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(en) The Zapatistas - an anarchist analysis of their structure and direction - by Joe - WSM - Lucy Parsons pamphlet I. (1/3)

Date Sun, 06 May 2007 13:04:51 +0300

Lessons from the rebellion in Chiapas --- This pamphlet contains two articles which use the Zapatistas own words and on the ground interviews carried out in a Zapatista community in 1997 to put forward a detailed analysis of the grassroots democratic structures of the Zapatistas. The first article --- What is it that is different about the Zapatistas? --- published in 2001 ends with a critique of the politics of the Zapatistas from an anarchist perspective. The second article --- A new direction for the Zapatistas? ---takes up that critique in light of the new direction announced by the Zapatistas in the summer of 2005. --- The author took part in the `1st encounter for humanity and against neoliberalism' in Chiapas in 1996 and published a detailed report on the proceedings. He returned to Chiapas the following year to conduct interviews in Diez de Abril, a Zapatista community where the Irish Mexico Group maintained a peace camp for three years. Part of his purpose was to discover what lessons could be learned for building a movement in Ireland and elsewhere so these texts should be of interest to all activists, not just those concerned with events in Chiapas.

What is it that is different about the Zapatistas?

The EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) came briefly to
the worlds attention when they seized several towns in Chiapas
on New Years day in 1994. This image of a new armed rebel
movement in the period when such movements were meant to
have recognised their own redundancy was startling and demon-
strated that history was not yet over.
Since then most of the continued support the Zapatistas have
received is strongly based on the idea that the Zapatistas are dif-
ferent. Different not just from the neoliberal world order they
oppose but, more fundamentally, different from the armed rev-
olutionary groups that exist and have existed elsewhere in the

Those involved internationally in Zapatista solidarity work are
drawn to it not because they believe Mexico is uniquely repres-
sive. There are many countries that are far worse, Columbia be-
ing one obvious example. They hope there is something in the
Zapatista method that they can take home to their own city or
region. Hence the popularity of the call from the EZLN to `be a
Zapatista wherever you are'.

So although the Zapatistas remain isolated in the jungles and
mountains of south eastern Mexico their ideas have influenced
many activists across the globe. Not least in the round of global
days of action against capitalism. One call for these protests ac-
tually arose at an international conference in La Realidad, Chia-
pas in 1996[36] and is part of the reason for the `anti-capital-
ist' demonstrations of London J18 And Seattle N30 in 1999 and
those that followed in 2000 including A16 Washington and S26

On the 1 Jan 1994 we woke from our hangovers to find that a new
rebel army had emerged, seemingly from nowhere, in southern
Mexico and seized a number of provinical towns. This army, the
EZLN, distributed a paper called`The Mexican Awakener' [El
Despertador Mexicano]. It contained their declaration of war,
a number of revolutionary laws and orders for their army. They
said they were fighting for "work, land, shelter, food, health
care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and

Nothing unusual about these demands. In the last couple of
hundred years there have been thousands of organisations and
movements, armed and otherwise that could have summarised
their program in a similar way. But the vast majority of these
movements saw the implementation of their program occurring
when they took power on behalf of the people. This could be in
one of two forms, an armed seizure of power like the October
revolution of 1917 in Russia or a democratic election like that of
1945 which returned the British labour government.

Although these two movements, the one `revolutionary' the
other `reformist' are often portrayed as being very different in
reality they share an essential feature. The change they proposed
was a change of politicians and not a change in the way of do-
ing politics. Both could talk about mobilising the working class
in the course of coming to power but once in power they made
sure their party ruled alone. And indeed both shared the common
source of the `2nd International' which differed from the first
because it choose to exclude those who opposed the taking of
state power[35].

The `Mexican Awakener' rather then talking of the EZLN seiz-
ing power as a new revolutionary government outlined the mili-
tary objectives of the rising as "Advance to the capital of the
country, overcoming the Mexican federal army, protecting in our
advance the civilian population and permitting the people in the
liberated area the right to freely and democratically elect their
own administrative authorities."

Unusually for any revolutionary organisation these laws then
defined a right of the people to resist any unjust actions of the
EZLN. They defined a right of the people to:"demand that the
revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civil or-
der or the disposition of capital relating to agriculture, com-
merce, finances, and industry, as these are the exclusive domain
of the civil authorities, elected freely and democratically." And
said that the people should "acquire and possess arms to defend
their persons, families and property, according to the laws of
disposition of capital of farms, commerce, finance and industry,
against the armed attacks committed by the revolutionary forces
or those of the government."

