This is the second half of this essay, and the first half can be found here.
THINKING THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION
The Mexican Revolution was an event on a grand scale. It was not only a gargantuan upheaval demanding investigation but a procedure generative of political truths contemporary to the 21st century. As I have insisted, the period in question is of crucial relevance to present Marxist thought and action. The revolution also confirms that political subjectivity evolves through contingent unfoldings, resulting from a breakdown of the state, rather than being a pre-constructed identity anterior to that rupture.1 We see that political identities are born, consolidate and crystallize as a revolutionary situation develops, as evidenced by the two great social revolutionaries: Villa and Zapata.2 Of course this can go in different directions: In some cases, revolutionary leaders may abandon their efforts for the siren’s song of privilege, order or bureaucratic inertia, but in others, those who may not have been revolutionaries before a revolution become so as a struggle over the future of a society bursts onto the stage and as a revolution deepens. The Zapatistas are the most forthright exemplars of the procedure of fidelity to that which happens, the event. They recognized a fundamental rupture created by the simple seizure of stolen land that Zapata undertook in early 1911, almost unprecedented at that time. But they could not imagine that it would come to carry the weight of universal significance, taking the struggle of the Morelenses all the way to the national level, persisting through ten years of brutal war and impacting national life. In a historical sequence which saw so many deviate from their revolutionary aims, the Zapatistas remained in scrupulous fidelity to the rupture which had brought about the struggle for and the construction of a new world. They provide not only an ethical,3 but also a theoretical and uncompromisingly political example to this day. While it is impossible to provide an exhaustive treatment of the lessons of this period in a succinct manner, it is entirely possible to provide broad strokes which gesture in the direction of greater clarity on the matter of the revolution’s meaning.
The Revolution at the Level of the Nation
Though the Mexican Revolution occurred on the edge of the 20th Century Marxist experience, it provides us with the raw material for reflections which are instantly recognizable from within the terrain of Marxist thought. The first lesson is perhaps the most obvious and came early in the revolution. Marxism has long conjectured that it is necessary not to lay hands on the state machinery, but to destroy it and its repressive apparatuses in order to build something new in its place.4 If the old institutions are left untouched, they will be liable to turn against the revolutionaries with the full force of military and repressive might. Indeed this happened during the “ten tragic days”, as Madero was overthrown in a coup d’etat by men to whom he had entrusted the security of his presidency. Madero left the old order and state mostly undisturbed, having an instinctive disdain for social revolution while seeking to prosecute a purely “political” revolution while keeping said social revolution at bay. He attempted to placate counterrevolutionary conservatism, most especially the military, to preserve the peace and paid the ultimate price for it, reaping nothing but treachery and death.5 This is a recurring problem in history; we have also seen similar sequences in Salvador Allende’s Chile (General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 Coup) and in Indonesia (mass slaughter of unarmed communists from 1965-1966). It also figures during the initial period following the February revolution, where liberal revolutionaries kept much of the Tsarist military staff and bureaucracy in place. General Lavr Kornilov, who had been kept in place by Aleksandr Kerensky, would turn upon the revolutionaries in the Summer of 1917 in a bid to tear out, root and branch, every force contrary to reaction. The danger of the failure to destroy the old state had already been demonstrated by the Paris Commune, which was unable to fend off a superior military force under control of anti-revolutionists. It is also of critical importance to maintain the people under arms in order to sustain any guarantee that revolutionary ambitions can be acted upon. The Zapatistas suffered handily for their acquiescence to Madero’s call for disarmament after the resignation of Díaz in 1911. Without the revolutionary people under arms, there is nothing to secure independence from the grip of the state, nothing to arrest the conservative inertia of the fabric of interests of which the state is composed. It is not for nothing that the Maoist slogan reads “without the people’s army, the people have nothing.”6
Our second observation flows from reflection on the first. The failure to purge the old military and bureaucracy was disastrous, but even though the Carranza and the Constitutionalists would not repeat this mistake, their government would collapse into conservative inertia. Carranza ruthlessly purged the state and restructured the military from the ground up – but he inclined conservative on issues of reform and social transformation, and had no desire to see the basic social order itself disturbed. Carranza’s regime oversaw a retrenchment of elites, rampant corruption and a faltering movement toward social reform. Obregón in turn made concessions to the peasants and workers when expedient, but the order that he and other revolutionary victors set in place likewise failed to live up to the aims of the revolution. Obregon’s chief concern was reconciliation and it was to this end that revolutionary ideals would be subordinated. The Mexican revolution saw a rapid succession of governments of varying political complexions; at every turn the revolutionary ambitions of the popular forces were frustrated or deferred. We have touched upon the danger inherent in preserving the state apparatus with the aim of a rotation of parliamentary personnel. I suggest that history indicates to us that there is something bound up with the state itself that so inevitably leads to disappointment or disaster.
