Zapatistas Reviewed in Bulleting of Latin American Research

Zapatistas
Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global

By Alex Khasnabish  

The Zapatista movement and its impact have been extensively debated since the uprising in Chiapas on 1 January 1994, generating a wealth of literature on the subject. Alex Khasnabish’s Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global is an excellent contribution to this literature, offering a comprehensive account of the movement’s origins and its ‘rebel significance’ on ‘regional, national and transnational terrains’ (p. 3). The question of power is fundamental in understanding contemporary left-wing radicalism in Latin America. Whereas radical social change is attempted in Venezuela and Bolivia through the pursuit of state power, radical democratic social movements such as the Zapatistas instead embrace a hope to ‘change the world without taking power’ (Holloway, 2002). Khasnabish’s analysis displays a sophisticated sensitivity to the question of power such that Zapatistas constitutes a formidable debut title in Zed’s new ‘Rebels’ series, which examines rebel groups and their place in global politics. The author begins with a detailed yet focused overview of the historical, social and political context from which the movement emerged, with extensive reference to a variety of sources. The remainder of the book is then organised into three sections that explore the movement’s political philosophy and practice in Chiapas, its impact throughout Mexico and its global significance. Although the impacts of a movement such as the Zapatistas cannot be neatly separated into regional, national and transnational arenas, this division affords the argument considerable analytical structure. Furthermore, Khasnabish’s observations do occasionally cross such categories such that the division is not overly problematic. Zapatismo - the political philosophy and practice of the Zapatista movement - developed from ‘the confluence of urban guerrillas seeking favourable ground for revolutionary organising, migrant indigenous communities practising a new kind of politics, and a socio-economic and political context marked by extreme violence, exploitation, and repression’ (p. 73). The author explores the regional significance of Zapatismo through the conceptualisation and operationalisation of the principles of democracy, liberty and justice, giving particular attention to progress in women’s rights and the movement’s approach to power. Although Khasnabish’s account would benefit from more information concerning the reality in Zapatista communities, it nevertheless effectively captures the Zapatistas’ radically democratic orientation, in terms of their affirmation of heterogeneity and rejection of vanguardist seizures of power and articulations of concrete agendas. Zapatismo’s national impact is then explored through analysis of the Zapatistas’ six Declarations of the Lacand ´on Jungle as engagements in dialogue with Mexican civil society. Although this section sometimes feels overly lengthy with extensive direct quotations from the Zapatista leadership, Khasnabish certainly does not parrot Zapatista rhetoric. He critically analyses the possibilities and limitations of engaging with civil society. In particular, he notes that the Zapatistas’ La Otra Campa˜ na - a campaign that coincided with the 2006 Mexican presidential campaign in order to galvanise an alternative movement ‘from below and to the left’ - has yet to meet the promise invested in it. Nonetheless, Khasnabish convincingly argues for the ‘radically reshaped Mexican political landscape’ and ‘the expanded political horizons of other radical actors in Mexico’ (p. 163) owing to the impact of the Zapatistas as ‘a movement whose strength is based in a grassroots democratic politics, creative engagement and dialogue’ (p. 162). Understanding civil society as an amorphous and heterogeneous space, Zapatismo’s national significance becomes clear in terms of its role in galvanising ‘Rebel Mexico’ in a ‘collective struggle not to conquer the world but to remake it’ (p. 106). Moreover, the Zapatistas are significant globally as a precursor to the alterglobalisation ‘movement of movements’ and an ‘example of dedicated resistance to a supposedly inevitable project of capitalist development’, thereby providing a ‘powerful example of hope and dignity in the darkest of times’ (p. 168). Looking beyond the Zapatistas as a mere inspiration with which international activists express solidarity, Khasnabish highlights the ‘radical, grassroots, hopeful and open-ended visions of sociopolitical change’ (p. 197) that Zapatismo provoked on the global stage. Absent from this new politics are the ‘familiar tropes of socialist ideology and rhetoric such as the proletariat, the masses, the vanguard’ (p. 171). In particular, he explores the radically democratic and anti-capitalist spirit that underpins the global pockets of resistance that developed from encounters between radical movements and the Zapatistas. The final section, though brief, accurately pinpoints the Zapatistas’ transnational significance as a ‘provocation rather than a blueprint for radical social change’ (p. 197). Khasnabish’s Zapatistas is an insightful and original exploration of the Zapatistas’ rebel significance from the grassroots to the global, with a clear understanding of their radically democratic aim of ‘building a world in which many worlds fit’ (p. 204). –Puneet Dhaliwal, University of Oxford –Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 31, No. 1

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