Dismantling the Self-Constructed Barrier

A Conversation on Anarchism and Marxism

Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History

By Max Ajl
NACLA: North American Congress on Latin America

The World Social Forum, in its near decade of existence, has popularized the slogan “Another World Is Possible.” Although many on the left may agree, and there is broad agreement about the nature of the world we live in and the shape of the one we wish to create, there is less agreement on how to create that new world. Wobblies and Zapatistas, a conversation of sorts between longtime anarchist activist Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd, who for the last 40 years has been one of the iconic figures of the U.S. left, is a contribution to resolving that argument—or at least turning it into a productive discussion.

The book suggests that for too long, anarchists and Marxists have been glaring hostilely at one another over a self-constructed barrier. When professedly Marxist governments were in power, Marxism’s proponents denounced anarchism as “infantile leftism.” Now, with anarchism central to the global justice movement—“its soul” and “the source of most of what’s new and hopeful about it,” according to anthropologist David Graeber—Marxism is derided as a relic, obsessed with taking state power. Indeed, that derision has by now been turned into formal theory in John Holloway’s pithy construction, “change the world without taking power.”

The book’s authors are less aggressive, more modest. As Lynd writes, “It is clear that during the last century neither Marxism nor anarchism has been able to carry out the transformative task alone.” Their thinking is also more supple. They view Marxism as an analytical tool for understanding society and capitalism, and anarchism as a practice-based ideal for changing society and capitalism. While making this point, the book returns, again and again, to Zapatismo.

Lynd begins by recounting the three sources of Zapatismo: (1) liberation theology; (2) the desire for land following the passage of NAFTA, which attempted to undo the Mexican constitution’s guarantee for communal property in land, or ejidos; and (3) the movement’s ethic of leadership, mandar obediciendo, to rule by obeying. The influence of the third, he suggests, inoculated Zapatismo against the vanguardism that has plagued leftist movements for the past century.

In this story, Zapatismo emerged when Marxist-Leninist university professors from Mexico City went off to indigenous communities in the Lacandón jungle, intent on making revolution. A decade later, set off by the ignition point of NAFTA, they returned, mounting an armed offensive in southern Mexico.

At first, the military rebellion seemed like a spectacular success, but it quickly emerged as a failure. Politically, though, the Zapatista movement took a different course. Its communiqués, espousing a radical egalitarianism, jolted Mexican society, much of which quickly came to support the Zapatistas. Around the same time, several weeks after the military sally stalled, Subcomandante Marcos carried out an internal coup within the EZLN, and everything changed. The Zapatistas changed their rhetoric, which remained revolutionary but recalled classic anarchism—the EZLN no longer had any interest in taking state power, and it had no desire to be a vanguard of any kind. It’s easy to forget in 2009 that in 1994, this was fresh stuff.

The Zapatistas disavowed vanguardism, that siren of the Marxist-Leninist left, partly because the urban intelligentsia, having traipsed off to Lacandón, ended up learning more from the Mayans than vice versa. They came to understand local traditions of mandar obediciendo, learning to recognize that if the movement leaderships strays from the popular will, “the heart that commands should be changed for another that obeys,” as an EZLN letter from February 1994 put it.

Lynd suggests that the Zapatista uprising offers an answer to the question that had preoccupied him his entire adult life: how to make the transition from capitalism to socialism. Capitalism, he notes, arose within the “interstices of a decentralized feudal society,” as he puts it in an earlier essay, wherein an enterprising individual could “run away to a free city, print the Bible in the vernacular, drop stones from a leaning tower, or organize a corporation, all actions requiring few persons and modest amounts of capital.” How, then, could socialism arise within the interstices of capitalist society? Lynd did not find answers where he sought them, in the classics of Marxist scholarship.

But then he found in Zapatismo not the Answer, but an intriguing and suggestive “hypothesis.” According to Lynd, the socialist transition that Zapatismo seeks may yet work, but “we don’t know yet.” Later on, he suggests that leftists should work to create horizontal networks of “self-governing institutions,” to which whoever holds state power should be accountable—a gradualist vision, decentralizing effective power until the state itself withers away.

The re-reading of radical history occasioned by the synthesis of Marxism and anarchism symbolized by the Zapatistas is the idea upon which this book rests. And that re-reading, as Lynd and Grubacic continue their discussion, serves as a stupendous primer on the history of anti-capitalist struggle. It starts with the “Haymarket synthesis” of socialism and anarchism, embodied by the militant labor activists Albert and Lucy Parsons and August Spies, raconteurs in 1880s Chicago, and their attempt to build central unions as independent bodies within a new decentralized social order.

The narrative then moves on to the Wobblies, the “Zapatistas of yesteryear,” who have been claimed by both the socialist and anarchist traditions. Working through direct action, horizontally organized, viciously repressed by the state, barely surviving the Palmer raids of 1919–21 and the post-war repression, the International Workers of the World lived on largely as a memory, their ideals upheld over the years by the likes of Murray Bookchin and Paul Goodman until they could be reborn in the movements of the 1960s.

