What might alternative social movements learn from the Zapatistas about transforming social relations?

The first of January 1994 marked the start of the free-trade agreement NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico. This very same day a group of armed indigenous peasants emerged from a rainforest occupying villages and cities in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. They called themselves Zapatistas. For many observers, they first looked like another mainstream Latin American revolutionary group; indeed, they were immediately attacked by the Mexican Army. However, the rebels managed to get incredible popular support, until the Mexican Government had to call for a cease-fire over popular protests. These rebel indigenous peasants were so interesting and sympathetic to public opinion because they were a radically different revolutionary group: they changed their demands, their communication strategy and their organisation. Some of the Zapatista’ features can be applied to anti-capitalist struggle all over the world. Hence, this essay will address the question of what might alternative social movements learn from the Zapatistas about transforming social relations. The structure of the essay will be the following. It will first quickly introduce some background explanation, to understand the origins of the Zapatista uprising. Subsequently, in a different paragraph each time, it will explain five features of the Zapatista movement. The first paragraph will look at the relationship between power and the state. The second one will be about discourse. The third will analyse their social organisation. The fourth one will talk about inclusiveness. The fifth and last one will be about the role of women in their society. In the last paragraph, this essay will explain how these features can be turned into lessons for alternative social movements. Finally, the essay will conclude that the five main features presented here are also five lessons that alternative social movements can and should learn if they want to transform social relations.

The Zapatista uprising occurred in the State of Chiapas, which is an agricultural and mostly indigenous state in South-West Mexico. The indigenous population descends from the Mayas and is generally composed of land workers. There are also ladinos, who are Mexicans who descend from Europeans who used to be landowners.In 1994, Mexico was a corrupt semi-democracy under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party since 1929; the institutions in Chiapas were corrupt and heavily militarised. The Institutional Revolutionary Party had promoted a series land reforms throughout the 20th century which had important social and political implications for the Zapatista uprising of 1994.The evolution of the land reform process was the following: before the 1970s, land reforms promoted by the Mexican State were mainly redistributive. In 1970s, the redistribution promoted by the state bureaucracy started to slow down, sparking protests in Chiapas. This was followed by neo-liberal reforms in the 1980s which reverted the redistributive path, making land access even more difficult to poor people. Tired of this, the people of Chiapas decided to recover their lands by force, making land a central claim for Zapatistas. This essay will deliberately not touch the important topic of land because in Western alternative social movements, claims for land are generally not a central demand. However, alternative movements should note that men and women need a material basis to survive. In the case of Chiapas, it was land. In developed societies it could be guaranteed work or perhaps, a Universal Basic Income. Those are questions to be explored more in depth when furthering in the Zapatista influence over alternative social movements. The following paragraphs of this essay will now outline the most interesting features of the Zapatista uprising.

Firstly, the Zapatistas correctly identified one of the major neo-liberal forces: the state. Historically, liberalism has always considered the state as a negative actor, but in the 1980s there was a shift in neo-liberal ideology: in economically weak countries like Mexico, the state needed to be a strong actor to enforce the law. Hence, the state became an important actor of the neoliberal forces. The Zapatistas understood this and in opposition to 20th century left-wing Latin American guerrillas, such as the FARC or the Cuban revolutionaries, which wanted to win state power, the Zapatistas renounced to this objective. In fact, when the Mexican government announced a cease-fire and proposed negotiations, they collaborated and exposed their demands. The Zapatistas did not want to win state power because they understood that the state was so embedded in the emerging neo-liberal global structure, that winning it did not mean the possibility of achieving significant change. The Zapatista revolution was thus destined to be radically different:  a revolution without seizing state power. They created their own structures of government, such as the Juntas del Buen Gobierno. Using Olin Wright’s rhetoric, the Zapatistas achieved an interstitial transformation and proved that important achievements can be accomplished at the margin of the state.  Hence, the Zapatistas understood an important characteristic of the modern nation-state: winning ‘the state’ does not mean winning power. Alternative social movements should be aware of this observation and understand that winning the state should no longer be the only and principal objective. The Zapatistas also proved that social relations can be transformed at the margin of the state. Therefore, social movements should aim to build alternatives outside its boundaries. This observation proved to be accurate when the left-wing party SYRIZA gained state power in Greece in January 2015. It appeared to many observers that the problems of the country were going to be solved, but embedded in the nets of international finance and the European Union, the state failed to find a solution.

