Letter from Mexico: The Zapatistas and Critical Thought

From the July-August 2015 issue of News & Letters

by J.G.F. Héctor

The Zapatistas held a seminar in Chiapas, Mexico, May 3-9 on “Critical Thought in Face of the Hydra of Capitalism.” The concept came from their recognition of the need for revolutionary theory. As the Zapatistas stated in their communication last January: “Critical thinking is necessary for the struggle.” By critical thinking they mean theory.

Compañera Selena, Listener at the May 2015 Seminar “Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra.” https://dorsetchiapassolidarity. files.wordpress.com/2015/05/ 10658573_365099623696457 _8404757986566877337_o.jpg

This does not refer to academic theory. Rather, it comes together with practice: “Neither practice by itself nor theory by itself is enough. Thinking that does not struggle does nothing but make noise. A struggle that does not think repeats its mistakes and does not get up after it falls.”

For more than two decades the Zapatistas have been concretely building a new world. Now it was time to sit down and analyze reality. Thus, the critical thought seminar had as its purpose “making a seedbed of ideas, of analysis, of critical thinking about how the capitalist system currently works,” to see “if the hydra [has] regenerated its multiple heads.”

At the seminar were theoreticians from throughout the world, as well as from Zapatista communities—from Subcomandantes Moisés and Galeano to Zapatista women who spoke about capitalist oppression against Indigenous people before and after the 1994 Zapatista uprising. All their views were shared with the hundreds in attendance.

Critical thought as a critique of capitalism, as the Zapatistas realize, plays a key role in social transformation. Furthermore, such thought has arisen from within the Zapatista revolutionary experience. However, critical thought seen just as analysis of reality is not yet critical thought at its fullest expression, for it separates objective study from the subjective forces of revolution.

What is meant by this? Look at the presentation that could summarize the seminar as a whole: Zapatista Subcomandante Galeano, in the Etcetera document which he presented to the seminar, spoke about the importance of Marx and historical materialism. When he referred to historical materialism, he did so as an inventory of concepts and tools that help us to comprehend capitalism.

However, to focus alone on Marx’s analysis of capitalism allows us to forget that, behind Marx’s economic categories, there is a whole philosophy of human liberation.

Karl Marx in the 1840s

Karl Marx in the 1840s

It is Marx’s concept of the dialectical method which posits theory and practice, objectivity and subjectivity, philosophy and revolution, as a unity. According to revolutionary dialectics, practice—the actions and thoughts of the revolutionary masses—is itself a form of theory. This can be developed to its fullest in unity with a theory that, like the Greek god Janus, looks with one face to such actions and thoughts and, with the other, to dialectical philosophy.

Thus theory, or critical thought, is not just an objective analysis of reality, but in its fullest meaning, is the philosophical expression of the thoughts, actions and desires of the revolutionary masses building up a whole new world. This, in my view, is what the Zapatista seminar missed, and what the Zapatista movement needs to reach for, even beyond the greatest peaks it has already attained.

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