Long-run movement building and resistance to the Vietnam War, according to Lynd and Grubacic, formed the core around which left-wing activity in the 1960s could focus, along with the civil rights struggle. Lynd emphasizes that the simplicity of those goals prevented any need for “theory,” but that this in turn contributed to the movements’ downfall. They underestimated capitalism’s power as an enduring system and had little sense of the scale of time within which the transition from feudalism to capitalism took place. And Lynd notes that it is Marxism that provides an excellent explanation of these problems.

Lynd and Grubacic also devote considerable space to “accompaniment,” which here means offering a service to the poor, with no illusions about quickly achieving educational or social equality, but merely as an honest service offered from one person to another. This is a radical vision, which Lynd describes as something he took from the liberation theology of Nicaragua and El Salvador. It does not privilege those with education or power. It is the type of relationship that a non-hierarchical network demands, and is built upon. It clashes with vanguardism, which puts the intellectual on a pedestal, in cahoots with state-socialist bureaucrats, such as in the Marxist deviation that Lynd condemns as part of the self-constructed barrier the book takes as its goal to destroy.

As Lynd repeatedly emphasizes, the success of this model for social change is unclear. The Zapatista communities endure in Chiapas, but have not spread; the experience in Bolivia, to which Lynd favorably alludes, differs from that of Mexico in that social movements initially acted autonomously, but also brought Evo Morales to power. And, although Lynd doesn’t discuss it, the Zapatista story runs into a vigorous counter-example in the case of Bolivarian Venezuela.

One story of the scintillating Bolivarian Revolution, told in leftist circles, is a mirror-image of the one told on the right—a volubly charismatic army colonel, Hugo Chávez, storming the state, gathering power, redirecting oil spending through a developmental state, swiftly bettering social indicators, pushing Bolivarian radicalism deeper, nationalizing industries—reminding us of a decidedly 20th-century socialism. There is truth to that story.

But there’s another story—about a slow, continuous ferment of autonomous organization in the 23 de Enero barrio in Caracas, of land invasions by autonomous peasant groupings like the National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora, self-organization by independent radicals like the Simón Bolívar National Communal Front, and the independent mobilization of huge numbers of people who cascaded down from the Caracas foothills during the April 2002 coup d’état to return Chávez to the Miraflores presidential palace.

Many of these radicals understand that Chávez is not the revolution. But they have a remarkably unblinkered view of the Venezuelan state: as a weapon in a war. Control of that weapon can be weakened by the loss of strategic positions within the state apparatus, like the mayoralties of greater Caracas or governorships in the oil-rich state of Zulia. Their movement learned in the crucible of April 2002 that control over violence in society in part belongs to the state, and so state power must be protected so it can nurture the process of building socialism, even as it promotes the new neighborhood-based communal councils—perhaps the seeds of a future society. This is an overtly anarchist vision.

This second story about Chavismo does not collide so hard with Lynd and Grubacic’s account of Zapatismo. It merely complicates it. Left-wing groups within Bolivarian Venezuela look favorably upon the Zapatistas. Caracas hosted the fifth World Social Forum, an organ of the movement of movements of which the Zapatista uprising was a pillar, and the authors praise this.

Lynd also attaches, here and in other work—for example, his talk in 2005 at the IWW centenary—much importance to the Bolivian experience, which adds a further subtlety to the fusion that the book advocates. In Bolivia, before the election of Morales, great segments of civil society, in the Water War and in the El Alto uprisings, exercised enormous power from below. Their threat to continue doing so is part of Morales’s discourse, which is why he constantly genuflects to their potential power.

So is this so far from Bolivarian Venezuela, where the thesis of taking state power is undergoing its latest trial? I am not so sure that it is, once, along with Lynd, we move beyond a romantic fetishization of “changing the world without taking power,” as though power were unimportant, as though power could be wished away by ignoring it.

This debate, between the conquest of state power versus its immediate destruction, constructed theoretically as the anarchist-Marxist debate, lies at the core of the book. The rest of it is an excavation of radical history, much of which seems to suggest that an anarchist—or socialist—society is just beneath the surface, beneath stultifying, oppressive institutions, beneath all wars, social hierarchies, prisons.

Lynd and Grubacic’s considerations of these institutions, and their ideas for transcending the society that creates them, are excellent. Their conception of Marxism and anarchism as two hands working together, one devoted to analysis, the other to practice, is terse and elegant. In short, Wobblies and Zapatistas is a great addition to intellectual-activist literature.

Max Ajl is a Brooklyn-based writer and activist whose work has appeared in the U.K. Guardian and The New Statesman. He writes about Latin America and the Middle East at

Back to Staughton Lynd’s Author Page | Back to Andrej Grubacic’s Author Page