Only once did the Mexican revolution bring forth what can be called a truly radical government with the founding of the Convention in late 1914. A stark exception, the convention was isolated in the midst of movements that were far less visionary, or which sought to stamp out any vision of a future altogether. The Mexican revolution rarely put up national figures of the stature of Villa or Zapata – in most cases, the other major revolutionaries were patrician liberals who were suspicious of radical agrarian socialism. Men like Carranza and Obregón had conservative and capitalist leanings that flew in the face of the demands of those shock troops of the revolution – the peasants and workers who had nothing. But we need not restrict the diagnosis of betrayal to the Mexican revolution: it yielded itself in ever more terrifying and insidious forms in the shape of the Socialist States of the 20th Century. With every victorious revolution, success proved to be its own trap. Where the socialist states and communist parties did simply rot away, they often exploded in fits of systematic terror which did little to preserve revolutionary objectives and, in some cases accelerated their demise, as with Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. Every Marxist revolution which succeeded in the seizure and utilization of state power collapsed into its own revisionist morass, dominated ever more by technocratic bureaucracy, the return of material incentives, and a general exhaustion of the will to carry out the revolutionary principles from which they traced their origins. It should not require much thought to realize that betrayal is not a question of individual dispositions, of moral failing or the question of corruption. Betrayal is rooted in material practices and social relations, and is therefore also a structural process. The routine experience of betrayal is itself bound to the figure of the state; the state as apparatus is the rule of interest, and the communist idea strains against all interest in the fight for a truly just collectivity. The state is capable of little beyond preservation and repression, and any communist struggle today must in some sense operate “at a distance from the state.”7 Betrayal is internal to the figure of the state. The withering away of the state is, and will remain, a fundamental feature of a communist horizon.
Third and finally: there is an innate difficulty in maintaining a rigorous revolutionary practice in the face of a highly complex and contradictory network of competing interests. It is even more difficult to organize political thought and action without systematic rigor and expect revolutionary movements not to succumb to betrayal. Neither are we capable of orienting ourselves toward social transformation if we are prisoner to the detritus of dominant ideologies. It is here worth repeating a fundamental Marxist axiom: there is no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory.8 While this statement is so commonplace as to appear banal, it nonetheless retains its truth. The Mexican revolution never threw up theorists on the level of systematicity of a Marx or a Lenin. It did not lack for thinkers, but compared to the revolutions which succeeded it, its theoretical and ideological formulations were weak and disorganized. Villa for his part was averse to systematization and theory; for him, only action was decisive9 – but the flipside of this approach was that he would have to rely upon his more politicized advisors, such as Felipe Ángeles. After being put on the defensive following the defeats of 1915, Villa became so myopically concerned with revenge and victory that he evacuated his movement of most of its revolutionary content. As in any historical sequence, motivations for participation in revolutionary politics during this era were highly disparate, and often ambition for political power or wealth trumped principle or thought. It should go without saying that upon a revolutionary uprising, the great majority of individuals in a given society are unlikely to have any systematic form of revolutionary views.10 In most times, committed militant ideologues are a relative rarity. Many come to participate in a revolution with a whole host of principles, interests or compulsions. Not uncommonly for an individual or group, it can be a mixture of all three. Some are motivated by revolutionary ideology, others by sectional or even universal interests; some are motivated by ambition towards political gain and power, and others are swept up in a storm they cannot comprehend and against their will.
