From Zapata to the Zapatistas: Mexico’s “other” Commune

  • May 28, 2021

City & Commons

Revising the history of the Commune from the Americas transforms our geopolitical outlook and the manner in which we articulate the commune’s political form.

“What is the Commune, that Sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?” Karl Marx asked in The Civil War in France, his manifesto-like analysis written for the International Workers’ Association. For the case of the Paris Commune, which lasted for barely 72 days between March 18 and May 28, 1871, Marx seemed to have his answer ready: “Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”

What happened, according to Marx, was that by not marching onto Versailles to put an end once and for all to the regime of the Second Empire, the workers’ government allowed the reactionary forces to reorganize themselves in order to drown the Commune in a blood bath. This is why Marx criticized the organizers of the Commune, even as on a theoretical level he gave them his unconditional support.

In addition to presenting the “political form at last discovered” to bring about the emancipation of labor, the Paris Commune also served Marx as a model of a new type of state, which would begin to function as a non-state. In this sense, as Friedrich Engels would later come to insist in his preface to The Civil War in France published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Commune, the latter momentarily embodied the ideal of what in the orthodox tradition would come to be known as the dictatorship of the proletariat: “Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

Decentralizing Paris

In more recent years, without choosing sides either with the Marxist orthodoxy or with the French chauvinist republicanism, scholars such as Kristin Ross have begun to reveal a much more open and centrifugal international face of the Commune. Marx already alluded to this expansive tendency when he indicated that the form of the commune not only had to govern all throughout France, but also could serve as a model for the rest of the world. Following these suggestions in her book Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Ross has greatly enriched the internationalist panorama of this “perfectly flexible political form” that, still in Marx’s words, was the 1871 Commune.

If the fundamental measure of the Paris Commune consisted in its factual existence, Ross shows how the dream of an egalitarian reconfiguration of everyday life, between communist and anarchist, spread on a global scale — from populist Russia, via England and Scandinavia, all the way to the United States of America.

Even in his centrifugal outlook, however, the emblematic reference point remains the Commune’s heroic example of the workers massacred exactly 150 years ago in Paris. And Ross’s book, at least in its Spanish translation, continues to show the French tricolored flag on its cover, instead of the red banner that the Communards raised in 1871 on top of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. This is not just a questionable editorial decision for the purpose of publicity. On the contrary, the centrality of the Parisian case in the political imaginary of the communist and anarchist left — including in the emergent debate between the followers of Marx, Blanqui and Bakunin — constitutes a determining factor in almost all the discussions of the idea of the commune, both in Europe and the United States.

Even when there are links established with the October Revolution in Russia or the Cultural Revolution in China, this is still done by using as the central point of reference the case of the Paris Commune. For example, Alain Badiou recalls for us in his Theory of the Subject how Lenin danced in the snow when the Bolsheviks held power for more than the 72 days of the 1871 Commune: “Thus, Lenin’s Bolshevik party is certainly the active bearer of an assessment of the failures of the Paris Commune. This is what Lenin seals by dancing in the snow when power is held in Moscow in 1917 for one day longer than had been the case in Paris in 1871. It is the rupture of October that periodizes the Paris Commune, turning a page in the history of the world.”

And the French philosopher, in more recent texts, also interprets that takeover of power known as the Shanghai Commune in 1967 following the principles established almost a century earlier in Paris: “Hence what will be called the ‘seizure of power,’ which under the name of the ‘Shanghai Commune’ will mark a turning point in the Cultural Revolution,” which “finds inspiration in a complete counter-model of the party-state: the coalition of the most disparate organizations that constituted the Paris Commune and whose ineffective anarchy had already been criticized by Marx.”

The Commune in the Americas

Curiously, however, neither Ross nor Badiou mentions the existence of a long tradition of communal revolts and rebellions in the New World. In this way, the discussion leaves two great lacunae — one geopolitical and the other theoretical — not only in the reading of Marxian texts on the commune-form but also in the broader understanding of the commune, the community or communality.

