Reading Lenin in the Jungle: The Marxist Roots of Zapatismo

Christopher Gunderson


Christopher Gunderson
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Howard University

Subcomandante Marcos describes the distinctive politics of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) as the result of the “defeat” of the supposedly orthodox Marxism of a small non-indigenous guerrilla group, the National Liberation Forces (FLN), by the traditions of resistance of the indigenous Mayan communities of Chiapas that the FLN had sought to organize. This paper will examine the adequacy of that account and argue that by the time they came into contact with the FLN that the politics of the indigenous communities had already been significantly influenced by several currents of Marxist and Marxist-influenced theory and practice. These went at least as far back as the 1920s when the Socialist Party of Chiapas (PSdCh) agitated and built a base of support among migrant workers brought from highland Tzotzil villages to pick coffee in the plantations of coastal Soconusco. I will show how, in the intervening decades, the indigenous communities of Chiapas would come into contact with the Mexican Communist Party, the Marxist-influenced liberationist Christianity of the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, several Maoist organizations, and an assortment of smaller Trotskyist and other left-wing groups before the FLN, itself inspired by the examples of the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, began to win recruits to its project of building a rebel army in the Lacandon Jungle. The paper will argue that the Marxism of the FLN was not as orthodox as Marcos claims and that the distinctive politics of Zapatismo cannot be understood without reference to debates within 20th century revolutionary Marxism on agrarian, indigenous and national questions that had already influenced the radical wing of the indigenous peasant movement before they rallied to the FLN and the EZLN.

Latin America - Mexico - Indigenous - Peasant - Zapatista