In the Mexican Revolution this was no less the case. In many ways, considering the major revolutionary coalitions, armies and shifting allegiances, revolutionary caudillos were typically motivated less by any platform than quests for political preeminence.11 In the case of the duplicitous Orozco, it is doubtful that he was ever genuinely motivated by revolutionary principles to the extent that Zapata and Villa were. He was quick, though not entirely without reason, to join the ranks of mercenary counterrevolution and forever after forfeited his role as a popular revolutionary leader. Villa himself was a bandit-turned-revolutionary, and never entirely escaped a “pre-political consciousness” which obscured the fight for an egalitarian society.12 This fact also contributed to Villa’s ruthless treatment of potential allies amongst the civilian population from 1916 onward.13 Where revolutionaries did exhibit sharp political intuitions, as the case of Villa, it proved hard to sustain the line of inquiry which had led to their rebellions in the beginning. Ideological and theoretical work is crucial; we cannot abandon it and must always work to sharpen the thought of politics rooted in practice. The Zapatistas, for example, plunged into the revolutionary ferment with only education by life and deeds. Zapatismo was initially limited by an eclecticism which sometimes couched their vision in the language of a return to an idyllic past. But as they were tempered in the furnace of revolution and the old world was torn asunder, their convictions deepened, gained more clarity and grew in depth and scope.14
While it is not tenable to suggest that men like Obregón or Villa, etc. – were without radical principles (certainly neither men were theoretically systematic or sophisticated) – it is difficult to make a case that they were revolutionaries in the sense that we would understand them in the sense of Lenin or Mao. In many cases the struggle was personalist, based on loyalties to individuals, or motivated by the most classic realpolitik, such that one is often left wondering what it was all for, and why it proved so difficult for Mexican radicals to find their bearings and seize victory. While this ideological variegation, or absence, is present in all historical episodes and revolutions, it need not be a barrier to the realization of revolutionary aims. Political education must be emphasized, especially in pre-revolutionary or pre-political situations and vigilance must always be maintained against the latent possibility for revolutionary degeneration into corruption. The Zapatistas, adaptable, agile and capable of an education by revolt unparalleled within the Mexican Revolution, constituted a decisive exit from the murky realm of ambition or radical rigor. They, more than anyone else, intuited, developed and lived by a political radicalism that makes them unique in the fractal conflict of the Mexican Revolution. While much more can be said about the general lessons of the Mexican Revolution en toto, it is necessary to interrogate the meaning of the Zapatista sequence. It is here that some of the greatest lessons of the revolution can be found.
The Zapatistas in Perspective
First, some preliminaries: The Zapatista revolution stopped short of achieving its vision for the future of Mexico. Why then did a Zapatista Mexico fail to emerge? What brought down Zapata and thwarted the broader emancipatory program of the Liberation Army of the South? The failure of the Zapatistas are two fold in terms of significant lessons. First it was demonstrated, as the Bolsheviks had learned through study of the Paris Commune, that there must be an alliance between the rural peasantry and the urban working class. Attempts to achieve this unity were too little, too late – the urban workers typically even sided with Madero and then Carranza, organized in the famous “Red Battalions”. Secondly, they failed to adequately connect with national forces – this was not for want of trying, but in all likelihood more could have been done to develop a national strategy and an adequately centralized convention capable of defeating the constitutionalists. In some ways, this should not rest solely upon the Zapatistas who, for the most part, stuck to their commitments in the Villista-Zapatista alliance, but also the responsibility of Villa, or perhaps, the Convention in general. Villa and Zapata had many opportunities to coordinate their military and political efforts, but chances were regularly missed. Villa so single mindedly focused on his own war in the North, Zapata confined his home state presiding for a while over the Zapatista’s promised revolution, and then living in the mountains as a fugitive. They also lacked a base for the type of industrial warfare that could achieve victory, having only one rudimentary arms factory in the whole state of Morelos. Zapata’s forces remained restricted in action via natural geography and the inability to secure arms in any other manner than capturing equipment from enemy forces. The Zapatistas did try to gain the advantage by radicalizing their platform and seeking both national and international allies (Zapata even contacted the Bolsheviks),15 but again it was belated and not much luck was had. In present terms, this means that we must seek alliances between otherwise insular groups separated by apparently varied material conditions – the oppressed masses form one block, and if they do not join, they inevitably die.
We must also insist against the common charge so often made against Zapata: that while fighting the good fight and courageous to the end, his politics ultimately gestured only to the past. We must not be fooled by the simple language of peasant revolutionaries insisting on a restoration of lost rights. If we really aim to politically read the Zapatista revolution, we must observe not just the Plan De Ayala but the practical movement of Zapata’s struggle and the wide reaching political efforts of their entire history. The society they aimed to create was drawn partially from tradition, but that creation nonetheless proved to be something not yet witnessed in Mexico or many other parts of the world. Zapata took a keen interest in national and international affairs; he was not merely a provincial peasant leader. Few connect “Mexico’s social revolutionary”16 to the great international struggles that broke out in the second decade of the 20th century. But Zapata kept his ear to the ground, and as time wore on he became forced into an ever more expansive and far reaching revolutionary vision in which he saw a kindred spirit in the October Revolution of 1917. In personal correspondence with colleague Jenaro Amezcua, Zapata recognized in Russia a universal link with the struggle in Mexico:
“It must not be forgotten that by virtue and because of the solidarity of the proletariat, the emancipation of the worker cannot be achieved if the freedom of the peasant is not achieved at the same time. Otherwise, the bourgeoisie could set these two forces against each other, and take advantage, e.g., of the unlearned condition of the peasants and fight and restrain the righteous impulses of the workers in the same way that, if the case arises, it could use the unconscious workers and throw them against their brothers in the countryside.”17
This example is not only prescient in terms of its particular content; in fact, it is an example representing Zapata’s robust political thought in general. Zapata, while never formally identifying with Marxism, felt that the cause of the workers was one with the struggle of the peasants, a lesson to which few others in the revolution took heed. Zapata himself indicated the significance of the coming of the Russian Revolution, and readily recognized its universal character, and envisioned the Russian people’s struggle side by side with that of the Mexican people. He says, “It is not surprising, therefore, that the international proletariat applauds and admires the Russian Revolution, just as it will give all its adherence, sympathy and support to this Mexican Revolution, once it becomes fully cognizant of its aims.”18 We therefore see a direct and intuitive understanding of one of the pivotal lessons of the Commune and the October Revolution. In this regard, Zapata was abreast with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in a conception of politics in step with his time.
