The World Open in Front of Us: An Interview with John Holloway

The World Open in Front of Us: An Interview with John Holloway

La Escuelita Zapatista. -©Semillitas Zapatistas

January 1,1994 is a historic landmark in Mexico. On that day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The architects of NAFTA manufactured the dream that Mexico would enter the First World and that the long history of backwardness was a thing of the past. On that same day the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) revolted against the “bad government” of Mexico. The Zapatistas awoke Mexicans from the First World dream, reminding them that Mexico was a country with many unresolved problems, including the indigenous “question.” To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion, El BeiSMan interviewed John Holloway, a sociologists and political philosopher. Holloway has followed closely the Zapatistas since they entered the political scene.

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The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) has a thirty-year history. The first ten-years as a clandestine organization (1983–1993) and the last twenty in the “open.” First, can you explain what led to the creation of the EZLN and, second, why it decided to revolt against the government on January 1, 1994? What did the EZLN seek to accomplish?

Yes, it’s amazing to think of the EZLN already being 30 years old. That’s a terrific achievement. It’s so striking to go to Chiapas and talk to young people who have spent their whole lives within the movement. Perhaps it is by talking to them that you can best understand what the revolt is all about. They are still poor peasants, as they were before, but there is a marvelous dignity about them, a pride in being what they are. By that I mean not only pride in being indigenous peasants, but also pride in being part of such an important revolt against the injustices and oppressions of the world. It’s a pride in assuming their responsibility in the world, taking up the fight for a world worthy of humanity.

Look around you in Chicago, look around you in the United States, just as I look around me in Puebla and Mexico, and it is impossible not to hear inside you a voice that says “¡Ya basta! How can we put up with it, all this injustice, discrimination, exploitation, all this frustration of our dreams, this tearing of people away from their loved ones and sending them to work thousands of miles away? Why do we accept it? ¡Ya basta!” Once we hear the Enough! ¡Ya basta! inside ourselves, then we understand why the Zapatistas rose up on January 1, 1994. We do not have to be indigenous or even Mexican to understand that: we just have to look at the world around us. 

And what do they want to achieve? What does any one of us want to achieve? A world of justice, a world based on the mutual respect of dignities, a world in which we can develop our full potential as human beings. There is a marvelous interview with Marcos in which he is asked about the world that the Zapatistas are fighting for, and he replies that he imagines that world as a cinema program in which they (or we) could choose to live a different film each day, and that the reason why they had risen up in revolt is that for the last five hundred years they had been forced to live the same film over and over and over again.


A strong case could be made that the EZLN rebellion initiated a new era in the revolutionary struggle, at least in Mexico. In what key ways did the EZLN break from the “tactics and strategies” of the older revolutionary movements? What did the EZLN teach the left in 1994?

Yes, certainly the rebellion initiates a new way of thinking about revolution. Or perhaps it does not so much initiate it as articulate it with extraordinary clarity. The rethinking had really been in the air throughout the world since at least 1968, and what the Zapatistas do is to crystallize many of these ideas in their own practice. An extraordinary thing, if you think that they are indigenous peasants a long way from the main centers of left discussion.

We are all stuck in a peculiar historical dilemma. On the one hand it is more obvious than ever that capitalism is a catastrophe for humanity in every way possible. On the other hand, the revolutions of the twentieth century failed to realize the dreams of the millions who lived and died fighting for them. There seems to be no way out of the trap. Or at least there seemed no way out before the Zapatistas rose up. They break the trap simply by saying “¡Ya basta! We will no longer accept!” And when you ask “well, what is your revolutionary program then?”, they say in effect “we don’t know, we don’t have a revolutionary program, we shall ask as we go: asking we walk.” This may seem silly at first, but it’s absolutely brilliant. First because it puts negativity first: we will no longer accept and we will no longer reproduce this world of horror and death. Secondly because it recognizes historical reality: we are now in a situation where we know that revolution is necessary but we don’t know how to do it. And thirdly and most important, because it already takes us into a new politics, a politics of dialogue and not of monologue. When you say that you will advance by asking, you are saying that the starting point is respect for other people’s dignity. By creating relations of mutual recognition you are already starting to create the world we are fighting for.

 La Escuelita Zapatista. -©Semillitas Zapatistas

You have written much on the EZLN. One of the themes that you and EZLN have focused is on the centrality of “dignity.” Can you explain in detail the place of “dignity” within the EZLN and why it matters to today’s social/revolutionary movements, especially in the poor countries of the world?

Yes, dignity is crucial. I don’t know if you have room for this, but there’s a wonderful explanation in one of the early letters of the EZLN of why they have decided to rise up against the government:

Then that suffering that united us made us speak, and we recognised that in our words there was truth, we knew that not only pain and suffering lived in our tongue, we recognised that there is hope still in our hearts. We spoke with ourselves, we looked inside ourselves and we looked at our history: we saw our most ancient fathers suffering and struggling, we saw our grandfathers struggling, we saw our fathers with fury in their hands, we saw that not everything had been taken away from us, that we had the most valuable, that which made us live, that which made our step rise above plants and animals, that which made the stone be beneath our feet, and we saw, brothers, that all that we had was DIGNITY, and we saw that great was the shame of having forgotten it, and we saw that DIGNITY was good for men to be men again, and dignity returned to live in our hearts, and we were new again, and the dead, our dead, saw that we were new again and they called us again, to dignity, to struggle.