Secondly, the Zapatistas achieved a significant change in discourse. Throughout the 20th century, revolutionary groups or communists parties used traditional Marxist and Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, with terms such as ‘vanguard’, ‘proletariat’ or ‘class struggle’. The Zapatistas overcame this traditional discourse and used an alternative language to promote their own revolution. With a strong emphasis on the term ‘dignity’ as the central claim, they built an alternative rhetoric to the traditional Marxist one and most importantly, a rhetoric which undermined the legitimacy of the Mexican state. They used broader terms along with ‘dignity’, such as ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. Through the use of communiqués, full of poetry and traditional histories, they promoted an immense sympathy for their cause. Furthermore, there is a confrontation between a culture of ‘talking’ by Marxist-Leninists and the Zapatistas, who want to inculcate a culture of ‘listening’. The Zapatistas were not talkers, they were listeners and by listening they learned to think ideas in a different way. In fact, alternative social movements have already started to use Zapatista rhetoric.  In 2013, more than two million people marched to Madrid, in a movement called “Marches for dignity” (“Marchas de la dignidad”). They shouted “Pan, Trabajo, Dignidad” (“Bread, Jobs and Dignity”) instead of “Pan, Tierra, Trabajo” (“Bread, Jobs and Land”), the classic Leninist chant. Thus, alternative social movements should note that Marxist and Marxist-Leninist rhetoric are completely obsolete and marginal in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the Zapatistas proved that the use of an appropriate language to transmit a message is crucial. Alternative social movements should develop a language which mobilises people.

Thirdly, the Zapatistas developed a new social organisation. They came from an indigenous background, where the feeling of community was strong and deeply embedded. Thus, there was a sense of collective responsibility when it came to taking decisions. Everyone had the right to participate in the decision-making process and ‘all important decisions were discussed by the whole community to the point where a consensus was reached’. The Zapatistas organised assemblies and forums to discuss, where everyone was allowed to participate, rejecting any form of centralist organisation. Back in 1994 they obviously had leaders like Comandante Marcos; but they were just an expression of popular will, who represented the larger community. They were always subject to the decisions taken by the assemblies and they were immediately recallable if they did not satisfy the community. They called this radically democratic decision-making procedure mandar obedeciendo (‘ruling by obeying’). This decision-making procedure also acknowledged that there was not a single ‘grand’ vision driving this revolution. The Zapatistas believed that they could only go forward through a process of collective questioning and debating. They would listen to all opinions, debate them and only if a consensus was reached, would the decision be adopted. The Zapatistas did not invent this radical vision of democracy and decision-making through assemblies, but their example was especially successful and has often been replicated. In 2013, in the State of Michoacán, also in Mexico, citizens decided to defend themselves without help from the army against the drug cartels. They called themselves Autodefensas and all decisions were taken collectively in squares. In Europe, the Spanish 15-M movement which emerged in 2011, took all its decisions through assemblies in squares; the Nuit Debout movement currently happening in France, also takes all its decisions in assemblies where 4/5 of approval is needed. Organising through assemblies empowers people who were voiceless before and it gives the genuine possibility of taking decisions collectively instead of letting the decision-making in the hands of a few ones.

The fourth feature of interest is Zapatista’s ‘transversal nature’. The Zapatistas were ‘transversal because their demands were not only valid for Chiapas, but for many social change actors around the world. It is true that they called themselves Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) and at first sight, they could look like a National Liberation Army, which always has strong nationalist components and claims of independence. Even though the Zapatistas were fiercely nationalistic, constantly mentioning Zapata, the Mexican revolution and using the Mexican flag, their movement was not merely a Chiapas-based autonomist or indigenous movement. There are two main arguments to sustain the claim that they were a transversal force. Firstly, they were an inclusive and open force; they invited diverse actors to interact with them in the negotiations and since the beginning, they were open to suggestions and propositions from different external actors. Secondly, some of their demands were universal, demands to which everybody could subscribe. For instance, their demands for indigenous rights where echoed by different indigenous groups in Mexico but also in South America. Furthermore, their demands of justice, democracy and freedom were demands that could be echoed by all the people of the world. The Zapatistas understood that in order to be effective, they needed to mobilise national and international support. Furthermore, solidarity is not sufficient to successfully transform social relations: there need to be active participation from many fronts at the same time.

The fifth and last feature social movements should learn from the Zapatistas is the role of women in the Zapatista uprising. It is not widely mentioned, which can give the misled idea that the Zapatista uprising was mostly a men-lead movement. This is not true. In fact, some of the Zapatista leaders were women: Comandante Ana María was responsible of occupying San Cristóbal in 1994 and one of the first laws drafted by the Zapatistas was the Revolutionary Women’s Law. The Zapatistas encouraged the political participation of peasant women and their rebellion against their subordinate position in society.  Thus, they empowered them by supporting their struggle for emancipation. Since then, indigenous peasant women from Chiapas have become increasingly empowered, and have begun to participate in the struggle for gender rights. Furthermore, as Mercedes Olivera writes, ‘the gender specific advances that have been achieved have been made by women for themselves’. Probably the most important achievement of empowering peasant women and introducing them into the EZLN was the legitimisation of female participation in politics. It is interesting to note that the Zapatista influence not only achieved more female participation in Zapatista communities. They have also improved it on non-Zapatista’ ones. Since then, in Chiapas, it not uncommon to see women, both in Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas areas occupying positions of power. Obviously, in Western societies, women have more rights than women had in rural Chiapas. However, it is the idea behind the inclusion of women that we should retain. The Zapatistas included a marginal actor in their structure and empowered them; alternative social movement in the West should also include marginal actors and empower them.