These sections and other things done and said by the EZLN at
the time suggested that there was something in this rebellion that
broke what had become the standard model for revolutionary
organisation. The traditional model was for the revolutionary
organisation to mobilise whatever forces were available to over-
throw the existing government and then to form a new govern-
ment itself. Fundamental to this model, from the Russian revo-
lution of 1917 to the Nicarguan one of 1979 was the (flawed)
assumption that the interests of `the people' or `the workers'
were identical to the interests of the new government.
In all cases this lead to the situation where the new government
used its monopoly of armed force against sections of the work-
ing class that disagreed with it. In Russia by 1921 this had lead
not only to the destruction of the factory committees and their
replacement with one man management but also to the crushing
of all opposition through the closure of individual soviets, the
suppression of strikes and the banning, jailing and even execu-
tion of members of other left organisations.

Before 1989
Once upon a time left activists could fool themselves that this
suppression of democracy had at least delivered a society that
was fairer in economic terms and that was some sort of (perhaps
flawed) `workers state'. The EZLN emerged in a period when
such illusions could no longer be held due to the overthrowal of
the majority of the old `communist' states. So they found a ready
audience internationally of activists who had not given up on the
project of transforming society but saw the need for a new model
for doing so.

The main spokersperson for the Zapatistas, subcommandante
Marcos, referred to this attraction in 1995 saying "...It is perhaps
for this reason­the lack of interest in power­that the word of the
Zapatistas has been well received in other countries across the
globe, above all in Europe. It has not just been because it is
new or novel, but rather because it is proposing this, which is to
say, to separate the political problem from the problem of taking
power, and take it to another terrain.

Our work is going to end, if it ends, in the construction of this
space for new political relationships. What follows is going to
be a product of the efforts of other people, with another way of
thinking and acting. And there we are not going to work; instead,
we would be a disturbance. "[18]

The collapse of the Eastern European `socialist states' in 1989
resulted in the rapid collapse of all the left parties that had con-
sidered these societies as `actually existing socialism'. In gen-
eral the only Leninist parties that survived were the ones who
had already put a major break between their politics and these
societies. But they still had a problem in the fact that they had
supported the authortarian policies of the Bolsheviks in 1918-21
that had created these regimes. [38]

This contradiction may be the reason why there had been very
little discussion of the Zapatistas by the traditional left in Ireland
and elsewhere until the last year or so. The discussion has only
started now because of the realisation that the influence of the
Zapatistas was at least part of the reason anti-authoratarian poli-
tics were so popular among anti-capitalist activists. So now we
are subjected to half baked `analysis' that insist the Zapatistas
are on the one hand only the latest manifestion of the foci tactics
of Che Guivera and on the other that they need to be taught that
the traditional left has the `real' answers'.

This attitude is not unique to Ireland, Marcos refers to a similar
attitude on the Mexican left and elsewhere in a 1994 interview
"... What upsets the Pentagon is that when you punch Zapatista
into the computer, nothing comes out that says, Moscow, or Ha-
vana, or Libya, Tripoli, Bosnia or any other group. And the left,
accustomed to the same way of thinking, says, Well, they don't fit
in anywhere. It doesn't occur to them there might be something
new, that you have to retheorize. And they say, Well then, these
poor people don't know what they want, we need to help them....
I have seen various magazines. . ..of Trotskyites and Maoists, of
all of the orthodox leftists and of the old dinosaurs that say, Well,
the ELZN is very good and what they've done is very good and
all, but they lack a program, so here's a program. They lack a
party, so here's a party. They lack a leader, so here's a leader" [15]

Marcos returned to this theme in 1995 in a letter that sought
to explain why the Zapatistas are different. " We do not want
others, more or less of the right, center or left, to decide for us.
We want to participate directly in the decisions which concern
us, to control those who govern us, without regard to their po-
litical affiliation, and oblige them to "rule by obeying". We do
not struggle to take power, we struggle for democracy, liberty,
and justice. Our political proposal is the most radical in Mexico
(perhaps in the world, but it is still too soon to say). It is so radi-
cal that all the traditional political spectrum (right, center left
and those of one or the other extreme) criticize us and walk away
from our delirium.