Let us consider for example the following fragment of the indigenous account of the conquest of Tenochtitlan, later Mexico City, included in the second half of the 16th century in a bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish edition prepared by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in his General History of the Things of New Spain, also known as the Florentine Codex, and re-translated in the mid-20th century from the original Nahuatl as part of the famous anthology La vision de los vencidos, literally, The Vision of the Vanquished, better known under the title of its official English translation as The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. This is a fragment of what the indigenous informants conveyed to Sahagún and his team of Nahua students about a particularly violent episode, the massacre in the Templo Mayor, on May 20 or 22, 1520:

Some attempted to force their way out, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates. Other climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Those who ran into the communal houses were safe there for a while; so were those who lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again, the Spaniards saw them and killed them.

The blood of the warriors flowed like water and gathered into pools. The pools widened, and the stench of blood and entrails filled the air. The Spaniards ran into the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere and searched everywhere; they invaded every room, hunting and killing.

What the Nahuatl scholar Ángel María Garibay here re-translates as “communal house,” and which Sahagún through his disciples had translated in his Christianized version as “las capillas de los cúes,” or “chapels of the indigenous temples,” in the Nahuatl version of the Florentine Codex has said calpulco, that is, the place of the calpulli, itself a term that is typically translated as barrio or vecindad, “neighborhood” or — predictably in the case of the Franciscan friar Sahagún — parroquia, “parish.” Much ink has been devoted later on among historians and anthropologists to define the exact nature of the calpulli, especially on the basis of the text Brief Summary of the Lords of New Spain by another Franciscan, Alonso de Zorita, who defines it and to some extent defends it as a communal social form whose uses and customs could serve as leverage and contrast to combat the colonial abuses of power in Mexico.

But could we not also think of the calpulli as “commune,” in the same way that the specialists of the Nahuatl language and culture decided to speak of “communal houses” to designate the calpulco as the place where the people of the neighborhoods of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan would gather? Could we not introduce an important shift in perspective in our historiographical and geopolitical outlook on the commune if we started by seeing the history of conquest and colonization as a long chronicle of the destruction and uprising of the commune in the Americas?

Should we not begin by reflecting on the “asynchronous synchronicity,” to use an expression from Ernst Bloch, between the violent entry of the troops of Hernán Cortés in Mexico-Tenochtitlan and the rebellion of the “communities” of Castille against Charles V on the other side of the Atlantic? This rebellion is what led to the use of the term comunidades in Spanish as synonymous with “uprisings,” “revolts” or “uprisings.” This is how Don Quixote uses the term in his councils to Sancho Panza for his governorship of the Ínsula Barataria and this is also how the word would eventually be registered in the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy.

The Commune in Mexico

“The Great City of Tenochtitlan” mural by Diego Rivera painted in 1945 in the National Palace of Mexico.

Marx was certainly familiar with the history of the comuneros of Castile. In his journalistic texts on revolutionary Spain, he speaks of the 1520-21 episode, even though he quickly dismisses it, because for him it represents little more than proof of the ascendent power of the urban bourgeoisie in search of new liberties. And thus, too, in different footnotes to the re-editions of The Communist Manifesto, Engels will define the traditional use of the expression of “communes” in France or Italy in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, without ever mentioning the Spanish-speaking world.

An important occasion was thereby lost to connect the discussion of the commune with a longstanding tradition of communal revolts and uprisings in the Hispanic Transatlantic. The fact is that over the course of the five centuries since the conquest, the New World would see an explosion of Indigenous, mestizo and Black uprisings against the Spanish colonial power, rebellions which often explicitly designated themselves as comuneros — from the Andes to New Granada or modern-day Colombia. And, toward the end of the 19th century, we can say that this underground current of communal revolts in the New World would become fused and articulated with the imaginary of the Paris Commune.

Thus, in 1874 in Mexico City, a newspaper begins to appear under the title first of La Comuna and then La Comuna mexicana, the first issue of which contains a programmatic speech by an old Communard in exile from Paris:

As long as there is a man or a woman alive, the Commune will continue to exist, because great principles are immortal and, without exotic aid, they manage to push their way through, put an end to the lies and shine forth like a sun of eternal truth. The Commune is alive in France as in Mexico, in the United States as in Germany, in China as in Arabia; but we must come together as people of good will to work for the consolidation of our principles, to give rise to a new Kościuszko for the emancipation of Poland, a Kosuth for the freedom of Hungary, another O’Connell to pull Ireland from under the paws of the British lion, a new Garibaldi to proclaim the Italian republic, another Céspedes to bring independence to the Antilles, a great man for every ideal, a political and religious Christ to redeem the world anew, to wipe out the borders between peoples, to demolish the thrones and the governments, to exchange the sentences of hatred for peaceful kisses; to replace the torch with a beacon of our own; so as to substitute the thundering of the canons with a grandiose and eternal hymn for having obtained a single nation, the world; a single religion, work; a single god, freedom.