The Zapatistas opened a whole new spectre of possibilities to achieve significant changes in social relations. The five main features of Zapatismo this essay has explained can be extrapolated to many other anti-capitalist struggles around the world. Firstly, transforming social relations can and should be done at the margin of the state, because the state itself is now part of the problem. Secondly, language is fundamental to transforming social relations. Old Marxist rhetoric is no longer attractive, thus alternative social movements should work on an alternative mobilising language. Thirdly, transforming social relations implies transforming the decision-making procedure: social movements should organise themselves in assemblies. As previously mentioned, this is a way of organisation which offers an enormous amount of participation and empowerment to people. It allows to take decisions collectively, attending to the needs of everybody and it avoids power concentration. Fourthly, alternative social movements should be transversal and inclusive. Small and inward-looking movements are totally ineffective in bringing changes. Alternative social movements should include the most progressive actors possible and the most progressive demands. And it should be done in collaboration and solidarity with other movements. Fifth and lastly, social relations will only be transformed when all elements of society are included in such transformation. The Zapatistas included women; in the rest of societies, other marginal actors should be included in the force wishing to transform social relations.

To summarise, the Zapatista uprising occurred in the region of Chiapas, a region where there had been historical disputes over land. The Zapatistas presented five interesting features which can be learnt by alternative social movements to transform social relations. First of all, the Zapatistas understood that the state was no longer an actor of change, but another neoliberal actor. As such, any transformation should be done at the margin of the state. Secondly, they understood that Marxist and Marxist-Leninist language was obsolete. Therefore, they used an alternative one which granted them worldwide support and sympathy. Thirdly, their decision-making procedure was collective, through assemblies. This empowered people and avoided abuses of power. Fourthly, they were a transversal force. This means that they were open to many different actors and that they demands were not exclusive for themselves, but that everybody around the world could subscribe. Fifthly and finally, they included women in politics in a macho society, showing that transformation can only be achieved when all the marginal actors participate in the transformation process. In conclusion, these five features explained throughout the essay are also lessons that alternative social movements should and can learn from them if they wish to transform social relations.

Note: To make it easier for the reader, I have not included footnotes nor the bibliography. However, this can be found for further consultation on the original paper, which is uploaded and available in the website academia.edu:


© Mario Cuenda García

Why Owenite communities were destined to fail

Robert Owen, a British Industrialist in the XIX century is considered to be the father of socialism in Britain. A philanthropist, he developed a series of ideas which have been labelled as ‘Utopian Socialism’ and he distinguished himself by revolutionising the social organisation of a community of mills he owned in Scotland. His example inspired a series of identical communities which one after another disappeared at different points in time. Nonetheless, questions and debates around his figure and his ideas are still actual. Can he be labelled as a socialist or a communist? Were his communities the first cooperatives? The debate which will be assessed in this essay looks at the following question: were Owenite communities destined to fail? My answer is that these communities were indeed destined to fail. It seems easy and uncontroversial to say this in the XXI century, knowing that they indeed failed, but there is not much focus in literature on why they were set to fail. To support my answer, the essay will be structured in the following way. Firstly, I will analyse Robert Owen’s social views. Secondly, I will examine his political thoughts. Thirdly, I will look at what he did in New Lanark and during his campaigns. Finally, I will expose my arguments on why the Owenite Communities were set to fail, relying in three main arguments.

I make an explicit difference between Robert Owen’s social and political views because he was without a doubt a social visionary, but he could be described as a political traditionalist. Owen’s social thoughts challenged the major beliefs of his time. In the early XIX century in Britain, the bourgeoisie argued that poverty was inevitable if progress was to be achieved. Furthermore, poor people were responsible for their fate. Owen denied all of this: he believed society should provide means to the poor to develop themselves. He was probably one of the first thinkers to argue for a kind of societal intervention to alleviate poverty. Gregory Claeys, a political scientist, named Owen’s doctrine ‘philosophical necesitarianism’. The core belief of this doctrine was that individuals were not fully responsible for their ideas and actions; rather, these were instead determined by the society they lived in. Hence, people’s bad behaviours which included cruelty and selfishness were ultimately influenced by the environment that surrounded them. Hence society should be drastically changed to create the ‘New Society’. If people changed their behaviours from cruelty and selfishness to kindness and sympathy, this would progressively change society until the New Society is created. This is a rather utopic view, which later on gave his ideas the name of ‘Utopian Socialism’.  Finally, Robert Owen thought that the impulse of this ‘New Society’ should come ‘from above’. This means that either a rich philanthropist like him or the state, should re-organise society to change it. This is a very ‘paternalistic’ approach to politics.