It is not our arms which make us radical; it is the new political
practice which we propose and in which we are immersed with
thousands of men and women in Mexico and the world: the con-
struction of a political practice which does not seek the taking of
power but the organization of society. Intellectuals and political
leadership, of all sizes, of the ultraright, of the right, the center,
of the left and the ultraleft, national and international criticize
our proposal. We are so radical that we do not fit in the param-
eters of "modern political science". We are not bragging ... we
are pointing out the facts. Is there anything more radical than to
propose to change the world? You know this because you share
this dream with us, and because, though the truth be repeated,
we dream it together." [25]

Not the same thing
In Mexican terms 1996 was the year when the EZLN most
wished to emphasise this difference. A new armed group called
the EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army) launched attacks on
police stations in several Mexican states, saying specifically
that unlike the Zapatistas they wished to seize state power. The
EZLN was keen to distance themselves from the EPR, all the
more so because the EPR sought to imply links between the two

In a EZLN communique "to the soldiers and commanders of the
Popular Revolutionary Army" the EZLN wrote "What we seek,
what we need and want is that all those people without a party
and organization make agreements about what they want and do
not want and become organized in order to achieve it (prefer-
ably through civil and peaceful means), not to take power, but to
exercise it. I know you will say this is utopian and unorthodox,
but this is the way of the Zapatistas. Too bad.

...it is useful to point out and repeat, that we are different. And
the difference is not what you and others have insisted upon,
that you do not dialogue with the government, that you do strug-
gle for power and that you have not declared war, while we do
dialogue (attention; we do this not only with the government but
in a much larger sense with national and international civic so-
ciety); we do not struggle for power and we did declare war on
the Federal Army (a challenge they will never forgive us). The
difference is that our political proposals are diametrically dif-
ferenth and this is evident in the discourse and the practice of the
two organizations. Thanks to your appearance, now many peo-
ple can understand that what makes us different from existing
political organizations are not the weapons and the ski-masks,
but the political proposals. We have carved out a new and radi-
cal path. It is so new and radical that all the political currents
have criticized us and look at us with boredom, including your-
selves. We are uncomfortable. Too bad, this is the way of the

...You struggle for power. We struggle for democracy, liberty and
justice. This is not the same thing. Though you may be successful
and conquer power, we will continue struggling for democracy,
liberty and justice. It does not matter who is in power, the Zap-
atistas are and have always struggle for democracy, liberty and
justice." [26]

One recent Leninist critique that said "It is a curious `quality' in
a revolutionary organisation that it does not seek state power"
goes on to ask "What then is the nature of the revolution they ad-
vocate?". We are told "in the end, the issue is power, the control
of society by the producers". This handy confusion of a party
seizing power on behalf of the producers with direct democracy
leads to the expected conclusion that the Zapatistas "are not in
a position to provide political leadership for the movement that
has celebrated their example".[46] This particular 9,000 word
critique finds only a couple of sentences to mention the struc-
tures of direct democracy that arguably define "the nature of the
revolution they advocate".

Other left critics, pointing to the fact that the rejection of seizing
power was not explicit in the first Zapatista paper, have suggest-
ed that this idea was only later developed to gain international
support. However, Marcos did in fact vaguely express these ide-
as in an interview with the Mexican liberal paper `La Jornada'
on the first of January.

"We hope that the people understand that the causes that have
moved us to do this are just, and that the path that we have cho-
sen is just one, not the only one. Nor do we think that it is the best
of all paths. .... We do not want a dictatorship of another kind,
nor anything out of this world, not international Communism
and all that. We want justice where there is now not even mini-
mum subsistence. .... We do not want to monopolize the vanguard
or say that we are the light, the only alternative, or stingily claim
the qualification of revolutionary for one or another current. We
say, look at what happened. That is what we had to do."[14]

The Encounter

This rejection of the traditional methods of the left is not simply
confined to Mexico. In 1996 the Zapatistas organised an inter-
national encounter in Chiapas attended by some 3,000 activists
from over 40 countries (including the author). The Encounter
ended with the 2nd declaration of Reality (the final venue being
the community of La Realidad) which asked, what next, what is
it that we were seeking do to do?