My emphasis on the Zapatistas should not be seen as commensurate with or proportional to the political or military power of the Liberation Army of the South. While they did not have the projection of power of the Maderistas or the Constitutionalists, they nonetheless played an outsized role in the course of the revolution. The Zapatistas also shaped post-revolutionary realizations of the struggle, as partial and incomplete as they were, by concessions from Obregon’s administration and the culmination of a long fight for land reform during the six year presidency of Cárdenas. My interest in the Zapatistas comes with a commitment to the notion of the revolution within the revolution, of taking revolutionary aims to their end and refraining from compromise in a vision of a truly egalitarian social ordering. Significantly, the Zapatista struggle is remarkably modern in light of the popular armed struggles of the 20th century. Many elements of Zapatismo anticipated key tenets of Maoism, one of the most important political inventions of its century. Furthermore, the reactivation of the spirit of Zapatismo in revolutionary movements in Mexico warrants due consideration. The most well-known example of such a reactivation came to the world’s attention in the state of Chiapas in 1994, when the mostly Mayan EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejercito Zapatista De Liberacion Nacional) lead an armed uprising in response to the passing of NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement), and their movement persists to this day.19
But also, more than anyone else, the Zapatistas reflected not only an uncompromising refusal of capitulation but the most consistently radical orientation of the entire revolution. It is not tenable to wholly appropriate Zapatismo within a rigorous Marxist paradigm, but the Zapatistas should not be inaccessible to communist thought and action. While I do not call the Zapatistas communist in the sense of the proper noun, there are elements of their struggle which are unmistakably communist in a generic sense, i.e., not bound by formal systems of communist thought and representation but instead rooted in terms of the political practice in which they engaged. Zapatismo is a resource for communist political action, characterized by what Badiou refers to as the “communist invariants”. As such they can be included in the “great communist party” traceable throughout the history of class societies. This great communist party has, in many times and places, always positioned itself – with variable degrees of self-understanding – with respect to certain invariants which can be called nothing other than communist.
Carry the Revolution Through to the End
Zapata and Zapatismo form the hard revolutionary kernel of the Mexican Revolution. The Zapatista struggle, as a subject of the process unleashed by the event of the revolution, displays firmly a classic case of the militant subject in a process of fidelity to the appearance of something new. The Mexican Revolution offered its participants many chances of regress, corruption and betrayal of the cause, exhausting or deviating from the truth procedure whereby the oppressed stood up for themselves. In many ways, the reforms and transformations that Emiliano Zapata sought were achieved as a result of his and his supporters’ uncompromising and tireless efforts. They never backed down from land redistribution, for the right to autonomy of the peasant communities, or from a federated vision of Mexican society. They were drawn from and presented the most oppressed sectors of society, the rural indigenous and mestizo peasantry. Not only were the reforms they carried out under their leadership in 1915 unprecedented for Mexico, the reforms that the Constitutionalists undertook to address the grievances of the peasant and working class masses were done in a direct attempt to appropriate the revolutionary energies of the Zapatistas, thus attempting to deflate Zapatista popular support.20
Zapatismo is a source of inspiration for a political model which is both antecedent to the “Leninist mode”21 and a contemporary practice of relevance. Any genuine social revolution must at some point give rise to popular organs of anti-state power, and Zapatismo found its variation of popular mass organizations in the form of the pueblos, or the Municipes Libres and the Liberating Army itself. Especially in the early years, the Zapatistas were subject to the pueblos, they were rooted in the pueblos who provided their men and women and material support. The pueblos had command in non-military matters until they were hollowed out, scattered and destroyed by a decade of brutal combat and counter-insurgency. The Zapatista ideology was syncretic, composed of several divergent but overlapping traditions: they were strongly rooted in the Mexican Liberal tradition of Father Hidalgo and Benito Juarez, the mutualism of proudhon, the anarchism of the Flores Magon brothers, but also, crucially, the traditions of the indigenous self-governing villages that in many cases predated Aztec conquest. The Zapatistas favored an agrarian socialist state characterized by a mixed economy that blended large nationalized industries with small peasant holdings on plots of privately and communally held land. But they also prided the autonomy of the villages and treated the pueblos as a keystone in their method and aims.