 If there is a fair amount of consensus on his social thought, his political views are somewhat more contested and it is easy to find divergent opinions in the literature. On one hand, he has been presented as ‘despotic’ and undemocratic while on the other hand, he has been described as more democratic than socialists of his time. Indeed, his political thoughts were less advanced that the social ones and they were constrained by the epoch he lived in, with an emerging capitalism and an undeveloped antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Thus, according to Ralph Miliband, Owen had really negative views on the workers. He saw them as an ignorant mass, who in their desperation could engulf society in anarchy and chaos. He did not believe in the emancipation of the working class. Rather, he talked about emancipating humanity with a universal union and peace with all men. Hence, his proposals did not want to present any threat to wealth and power. He believed the same order should be maintained and that his proposals were indeed a wall against a revolution. However, there was an important change in his political views in the early 1820s: gradually he started embracing socialist positions. He started believing that the system of private property and the subordination of all human affairs to the drive of profit was also an impediment to social improvement.

In 1800, Robert Owen arrived to the New Lanark mills in Scotland. He started implementing a series of social changes that would bring him fame. In Great Britain, the conditions of the working classes were horrendous: men and kids worked more than fourteen hours per day. In New Lanark, Owen founded infant schools, where children went during the day. Working hours were no longer than 10 and a half hours per day. More impressive: when a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. After a couple of years, the business doubled in value. Owen has been accused of improving the life of his workers but without giving them the means to organise. In fact, he even introduced some forms of democratic management: workers committees elected judges who would rule over infractions committed in the community. Meanwhile, Robert Owen tried to spread his ideas. He made a continental tour to promote himself. He even made a conference in front of the Congress of the USA. At the beginning, he was not seen as an agitator and he was very well received in many circles, but when he started pushing for reforms, he faced the hostility of many rich. On the other hand, he did not believe in the working class leading itself and was also confronted with the growing Trade Union movement.

However, Owenite communities were destined to fail, both as an example of societal organisation and as an instrument of change. The three main reasons of failure were the following. Firstly, the communities were heavily reliant on a paternalistic figure, either the state or a philanthropist. If this figure did not fully commit to the wellbeing of the community, it could not succeed. Indeed, some Owenite communities failed as soon as the philanthropist withdrew. Following this first idea, the second reason why they were destined to fail is because they did not offer enough empowerment to the working class. Workers had some responsibilities, but as Owen did not think they were entitled to govern, he never gave them full responsibilities. These two reasons together show why these communities were destined to fail as a societal organisation. The third reason why this communities were destined to fail, this time as an instrument of change, is because they did not challenge the established political and economic order. Taking terms from Olin Wright, this was a mixture of symbiotic and interstitial transformation. Interstitial because the communities were created at the margin of the system. Symbiotic because a powerful figure was needed to start the process of transformation. Overall, even though New Lanark wanted to change society, it did not present a fundamental challenge to capitalism. Robert Owen cared about conditions of life of the poor, but he never sought to empower them: he always considered the ruler as a major agent of social change and even after heading towards socialism, he did not lose faith in the goodwill of the powerful. Overall, to end on a positive note, I would argue that Owenite communities were the embryo of socialism, a sort of proto-socialism. Hence, as the very first expression of the quest for a new social and economic order, it probabilities of surviving were low, but it set an example and ideas which would be used later on.

To summarise, Robert Owen was a philanthropist and a man ahead of his times in terms of social beliefs. He did not think that poor people were responsible for their condition. Rather, it was the society in which they lived that influenced their behaviour. To eradicate poverty, a ‘New Society’ impulse by a philanthropist or the State should be created. Politically he was more conservative. He did not believe the workers could govern themselves and he saw them as an ignorant mass. His beliefs were a wall against a revolution. In real life, Owen got confronted both with rich people and the Trade Unions. In New Lanark, he improved drastically the life of all the workers with his measures. Overall, however, Owenite communities were destined to fail for three reasons. First, they were heavily reliant on the figure of the philanthropist. Secondly, they did not give any real empowerment to the working class. Thirdly, it did not represent a challenge to the established order. Rather, it was a mixture of symbiotic and interstitial transformation which ultimately was set to fail. It nonetheless laid the grounds for future socialism.

Note: To make it easier for the reader, I have not included footnotes nor the bibliography. However, this can be found for further consultation on the original paper, which is uploaded and available in the website academia.edu:


© Mario Cuenda García