Socialist Worker

Naomi Klein and Zapata: Can we ignore the power of the state?

Issue No. 1740

Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, now has a column in the Guardian. It shows the Guardian recognises the audience for radical and anti- capitalist ideas. Naomi Klein used last week's column to again write about the Zapatistas in Mexico and their triumphant march into Mexico City. She raises important questions, writing: "The Zapatistas' journey is filled with culture clashes. The road they chose to enter the capital by is the same one travelled by agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata almost a century ago. But is it really possible to demand 'land and liberty', as Zapata did, on what is now a strip of asphalt lined with KFC outlets and L'Oreal billboards? It seems that it is."

In an earlier article she wrote that "Zapatistas aren't interested in overthrowing the state. Their goal is not to win control but to seize and to build autonomous spaces" which will "eventually create counter-powers to the state simply by existing as alternatives". The history of the struggles led by Emiliano Zapata, from who the Zapatistas took their name, suggests we draw a very different lesson today. Zapata was one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement which swept Mexico between 1910 and 1919, and which went far further than the Zapatistas in Chiapas have so far gone today.

At the time the owners of the big farms, or haciendas, were taking ever greater control of peasant land-with government approval. The peasants used the land to grow corn to eat. The landowners wanted the land to grow sugar cane for export because prices were high on the world market at the time.

To confiscate the land, the big landowners often hired thugs to patrol the haciendas and keep local peasants out. Zapata was arrested, aged 18, for taking part in a protest with other peasants against a landowner who was taking away tracts of land in his home region of Morelos, south of Mexico City.

Some years later, in 1909, Zapata and a group of peasants occupied the land that had been appropriated by the haciendas and distributed it between themselves. By 1910 Zapata was the leader of a rebel army fighting to win more control of the land for those who worked it.

He developed a programme for agrarian reform that would take one third of the land back from the haciendas and give it to local councils to distribute to the people.

He said, "It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees." Zapata's army grew so that at one point it was 25,000 strong. A man called Pancho Villa led a similar rebel army in the north of Mexico. One million ordinary Mexicans were to die fighting for land as part of these armies.

Together Zapata and Villa entered Mexico City, the capital. They pledged to fight together. But what were Zapata and Villa to do? They did not have a fully worked out view of how the peasants-united with the growing Mexican working class-could take over state power, expropriate the land and the factories, and build a different sort of world. Instead, they waited, hesitated and eventually withdrew from the city-allowing another regime to take power.

Zapata concentrated on reforms in his home region of Morelos. Large estates were broken up and the land redistributed. Sugar mills and a paper factory were taken over. A credit agency was set up for peasants. Schools were established both for children and for adults who had not had the benefit of education. It was a genuine social revolution.

But the old state was still intact. Government forces still sought victory. Government forces eventually succeeded in defeating Pancho Villa's army in the north. The Morelos commune was then isolated and gradually encircled. In April 1919 government soldiers tricked Zapata into a meeting where they ambushed him and shot him dead. Mexican society did not go back to exactly where it was before.

The revolutionary years produced a new regime which talked in the language of the revolution and claimed to stand in its tradition. But land was taken away from the peasants in Morelos. Activists were murdered. Future land reform was superficial.

But the name of Zapata lived on, however, in the minds of ordinary Mexicans. The Zapatistas took his name precisely because it has such a deep resonance, symbolising a heroic resistance which will not waver from its principles. The questions confronted by the Zapatistas and addressed by Naomi Klein today are not new ones.

The best way to honour Zapata is to learn from his experience and not make the same mistakes again. So called "autonomous spaces" are not enough. The state must be confronted and overthrown.

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What Socialists Say
Sat 24 Mar 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1740
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