Despite Zapata’s antipathy toward centralized states and their opposition to the rotating regimes of the Civil War the Zapatistas did not quite abandon the belief in the necessity of a state, albeit weak and federated, leaving decision-making to the localities. They acquiesced to the value of the role of elections, civil liberties and the just arbitration of social struggles by the state. But if that were all there were to Zapata and the Zapatistas, they would only be consigned as a mere component of a much wider popular liberalism which had dominated revolutionary movements since the French Revolution.
It is significant that Zapata never created a political party. The Zapatistas were an armed fighting force, drawn from the communities for which they struggled – a popular army very close to the Marxist notion of the working class under arms. But they never constituted a party in what we would understand in the modern sense of the term. Instead the political body of the struggle in morelos was centered on quasi-democratic and quasi-traditional associations of peasants. Through these traditional but endangered structures, Morelenses sought to defend themselves against the exploitation and domination of the ruling classes. Perhaps the absence of the party form in this struggle is reflective of an outmoded form of political organization, or of the absence of genuine parliamentary-democratic tradition in Mexico. However, I believe a case can be made that this is expressive of another conception of politics than that bound up within representation of the state. The Zapatistas were surely concerned with securing a friendly federal government that would help them achieve their reforms, but they were never interested in capturing the government and Zapata certainly never wanted to be president.22 He recognized that at times they would have to force the state into certain concessions, but Zapata always struggled at a distance from that state. Rather, he wanted to give full play to the unmediated presentation of people from within the communities of which he was their son.
When Zapata found himself in power in Morelos in 1915, they largely acted as facilitators of popular initiative rather than directing a “revolution from above” in the vein of Stalin’s agricultural collectivization. The Zapatistas did not stand in categorical opposition to the state, but their disposition during the revolution demonstrates an intuitive resistance to the state which broached systematicity. The very nature of the Liberating Army was also the inverted image of that most statist of institutions, the professional military. The absence of the military-strategic fighting forces of the 20th century Socialist States can be seen as both a detriment and a boon to the struggle that Zapata led. On the one hand, he was never able to secure the degree of centralization and power necessary to seize and smash the state as a whole, and to secure the life of a new world. But on the other hand, his organization proved flexible, committed, and genuinely popular to the end, allowing the Zapatistas a tenacity and vision that was unparalleled in scope in the Mexican Revolution. The central role of the pueblos, civilian structures and popular assemblies rooted within the civilian population provided the lifeblood and raison d’etre of the insurrection in Morelos. Without a peoples’ army, the people have nothing – but without a popular base and popular organs of control, even a revolutionary army will become separated and set itself above the people. The Zapatistas maintained a political and military structure which allowed it to preserve its energy and aims even in the face of impossible odds. It was also unlike any of the revolutionary governments which sat in Mexico city during a decade of civil war. Given the history of the failures of 20th century socialist movements, we would do well to take inspiration from this form of organization. So often the state has absorbed all revolutionary energy into itself, neutralizing it while at the same time claiming representation of people. This representation proved ever hollow as the socialist states slowly rotted away with internal revisionism under the dictates of structural preservation and the cult of state capacity.
The Zapatistas pushed for a form of political structure not entirely founded in representation vis-a-vis the state, but the presentation of an element of society which was void within both the ancien regime and the successive post revolutionary governments. The exploited and oppressed masses of Mexican society had hitherto counted for nothing within Mexican society, excluded from any form of power or autonomy and hitherto only able to assert themselves in spasmodic, and often cataclysmic rebellions which were only reabsorbed into the state and neutralized. In the manifestation of the Liberation Army of the South, that which was void came to a sudden, maximal existence. Hence the horror of the state at their very political appearance, or the general inability by the state to recognize any political naming or legibility – thus, revealing much, Carranza wrote on January 2nd, 1916, that:
“The military struggle is now almost ended. The most important forces of Reaction have been defeated and dispersed in the North, and there remains that which is not Reaction, which is not anything: Zapatismo, composed of hordes of bandits, of men without conscience who cannot defeat our forces because they are a nullity as soldiers…. But will have to disappear when the Constitutionalist Army very soon begins to concern itself with them.”23
But for those who “sprang from the void”, zapatismo was everything, and the relentless devotion and dogged determination, the overwhelming popularity, and deep popular support attest to the intensity of this political sequence to those who became faithful to its event.