"A new number in the useless enumeration of the numerous in-
ternational orders?

A new scheme that calms and alleviates the anguish of a lack of

A global program for world revolution?"

This rhetorical rejection of the methods the left had used to or-
ganise internationaly, particularly in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th inter-
national, was followed by a suggested alternative:
"That we will make a collective network of all our particular
struggles and resistance's. An intercontinental network of resist-
ance against neoliberalism, an intercontinental network of re-
sistance for humanity.

This intercontinental network of resistance, recognising differ-
ences and acknowledging similarities, will search to find itself
with other resistance's around the world. This intercontinental
network of resistance will be the medium in which distinct resist-
ance's may support one another. This intercontinental network
of resistance is not an organising structure; it doesn't have a
central head or decision maker; it has no central command or
hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist."[21]
The quotations above contain the essence of what it is that makes
the Zapatistas different. The purpose of the organisation is not to
seize power on behalf of the people - rather it is to create a space
in which people can define their own power. This is a radically
different project from what revolutionary politics have been in
the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the Russian revolu-
tion, Leninism, the idea that the party must rule on behalf of
the people, became the common core of almost all revolutionary
movements. Contrast, for example, the Zapatista approach with
Trotsky's speech to the 1921 Bolshevik party congress attacking
one faction he said had "placed the workers right to elect repre-
sentatives above the party. As if the party were not entitled to as-
sert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed
with the passing moods of the workers democracy."

Pinch of salt
On this ideological level we can see what seperates the Zapatis-
tas from most of the left. But anyone who has been a member
of a left organisation will know there can be a sharp difference
between the external rhetoric of workers democracy and and an
internal reality where real discussion is suppressed, instructions
come from the top down and mechanisms exist that insure the
same small clique runs the organisation for decade after decade.
Do similar problems exist with the Zapatistas?
This is a more difficult problem to answer. It is no use simply
quoting Marcos or any other prominent Zapatista as they may
simply be telling us what they reckon we'd like to hear. The
ongoing Low Intensity War means that it can be very difficult
to ask questions (particularly in relation to the military side of
the organisation) never mind get accurate answers. This has led
some left critics to claim that visits to the rebel zone are con-
trolled so that "On a well-signed route, people have to agree
to see only what they have to see and to believe in the leader's

Indeed, there can be a point to such critiques. Left parties, par-
ticularly in power, have been experts at arranging carefully con-
trolled trips to model communities and workplaces where inter-
national visitors come into contact only with carefully coached
party members. Much of the discussion around the Zapatistas
has focused on their communiqués and essentially divides into
two camps, one that sees them offering a new model of revolu-
tionary organisation, the other that criticises them on the basis
of problems with their political program. Little has been written
about day-to-day life in the rebel area.

One of the immediate gains of the Zapatista rising was the crea-
tion of a partially liberated zone of thousands of square kilom-
eters.Within this zone thousands of Zapatista communities have
carried out a long running experiment in self-mangagement.
Sometimes this has been on land they have occupied since the
rising but more often it is on new land cleared from the Lacano-
don jungle in the decades before 1994.

I don't want to over state the liberated nature of this area. For one
year to February 1995 it was under the more or less uncontested
control of the Zapatistas. Then the army launched an offensive
which was halted only by massive demonstrations in Mexico
city. The years since have seen a Low Intensity War where up
to 70,000 soldiers have been installed in army bases throughout
the Zapatista area and dozens of paramilitary groups have been
armed and encouraged to attack Zapatista communities. In addi-
tion, the selective distribution of government aid and religious
sectarianism have both been used to divide individual communi-
ties and areas into pro and anti government groups.

The importance of this area is not that it can form some sort of
permanent isolated alternative. Even if this was what the Zap-
atistas wanted there would be no way they could defeat the far
larger and better equipped Mexican army (and if they did the
US would intervene). The importance of this zone is that it pro-
vides a space in which the methods advocated by the Zapatistas
are being put into practise. This is in the most difficult circum-
stances, for even without the army and paramilitary presence,
the extreme poverty, lack of education and infrastructure would
present formidable barriers.

