in the Mexican liberal party in its transition from anti-clerical reformism to anarchism. From 1906 onwards the organising committee of the liberal party took an openly anarchist stance and allied itself with anarchists and libertarian communists in other countries, most notably the IWW in the USA. Magon as such is not so widely claimed, and identification with him implies a much tighter knowledge and association with anarchism.

Marcos in the same interview says they are "not a cliché of Cuban socialism, of Castrismo or Sendero Luminoso" therefore distancing them from the two most 'successful' movements in the region that claim to be socialist. At the same time he says "We are learning about what happened in other parts of Latin America, in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua. When the guerrilla provided the direction for all the movements, there were a lot of problems of division, unity became impossible"

This brings us onto a second initial concern we had about the EZLN. Their appearance from nowhere and their seeming emphasis on military struggle made them seem like many other Latin American groups. Ones based not around mass struggle but rather on foci or an armed elite promising to liberate the country. In such situations the military elite of the movement quickly becomes the new ruling elite. On investigation however it is clear that there is some substance to the EZLN claim to have been preparing for 10 years.

There has been resistance by Indian peasants to landlords since the time of the conquesadores. The brutality of the landlords is demonstrated by the fact that until 1971 one of their social clubs had the motto "In the law of the jungle it is willed, that Indians and blackbirds must be killed". At times this resistance has taken the form of armed risings but until recently is was through peasant unions. Some of these like the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organisation have grown from below and work primarily though confronting the state through direct action. Since 1979 the teachers union has played an increasingly important role as in seeking solidarity with parents (who were mostly peasants) it also showed them how to achieve their own demands. By 1989 there had been 5 peasant-teacher conferences.

All these movements were however greeted with repression. This took many forms, from the hired guns of the landlords killing peasant organisers to the jailing on trumped up charges of members of peasant-teacher solidarity who had been elected as mayors. A turning point was seen by many local activists in the 1992 demonstration in San Cristobal de las Casas when thousands of peasants broke up the statue of a conquistador in the town.

Against this developing background the EZLN were recruiting leading members of the legal organisations. They argued that armed struggle was justified by the inability to go forward by other means. Marcos has made it clear that the object is to win enough democracy to

"make a democratic space, make enough liberty so that you can explain your ideas".

In short it would appear that the rising and its symbolic demolition of government offices was part of a much larger campaign, rather than an end in itself.

This is some idea of the base of the EZLN's politics. We will shortly be producing a pamphlet of their statements and this talk. In passing I want to mention that they emphasise they are not just interested in Chapas but all of Mexico and that they place a high importance on international support.

The reason we are so concerned with the politics of the EZLN is not academic. Rather it is because we understand that real and permanent liberation can only be achieved by an international anarchist revolution. There have been many revolts by guerrilla movements in third world countries, some more successful than others but none have led to a fundamental change in the way society operates. All have degenerated to compromise with imperialism and/or the creation of a new ruling class. There is a temptation to blindly support those fighting back, out of respect for their suffering but we believe a critical approach does everyone greater favours in the long run.

As yet we lack the time and the knowledge to prepare a detailed critique of EZLN polices. In passing their major weakness is the very broadness of their movement. They seek to appeal to small business as well as the workers and peasants for instance. We must recognise that as an isolated movement in an isolated part of Mexico there are real limits on how far they can go, limits they seem to be aware of. In particular they seem aware and cautious of the dangers of US involvement. Rather than imagining they can win a military war they seem to hope the uprising of Jan. 1st will spark a fire throughout Mexico and beyond.

The EZLN are part of the growth in libertarian politics, a growth that in recent years has occurred from Russia to Nigeria, from Bulgaria to South Africa. Its the international characteristic of this growth that's important for its clear that no country can create anarchism alone, that our hope lies in international revolution.

This brings us onto solidarity work. In the long-term the most useful solidarity work we can do is to build clear & coherent anarchist organisations in this country. In the short term the only thing that has clearly been asked of us is to keep up pressure on the Mexican government, to make it hesitant about using force to crush the EZLN. Some work has already been done in Ireland, two separate pickets were held of the Mexican embassy in January, one organised by the Nicaraguan Solidarity Committee, the second organised by ourselves. When needed we need to repeat such work again and make it much more widespread.

Finally the EZLN have made clear the enormous poverty suffered by people in the region. We will remain in contact with American anarchists in direct contact with the EZLN and where necessary give what finical support we can. Jail and repression means something quite different for activists and their families in the third world than it does for us in Ireland, because of this the WSM set up a solidarity fund over a year ago which has been used to help anarchists in Nigeria and Peru, donations are always welcome.

In closing I would like to highlight the common struggle against capitalism that is occurring from here to Mexico. Although the conditions we operate in are radically different it would seem our end goal has much in common. Whatever the faults of its politics the EZLN has build the beginnings of a real movement in Mexico, its up to you to get involved in building the movement here.