The Communist Invariants
The Zapatistas also anticipated the militant socialist struggles of the 20th centuries even if in a more federated, syndicalist form. In fact, I observe several key strains which can be seen as “generically” communist in major respects. Other elements are recognizable as anticipatory of the Maoist conception of politics. Neither Zapata nor the Zapatistas were communists. Many traditions have attempted to claim him as their own but he never fits perfectly within a given framework. This is complicated by the fact that Zapata himself was not a revolutionary prior to the mexican revolution; in fact, he attempted to plead the case of his village with the local authorities, exhausting every avenue as the head of the local pueblo and as an emissary to the local porfirian state. He was, perhaps, a reluctant revolutionary, being forced to take up the gun only when all legal and traditional paths failed. His identity as a radical (indeed, the eminent radical of the mexican revolution) developed and coalesced out of the experience of the rupture of the Mexican revolution. He was radicalized in the crucible of the conflicts, failures and disappointments of each successive phase.
The elements of Zapatista practice which can be retroactively connected with Maoism are numerous. Though not explicit, and though with complications, they are discernable in several points: First, the Zapatistas by necessity recognized the revolutionary potential of the peasantry; their movement was of the peasants and for the peasants, but it was not backward thinking as often charged and as I have demonstrated above. While the peasantry was central to the Zapatista perspective I have also shown that their vision encompassed the struggles of other oppressed peoples as well, just as the Maoist insistence on the unity of the broad masses rather than limited sectional interests.The failure of the Zapatistas to attain their maximal vision obscured the importance of this position, but it would be vindicated by the successful prosecution of a popular war by peasant guerillas in China shortly after the end of the Mexican Revolution. The centrality of the struggle over the distribution of land gave the two revolutions an identity that is unmistakable. Second is a form of guerilla struggle rooted in the social aspirations of the people and sustained over a protracted period, by which base areas would be secured to surround and liberate the cities. The Zapatista military struggle never had the formalization that Mao Zedong gave the Chinese Communist Party, but its trajectory has obvious similarities. Finally, there is something of the Maoist concept of the “Mass Line” in the shape of the relation between military and civilian organizations of the zapatista movement. As I have shown, the Liberating Army was drawn directly from the people of the region, and the peasant population of Morelos expressed their aspirations through that fighting force. The Zapatistas in turn had to draw upon the desires of the masses, to articulate them in political terms, and to organize ways upon which those desires could be realized. This ensured that they never lost popular support; they also displayed an unusual ability to act upon those desires in practice. Taken together, these points tie the Zapatista revolution to our more recent past, and demonstrate the degree to which these disparate movements share something universal.
In a broader capacity, I argue, drawing on conceptualization by philosopher Alain Badiou, that while the Zapatistas were not formally communist, identifying with no single tradition, they did express something of a “generic communism”, characterized by what Badiou classifies as the “Communist Invariants”- these variants can be thus seen as threefold:
“Firstly, the egalitarian idea. The commonplace pessimism, again dominant in these times, is that human nature dooms us to inequality… Communism’s response to this is not exactly to propose equality as a programme – as if to say, ‘let’s realise the fundamental equality immanent to human nature’; rather, it declares that the egalitarian principle allows us to distinguish, within any collective action, that which is consistent with the communist hypothesis and thus really valuable, from whatever contradicts that hypothesis and thus leads us back to an animalistic vision of humanity.”24
Zapata had no systematic critique of capitalism, but he instinctively opposed the domination of working people by capitalists, most immediately within the context he knew best – the hacienda dominated agricultural region of Morelos. As the revolution pressed on, he gradually extended his appeals to radical workers and attempted to make a connection between their struggles.
The Zapatista rebellion was one of producers against exploiters, in the most classical sense; it had no place for the continued existence of the hacendados or industrial capitalists and instead proposed a government of the workers and peasants, who held power through autonomous municipalities and the people under arms. The “Morelos Commune”, was, in the most classic Marxist sense, a “dictatorship” of the working people; a self-authorizing experiment which beckoned a society organized around the egalitarian maxim. Badiou says,
“There is the conviction that the existence of a separate, coercive state is unnecessary. This is the thesis – common to both anarchism and communism – of the withering away of the state. There are societies without a state, and it is rational to postulate that there could also be others. But, most importantly, we can organize popular political action without subjecting it to the idea of power, or representation in the state, elections, and so on. The liberating constraint of organized action can be exercised outside the state.”25
Zapata never took an explicit stand against the state as such, though influenced by anarchist thought. He found himself always in opposition, however, never willing to be incorporated within the state by promises of positions of leadership or by the bribe of state endowed property.26 And when he did lead a movement which established a revolutionary government in his Morelos, it was one of a radically different type than the ensconced in Mexico City. Federated, composed of autonomous localities and political leaders drawn from the peasantry of Morelos, the Zapatistas were the instantiation of peasant initiative in self government. Where the Zapatistas held territory, they generally acted as facilitators for peasant mobilization, rather than collapsing into centralized commandism. While not formally anti-state, Zapata’s actions were anti-state par excellence, and the mode of government which he helped established can only be seen as the inverse of the centralized bureaucratic apparatus that so dominates modern societies. Badiou says, “the third axiom: the organization of labor does not imply the division of labour, the specialisation of tasks, and in particular the oppressive differentiation between intellectual and manual labour. We should – and we can – aim at an essential polymorphy of human labour. This is the material basis for the disappearance of classes and social hierarchies.”27 Bound up with class domination, the division of labor subjects manual to intellectual labor, it stultifies human development and opens up the path for monstrous inequalities and the predominance of ruling classes. The Zapatistas envisioned a society for the commons not just in the ownership of land and wealth, but in terms of education. Zapatista education had only a brief chance at existence, but when relative peace reigned in Morelos through 1915, they established schools for those who would had never before left the fields. The reforms stressed an education which combined intellectual pursuits with vocational training, and though the emphasis was toward technical or scientific skills, the basic humanities flourished for a time as well. In asserting a government of the producers, the practical movement was one towards a future where the polymorphism of labor could bloom for the benefit of the common people of Mexico.
