The Oaxaca Commune – new forms of revolution

Originally Published on: Feb 26, 2014

The world as we know it has come to an end. Everywhere the foundations for an unprecedented authoritarian regime are being put in place, to replace the current political and economic system, and to take advantage of the fear, chaos, and uncertainty that marks a transition to a new era. The Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) in Oaxaca, along with many other political initiatives in various parts of the world, prefigure new forms of transformative struggle, as well as their outcome. These struggles are a determining factor in the current crisis.

The Demons of the Oaxaca Commune

From June to October 2006, there were no police in the city of Oaxaca (population 600,000), not even to direct traffic. The governor Ulises Ruiz and his functionaries met secretly in hotels or private homes; none of them dared to show up at their offices. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had round-the-clock watch on all the public buildings and radio and TV stations that it controlled. When the governor began sending out his goons to launch nocturnal guerilla attacks against these guards, the people responded by putting up barricades. More than a thousand barricades were put up every night at 11 p.m., around the encampments or at critical intersections. They would be taken down every morning at 6 a.m. to restore normal traffic. Despite the attacks, there was less violence in those months (fewer assaults, deaths and injuries, or traffic accidents) than in any similar period in the previous 10 years. Unionized workers belonging to APPO performed basic services like garbage collection.

Some observers began speaking of the Oaxaca Commune, evoking the Paris Commune of 1871. Oaxacans responded, smiling: “Yes, but the Paris Commune lasted only 50 days and we’ve already lasted more than 100.” The analogy is pertinent but exaggerated, except in terms of the reaction that these two popular insurrections elicited in the centers of power. Like the European armies that crushed the communards who had taken over all the functions of government, the Federal Preventive Police of Mexico, backed by the army and the navy, were sent to Oaxaca on October 28, 2006, to try to control the situation. On November 25, 2006, those forces conducted a terrible repression, the worst in many years, with massive violation of human rights and an approach which can be legitimately described as state terrorism. The operation—which included imprisonment of the supposed leaders of the movement and hundreds of others—was described by the International Commission for the Observation of Human Rights as,“a juridical and military strategy…whose ultimate purpose is to achieve control and intimidation of civil population.” For the authorities, this strategy would dissolve APPO and send a warning to all social movements around the whole country.

APPO remains a mystery, even for those who are part of it. The distortions introduced by the media and by some participants in APPO, who were using it to promote their own political and ideological agendas, exasperated the confusion. Furthermore, its innovative character is a challenge to understanding the nature, meaning, and implications of this strange political animal. (For further reading on this enormously complex situation, see: Arellano and others 2009, Davies 2007, de Castro 2009, Denham 2008, Esteva 2008 and 2009 a and c, Giarraca 2008, Lapierre 2008, Martínez 2006, and Osorno 2007).

From the day of its birth, all the demons that habitually beset what we usually call the left also beset the APPO. Like bees to honey, it attracted all sorts of groups and organizations that, like parasites, tried to direct and control the movement with their own agendas and obsessions. It was difficult to distinguish those activists from the countless infiltrators sent by the authorities to aggravate the role generally performed by the sectarian left: to disperse, divide, confront, isolate, and to create violence within the social movement.

The APPO disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. It left a quarrelsome atmosphere in Oaxaca, mixing anger and frustration with a sense of defeat. But APPO also left a sediment of experience expressed in everyday attitudes throughout the social and political fabric of the state.

The Obsession of Power

“We think,” said Subcomandante Marcos in 1996, “that you have to rethink the problem of power, to not repeat that formula which says that in order to change the world it is necessary to take power, and once in power we will organize everything in a way that is best for the world, that is, the way that is the best for me since I am in power. We thought that if we conceived of a change in the way power is seen, the problem of power, proclaiming that we do not want it—this would produce another way of doing politics and other kind of politics, other human beings that do politics differently from politicians of the entire political spectrum. (EZLN 1996, 69).

For the Zapatistas, the question is not who is in power, or how any person, group, or party achieved a position of power (through elections or any other means), but the very nature of the system of power within the nation-state, as a structure of domination and control. In drawing a line to separate themselves from the guerilla tradition, the Zapatistas show that such traditions always postpone the question of the role of the people.

“There is an oppressive power, that which decides for society from above; a group of enlightened people who decide to run the country properly and displaces another group from power, takes power and also makes the decisions for society. For us this is a struggle of hegemonies… One cannot reconstruct the world, nor society, nor the nation-states now destroyed, upon a dispute that consists of who is going to impose hegemony upon society.” (Subcomandante Marcos, March 2001)

From the most ferocious dictatorships to the purest of democracies, the nation-state has been, and is, a structure to dominate and control the population…in the end to bring it to the service of capital, using its legal monopoly of violence. The state is the ideal collective capitalist, guardian of those interests, and operates as a dictatorship even in the most modern democratic states.

– from upside down world news, New Forms of Revolution (Part 2): The Oaxaca Commune

oaxacaUDWN’s Note: In excerpts from the essay New Forms of Revolution (Mexico, 2013), Oaxaca-based writer Gustavo Esteva explores the different notions of power within the popular movement in Oaxaca, and speculates on the future on the current cycle of struggles.

Read Part 1

“Such revolution is an art. That is: it requires the courage not only of resistance but also of imagination.” – Howard Zinn.

“Survival of the human race depends on the rediscovery of hope as a social force.” – Ivan Illic


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