Difficult conditions
The areas the Zapatistas openly organise in are rural and ex-
tremely poor. Small communities of a dozen to over 100 families
are typical, forced to live off the land without the benefit of mod-
ern agricultural machinery. Some of the men will have worked
outside the village in local towns or even as far as the USA but in
the villages themselves the only political presence tends to come
from the Catholic church's local variety of `liberation theology',
the EZLN itself and a variety of campesino organisations.
Prior to the rebellion many communities did not have sufficient
fertile land to produce enough food. Typically ranchers (who
boasted they were of pure `Spanish blood') had seized the fertile
land at the bottom of the canyons leaving the less fertile moun-
tainside to the indigenous people. As well as getting the most
fertile land this also effectively forced the local indigenous peo-
ple to work for them, virtually as serfs. Stories of physical pun-
ishment of those they considered not to be working hard enough
and assassinations of those who sought to organise against them
were all too common. With the rebellion the landowners fled and
in many cases their abandoned land was taken over and some-
times used to establish new communities.

The ongoing Low Intensity War makes accurate ground reports
difficult. For the last few years the government has run a pro-
gram of roadblocks and observer deportation designed to hide
these communities from the world's eye. The war also means
ordinary people are deeply suspicous of outsiders in general, and
are particularly wary of tall, white and comparatively wealthy
N. American or European observers who look far more like the
traditional enemy then any sort of ally. However, thousands of
people from outside Chiapas have lived in Zapatista communi-
ties as peace observers or worked with communities on solidar-
ity projects like the construction of water pipe lines.

Diez de Abril

Many observers have been able to form a real idea of how Za-
patista communities function. The Irish Mexico Group main-
tained a peace camp in one community, Diez de Abril from the
start of 1997 to early 2000 (and still occasionally visits)[2]. Over
these three years at least 200 of people people visited Diez (in-
cluding the author in September '97). The core presence was
maintained by three or four people, each of whom spent months
in the community during these years and developed friendships
with people living there.

Diez de Abril is situated between the towns of Altamirano and
Comitan in the highlands of Chiapas. About 100 families lived
there in 1997. 80% of the people are Tzeltal, the other 20% are
Tojolobal. Linguists estimate these languages diverged over
3,000 years ago[27], so discussion in the community requires
translation from one language into another or more commonly
through the use of Spanish. However, while most of the men
speak some Spanish only 1/3 of the women do and very few are
fluent. As elsewhere in Chiapas, living conditions are difficult
due to poverty, poor education (typically only one year of formal
education), a lot of ill health and a high death rate (particularly
of children and old people). There is no sanitation in the commu-
nity, except the latrines they constructed themselves, no access
to clean water and only a single `unoffical' electricity cable.
The ranch Diez is on was occupied on 10th April, 1995. Those
who moved onto the land had worked for the rancher before the
rebellion in atrocious conditions. In the months before the takeo-
ver they met in assembly on the land to decide how to divide
up the land. One decision was the name of the new community
`Diez de Abril', after the day (10th April 1919) when Zapata was
assassinated. As a community delegate explained:
"we had to move onto the ranchers' land because we were living
like animals in the hills. The land there was very bad, and diffi-
cult to harvest. ...The majority of the community voted to call the
village Diez De Abril. They chose that name because it honoured
Zapata who was killed on that date. He was a companero, fight-
ing against the government."

"We used to meet where the church is now, and there decided
where to put the houses, and to give a house to the international
observers. We measured the land and divided it up among the
people. Each family has a plot of land of their own and then
there are also collective [plots]."[38]
The church in Diez is the main assembly point for the communi-
ty. All the people of the community meet there once a week - af-
ter mass on Sunday morning. These village assemblies, at which
everyone may speak and everyone over 12 has a vote (although
votes are very rare, most decisions being made by consensus),
decide all questions that face the community, from whether to
buy a lorry or a tractor to how the repair of the fences or the
bridge will be done.

Sometimes it is necessary for more then one assembly in a week,
particularly at times of high tension. In addition there are several
sub-assemblies of the people that work on particular projects in
the community. Two examples are the cattle collective and the
sewing collective. Each collective has a co-ordinator, a secre-
tary and a treasurer. The co-ordinator is changed at least once
a year.