And three years later, a libertarian-utopian socialist of Greek origin, admirer of Spinoza and member of the Mormon Church, Plotino C. Rhodakanaty, publishes an extraordinary column in the Mexican newspaper El Combate titled “La comuna americana,” in which, after referring to the great strike of 1877 of the railroad workers in Erie, in the United States, he anticipates the imminent arrival of the Commune in the New World: “The Commune has exploded in America…! A simple strike by the railroad workers has been the germ that has led to the Commune in Erie. The greatest fires always begin with a spark that, seemingly by chance, drops like a combustible or penetrates into the arsenal of gunpowder, the explosion of which wreaks terrible havoc.” From here the author goes on to express his belief that, following this implacable logic of periodization, one day there undoubtedly also will arise something like a Commune in Mexico:

Thus, we believe that according to the infallible law of analogy, the Commune which has been extinguished in Paris, at least in appearance, after germinating throughout Europe and transmigrating to the United States of America, will not fail to visit us in a short while, like a migrating bird hovering above the corrupt villages, to purify them and to devour the tyrants that infest them, just like the fateful owl lands on the hut of the sick person, attracted by the putrefaction, singing the hymn of death.

We can say that following the law of analogy that Rhodakanaty formulates, though not perhaps as infallible as he thinks from his providential-religious perspective, has been verified time and again in the New World. The Commune indeed continues to torment the bourgeois minds, following a strange temporality in which the past is contained in the present, just as the latter finds itself entirely still to come: the future anterior of the emancipation of the workers and poor peasants.

Let us not forget that Rhodakanaty was also the founder of a utopian-socialist school in the style of Charles Fourier not only in Chalco, where he formed communist leaders such as Julio López Chávez, leader of a peasant revolt in 1868, but also in Ajusco, where he may have formed someone like Otilio E. Montaño, who during the Mexican revolution would become of the main ideologues surrounding Emiliano Zapata. Montaño was also co-author of the Ayala Plan and the Agrarian Law, which in its first article begins by stipulating: “To the communities and individuals are restituted the lands, mountains and waterways of which they were robbed, for this it suffice for them to possess the legal titles from before the year 1856 for them to come into the possession of their properties.”

And then, in the 19th article, the same text refers without further explanations to the “communal system” to administer the mountains and hills, as if its meaning were still obvious for those involved in the experiment of the first Zapatistas in the southern state of Morelos: “The mountains are declared national property, and their inspection will be done by the Ministery of Agriculture, in the form in which it regulates, and they will be exploited by the pueblos to whose jurisdiction they correspond, by using the communal system for this purpose.”

The “other” Commune

Seen in this light it was neither arbitrary nor far-fetched for Adolfo Gilly, in his analysis in The Mexican Revolution, to call the experiment in radical land reform, military self-defense and autonomous government sustained in 1914-1915 by the Zapatistas in the towns and villages of the state of Morelos just south of Mexico City the “Morelos Commune.”

What Rhodakanaty presaged in the name of the American Commune, when the memory of thousands of slain Paris Communards was still fresh, would become a reality in the form of what Gilly boldly baptized the Morelos Commune:

What the peasants and agricultural workers of Morelos created was a Commune, whose only worldwide equivalent had been the Paris Commune. But the Morelos commune was not of the workers but of the peasants. They did not create it on paper, but in the facts. And if the Zapatista Agrarian Law has such importance, it is because it shows that beyond the local peasant horizon, there was a wing that had the national will of organizing the whole country on this basis.

Analogously, from the neo-Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Chiapas, via the barricades of Oaxaca in 2006, all the way to the autonomous local government of Cherán in the state of Michoacán beginning in 2011, Mexico has kept alive the fire of this other Commune, other than the one associated with 1871 Paris.