For Badiou, the communist invariants are something which reappears again and again in the history of class society. Spartacus, Babeuf, Marx, Lenin, Mao were among the many who tread this path throughout human history. The Zapatistas proposed a unique blend of political traditions, but the overlap with the struggle for an egalitarian future is clear, and one which overlaps significantly with the great communist tradition of the modern world. While we cannot say Zapatistas self-identified as communists, we who uphold the vision of a stateless, classless society can draw sustenance from the Zapatista revolution in Morelos. Badiou concludes his enumeration of the invariants with the following remark, “these three principles constitute not a programme but maxims for orientation; Marxism that anyone can adopt as operators for evaluating what they do and say, personally or collectively, in relation to the communist hypothesis.”28
The coming of the Mexican Revolution was the first major shockwave and world-historical revolutionary upheaval of an unprecedentedly destructive and transformative century. While its profile became submerged by the greater holocaust of the First World War or the truly gargantuan social transformation of the Russian Revolution, it nonetheless deserves our attention to this day. As any true social revolution, it contains both positive and negative lessons which can be made active in political practice in the present. The treatment I have provided here in no way approaches an exhaustive exegesis. But I hope to illustrate the general trajectory, the main cleavages and the pedagogical value of the revolution en toto. In many ways the Mexican Revolution failed to bring about its promised changes, despite certain partial realizations of the radical platforms of the years 1910-1920. Much of the questions about collective rights to lands, the dispossession of rural and urban poor, and the exclusion and exploitation of indigenous peoples remains a very much live issue in Mexico today, and in many regions throughout the world.
In an era where communist politics has disappeared as a major world force, we find ourselves in some ways much closer to the proto-communist strains of the Mexican Revolution in a way that we do not with the October Revolution or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Though closer to us in terms of chronology, the Communist revolutions of this past century are separated from us by an abyss which is the effect of the collapse of Marxism, and the world in which Marxism gained its greatest force as a discourse of sustaining the proletariat as subject. Their times are further away from us than the Mexican revolution, which was born in a world which has a far greater symmetry with our own era – a world of rabid capitalism lurching from crisis to crisis, the return of great power chauvinism and multipolarity, imperial domination over vast swathes of the “undeveloped” nations, and an palpable build up towards a general crisis which promises to threaten the very existence of the world order if not also human life. Mexico’s revolution is adjacent to us in a way that the Marxist revolutions are not because we are returned to a world without the existence of strong socialist states, without the existence of the victorious revolution, and without a common language with which to think and organize emancipatory politics. As revolutionaries, it is in our interest to organize this very discourse as rooted in the concrete struggles of the conjuncture; while we must not attempt to imitate bygone sequences – above all the old Communism, of which the foremost representative was Marxism-Leninism – we must seek to gain the clarity of thought and stringent practical energy of the Leninist sequence. Since we are in a state of disarray and depoliticization, it may be instructive to study a conjuncture that has such resonances with our own. This may very well instruct us on how we can move from to the other shore – an egalitarian society not ruled by interest and organized by what is in common, what is universal, among all people.
The Mexican Revolution deserves a place among the great revolutionary historical sequences of the modern world. While it has certainly grabbed the imagination and produced much scholarly and political reflection, it apparently lacks the same prominence as many other moments in our recent historical past. If we can eschew formal trappings and seek the threads of communist invariance within our multifaceted past, we can draw strength and knowledge from the successes and failures of a much wider cross section of history. The Mexican Revolution still lives in historical memory; its promises are still unfulfilled in many respects and its possible reactivation is latent not only in Mexico but everywhere injustice, exploitation or domination prevail. And in every place and time where one decides that this present world is not necessary, Zapata too lives amongst us.
