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Opening a crack in history

Zapatistas: rebellion from the grassroots to the global by Alex Khasnabish (Zed Books), reviewed by Duncan Smith

June 3, 2010
2 min read

Sixteen years have passed since an army of indigenous peasants burst out of the jungles of south-eastern Mexico crying ‘Ya Basta!’ (enough) and still the Zapatistas fascinate observers worldwide. The day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force, 1 January 1994, will forever be remembered as the day a totally new rebellion started. This was the day the previously unknown EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) occupied seven major towns in the state of Chiapas, declaring ‘war against oblivion’.

Alex Khasnabish’s book highlights the specialness of the Zapatista rebellion, and makes a concerted effort to contextualise this uprising. With a concise but clear history of Mexican political developments, Khasnabish frames the Zapatistas within a rebellious and revolutionary Mexican tradition, above and beyond the revolutionary leader from whom the EZLN take their name, Emiliano Zapata.

With a focus on the continued exclusion and impoverishment of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, Khasnabish shows the unique nature of Zapatismo as a political philosophy, partly resulting from the synthesis of the ideas of Marxist urban guerillas having an encounter with indigenous peasants for whom the dogmatic proletarian struggle had little meaning. The exceptional ideas of this movement are emphasised in the Zapatistas’ rejection of a political path to seize state power or prescribing a revolutionary path for others. Instead they concentrate on building links with social movements and civil society, both national and international, while constructing autonomy in their liberated territories.

An excellent introduction to a complex movement, Zapatistas does not suffer from its academic style – a testament to Dr Khasnabish’s efforts to make this struggle accessible. His insightful overview lacks only slightly the colour of the Zapatista movement, some stories of individuals or the rebel art, which are so important in building the narrative of this rebellion.

Zapatistas succeeds in linking the material situation that forced a marginalised group to take up arms within the global context of neoliberal capitalism and the transnational effects of their struggle. The Zapatistas have said they fight to ‘open a crack in history’ and this book is an enlightening look through that fracture in capitalism.

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