A revision of the history of the Commune from the Americas should be capable of thoroughly transforming not only our geopolitical outlook but also the manner in which the concept of the commune as a political form can be articulated with the commons, the community or communality as forms of life. In fact, even though the majority of his European interpreters prefer to ignore this, we have abundant indications of the fact that Marx himself had every intention, toward the end of his life, of continuing to investigate the possible role of the so-called primitive, archaic or ancestral communes or communities in the revolutionary transition to communism. For this we can count not only on the drafts and letter to Vera Zasulich, but also on his Ethnological Notebooks, in one of which Marx devotes himself to transcribing, translating, and annotating long fragments from the chapter “The Aztec Confederacy” in Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society, published in the same year of 1877 when Rhodakanaty anticipated the arrival of the Commune to America.

Because Marx mixes his commentary with direct quotations in English and translations in German from Morgan’s book, the Ethnological Notebooks reach an almost Babelic level of intricacy, which moreover includes multiple sources from Spanish chronicles and not a few words in Nahuatl. Most important, however, is the fact that Morgan helps Marx understands in what consists the possible communism present in the social, political and economic organization of ancient Mexico-Tenochtitlan: “Commune tenure of lands; Life in large households composed of a number of related families u. reasons for believing that they practiced communism in living in then household.”

What is more, even though neither Morgan nor therefore Marx had knowledge of term, which only Morgan’s disciple Alphonse F. Bandelier would study starting in 1878 on the basis of Zorita’s materials, this annotation clearly refers to the social structure of the calpulli. “The houses in Pueblo of Mexico were zweifelsohne in general large communal or joint-tenement houses wie die in Neu-Mexico zur selben Period, gross genug zu accom<m>odiren von 10 bis 50 u. 100 families in each,” Marx thus continues to write down in his notebook: “D. pueblo of Mexico geographisch getheilt in 4 quarters, jedes occupied by a ‘lineage’ (phratry) y. jedes quarter ‘subdivided’; each subdivision occupied by a community of persons bound together by some common tie (gens). [In Mexico nur 1 tribe; der der Aztecs].”

Finally, in spite of being responsible for the linear evolutionary scheme of savagery, barbarism and civilization, Morgan saw in the social structure of the Aztecs by way of the phratry or gens as societas a potentially superior alternative to the political organization of the civitas that would be based on the unity of the nuclear family, private property and the territorial organization of the state. But in order to understand this, the Spanish chroniclers who continued to talk of the Aztec world in terms of a “state” or “empire” with its “king,” “senators,” “parishes,” etc., turned out to be completely useless in the eyes of Morgan, because they ignored the living communism of the social organization of life among the Aztecs. The famous ethnologist, by contrast, suggested to Marx something that he would take up in his letter to Zasulich and later in the preface to the Russian edition of 1882 of The Communist Manifesto, namely, that communism could be the return of the archaic community in superior conditions.

Without referring to the Marxist or communist tradition, but invoking the method of historical materialism and picking up on the old nomenclature from the times of Tenochtitlan as summarized by Zorita, Jesús Sotelo Inclán in his 1943 book Raíz y razón de Zapata would suggest that it is possible to trace a straight line that links the revolutionary leader of Morelos with the social, economic, and political organization of the calpulli, if we consider that on September 12, 1909, in a meeting that would also provide the opening scene for John Womack’s classic study Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, Zapata was elected as calpulec or calpuleque, the leader or chief of what would continue to be lived and experienced as the calpulli of his hometown of Anenecuilco:

The different mentions of the calpuleques of Anenecuilco are so many links in a long chain that perhaps knew no interruption while traversing several centuries. Of course, many links are missing, but is it not admirable that there have been preserved so many concrete indications about them? If from the remotest past onward they form a straight line that reaches all the way to Emiliano Zapata, we have reason to say that he, too, was a calpuleque.

Indeed, is it not admirable? It is as though, in addition to being that Sphinx that continues to torment the bourgeois minds, the Commune in the New World was also capable to rise like a phoenix from its own ashes.