The main assembly may also appoint delegates to co-ordinate
particular tasks. These delegates form a council that meet be-
tween assemblies and organise the day-to-day work. These `re-
sponsibles' co-ordinate work in particular areas. They serve a
limited term (one to two years) and are subject to re-call within
this time if it's felt they are not `leading by obeying' (the Zap-
atista slogan for following the mandate given to them).

The collectives that carry out particular tasks are set up by and
answerable to the assembly but are otherwise autonomous. Col-
lectives in Diez include ones for coffee, cattle, honey, horticul-
ture, baking, sewing and chicken rearing. Some of the produc-
tion of each collective goes to its members; the surplus goes into
a central community fund controlled by the assembly.

Very occasionally the Assembly structure is mentioned in EZLN
communiques. For instance in Jan 2000 the community of Nico-
las Ruiz was in dispute with a company building a warehouse on
its land, the communique they released read in part:
"On various occasions, we have let Engineer Enrique Culebro
Siles, State Delegate of FIDELIC, know that in our community
there is a decision-making structure in place, whose highest au-
thority resides in the Assembly, and it is only by consensus of this
assembly do we take action on any given issue. In this case, we
have let him know that the Assembly has not discussed or made a
decision on the establishment of a warehouse by the company he
represents. Thus, setting up a shed to buy corn in the community
is irresponsible and shows a lack of respect for our authorities,
since there has been no agreement on the matter." [13]

When several hundred soldiers approached the community of
Morelia on January 8th 1998 they were driven off by the women
of that community. Roselia, "a middle-aged women from More-
lia" explained:
"We held a meeting and decided that we were going to throw out
the army if they came, ... we have decided that we are going to
defend our communities, ... We want everything for the pueblo
and not just for a few people or for one community,"[9]
Activists who have visited other communites report a similar
decision making mechanism, (see box opposite). There is a lot
of variation from community to community but the basic model
of the assembly remains the same, its origins lie in indigenous
tradition, a tradition common to many other indigenous groups
throughout the America's.

Some problems
There are problems with the traditional indigenous structure, es-
pecially the fact that traditionally women had no voice except in
some cases where widows were allowed to speak (because they
had become responsible for family land). Another problem was
that the assemblies were often controlled by a group of `elders'
rather then recallable delegates. In the past the Spanish invaders
and later the landlords were able to make use of this by buying
individuals off as part of the cacique system.

The assemblies in the Zapatista area are struggling against these
elements. Women now have the right to speak and vote - al-
though what extent they actually do so varies from community to
community. In Diez the elders now only have automatic power
in questions of tradition. In 1997 they were resisting a demand
from the younger people that the system of paying dowrys as
part of marriage should be abolished.

This description of how the Zapatista make decisions on the ba-
sis of a single community confirms the reality behind the `deci-
sion making from below' language of the interviews and com-
muniques. But it is obvious that such a structure cannot easily be
scaled up to accommodate more people and larger geographical
areas. An assembly of 10,000 or 100,000 people could not be a
good decision making mechanism because very few people can
speak at such a gathering. And of course we don't want to spend
our whole lives at (or getting to) such meetings.

This has led some to conclude that the decision making struc-
tures used in the small villages of Chiapas have little relevance
for those of us in large cities. (A discussion that as we shall see is
also taking place within the Zapatists). But even in Chiapas deci-
sions have to be made that affect tens and even hundreds of thou-
sands of people. One of the strengths of the Zapatista movement
is that have a method for making such decisions that preserves
the right of ordinary people to decide what decisions are made
(and not as in our `democracy' merely who gets to make them.)
The method the Zapatistas use is a variation of `delegate democ-
racy', a method that is used in many countries at the base of
trade unions and student unions. An individual is elected from
amongst those they normally work with (eg a shop steward or
class rep). Rather than being then allowed carte blanche to de-
cide what they like they are given a clear mandate to represent
the views of the group that selected them to regional meetings of
delegates. Such systems also contain other mechanisms to limit
the power delegates can informally accrue like:
·limiting the length of time any one person can represent a group
·insisting that they still carry out at least some of their normal work
·ensuring that they report back how they voted and what decisions were made to the group that delegated them.
If they fail to do so then the group can immediately re-call them
and select someone else.

The Zapatista decision making structure broadly functions along
these lines. This makes it one where all levels of the organisa-
tion from the top down are answerable to the ordinary people at
the base. The Zapatista communities form an organisational and
decision making network involving hundreds of thousands of
people. There are 38* rebel municipalities, each one with from
50 to over 100 individual communities.

