Essay: The Forum in Defense of Territory and Mother Earth–Unity of the struggles from a dialectical perspective, and what comes next?

August 29, 2020

From the September-October 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Héctor

The recent Forum in Defense of Territory and Mother Earth [Dec. 21-22, 2019, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico] was characterized by the diversity of movements that participated in it: from city dwellers displaced by real estate projects to Indigenous peoples who resist mining, wind and thermoelectric invasion; from organizations with two decades and more experience to newly formed groups.

The common denominator for all of them, sometimes only implicitly expressed, is the fight against current capitalist expansion; at the same time, there is an explicit desire (the forum itself is an example) to form a unity between movements to enable them definitively to stop dispossession and exploitation, but this unity always appears as something elusive, as an unreachable beyond.

Let’s view this and other issues of the forum from the perspective of dialectical philosophy; not because of a theoretical eagerness, but because such a philosophy, recreated within the movements from below, is what can help us achieve this unity and respond theoretically and practically to the question “what’s next?” in building a new world.


One of the passages of most interest today is G.W.F. Hegel’s discussion on “The Relation of Whole and Parts” in the second book—the Doctrine of the Essence—of his Science of Logic.[1] Hegel begins by establishing the indissoluble relationship between the whole and the parts: the whole is everything only because it contains parts, and these are parts only because they are integrated into a whole.

At the same time, despite this connection, the whole and the parts are not identical. Hegel states that the whole is “the self-subsistence which constituted the world in and for itself,” while the parts are “the immediate Existence which was the world of Appearance” (514); that is to say, that the whole would be the abstract unity, still devoid of content, while the parts are precisely this diversity of content—for example, the multiplicity of movements participating in the Forum, each with its own particular history—but still devoid of real unity.

Since the whole and the parts are not the same, but nevertheless mutually need each other, the movement of their unification begins. This is precisely the dialectic, the movement that leads to overcoming opposites through the formation of a new unity, a new starting point. Hegel warns us that “The truth of the relation [between the whole and the parts] consists therefore in the mediation” (516), that is, precisely in its movement.

Without it, we would be trapped in the idea that the whole, although it consists of parts, is not equal to these, but to all of them, that is, that it is equal to itself, to its abstract identity; reciprocally, although the parts make up the whole, they do not equate to the whole, but to themselves, to the “unrelated manifold” (516). We would remain, then, at the same point where we started.

This happens, says Hegel, because of the “inability to bring together the two thoughts which the mediation contains” (518), which are identity and difference: the whole is identical to itself and, at the same time, different, since its existence presupposes its opposite, the parts; these are identical to each other and, nevertheless, different from each other, since to be parts they require the existence of a whole. Their truth is their movement.

Hegel then warns about the dangers of “infinitude of the progress” (518), about the false idea that a quantitative addition will automatically lead us to a qualitative change. Expressed in terms of the social struggle, we could see this as the impossibility of achieving the desired unity from the incorporation of new individuals or groups into the movement.

The Forum has been one of the most important efforts to bring together the greatest diversity of resistances at the national level; many more could be invited, both from existing ones and those that are about to emerge. However, this “infinite progress” in the addition of struggles will not bring us one step closer, in itself, to the achievement of unity.


At the Forum in Defense of Territory and Mother Earth. Photo by Radio Zapatista

In his speech to close the Zapatista participation in the Forum, Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés (Sub Moi) refers to the urgency of unity to take a step forward in the struggle to cope with the resurgence of oppression:

“From what we hear [here in the Forum], it seems that [we] are being asked to accelerate the organization. Okay, but there is a problem: we have not found which organization we are going to make. For our part, [as Zapatistas], we respect it. We are not going to say which is the one single form of struggle.”

Sub Moi rightly states that the unity of the struggle is not in one of its particular forms, which could take on the appearance of a universal to be applied in all times and circumstances. However, Sub Moi does not go further in the search for unity, but remains in the idea of diversity of forms, which was already the starting point.

Can unity and diversity be brought together in some way that escapes falling into the extreme, on the one hand, of tyrannical unity—a particular form that wants to be applied at all times and places—or, on the other hand, of the swamp of diversity without a perspective? The truth of this unification is not in one of its specific forms, not even in a “combination” of them, but in its movement.