The Commune’s “earthquake tread”

In 1911-12, Voltairine de Cleyre, closely associated with the Mexican anarchist-communist Enrique Flores Magón, foresaw this possibility and associated it with what was happening at exactly the same time down south in the land of Zapata. In “The Commune is Risen,” published in Emma Goldman’s periodical Mother Earth, she basically asks three questions. First, to the question “What was it the Commune proclaimed?,” she answers with reference to the 1871 example:

The Commune proclaimed the autonomy of Paris. It broke the chain that fettered her to the heels of her step-mother, the State — that State which had left her at the mercy of the Prussian besiegers, refusing to relieve her or allow her to relieve herself; that State which with a debt saddled upon the unborn bought off the Prussians, that it might revenge itself upon Paris, the beautiful rebel, and keep the means of her exploitation in its own hands.

The Commune was a splendid effort to break the tyranny of the centralized domination with which modern societies are cursed; a revolt at artificial ties, which express no genuine social union, the outgrowth of constructive social work, but only the union of oppression — the union of those who seek to perfect an engine of tyranny to guarantee their possessions.

Second, to the question “Why did the Commune fail?” in Paris, she answers:

Why? Because she had not asked enough. Because making war upon the State, she had not made war upon that which creates the State, that to preserve which the State exists. […] In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones; and it cannot be done.

And, finally, to an unasked third question that we might rephrase as “Whither the Commune?” Voltairine de Cleyre looks south of the Río Grande, to what is being worked out in Mexico. Her answer, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Paris Commune on May 28, 1871, is worth quoting at length:

Only here in our America, on this continent cursed with land-grabbing syndicates, into whose unspoiled fatness every devouring shark has set his triple row of teeth — this land whose mercenary spirit is the butt of Europe — only here, under the burning Mexican sun, we know men are revolting for something; for the great, common, fundamental economic right, before which all others fade — the right of man to the earth. Not in concentrated camps and solid phalanxes; not at the breath of some leader’s word; but over all the land, from the border to Yucatan, animated by spontaneous desire and resolution, in mutually gathered bands, as freemen fight, not uniformed slaves. And leaders come, and leaders go; they use the revolution and the revolution uses them; but whether they come or go, the land battle goes on.

In that quickening soil, the sower’s response is ready; and the peasant uproots his master’s sugar cane and tobacco, replanting corn and beans instead, that himself and the fighting bands may have sustenance. He does not make the mistake that Paris made; he sends no munitions to the enemy; he is an unlettered man, but he knows the use of the soil. And no man can make peace with him, unless that use is guaranteed to him. He has suffered so long and so terribly under the hell of land- ownership, that he has determined on death in revolt rather than resubmission to its slavery.

Stronger and stronger blows the hurricane, and those who listen to the singing in the wind know that Senator Lodge was right when he said: “I am against intervention, but it’s like having a fire next door.”

That fire is burning away the paper of artificial land-holding. That fire is destroying the delusion that any human creature on the face of the earth has the right to keep any other from going straight to the sources of life, and using them. That fire is shooting a white illumination upon the labor struggle, which will make the futile wage war conducted in the United States look like baby’s play.

Yes, honorable Senators and Congressmen, the house next door is on fire — the house of Tyranny, the house of Shame, the house that is built by Robbery and Extortion, out of the sold bodies of a hapless race — its murdered men, its outraged women, its orphaned babies.

Yes, it is on fire. And let it burn — burn to the ground — utterly. And do not seek to quench it by pouring out the blood of the people of the United States, in a vile defense of those financial adventurers who wear the name American. They undertook to play the game; let them play it to a finish; let them stand man to man against the people they have robbed, tortured, exiled.

Let it crumble to the ground, that House of Infamy; and if the burning gleeds fly hitherward, and the rotten structure of our own life starts to blaze, welcome, thrice welcome, purifying fire, that shall set us, too, upon the earth once more — free men upon free land — no tenant-dwellers on a landlord’s domain.

In the roar of that fire we hear the Commune’s “earthquake tread,” and know that out of the graves at Père Lachaise, out of the trenches of Satory, out of the fever-plains of Guiana, out of the barren burial sands of Caledonia, the Great Ghost has risen, crying across the world, Vive la Commune!

Bruno Bosteels

Bruno Bosteels teaches in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. He is the author, among other books, of The Actuality of Communism (2011) and Marx and Freud in Latin America: Politics, Psychoanalysis, and Religion in Times of Terror (2012). His book on La Comuna Mexicana (The Mexican Commune) is forthcoming.

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