The Indian uprising in Chiapas that burst upon the world scene in January is a postmodern political movement.footnote1 The rebellion is an attempt to move beyond the politics of modernity, be they of the Salinas de Gortari government or of past national liberation movements. And even more fundamentally, it seeks to end the victimization of Indians by centuries of western modernization.

This is not a single-minded revolt of indigenous peoples focused only on retaking their lands and expelling the rich who have exploited them. Nor, as is demonstrated by the two thousand Indians who rose up in arms on January 1st, is this a ‘foco’ movement in which a few guerrilleros try to goad the rest of the populace into supporting them. And, to the relief of the Left and progressive forces throughout Latin America, this is not a Sendero Luminoso-like struggle in which an Indian or peasant army is intent on destroying all who stand in its way in order to seize absolute control of the state.

The uprising led by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (or ezln as it is known by its Spanish acronym) comes in the wake of the collapse of the ‘modern’ bipolar world of the post-World War II era and the ideological exhaustion of most national liberation movements. Virtually all these movements were supported by one or more of the countries of the Communist bloc, and their fundamental strategy was to seize state power. What distinguishes the ezln from its predecessors is that it is not bent on taking power in Mexico City, nor is it calling for state socialism. Its objective is to spark a broad-based movement of civil society in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico that will transform the country from the bottom up.

Another central factor facilitating this revolt’s postmodernity is that it is not a rebellion against a typical autocrat or dictator like Batista or Somoza, but a movement that traces its lineage back to the early twentieth-century Mexican revolution. The struggle of the ezln against the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or pri, has precipitated a broad-based political and ideological dialogue, not over removing a tyrant, but over how to mobilize the population to recapture the country’s revolutionary ideals. As Friedrich Katz, a long-time observer of Mexico has noted, 80 per cent of the Mexican population identifies politically with one party or another that embraces, at least in name, the Mexican revolution.footnote2

Internally, the ezln is determined to move beyond the democratic centralist structure of past national liberation movements that resulted in more centralism than democracy. The ezln’s governing structure is fluid, with a clandestine committee in charge of day-to-day operations that is consultative and has a policy of rotating members.footnote3 The ezln goes to great lengths to involve the local communities in the organization’s decision-making process, whether it be the discussion of negotiations with the Mexican government or basic decisions of making war and peace.

The ezln also breaks with the tradition of the ‘heroic’ guerrilla commanders. ezln leaders downplay their individual roles, mocking the pretentiousness of many leaders of other national liberation movements, as is evident in the title ‘Sub-Comandante’ Marcos, the nom de guerre assumed by its well known public representative. Two of the internal principles of the ezln are that its leaders cannot own property or hold political office, principles that differentiate it sharply from other national liberation organizations like the Sandinistas of Nicaragua.

The postmodernity and advanced politics of the rebellion is rooted in part in the movement’s awareness of the dramatic changes occurring on the world scene and the past limitations of national liberation movements. But even more importantly it is the product of the political and social struggle that has been taking place in Chiapas for more than two decades. Contrary to popular conception, Chiapan society is not a provincial backwater nor is the economy of the state neo-feudalist. The Indians and campesinos of Chiapas are the victims of modernization. Over the past quarter of a century the economy of Chiapas has been transformed by capitalism. The popular forces in the state, Indian and peasant alike, have been compelled to react and organize to deal with this profound upheaval. Their demands for change have become post-modern in that they want a new social and economic order that goes beyond capitalism and even ‘formally existing socialism’.