1. Both in the sense of the state as the political organization – the parliamentary apparatus, the repressive apparatuses the ideological apparatuses, etc. – and the state as the global status quo of a given world. ←
2. For a detailed socio-historical treatment of this theme in a different historical context, see Andrew Walder’s Fractured Rebellion and Agents of Disorder. In this he deals with the consolidation and creation of new identities throughout the process of the most active years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. ←
3. I use “ethical” in the sense that Badiou gives it in his short work, Ethics: An Essay On the Understanding of Evil. For Badiou, ethics is what drives a truth procedure forward – the imperative being to strive toward the Good which compels you. It is not a series of moral injunctions based on the presupposition of the existence of evil, but entirely a matter of striving toward a positive aim. Fidelity is a matter of remaining faithful to something new which appears. ←
4. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, accessed from marxists.org. ←
5. Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, 43-44. ←
6. Mao Zedong, “On Coalition Government”, accessed from marxists.org. ←
7. This phrase comes from Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus. See Lazarus’s, “Can Politics be Thought in Interiority?” for further reading. ←
8. Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done?, accessed from marxists.org. ←
9. Mike Duncan, “Revolutions Podcast: The Mexican Revolution.” ←
10. Friedrich Katz, The Life & Times of Pancho Villa, 292-293. ←
11. Contrast two quotes from two very different leaders of the Mexican Revolution. Tomas Urbina is alleged to have said “Make no mistake. It is a fight of the poor against the rich. I was very poor before the Revolution, now I am very rich” (Katz, Pancho Villa, 265). Zapata is on the other hand famous for saying “I want to die as a slave to principles, not to men” (Morris Rosenblum, Heroes of the Revolution, 112). ←
12. In Bandits, Eric J Hobsbawm argues that banditry is a form of pre-political protest. ←
13. Katz. Villa was directly and indirectly responsible towards the latter half of the revolution by wanton massacres and executions of local villagers, one of the worst being when he shot the leader of a group of peasant women and ordered the execution of 80 more because they resisted his troops’ entrance to their village. ←
14. As suggested, many of the revolutionary figures of the Mexican revolution appear generally less motivated by radical doctrines and more so with a “pure” struggle for power. In the case of Orozco, it is doubtful that he was ever genuinely motivated by revolutionary principles to the extent that Zapata and Villa were. He was quick, though not entirely without reason, to join the ranks of mercenary counterrevolution and forfeited his role as a popular leader of a revolutionary force. Villa himself was a bandit-turned-revolutionary, and never entirely escaped the “pre-political consciousness.” In the face of defeats at the hands of Obregón, he lost the thread while evacuating his movement of anything more than a hollow political program and often turned against the people for which he had originally taken up arms. ←
15. The Great War Series, “The Mexican Revolution – Bandits Turned Heroes.” ←
16. This is the subtitle of Hart’s superb biography of Zapata, Emiliano Zapata: Mexico’s Social Revolutionary. ←
17. Emiliano Zapata, “Letter to Jenaro Amezcua”, written February 14, 1918. ←
18. Zapata, “Letter to Jenaro Amezcua.” ←
19. For further reading on the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the rebellion in Chiapas, see Alex Khasnabish, Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global. ←
20. The 1917 Constitution, the most radical constitution promulgated in revolutionary history, was in ways a reflection of the genuine aspirations of some of the more radical constitutionalists, but it was also an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of the popular movements which had united under the banner of the convention. Carranza himself considered the constitution of 1917 too radical; but he also accepted it as expediency, and in the end he was free to circumvent or ignore the obligations contained there-within. ←
21. Hart, Zapata: Mexico’s Social Revolutionary, 234-237.
Here I am not referring to the writing, work and political practice of Lenin per se, but rather the formalization of Leninism as a model of revolution which built the 20th century socialist states. I do not exactly mean Marxism-Leninism, because in a sense all Leninisms succumbed to this dogmatic formalism, but Marxism-Leninism is the chief example. ←
22. Hart, 173, states that Zapata never wanted to become president. This appears to be the general consensus of most historians of the period. ←
23. Ibid, 229-230. ←
24. Alain Badiou, Greece and the Reinvention of Politics, 3. ←
25. Badiou, Greece and the Reinvention of Politics, 3. ←
26. Madero repeatedly made offers to Zapata in reward for his “services”. This included the granting of a personal hacienda, which Zapata emphatically refused. ←
27. Badiou, Greece and the Reinvention of Politics, 3-4. ←
28. Badiou, 4. ←