Military command
The Zapatista military structure is not however internally demo-
cratic. Rather it is organised as a conventional army with offic-
ers apparently appointed from the top down. Some would argue
that in a war situation a democratic structure is not possible. I
would point to the Makhnovista of the Russian civil war and
the anarchist militia of the Spanish Civil War as historical dem-
onstrations that military systems where the rank and file select
delegates to act as officers are feasible. [40] This of course is not
simply a debate about military tactics - in any situation where the
people do not directly control the army there is a real danger of
the army being used against the people.

Although the internal structure of the EZLN is not democratic
overall command of the army is. That is, unlike almost all other
rebel armies, the command of the army does not end in its own
military command but rather in the hands of those at the base
whom it claims to represent. There are a number of extensive
interviews with subcommandante Marcos, in which he describes
how this decision-making structure evolved[1]. In essence, as
the EZLN evolved from a few students who had gone into the
mountains with the authoratarian project of leading the people
to liberation into an army of the people, it was forced to accept
that the people and not the army command should have the final

The `Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee' (CCRI)
is the body that commands the army. This body (or indeed bod-
ies as there are also regional CCRI's) is composed of delegates
from the communities. It is not in itself a military structure al-
though it appears to include permanent military representatives
like Tacho.

Important Zapatista policy communiques are always signed by
the CCRI and are normally written in a style that carries the hall-
marks of a document subject to discussion and debate by a large
number of people (eg comprised of a list of numbered points).
As well as being in control of the army and issuing communi-
ques the CCRI is also a structure for making day to day decisions
that affect the entire region.

When one community in the region of Morelia wanted to oc-
cupy land shortly after the rebellion "the local Clandestine
Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, (CCRI) ordered locals
to wait, expecting a region-wide land settlement after the 1994
dialogue"[5]. In this sort of situation it is obviously vital that
the CCRI really represents the collective decision making of the
communities and is not simply a leadership keeping control of
the base of the movement. In this case its judgement was wrong
and was changed by late 1994 allowing land seizures, including
that at Diez, to go ahead.

A month after the rising `La Jornada' interviewed some members
of the CCRI. One of them, Isacc, explained the accountability of
the CCRI as follows;
"If the people say that a companero who is a member of the
CCRI is not doing anything, that we are not respecting the peo-
ple or are not doing what the people say, then the people say that
they want to remove us ...

In that way, if some member of the CCRI does not do their work,
if they do not respect the people, well compa, it is not your place
to be there. Then, well, excuse us but we will have to put another
in your place"[6].

This was an early description of the system of delegate democ-
racy in place where the communities could recall their CCRI
delegate if they felt they were not representing them. In a ma-
jor interview with Mexican anarchists in May 1994 Marcos de-
scribed the delegate system of decision making before going on
to outline the limitations on even the CCRI's power to make

"In any moment, if you hold a position in the community (first,
the community has to have appointed you independent of your
political affiliation), the community can remove you. There isn't
a fixed term that you have to complete. The moment that the
community begins to see that you are failing in your duties, that
you are having problems, they sit you down in front of the com-
munity and they begin to tell you what you have done wrong.
You defend yourself and finally the community, the collective, the
majority decides what they are going to do with you. Eventually,
you will have to leave your position and another will take up
your responsibilities.

.. strategic decisions, important decisions have to be made dem-
ocratically, from below, not from above. If there is going to be an
action or series of actions that are going to implicate the entire
organization, the authority has to come from below. In this sense,
even the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee isn't
able to make every decision. You could say that the EZLN is
different because in most political-military organizations there
is only one commander, and in the EZLN the Clandestine Com-
mittees are composed of 80 people, 100 people, 120 people or
however many. But this is not the difference. The difference is
that even the Clandestine Committees cannot make certain de-
cisions, the most important decisions. They are limited to such
a degree that the Clandestine Committees cannot decide which
path the organization is going to follow until every companero
is consulted" [15]

The first interview[6] with CCRI members in Feb. 1994 also
included the first mention of this form of decision making. (The
interviews questions are in bold):
"How did you decide collectively to rise up in arms?"
"Oh, that has been going on for months now, since we had to ask
the opinion of the people and because it was the people's deci-
sion. Since, why would one small group decide to jump into war?
And what if the people don't support them? What if the people
haven't spoken yet? Then you can't struggle in that way.
"It was the people themselves who said `Let's begin already. We
do not want to put up with any more because we are already dy-
ing of hunger.' The leaders, the CCRI, the Zapatista Army, and
the General Command, if the people say so, well then, we're
going to start. Respecting and obeying what the people ask. The
people in general. That is how the struggle began."

