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Interview: John Holloway on the continued significance of the Zapatista movement

January 2, 2014


While researching my recent feature for Al Jazeera on the twentieth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, I spoke to John Holloway, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Puebla.

The author of books such as Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico and the highly acclaimed Change the World Without Taking Power, Holloway has studied the Zapatistas closely over the years. Due to the strict word limit I was only able to use a few short quotes from our interview in the feature, so I’ve decided to publish the entire manuscript here:

Twenty years on from the initial uprising, has the Zapatista movement transcended its immediate environment and become a global symbol that there is another way of doing things?

Oh absolutely. The impact of the uprising has been just amazing in global terms. Throughout the world in the last 20 years there’s been a complete rethinking of what radical left-wing organization  and action means, and they’ve been at the center of that the whole time because they really articulate things so well, so much more clearly than any other movement.

Do you think they’ve been a strong influence on contemporary movements like Occupy?

Yes, on Occupy and on all of these movements – on Occupy throughout Europe and the United States, the Indignados in Spain, and the movement in Greece as well. The presence of pro-Zapatista groups has been very important in Greece for example.

What is it about them that people seem to identify with?

I think it’s partly the moment. What they do is catch a moment in left-wing thought throughout the world. It’s really become clear — especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the turn in China and the collapse of so many revolutionary movements — that the old, twentieth-century model of revolution by building up the party and capturing control of the state just didn’t work. But obviously there’s still a huge amount of discontent throughout the world; a huge amount of thinking about the way society could be, about the possibility of creating a completely different society.

I think what they did was to work through all that and start in a way from the failure of the Central American movement. To think that through and articulate the idea of a movement that aims to change the world radically without passing through into power. And they’ve just been enormously successful in doing that, without building direct links with other movements they’ve become a source of inspiration.

Do you think the Zapatista system of participatory democracy could work as a more effective model than the supposedly representative democracies found in most of the western world?

Yes, I think people are pushing for this in all sorts of places around the world. That’s what the Occupy movement is about, developing some sort of direct democracy, because the system of representative democracy clearly doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t work as a way of articulating what people want and I think we’ve seen a growing disillusion with representative democracy, which has expressed itself in all of these movements that have evolved in the last few years. And there’s been an amazing turn away from political parties and the parties of the left.

But how would it work in the city? There are lots of things we don’t know. It’s really a case of experimenting and trying to work this out and I think that’s what groups have been doing. How do you get an assembly system to work in a big city? I think we don’t have the experiences – we do have experiences in particular moments I suppose, like those of the laborer assemblies in the cities of Argentina in 2001 to 2002, and the Bolivian assemblies from 2000 to 2005. These are the experiences to really build upon and that’s what people are trying to do.

Have you spent much time in the Zapatistas’ autonomous communities in Chiapas? Tell us about your experiences there.

I haven’t spent a lot of time there but two or three years ago I went with a group of people to Oventic where we had a week’s discussion with young Zapatistas who had grown up since the uprising and were aged between 16 and 21 years. They were so amazingly open and so willing to talk about all sorts of things. I was enormously impressed by their conviction and their sense of fun. It left me with the feeling that there is a depth of experience that just won’t disappear from those people. Even if the Mexican government was to send in the army tomorrow that depth of experience can’t be wiped out.


Did you attend la escuelita in the summer?

No, I wanted to but I wasn’t able to because of other commitments. I hope to go in January but I’m not quite sure yet. But a number of my friends went to the escuelita and they came back just enormously impressed. We organized a seminar just afterwards and 18 people came along, a lot of them on their way back from the escuelita, and then we did a series of four seminars to discuss the texts from the escuelita.

The amazing thing about the Zapatistas is that they keep on surprising us. They tend to flare up like a flame and then things die down and you begin to wonder “Well what have they been up to? Are they losing force?” and then there’s another flare-up in a completely different form. The escuelita just seems to be an absolutely amazing initiative, it’s really about opening up to discussions on the problems of how you build another world, what democracy looks like, and what their problems have been, and posing the whole question of the meaning revolutionary action and leftist radicalism in an amazingly fresh sort of way. And as far as I can see there was actually no mention at all of (Subcomandante) Marcos. This is really about the younger generation taking the initiative of the movement.

And all the people who went to the escuelita – which was about 1,500 – each one had their own guide and these guides were basically their teachers for the week that they were there. To have 1,500 peasant men and women prepared for that task of acting as guides for all sorts of people from all over the world, including very distinguished professors, it’s absolutely extraordinary.

You mentioned that they’ve kept a lower profile in recent years, but where do you think the Zapatistas will go from here? Or is it too difficult to even predict what’s going to happen next?

I think so! They’ll always come up with something you’d never have thought of. It’s fairly hard to know but they’re going to carry on with the escuelita of course, with the new generation asserting themselves within the movement.

What are the biggest challenges facing the movement?

I think the biggest challenge for the Zapatista movement in Chiapas is the constantly resisting military harassment, but also dealing with the economic crisis and the pressures that push peasants from all over Mexico into migrating to the cities. How do you deal with that? How do you maintain the movement? Those are the challenges that spring to mind.

Finally, why do the Zapatistas still matter?

We’re in a position of terrible crisis in the world. You just have to look at Mexico to see the growing horrors. I’ve been living here for 23 years and the changes that have taken place in that time – the level of violence, the rise of the narcos – it just makes it more and more obvious that we have to find some way out and develop a different kind of politics.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marta Sanchez permalink
    January 2, 2014 15:53

    The Tequila Files wrote:

    Duncan Tucker posted: ” While researching my recent feature for Al Jazeera on the twentieth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, I spoke to John Holloway, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Puebla. The author of books such as Zapatista! Reinventing Revolu”


  1. Subcomandante Marcos steps down as Zapatista spokesman | The Tequila Files

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