Zapatismo: 30 Years of the Most Sensible Delusions

Zapatismo is a school of thought unlike any other, and after thirty years it is a strong, living example for all people fighting against colonialism and exploitation.

In November of 1983, the Lacandona Jungle in Chiapas saw the arrival of a small group of revolutionaries who called themselves the “Zapatista Army of National Liberation” (EZLN). Though many came from cities and towns, their dream of revolution seemed to gain real legitimacy and relevance among the conditions of extreme poverty existent in the region. Furthermore, there was already a firmly-rooted culture of resistance in Chiapas. Indigenous Mayans in this isolated region had been resisting colonialism for five hundred years, and even some exiled leaders of the Paris Commune had found themselves on Chiapan soil.

There was initially a clash of ideologies, and the young, ideological Subcomandante Marcos even thought about leaving. But instead, the group stayed to learn from those they met. They were assimilated into the local culture, seeing the arrogance and traditional clichés of the Left fade away, to be replaced by a perhaps unlikely hybrid of revolutionary thought. A movement based on indigenous worldviews and knowledge but with links to the outside world was born.

Thirty years on, the EZLN is at the forefront of one of the richest and most radical struggles for freedom the world has seen in centuries. Breaking onto the political scene with an armed uprising in January 1994, they have since lived and breathed participatory democracy – seeking to live, not just to survive. And tens of thousands of people embody this spirit of rebellion.

To share their experiences over the last three decades, they created a school of “Freedom according to the Zapatistas”. Its purpose is to overcome the indoctrination of the master-slave form of education that is the dominant world model. Referred to as a Little School, it aims to encourage “unlearning”, to build minds up once again from a critical, independent, innovative base. There is no model for the Zapatistas to impart. The students must not copy and repeat, as in the dominant model of “Banking” education (as discussed in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Such students are trapped in a cage built for them by their masters – the ‘all-knowing’ teachers. The Zapatistas simply share and discuss the path that they have taken to arrive at their current destination. That path is the constant search for a decolonisation of existence – an absolute freedom from oppression, whether mental, spiritual, or physical.

Zapatismo, with its focus on democracy and cooperation, has torn apart the dominant modern political ideology of capitalism and the ‘necessary’ domination of one group over another. In the Zapatista-controlled territories in Chiapas, free from the interference of the Mexican government, the neoliberal imposition of commoditisation has been resisted. Communities have built a world of collective governance, focussing not on selfishness and greed but on need. And people need freedom, justice, and equality. Not irresponsible consumption and exploitation of the earth and its people. All members of Zapatista communities are encouraged to actively participate in their self-governance.

Zapatista autonomy is represented by the participative self-government of thousands upon thousands of people: of schools; hospitals; laws; social relations; production; economy; sexuality; and constant revolution. The Zapatistas don’t represent an ideology. They represent action, performed by the people for the people.

What is the message the Zapatistas wish to send to the world?


Adapted from



About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
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