"How did you carry out your assemblies?"
"They are done in each region; in each zone we ask the opinion
of the people. Then that opinion is collected from different com-
munities where there are Zapatistas. And Zapatistas are every-
where in the state of Chiapas. They are asked their opinion, to
say what they want: if we should start the war or not."
"Will the people also be asked whether they want to negoti-
"We cannot dialogue or negotiate by ourselves. First we have to
ask the people. At the state level, where there are companeros,
we have to consult about whether we are going to negotiate or
not over there. If the people say so, we are doing what the people
say. Why? Because we are fulfilling our commitment to the peo-
ple. Because the people have lived with this for so many years: a
life that is so hard, with every kind of injustice. Because of this, it
isn't easy to enter the dialogue so quickly. If the people go to dia-
logue, well fine. If not, `sallright. No. That's why it is not easy."
So even the CCRI does not have the power to make major deci-
sions, such as to choose between peace and war. These must
instead be made through a `consulta'.

In June of 1994 the `Second Declaration from the Lacandona
Jungle`(these declarations are key policy statements) agreed to
enter into talks. It explained that "The EZLN, in a democratic ex-
ercise without precedent in an armed organization, consulted its
component bases about whether or not to sign the peace accords
presented by the federal government. The Indigenous bases of
the EZLN, seeing that the central demands of democracy, free-
dom and justice have yet to be resolved, decided against signing
the government's proposal." [20]

How are such consultations carried out? Another communiqué
from the same period explained the consulta process;
"The consultations took place in every community and ejido
where there are members of the EZLN.

The study, analysis, and discussion of the peace accords took
place in democratic assemblies. The voting was direct, free, and democratic.
After the voting, official reports of the results of the assemblies
were prepared. These reports specify: the date and place of the
assembly, the number of people who attended (men, women and
children older than 12 years old), opinions and principal points
discussed, and the number of people who voted."[7]

The consulta is similar to a referendum but one in which intense
discussions in each community is as central to the process as the
vote itself. The purpose of these discussions can be to frame the
questions that will be voted on. This is important, as it is through
dictating the wording of referenda that governments can often
impose limitations on what their effect will be. The Zapatista
consulta take weeks and have been a great source of annoyance
to the Mexican government, which always wants an answer to
its proposals on the spot or within days.

In his May 1994 interview Marcos had explained how the proc-
ess worked on the community level - "The people meet in as-
semblies and the representatives put forth, for example in the
case of the consultations, the demands of the EZLN and the re-
sponse of the government. They're explained. What is it that we
asked for and what has the government said in response? And
they begin to debate, Well, this is bad and this is good. After the
community says, We have already debated, we already under-
stand, now we can vote - this could take days. In fact, almost all
the consultations have gone on for two, three days now and they
haven't yet reached the point of voting. They arrive and say, Well
okay, we are in agreement, let's vote if we are ready to vote, if
we already understand what it is we are going to decide. It's not
about raising your hand or putting a check-mark for one option
or the other. You have to debate and analyze the pros and the

An interview with EZLN Major Ann Maria published in March
of 1994 referred to the consulta that had happened before the
launch of the Jan 1 attacks. "First we voted on whether to be-
gin the war or not. After the decision the attack was organized,
with the support of the high commanders''[16] Interestingly in
a video interview from 1998 Marcos revealed that this consulta
had gone against the wishes of the military command who did
not consider the EZLN prepared for an offensive war. Later in
the same interview Ann Maria refers to how a similar process
had passed the Women's Revolutionary Law
"They'd given us the right to participate in the assemblies and
in study groups but there was no law about women. And so we
protested and that's how the Law for women came about. We all
formulated it and presented it in an assembly of all the towns.
Men and women voted on it. There were no problems. In the
process opinions of women were asked in all the towns. The in-
surgents helped us write it,'' [16]
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