Raya Dunayevskaya, commenting on Hegel’s passage about the whole and the parts, explains:

“[This is key] to the entire philosophy of both Hegel and Marx. Thus, when I say that the whole is not only the sum total of the parts, but has a pull on the parts that are not yet there, even as the future has a pull on the present, it is obvious that we have moved from abstract philosophic conceptions to the actual world, and from the actual world back again to philosophy, but this time as enriched by the actual.”[2]

“The whole is not only the total sum of the parts,” but something else: the totality of the movement that includes both the existing parts and those that “are not yet there,” that is, which point towards the future, which build it.

Dunayevskaya then equates the whole with the “abstract philosophic conceptions,” and the parts with “the real world,” but immediately speaks of a return “to philosophy, but this time as enriched by the actual,” that is, a double movement which makes the abstract unity of philosophy walk hand in hand with the richness of the real world.

In terms of the social struggle, we would be talking about consciousness and explicitly taking on dialectical philosophy as the driving force of the resistances, which, once enriched by their diversity, would return to themselves in the form of a new beginning or new concrete step in the construction of a world beyond capital: it would be the full fusion, always in motion, between thought and action, philosophy and reality.


A question that may arise here is whether the dialectic, as a philosophy formulated by a European thinker (Hegel), can “apply” to the original peoples of Mexico. In the Forum, the struggles expressed desires to end the current conditions of dispossession and oppression, that is, they have a desire for self-movement, for overcoming the contradictions that block the path to freedom. The dialectic is precisely the science of movement; moreover, it is the science of the self-movement towards freedom.

Even Hegel, despite his “genius,” would have been unable to “invent” the dialectic alone; who “invented” it was the French masses in their quest to end the monarchy and give rise to a new way of life in the late 18th century. Hegel only gave philosophical expression to the methodology of their movement.

Something similar, although on a much more concrete level, occurred with Marx and the workers’ revolts in the mid-19th century.

What makes the dialectic universal is not one or the other of its concrete manifestations, but the form of its movement, which has mediation as its point of departure, and as its point of arrival the search for freedom, and this is the essence of humanity in its entirety!

Proposing the dialectic as a unity of struggles would therefore not eliminate their diversity, but would enhance it. Each movement, according to its times and circumstances, could decide in what form to recreate the dialectic; at the same time, in the proposition of this as a unity of the struggle, it would have a perspective with which to orient itself beyond the abstraction of “to each its own form.”

Is the discussion of the dialectic a subject that we can begin to include in our movements, as well as in the attempts to unify them, as a guide to be able to answer concretely what comes next in the construction of a new world?


1. Another idea present at the Forum was to “inform people” as a fundamental strategy of struggle. Undoubtedly, the sharing of knowledge, data, etc., about capitalist projects that are trying to be imposed in a given territory is important; however, this strategy has as a limit the idea already questioned that the mere sum of particular elements—new people who join the struggle—is enough in itself to achieve a qualitative change. Once they join, what to do? The question is always postponed for an indefinite time or reduced to practical issues.

On the other hand, this strategy assumes consciousness as something determined only by individual will, which can be “won” through “convincing,” instead of understanding consciousness as a unity between the will and the social conditions of existence.

The fact that a sector of the oppressed is not rebelling at this precise moment is not synonymous with their “ignorance” or “conformity,” but that their total conditions of life—subjective and objective at the same time—have not yet led them to that point of explosion. When they do—and this always happens, sooner or later—will we be ready to help them strengthen their rebellion with a philosophy of liberation that they can recreate according to their own forms, or will we simply limit ourselves to expressing our solidarity with their movement?

2. The horizontal form of decision-making is often presented as the ultimate answer for the whole question of the organization. Without a doubt, a struggle can only move forward, as we have seen, with the richness of its diversity, which exists only if its decision-making is horizontal. However, the other moment is missing here, that of philosophical unity, the full meaning of the struggle.

The movement of an organization does not arise only from the collective reflection on the errors and successes of the actions undertaken, but, above all, from the presence of dialectical philosophy within it, which can be recreated for each concrete struggle, and by all in their entirety, on the path of always seeking to respond, practically and theoretically, to the question about what comes next in the construction of a new world, beyond capital.

(translated from Praxis en América Latina, February-March 2020, by Franklin Dmitryev)

[1] Hegel’s Science of Logic, translated by A.V. Miller (Humanities Press, 1976), pp. 513-18. All references to the Science of Logic will be to this edition. In the text, we only indicate in brackets the page numbers.

[2] The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx (Lexington Books, 2002), p. 64

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