Dignity is important in all countries, not just in the poorer ones. It is the “¡Ya basta! we will no longer accept a world that treats us as objects, that humiliates us.” And it is also the declaration that our form of organisation must start from the recognition of people’s dignity: we must not use people, we cannot think of people as instruments, as means to an end. So we reject the calculations of Power, we reject the political party, because political parties are part of the whole instrumental system that uses people to attain ends. The notion of dignity points us towards assemblies as the best form of organisation, assemblies which seek to give space to everyone to express their opinion. In this sense, the notion of dignity is central to the whole movement of assemblyism that has been sweeping the world—not just the indigenous movement but also the occupy movement, the indignados en Spain and Greece, the wave of revolt in North Africa, the recent movements in Turkey and Brazil and so on.


You have also dealt with the many dimensions of “power.” The EZLN seeks to create a better world/Mexico but without taking state power. What is the EZLN’s understanding of power?

Power, as it is usually understood in politics, is power-over people, the power to tell people what to do, the power to use other people as the instruments of your will. That sort of power is incompatible with a notion of human dignity. But we use the world “power” in another sense too, as our power-to-do things, especially when we come together: our power to build things, to shape things the way we want. To change the world radically we do not want to take power-over, the power the state, because that just involves us in their logic, a logic of things, a logic of using people, and then we are able to change very little. We have to build our power-to-do, our power to take over the world and make it ours. The only way out of the present disaster is to assume our responsibility for the world, to make it ours, to create a world of self-determination in which we decide collectively which we to go. I think of this as communising.

 La Escuelita Zapatista. -©Semillitas Zapatistas

After twenty-years in the “open,” what is your assessment of the EZLN so far? What have been its strengths and weaknesses?

Its great strength has been to open the world, both for the people who are part of the movement in Chiapas and for us in the rest of the world. They have said “look, we can really change the world, we can create a world of dignity.” And they are doing it, and now in the extraordinary Escuelita which they organized in September and are organizing now again in December and January, they are explaining how they are doing it and what are the problems they have faced.

Their main weakness is our weakness: that capitalism still exists, that we have not yet succeeded in destroying the system that is destroying us. Sometimes I think that the horrors we see every day in Mexico, the mass graves, the beheadings, are the expressions of our weakness, and of the Zapatistas’ weakness. So many young people have taken up arms, but not to overthrow the system, but serve the narcos, make money, kill people. If only they had turned their energy and desperation in a different direction, in a Zapatista direction, Mexico (and Chicago and the world) would be a very different place.


Pablo González Casanova has said recently that nowadays the struggle of the Indians (not only from Chiapas but from all the Americans) would become the most important struggle. Do you agree with that statement? If yes, please share with us why you think that it is more important than other social struggles?

No, I don’t agree. The struggles of the Indians have been enormously important in opening up new perspectives, but all struggles that say “No, we don’t accept, we shall do things in the way that we think is right” are very important. The world is full of such struggles. Chicago, I am sure, is full of such struggles.


Do you see any connection between the struggle of the Indians in Mexico and Central America with the campaigns to protect immigrants on their way to the USA and also in the USA?

Yes, certainly. All the world is under attack by capital. In particular, small-scale cultivation of the land (the peasant economy) is being wiped out at an extraordinary rate, just at the time as we are beginning to understand the importance of such cultivation for the future of the earth. The attacks on indigenous communities and the driving of people into emigration are part of the same process.


Do you think that the elections got worn out as a way to make significant social changes? If yes, what are the alternatives?

Yes, absolutely. In all the world, movements of protest are making the same point: elections change nothing. They change nothing because they create a government that is separated from the movements and that is simply absorbed into the existing dynamics of power. The history of elections is the history of repeated disappointments: Obama is surely one of the most striking examples. That is why movements everywhere are rejecting representative democracy and developing alternatives—various forms of direct democracy, based on assemblies. I don’t think it is a question of applying a model, but a lot of experience is being gathered in making these systems work.


The Mexico of today is much different from 1994. As a resident of Mexico, in what direction is Mexico heading?

Mexico is perhaps the most dramatic example, but I think that the whole world is heading very fast in two opposite directions. On the one hand, the subordination of absolutely everything to the rule of money, with all that means in terms of unemployment, forced migration, the tearing up of the earth to make way for mining, the destruction of the very conditions for human survival, the increasing violence of criminal gangs, the ever-growing oppression of the states (all of them) in order to impose the rule of money and suppress dissent. On the other hand, and at the same time, growing discontent, riots that seem to jump from one country to another in quick succession, more and more people experimenting with alternatives ways of living and organizing, a growing awareness that capitalism is a failure, a catastrophe for humanity, amazingly creative and inspiring movements like the Zapatistas. So where does that leave us? With the world open in front of us.

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John Hollloway (Dublin, 1947). Teaches at the University of Puebla in Mexico. He is a lawyer, sociologist and philosopher closely associated with the Zapatista Movement. He is one of the leading thinkers of the anti-capitalist movements and the author of nine books and many articles, including the much discussed Change the World Without Taking Power (2002) and Crack Capitalism (2010).